This season, all's well that just ends.
Seldom have viewers seemed more conflicted over a TV season -- unhappy with how shows performed in their post-strike runs and equally unhappy that the shows are cutting those runs so short. It's like the old restaurant complaint: The food was lousy, and there wasn't enough of it.
Clearly, timing has not been this season's strong point. As if to put the final odd coda on an off-putting season, some of TV's best shows waited until it was over to go off. ABC's Grey's Anatomy and Ugly Betty aired their finales Thursday, after the official close of the 2007/2008 TV season, and Lost hasn't ended yet. It won't wrap up until next Thursday.
Though some series are now gone for good, most of TV's most popular shows will return. That gives you all summer to wonder whether Warrick really dies (almost certainly), whether Horatio survives (almost certainly), and what the heck did the Housewives do to Mike?
And how were the finales? As you'd expect from an unusually inconsistent season, inconsistent. Here's a critical look at the seasonal bows of some of TV's best and most popular series.
Grey's Anatomy (ABC)
* * * 1/2 (out of four)
The finale word: How great to feel the love again at Grey's.
Love and what we do for it was the theme of the show's back-to-form finale. In two heartfelt hours, Grey's completed the spring task of re-establishing Meredith and Derek as a couple and lifting itself out of the sour rut it had fallen into.
Where last season's finale left each of the characters in a dark place, this one rescued them. George got a second shot at his intern test, Cristina got back her mojo, and almost everyone got kissed. The comedy may have been laid on a bit thick at times, but that was still a welcome switch from the bleak tone it replaced.
And if ever a crew deserves a little happiness, it's the staff at Grey's. There is no character or performance on TV more enjoyable than Chandra Wilson's Dr. Bailey. And as for Patrick Dempsey, he deserves better treatment than he gets from both Emmy voters and, at times, the show's writers. But the real beneficiary of Grey's rebound has been Ellen Pompeo, who has done a terrific job of making Meredith seem damaged and yet worth saving. The character is deeply flawed; the performance isn't.
Love her; love her show. The finale made both easier to do.
American Idol (Fox)
The finale word: Shouldn't Idol be better at this by now?
Granted, hyperbole and an insanely inflated sense of self-importance are Idol's stock in trade. Still, must the show continually turn its last broadcast into some grotesque combination of Miss America, the Oscars and Armageddon, all filtered through The Brady Bunch Hour? No wonder Idol never wins the Emmy: Too many people watch the finale.
Everything about the two-hour padfest seemed designed to undermine the series and make us ashamed we watched, starting with the weird opening announcement that the voting wasn't even close, and including the decision to shill everything from So You Think You Can Dance to Mike Myers' new movie to the show's own tour. There were some highlights: Donna Summer reaching the last note on Last Dance, Carrie Underwood showing her growth as a performer, Amanda Overmyer looking amusingly, painfully bored and out of place. But otherwise, if variety weren't already dead, this show would have killed it.
Oh, and one of the Davids won. By the end of the two hours, which one no longer mattered, if it ever did.
Ugly Betty (ABC)
The finale word: Where's the old beauty in Betty?
Squandering a strong fall start, Betty completed a messy spring run with a finale that was just a mess. It's one thing to be plot-packed to the point of busting, and another to actually bust -- and with twists that were unpleasant, unbelievable or both.
Nothing made sense, from the sudden ascendancy of Willy based on an unborn baby she can't even locate, to the nasty behavior by Alexis that seemed solely designed to reduce the character's presence, to the excess airtime devoted to the increasingly excessive Marc and Amanda. And even on a telenovela fantasy, wasn't Daniel's embrace of parenthood a bit legally premature?
Worse still is that Betty committed one of the cardinal finale sins: leaving us with a cliffhanger in which all alternatives are unacceptable. The show can't really send Betty off with Henry (at least not for long), and it shouldn't send her off with Gio, a plot-imposed rebound relationship between two characters who make no sense together and two actors who have no on-screen chemistry.
Betty may not be moving, but the show is -- using the summer to shift production to New York. Let's hope it leaves these twists back in L.A.
Brothers & Sisters (ABC)
The finale word: When incest isn't your worst problem, you're really in trouble.
Granted, loving Brothers has always been something of a devil's bargain. We've come to accept the show's erratic shifts in tone and plot because the extraordinary cast and the better sides of its nature have enabled the good to outweigh the bad.
Until, that is, the writers decided to rewrite two seasons' worth of character development and throw Rebecca out of the Walker family -- a move completed in the finale by her kiss with her former brother Justin. It doesn't count as incest, but it's close enough to be creepy, and there's no reason for the show to even approach, let alone cross, that line.
Yet amazingly, the finale introduced a plot shift that was even more disturbing: the discovery that there's a yet-to-be-met sibling whose name starts with that code-breaking "R," Ryan. What do they discover next May, that the missing "R" Walker is actually Dad's dog Rover?
Some of the actors were able to cut through the chaos and find a core of truth, as Sally Field did in her pre-commitment ceremony speech. In those moments, you realize it's still a lovely family. How about we decide once and for all who's in it?
* * * ½
The finale word: Alas, poor Warrick.
Considering the pre-show coverage of CSI's decision to drop actor Gary Dourdan, it's likely that few viewers were shocked to see Warrick exit. But the way he left, shot by the sheriff in a dark alley, was a very well-executed surprise, as was the fever-dream tone of the episode.
Once again proving its ability to break genre boundaries, CSI devoted as much attention to mood as plot, creating an effective visual evocation of Warrick's mental breakdown. And then, just as they led us to believe they were leaving the door open for his possible return by demoting Warrick rather than firing him, they killed him off. You knew something was up when he lingered so long at that diner, but the tension packed into those final moments was still impressive.
And while exits always tend to annoy fans of the exiter, the show softened the blow by treating Warrick with respect. He was killed not because of his personal failings, but because of his professional dedication. If you must go, that's the way to do it.
Gossip Girl (CW)
* * *
The finale word: Oh, you kids.
Give Gossip credit for speed and for recognizing the changeable, quicksilver nature of its audience. Where Desperate used a five-year jump to rearrange the lives of its middle-aged women, Gossip's entertainingly compact finale needed only a week, dissolving in a flash-forward postscript pretty much every relationship it had used the rest of the hour to create.
And while you're at it, give the show and its audience credit for realizing just how ludicrous the series most often is, and how far detached these teens are from anyone's real life. When Dan, Gossip's nominal voice of reason, condenses Serena's confession into "I think I killed someone and I'm being blackmailed by a crazy girl pretending to be someone else," you can take that as the writers acknowledging that we're all in on the joke.
Such jokes tend to be fragile, as are teen viewers' affections, so Gossip's future remains unusually hazy. But for now, if you're looking for a truly insane, madcap camp soap, the kids have it sewn up.
Desperate Housewives (ABC)
* * *
The finale word: Wait.
No finale has provoked more what-the-heck chatter than Housewives, all thanks to those final few minutes that catapulted the characters five years forward. Many viewers were clearly not thrilled by what they saw: a messy Gaby, a missing Mike and proof that Lynette's parenting has gone from bad to worse. But just because we've seen the future doesn't mean we know how the housewives got there -- or that we won't like where they're going to end up. Let's wait and see whether the show benefits from the shake-up.
Lost in the leap chatter has been much discussion of the finale itself, an efficiently entertaining two-parter, even though it did require you to overlook a few huge plot holes. If, for example, there's a good reason Katherine chose to move back to the one place where her life and secret were most at risk, I've lost track of it.
The finale would have been stronger had Katherine's big reveal -- her real daughter was killed by a falling bookcase -- better justified the time devoted this season to the secret. But it was framed in such a way as to strengthen Katherine's ties to the other main characters and to keep Dana Delany on the show, and that's a future I can embrace.
* * * *
The finale word: Talk about saving the best for last.
With two fabulous, heartbreaking hours -- appropriately named "House's Head" and "Wilson's Heart" -- the writers rescued a season that had seemed diffuse, overcrowded and perhaps too ambitious for its own good. This is how a series should end, with an episode that brings its central characters into sharper focus and puts them in realistic danger.
Having largely played Wilson's relationship with Amber for laughs, House was now able to play off our expectations, surprising us with the depth of Wilson's feelings for her, and of House's feelings for Wilson. Even better, it used the crisis to give us deeper insight into House, who allowed his selfishness, jealousy and lack of social boundaries to endanger Amber's life and Wilson's friendship.
As much of a tear-jerker as the death scene was, it was matched by the look on House's face when he realized Wilson wanted him to risk his own life for Amber's.
Plus, with Emmy ballots already on voters' radar, it made a strong case for Hugh Laurie, Robert Sean Leonard and Anne Dudek. That's using your head.