By Erin Canty
This is my last post on This Was Television for a while, and it got me listening to a lot of Boyz II Men, and thinking about endings, namely, series finales.
Series finales are impossible, because regardless of what you do, someone is going to end up furious and ranting on the internet. And while that can happen with any episode, a series finale is under so much additional scrutiny, that most episodes can’t hold up under the pressure. And since they call it a finale for a reason, there’s no such thing as a mulligan. It’s the curtain call, the final hurrah, the send-off—in other words, “Don’t screw this up, kid.”
I recently read an interview with Breaking Bad show runner with Vince Gilligan, who’s working on the series’ last few episodes. He said, “It’s going to be polarizing no matter how you slice it, but you don’t want 10 percent to say it was great and 90 percent to say it sucked ass. You want those numbers to be reversed.” Touché, Mr. Gilligan.
With all of that added pressure, it’s a wonder audiences ever receive a satisfying finale. But for many Black TV shows, there’s an additional point of stress: the looming threat of an abrupt cancellation. No countdown, no tearjerking tribute, no time to write a fitting conclusion. One week a show is there, the next week it’s gone, like the pop and fizzle of a burnt out bulb.
So which shows beat the odds and got it right? I’m glad you asked. Here are three that did just that.
The Cosby Show
The Cosby Show ran for eight seasons and was the number one show in America for five of them. To say it was popular was an understatement. It was nothing short of beloved. All types of families watched the Huxtables tackle every issue on the planet with humor and aplomb. It somehow managed to be aspirational and relatable. Whether it was getting caught drinking, getting your ear pierced, or having babies, their stories were your stories.
While the final season of the show dipped in popularity (they were ranking 18th in the ratings by then) and new characters filled in the ranks (Dabnis Brickey anyone?) the tenderness of the show remained. The finale centered on Theo’s college graduation. Just like the finale itself, it was a day no one thought would arrive, but there it was. Audiences laughed through tears as Cliff fought to get enough tickets for the event, only to discover no one even read names at the commencement. The episode didn’t stray far from the Cosby foundation, hinging on the importance of family, trust, and unconditional love. In the final scene, it was just Cliff, Claire, and a little jazz. Bill Cosby whispered into Phylicia Rashad’s ear. She laughed, and cried too. The fourth wall broke, revealing the studio for the first time, and Bill Cosby danced Phylicia Rashad right out of there. It’s a TV moment many won’t soon forget.
A wedding, a Black woman with a blond afro wig in a dive bar, and the return of pesky neighbor (turned studly singer) Roger Evans: If every episode of Sister, Sister had been this provocative, the show would’ve had a lot more viewers.
The show was always campy and silly. I’m sure early reviews included the words “antics” and “hijinks.” But at its core, it was a show about a non-traditional family, trying to make it all work. The finale did the Sister, Sister’s six seasons justice, with equal parts camp and class. Bonus points for the R&B inspired Beatles cover at the very end.
In the hit show Benson, (a spinoff of the ever-controversial Soap), Robert Guillaume plays the title character, a quick-witted butler who works for the governor of an unmentioned state. Fast-forward seven seasons, and Benson is the lieutenant governor himself, and he’s running for governor against his friend and former employer. Oh, and there’s a crooked senator in the race too, for good measure.
Benson and Gov. Gatling feud and tussle in the final few episodes as the election draws closer. However, in the final episode, they set aside their differences and watch the election results on TV together, as friends.
But get ready to feel infuriated because the episode ends on a freeze frame before the outcome of the election is revealed. The final episode of the show was actually the seventh season finale, but ABC cancelled the show that summer, so the election results were lost to the ages.
But this is one time when an abrupt cancellation might have been the best turn of events. Benson and the governor remain frozen in friendship. Benson broke race and class barriers to work his way up from a service position to elected office. There’s something to be said for leaving on a high note.
What other curtain calls made you cheer? Made you cry? Made you throw your shoes at the TV? (Cough, cough Family Matters, cough, cough.) Let the ranting and raving begin.
Previously on Black in Time: Black In Time: Guess Who’s Coming To Thanksgiving Dinner