Before the Golden Age of Television, TV shows rarely ended on their own terms — either it ran until everyone involved was exhausted and it sputtered out, or the network pulled the plug a season too soon. (Every extra episode, after all, meant thousands and thousands of dollars, thanks to syndication.) It was thus big news when The Cosby Show concluded in 1992, after Bill Cosby decided he was ready to say goodbye to the series — as EW writer Lisa Schwarzbaum put it in 1992, Cosby saw “no reason to stick around the Huxtable household while viewer interest flags and ratings drop and people start to say, ‘Oh, that tired old thing.’”
The Cosby Show ended after eight seasons, twice the run many series get these days. Yet the notion of a show coming to its own natural conclusion is an idea that’s gained a lot more traction in the last 30 years — an idea that has coincided with television receiving increasing levels of respect as an art form.
That is not a coincidence, and 2023 gave us so many reasons for why that is. There have been plenty of cancellations, of course (some made all the more brutal by a subsequent removal from streaming). However, when it comes to shows that made a deliberate choice to wrap up their stories this year, the endings they provided represent not just the value of a strong ending, but what TV creators have learned about what a strong ending should look like.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve been asking people to name a bad series finale that aired this year, and they haven’t been able to do so. That’s anecdotal, of course, and everyone’s mileage may vary, but when it comes to saying goodbye, Succession, Star Trek: Picard, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Ted Lasso, Barry, Never Have I Ever, Sex Education, and Reservation Dogs represent an incomplete list of programs that figured out elegant, or at least true-to-form, ways to bring things to a close.
In some cases, these were shows looking at an external expiration date — one of Patrick Stewart’s conditions for returning to Star Trek, for example, had been that it not run more than three seasons. Meanwhile, the young cast of Sex Education had pretty much hit its limit when it came to believably portraying teenagers (and many of them were on the verge of bigger opportunities).
In other cases, well… the producers just decided it was time, like Jesse Armstrong and the writers of Succession did with the fourth and final season. And others, like Mrs. Maisel and Barry, were also running up against the limits of the kinds of stories they could tell; there were only so many ways Midge Maisel could fight the patriarchal structure of comedy or Barry Berkman could dodge a violent end.