In the earliest days of television, showrunners didn’t often bother with tying up a long-running show’s loose ends. In a world without cable or many reruns, a series finale was just another episode. But as viewers got more emotionally invested—and as syndication and repeats grew—there came a need for finality.
Newhart may have had one of the best, with star Bob Newhart waking up married to his The Bob Newhart Show co-star Suzanne Pleshette and realizing his new series had all been a dream—a climax so memorable that Bryan Cranston later parodied it after the end of Breaking Bad. (His affable Malcolm in the Middle character, Hal, had apparently dreamed he was a meth dealer.)
And then there are shows that ended with such stunning weirdness that it seems inconceivable viewers could be left feeling anything but befuddled. The finale of St. Elsewhere proposed the show and its many characters had been all in the mind of a young boy with autism—a theory that called into question the canon of all of television thanks to guest appearances from other television characters.
That was strange, but in television, it can definitely get stranger. Check out eight other shows that left viewers dazed and confused.
1. Dinosaurs (1991-1994)
This Jim Henson Productions series about a nuclear family of anthropomorphic dinosaurs proved to be a modest hit for ABC. For four seasons, the Sinclairs—father Earl, mother Fran, and kids Robbie, Charlene, and Baby Sinclair—offered an animatronic take on prehistoric life. Baby Sinclair even birthed a popular catchphrase: “I’m the baby. Gotta love me!”
While plenty of viewers did, Dinosaurs was expensive to produce and not fated for a long run. And while dinosaurs were not known to talk or hold down jobs, the show did take other portions of their existence literally. The series ends with the dinos, ignorant of their effect on climate change, inviting the Ice Age and thus their own extinction. Earl’s employer uses plant-killing chemicals irresponsibly, setting off a chain reaction of environmental calamities. By the end of the episode, snow is beginning to fall and it's obvious that the characters viewers have come to love—including Baby Sinclair—are doomed.
“From the moment we first talked about the show, we discussed the idea that it was the domestication of these dinosaurs that made them go extinct,” series co-creator Michael Jacobs told Vulture in 2018. “The thing that human beings knew about dinosaurs was that, in the end, they were extinct, so we always had that idea in the back of our minds. The show would end by completing the metaphor and showing that extinction.”
2. Family Matters (1989-1998)
Family Matters is best known as the ABC sitcom that introduced the world to Jaleel White, a.k.a. Steve Urkel. Though he was originally conceived as a minor supporting neighbor character for the Winslow family, Urkel became a pop culture sensation. For the finale, which aired on CBS following the show’s network move in 1997, the show abandoned any pretense of grounded reality. In the two-part “Lost in Space,” Urkel sells a patent to NASA and is shot into space before being briefly marooned. Steve nearly runs out of oxygen before he's able to return to Earth. (The episode attempts to weave in a subplot of Eddie Winslow, newly minted as a cop, being shot during an altercation, a sharp contrast to Urkel's space odyssey.)
While it would have been difficult for the show to top that, it wasn’t designed as a finale. Producers had gotten word of its cancellation too late to give it a more definitive send-off.
3. M.A.N.T.I.S. (1994-1995)
Before the superhero movie and television explosion of the new century, comic book-style adventures were few and far between. One exception was M.A.N.T.I.S., a Fox series that ran for one season and featured Carl Lumbly as paralyzed scientist Dr. Miles Hawkins, who regains the ability to walk—and resist bullets—with the aid of an enhanced suit. (The Mechanically Augmented Neuro Transmitter Interception System, for the acronym-curious.)
M.A.N.T.I.S. came under fire early on for some puzzling casting decisions. In the television movie that launched it, Lumbly was aided by characters played by Black actors. In the series, the characters had been swapped out for white confidantes.
It was perhaps no great loss when the show was canceled, though a decision to have Lumbly face off against a giant dinosaur was in sharp contrast to an otherwise grounded premise. (The dinosaur was also mostly invisible, presumably to save on special effects.) To fend off the beast, Hawkins sets off an explosion, killing himself and friend Leora Maxwell (Galyn Görg) in the process. The end.
While M.A.N.T.I.S. may have fallen flat, Lumbly did see some form of superhero redemption. He appeared on the Disney+ Marvel series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier in 2021, playing Isiah Bradley, an early recipient of Captain America’s super soldier serum.
4. ALF (1986-1990)
Nothing was more endemic of 1980s television than ALF, a sitcom about a furry alien from the planet Melmac who moves in with the Tanner family to avoid detection. (Shooting ALF, which was a puppet, proved problematic for his human co-stars, who often had to sidestep holes in the floor to allow for the puppeteering.)
For the 1990 series finale, “Consider Me Gone,” ALF is able to intercept a radio signal from others of his kind who are colonizing a “New Melmac.” Even though it means saying goodbye to his adoptive family, ALF decides to join his fellow alien life forms—but is instead apprehended by government officials eager to find out more about the alien. The show’s producers expected a fifth season—this one set on a military base—but didn’t get one. The impression viewers have is one of ALF possibly doomed to a life of imprisonment. (The notion was scrubbed with a 1996 television movie, Project ALF, in which he’s a government guest but seemingly unharmed.)
5. Dallas (1978-1991)
Most people remember CBS’s primetime soap Dallas for the mystery involving who shot oil magnate J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) or the it-was-all-a-dream season provided by presumed-dead Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy).
No less memorable was the series finale in which J.R. contemplates the many selfish and otherwise morally corrupt choices he’s made in pursuit of wealth and self-satisfaction throughout his life. The two-parter is a riff on It’s a Wonderful Life, except J.R. slowly realizes people in his life would have been far better off without him. "Sue Ellen making it on her own," J.R. says, aghast anyone could thrive without him.
Egged on by a malevolent spirit named Adam that appears to him in a mirror—who is implied to be a demon, thanks to a not-very-subtle red suit and glowing red eyes—a despondent J.R. appears to take his own life, though that was retconned in subsequent made-for-television Dallas movies.
6. Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983)
Based on the bestselling, semi-autobiographical book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie offered viewers in the ‘70s a look at frontier life in the late 1800s. This would probably be the last place where you’d expect an explosion set piece worthy of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the show provided it in the form of one final TV movie, Little House on the Prairie: The Last Farewell. In the film, the town of Walnut Grove is blown to bits so that it doesn’t fall into the hands of a land baron. Series star Michael Landon suggested the ending because the land leased for the show had to be returned to its owners in its original state and the buildings had to go anyway.
7. The Hills (2006-2010)
While reality shows aren’t typically concerned with having series finales, MTV’s The Hills approached things differently. The sometimes-lurid series featuring a group of twenty-somethings—including Lauren Conrad, Spencer Pratt, Heidi Montag, and Kristin Cavallari—navigating life and love in Los Angeles was ostensibly chronicling rather than orchestrating their lives. But that was called into question during the last episode, when Brody Jenner is seen standing on a Hollywood backlot and surrounded by set decorations. The implication was that The Hills may have been as fictional as any scripted show.
8. Byker Grove (1989-2006)
While Doctor Who remains the BBC’s most prominent long-running series, other shows have been in it for the long haul. Byker Grove, which premiered in 1989 and ran through 2006, was centered on the various dramas of a youth club in Newcastle, England. The overall effect was one of realism—the series tackled teenage topics like sexuality and racism.
It was all the more jarring, then, to have the show conclude in the manner it did. For the 2006 finale, “Deux Ex Machina,” the entire cast comes to realize they’re fictional characters in a television show and that the series’ writers have plans to abolish Byker Grove. Newly possessed of this terrifying self-awareness, the characters try to write their own ending before being attacked by a Tyrannosaurus rex. (For those keeping count, this is the third time dinosaurs have played a part in this finale list.)
It gets stranger. Despite finding a buried treasure that would presumably see the cast “buy” the Grove and prevent it from destruction, dynamite goes off and everyone perishes. Something to ponder the next time you feel like complaining about the ending of Dexter.
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