You know what they say: You have only one chance to make a last impression. The finale of a TV show isn’t just the conclusion of a journey — it’s a pop culture event, a daunting high-wire act, that critical moment in which a show can burnish or bungle its legacy. With How I Met Your Mother having just signed off in polarizing fashion, we thought we’d explore the phenomenon. How do the writers of a show satisfy their creative vision as well as fans? What goes into making what is often the most scrutinized episode of a series? Is there simply too much attention and pressure placed on finales these days? We spoke with the men and women who have faced down the challenge of wrapping up TV’s most beloved shows to glean insight into this tricky feat of storytelling. (We’re unclear about the statute of limitations on this stuff, so: Spoiler ‘alert!) Let’s venture into the Land of the Last by beginning at the end.
Part One: Cracking the Story
Your series will self-destruct in 22 to 44 minutes. Your mission: Make the best episode of your life.
David Crane, Friends
The only thing we absolutely knew from very early on was that we had to get Ross and Rachel’ together. We had dicked the audience around for 10 years with their ”will they or won’t they,” and we didn’t see any advantage in frustrating them.
Marta Kauffman, Friends
My rabbi would stop me when I would drop my kids off at Hebrew school saying, ”When are they going to get together?” It was everywhere. I don’t think this was about making people happy as much as what’s going to be satisfying for us as well.
Jason Katims, Friday Night Lights
The one thing that was really great was that we knew very early on when the series was coming to the end. That helped us in shaping what that last episode was going to be. We started at the beginning of season 5 planting seeds and ideas that would all lead to this final episode.
Carlton Cuse, Lost
There was this sort of grand plan that we had — the idea that the show would start with Jack’s eye opening and it would end with Jack’s eyes closing, which by implication meant that ‘Jack had to die . That was a hugely significant choice because we couldn’t think of a finale that we’d seen where the main character had died.
Kevin Williamson, Dawson’s Creek
I had stepped away from the show. So Warner Bros. called Greg Berlanti up knowing we were friends and said, ”See if you can talk Kevin into doing the finale.” I went to lunch with Jordan [Levin], president of The WB, and they had the conceit: Why don’t we do five years in the future? They were like, ”Let’s push ahead and show how everyone ended up.” I thought about it, and I went, ”Okay. That frees me up. That allows me to tell a new story.”
Shawn Ryan, The Shield
I had an image in mind. I liked the idea of them being stuck in some kind of bureaucratic purgatory in a suit. I had no idea how we were going to arrive there.
Chris Carter, The X-Files
We didn’t really think exactly about how it would end until we were forced to because there was just too much work to do with a broadcast schedule.
Tina Fey, 30 Rock
There were some things that we knew and had even come up before the finale. We knew we wanted Kenneth to inherit NBC and we knew at some point that we wanted Liz to adopt children- or a child. Originally it was going to be this child that Kenneth fathered by accident at the Beijing Olympics — this blond-haired Asian kid who looked like Kenneth. And then we backed off of that.
Greg Daniels, The Office
The idea of having a reunion for the main characters in some form was an idea from early on. The part about Dwight’s wedding came a while later. Obviously, [we thought] it would be great to have [Steve Carell as Michael Scott] — it wouldn’t have been a big finale without him.
Katims The one thing that I did always feel would be right about the ending of the show was the idea of Coach and Tami leaving Dillon. My thought was that was the life of football coaches — they have a series of different jobs at different schools. What started the series was him coming to Dillon and it was his first year as a coach there, and I thought leaving would be where we would get to at the end.