Monday, November 9, 2020

Five Classic Shows With Great Final Seasons


When you look back over the dozens of series that most television fans view as classics, it’s amazing that so many of them stumbled in their final seasons.


Reasons for this phenomenon vary: the most common culprits were a successful formula that ran out of steam (Bewitched), the unwelcome addition of a new character (The Brady Bunch), or the departure of a favorite character (Laverne & Shirley).


It’s still surprising to me how often this happened. The Waltons was a completely different show in its last year than it was in its first. The change from black and white to color in the final season of The Fugitive was not positively received by many of its fans. Severe budget cuts hindered the final season of Star Trek. Marrying Jeannie and Tony Nelson, and making Maxwell Smart and 99 the parents of twins, did nothing to improve their respective series.


So perhaps it’s a greater accomplishment than we’ve acknowledged for a show to end a storied run with one last batch of episodes that compare favorably to those that have gone before. Here are five shows that pulled it off.


The Dick Van Dyke Show

Of all the Comfort TV classics, this series may rank at #1 for achievement of consistent high quality. The writing never faltered, the cast stayed together, and no network busybody decided Rob and Laura needed to adopt a little moppet to spike ratings. Out of 158 total episodes, I can count the number that didn’t work for me on one hand.


The show’s fifth and final season kicked off with “Coast to Coast Big Mouth,” considered such a high point for the series that a colorized version aired on CBS in prime time earlier this year. 


Other standout shows from that last year include “A Farewell to Writing,” an almost solo outing for Van Dyke as Rob confines himself to a remote cabin to finally finish his novel; the flashback episode “No Rice At My Wedding,” Richie learning the facts of life incorrectly in “Go Tell the Birds and the Bees,” Buddy’s belated bar mitzvah in “Buddy Sorrell, Man and Boy,” and the old west dream sequence in “The Gunslinger.” 




The 1960s revival of this landmark police procedural lasted 98 episodes, with no discernible sign of change from beginning to end. Friday and Gannon wore the same suits, worked in the same office, and met the same supporting actors in different roles over and over again. 


The only indication a viewer had of which season they were watching came from was the year emblazoned in the opening credits.


The Bob Newhart Show

The show’s sixth and final season was not immune from change, as Bob and Emily moved into a new apartment. But the new place wasn’t that different from the old one, and somehow Howard still wound up living down the hall.

As something of a Luddite I always enjoyed Bob’s occasional struggles with progress and technology; in this season he is frustrated by a beeper in “Carlin’s New Suit” and a burglar alarm in “You’re Fired, Mr. Chips.” ’Twas the Pie Before Christmas” is another strong holiday show from a series that celebrated Christmas every year. But my favorite sixth-season episode is “Who Was That Masked Man?” in which Bob climbs out on a high-rise ledge, dressed as Zorro, to talk Mr. Peterson out of jumping.


The only blemish is how the final episode disappoints. The idea that Bob would give up his practice and move to Oregon to take a teaching position seems out of character for the man we’ve come to know. As the story unfolded I kept waiting for Bob and Emily to realize they really didn’t want to leave Chicago. I’m still waiting.


The Mod Squad

Five seasons was just about right for this counterculture cop series, and if you look at the IMDB list of its top rated episodes, you’ll see that the top three vote-getters were all from season five: the touching Christmas episode “Kristie,” “Can You Hear Me Now?” featuring a guest appearance from Louis Gossett Jr., and “Put Out the Welcome Mat For Death,” a provocative look at assisted suicide.


Other highlights include “Run Lincoln Run,” a great showcase for Clarence Williams III, and season opener “The Connection,” sporting a whole love boat’s worth of guest stars – Ed Asner, Richard Pryor, Stefanie Powers, Robert Reed, Cesar Romero and Barbara McNair.


I think part of the reason for the later episodes being so well received is how the trio of leads developed their working relationship so it became more natural and affectionate with each passing season.



I’m in the (likely minority) camp that prefers the episodes with Hawkeye, B.J. and Winchester in the swamp to the earlier seasons with Hawkeye, Trapper and Frank Burns. 


I also think Margaret was a more relatable character by this time, and that Harry Morgan’s Col. Potter was a (slight) upgrade over McLean Stevenson’s Henry Blake. I missed Radar, and some of the stories became more preachy as Alan Alda became more involved behind the scenes; but overall M*A*S*H matured gracefully over a prodigious 11-season run and ended with a movie-length finale that attracted more than 100 million viewers – and that’s still the record to be broken.


  1. What a terrific read--found myself nodding my head up & down with each show except for "The Mod Squad" (which I've never seen, but as a kid I loved hearing the show opening). I especially liked what you wrote about MASH, I always equated that with Mary Tyler Moore, which kind of evolved into another but equally good show after Rhoda left. I would also add it to your list, I loved it to the last drop. I'd also add Adam-12, but that's copying you as it too is a Jack Webb production. Anyway, thanks David!

  2. Bob Newhart's final season's Christmas episode is my favorite among the six. My least favorite is the episode where Carol was upset throughout an episode being expected to join her family in Iowa. That one was too dramatic for me. The final season, though, has been downgraded by some fans who didn't like that Bob spent so much time away from it, often making short cameo appearances at the airport in them.

  3. Gotta include WKRP in Cincinatti. It's fourth and final season includes quite a few classics.

  4. The Bob Newhart Show had a '19th Anniversary Special' in 1991. This featured framing sequences with the cast 'in character', essentially treating the special as an extended 'clip show' episode. The move to Oregon was acknowledged, and hand-waved away, as quickly as possible(it didn't work out, so the Hartleys moved back).

  5. I would also like to include "Gilligan's Island" and "Green Acres" to the list. Both shows, which I watch on TV every day, never lost their ability to make viewers laugh from the first episode to the last and didn't alter the formula which made them funny and successful in the first place. Why mess with a good thing? Unlike most series, these two only got better as they got older, and on TV that is an incredible achievement.