Television can be a rough business – just look at what’s happening right now, with social distancing guidelines shutting down productions across the country. Even under normal circumstances, how Hollywood runs means that shows have to end before their time, leading to botched storylines and clumsy epilogues. Here are some key examples.
Coming on the heels of The Magicians’ final episode, which felt like the writers had scrambled to turn a season finale into the series finale, we decided to look at some of the most famous shows that failed to stick their last landing. Whether they were cancelled because of ratings, suffered from the Writers Strike, or had to deal with showrunners making bad choices (I think you know who I’m talking about here), there are some series that will live in infamy because of how they chose to close out their stories.
If there ever was a series with worse luck, I’d be hard-pressed to find it. Pushing Daisies was Bryan Fuller’s series that starred Lee Pace as a pie maker whose touch could bring people back from the dead. It was cute, fun, and quirky, mixing the right elements of Tim Burton, Amélie, and Dead Like Me. Unfortunately, it debuted during the middle of the Writers Guild of America strike, which cut the first season from 22 episodes to nine. Upon its season two return, the ratings dipped and ABC decided to cancel it after 13 episodes – much to the surprise of Fuller and the writing staff, who were using the middle episodes of the season to focus on some of the side characters, promising to return to Ned (Pace) and Chuck’s (Anna Friel) main story in the back half of the season.
After being cancelled, the writers slapped together a two-minute epilogue that gave everybody a quick happy ending. Chuck revealed she’s alive to her mom and aunt, Emerson was reunited with his estranged daughter, Olive opened a mac and cheese shop, and Ned did...things, I guess? But here’s the wild part: That series finale epilogue didn’t air for six months. ABC stopped airing the show after the 10th episode in December 2008 and didn’t release the final three – the ones focusing on the side characters, along with the epilogue – until the following summer.
Joss Whedon’s 2009 follow-up to Buffy the Vampire Slayer was about a series of “Houses” around the world that remotely wiped people’s personalities and replaced them with other ones – usually to serve the whim of wealthy clients. It was designed to explore the nature of personhood, with Eliza Dushku’s “Echo” forming her own personality despite continually having her mind erased. The show didn’t click with audiences and ratings were low, but Dollhouse managed to get renewed, mainly because of Whedon’s fanbase.
The second season changed things up, moving from its more intimate story of identity into a giant conspiracy about a corporation trying to control the minds of people around the world. It was a tone whiplash, one that only got worse after Fox announced they were cancelling the show... while they were filming episode 11 of the planned 13-episode season. This resulted in a wrap of the main plot that threw everything on the table and lit it on fire – including revealing that Echo’s handler Boyd was the evil mastermind, followed by his near-immediate death.
And then there’s “Epitaph Two,” the series finale which was nigh incomprehensible. It jumped into the post-apocalyptic future of *cough* 2020 where the baddies had brainwashed almost the entire planet. Echo and her team worked with people we’d never met before to save the world – even though they’d already put an end to the show’s main catastrophe in the previous episode. So why end this way? Because it was a sequel to an episode that hadn’t even aired. The first season DVD of Dollhouse came with a bonus episode starring none of the main characters that Whedon had filmed so the series could qualify for international distribution. So yeah, not only did Dollhouse speed through the end of its story, it also ended with an episode about stopping an apocalypse most of the audience knew nothing about. An interesting choice.
Game of Thrones
While all of the other shows on this list rushed their endings because they’d been cancelled by their networks, this is the lone example where it was rushed because the creators seemed kinda done with it. HBO wanted to give Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss at least 10 seasons to tell the end of their story – no surprise considering the dynamite success that was seasons one through six. But for some reason (most likely their Star Wars trilogy that didn’t end up happening), Benioff and Weiss decided to close out the series with 13 episodes split into two final seasons. Even though season seven felt clunky at times, it paled in comparison to what we’d get in season eight.
Over the course of six episodes, so much of the show’s growth was thrown out the window. Characters bounced from location to location so quickly it seemed like they all had found fast travel, and their arcs were largely abandoned in favour of plot contrivance. The White Walker invasion, something that had been a crucial part of the series since the beginning, was undone in the span of a single episode. But perhaps the most egregious was the fact that Daenerys Targaryen became a dictator and was then dethroned in the span of an episode. While some folks (like myself) felt it made sense for the character to break bad, it was still rushed and poorly explained. Cut to several months later, and Brandon Stark is being named King of Westeros.
The final journey to the throne was so rushed and disjointed, it tarnished the legacy of television’s greatest fantasy show. That’s... kind of remarkable.
From fake history to real history. Game of Thrones may be famous for its high production costs in the later seasons, but it’s not the most expensive series HBO has ever produced. That honour goes to Rome, a co-production with the BBC about the glory days of the Roman Empire, which cost over $100 million for the first season alone. The series was a huge undertaking, with lavish sets that recreated ancient Rome in extraordinary detail (Fun fact: they were later featured in Doctor Who’s Pompeii episode!).
The first season focused on the rise of Julius Caesar and ended with his assassination. The creators had a plan for five seasons of the show, but HBO and BBC didn’t share their enthusiasm. Here’s co-creator Bruno Heller explaining what happened in a 2008 interview with Reuters:
I discovered halfway through writing the second season the show was going to end. The second was going to end with the death of Brutus. Third and fourth season would be set in Egypt. Fifth was going to be the rise of the Messiah in Palestine. But because we got the heads-up that the second season would be it, I telescoped the third and fourth season into the second one, which accounts for the blazing speed we go through history near the end.
“Blazing speed” is right! HBO announced in 2006 that the second season would be its last because of the high cost, only agreeing to a second season to capitalise on their initial investment. However, instead of simply carrying on with their plan and ending the second season with Brutus’ death, the creators and writers decided to run through decades of Roman history in its final episodes. It abruptly changed the pace of the typically languid show and resulted in the quick loss of key characters and plot lines. According to Reuters, HBO executives later admitted cancelling the show so early was a mistake.
The final episode of Quantum Leap has gone down in history as one of the bleakest series finales in television history – it’s almost surreal how cavalier the final moments were. The series starred Scott Bakula as a traveller lost in time, who found he could hop from body to body but only wanted to find his way home. Around the end of season five, creator Donald Bellisario was asked to write a season finale that could also serve as a series finale if the show wasn’t renewed. The episode did its job, featuring plenty of callbacks to previous leaps in the series, and it gave Dr. Sam Beckett new answers about the Quantum Leap Program. It even ended with Sam going back in time to help save Al the bartender and Beth’s marriage. It was a touching episode but ended cruelly.
All of the other shows on this list tried to cram several storylines worth of plot into a couple of episodes. That’s not what happened here. Instead, the show just said “fuck it.” Immediately following the scene between Sam and Beth, we cut to a few title cards tacked onto the end. We’re told that Beth and Al stayed together and had four children, which was nice. However, we also learn this horrible truth in the final line of the series: “Dr. Sam Becket never returned home.” No, I didn’t make the typo, the show did. You can tell this ending was rushed because they didn’t even spell the main character’s name right.
Rumours circulated for years that an alternate ending for the episode had been filmed, where Beth had convinced Al to become a leaper so he could go look for Sam himself. And it looks like those rumours may be true. In 2018, YouTuber Allison Pregler found some photo negatives of the reported scene, and last year a clip of it surfaced on Reddit. It doesn’t ease the pain of a series that abandoned its protagonist in the timestream for all eternity, but at least it’s a promise that we could’ve gotten something better.