Today, it’s almost obligatory that a long-running series gets to call it quits with a finale, often taking up two or three times the length of a normal episode. Some, like St. Elsewhere and Newhart, end in a delightfully surrealistic manner. M*A*S*H ended with the end of the Korean War, albeit a few years overdue. Seinfeld’s final episode was, to many, disappointing. The last episode of Cheers was probably better known for the drunken afterparty.
One of the first major series to introduce a final episode was, if I’m not mistaken, Route 66. In that final story, shown in March 1964, Tod Stiles (Martin Milner) calls it a day after four years of crisscrossing America behind the wheel of a Corvette. Having finally found that place where he belongs, he pulls off the road for the last time and settles down in Tampa with Barbara Eden. (And if you remember Barbara Eden from I Dream of Jeannie, then you’ll agree that this is not such a bad way to settle down.) And that’s a nice way to end the series – logical, low-key, and inevitable
The most famous final episode is probably that of The Fugitive, in which Richard Kimball finally catches up with the One-Armed Man. (Sorry if I’ve ruined it there for you.) This made sense; the whole series was about Kimball’s dual quests to clear his own name and to find the man who actually killed his wife, all the time while escaping from the relentless Lt. Gerard. The final episode of The Fugitive was the highest rated program ever seen on television at the time, and remained so for many years. The lesson for television executives and producers alike: final episodes could be profitable as well as fun.
One series that definitely deserved a final episode was a 1967 mid-season replacement called Coronet Blue. It starred Frank Converse as an amnesiac trying to find out who he was and why people were trying to kill him. (Think The Bourne Identity, which once again proves there’s nothing new under the sun.) Converse’s only clue was a piece of paper he was found clutching, with the words “Coronet Blue” written on it. Coronet Blue was thrown on almost as an afterthought by CBS, with little publicity or notice, and only after it had been sitting on the shelf for months. It went on the air and immediately became the smash hit of the summer. By that time, however, all those involved with the show had gone on to other projects, since there’d been no particular reason to think they’d be needed again. Despite best efforts, they were never able to pull everyone together to continue the series, or even offer a one-shot episode resolving the loose ends. Today, they’d probably get together for a big-screen movie.