Approximately 1 million years ago — OK fine, the exact date was Feb. 28, 1983 — I joined a group of friends at an apartment in Calumet City to watch the 256th and final episode of “MASH,” which to this day stands as one of the most beloved and popular and critically acclaimed television series of all time.
Titled “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” the last installment of the Korean War-era comedy was actually a two-hour movie. The expanded running time provided enough breathing room to wrap up multiple storylines and to eschew the usual mix of comedic hijinks and social commentary in favor of an ambitious, deeply somber drama.
The prime-time broadcast on CBS, which attracted some 106 million viewers in the United States (five or six times the expected audience for the “Game of Thrones” series finale this Sunday on HBO), is almost always cited in any piece on the greatest TV finales of all time.
Eh. I didn’t love it.
In the early years of “MASH,” I was a huge fan of the Larry Gelbart-led writing, and the Groucho Marx-tribute work by Alan Alda. This was one funny and whip-smart sitcom.
But as the years went by, “MASH” got ever more preachy and also kind of lazy. (The actors sported 1970s hairstyles, as if they couldn’t be bothered to be authentic to the 1950s time period. Jamie Farr’s Klinger was a fan of the Toledo Mud Hens — but he wore a Texas Rangers cap. I mean, come on.)
By the time “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” aired, I thought “MASH” had worn out its welcome. There’s no denying the depth of Alda’s work in the last episode, as well as the dramatic impact of certain moments — but it was hardly the perfect ending.
Then again, there’s no such thing as a perfect ending to ANY television series.
If you wrap everything up in a crowd-pleasing bow, a la the final episode of “Friends,” some fans are going to complain how it was all too convenient and rushed.
If you try a little too hard to explain the inexplicable, and you maneuver certain storylines to a forced ending in the service of achieving tidy closure, a la “Lost,” you’ll be criticized for selling out.
If you swing for the fences and pull off a brilliant twist, as with “St. Elsewhere” and “Newhart,” you’ll be applauded for your creativity — but some fans will say they feel cheated, as if they were the victims of a series-long practical joke.
If you end things on a note of bittersweet ambivalence, e.g., “The Sopranos,” for every critic hailing the last few moments as a work of genius, another will scream to the skies, proclaiming, “Are you KIDDING me? Journey on the jukebox, and that’s that?”
As you might have heard, a certain little show on HBO called “Game of Thrones” will reach the end of the road Sunday, drawing the curtain on a massively successful eight-season run.
Judging by some of the critical pieces and the vitriolic wailing on social media, you’d think that in the last few episodes, the blood and magic and intrigue had given way to an a cappella musical.
I have not seen the series finale, but this I can guarantee you: It’s going to piss off a huge chunk of the fan base, and draw the ice-and-fire rage of many a critic.
• • •
From the get-go (the first episode aired on April 17, 2011), “Game of Thrones” boasted feature film-level production values, stellar writing and brilliant performances from a top-tier cast.
It was “The Sopranos” with swords. It was a sexy, violent, bold, Shakespearean drama.
Also immediately evident: This was going to be a blood-soaked, byzantine, sometimes maddeningly inconsistent soap opera, filled with stunning twists and turns — some more plausible than others.
Think of all the “GoT” characters that transitioned from villain to hero, and then back again — and then back again. (Exhibit A: Jaime Lannister.) Think of all the storylines that took sudden and sometimes credulity-stretching detours.
Treacherous traitors became trusted confidants. Historic rivals became loyal allies. A wedding turned into a bloodbath. A dead man was resurrected. A girl learned how to literally mask her identity.
A woman who once hissed, “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” fell in love with that very same Jon Snow. A great war pitted humans against, well, basically they were zombies.
Time and again, the show has thrown curveballs at us. Some of those breaking balls were artfully planned and executed; nearly as many seemed arbitrary and kinda bat-bleep crazy.
So given the show’s history, why are so many fans and critics going full-scale apoplectic over the last few episodes?
Granted, there have been times when the final-season urgency has resulted in less-than-organic conclusions. And I’m right there with anyone who was frustrated by “The Long Dark Night” episode, which might not have been too long but was definitely too dark.
Still, I’ll never fully understand the mindset of the fan who says something along the lines of, “I wasted eight years on this show!” if the finale doesn’t meet expectations.
So if you hated the last few minutes of the final episode of “The Sopranos,” that retroactively ruined all those hours over all those years when you soaked up every minute and loved it? Or if you felt the final episode of “Seinfeld” was condescending and insulting, you can’t enjoy watching reruns of the other 179 shows?
Looking back at a few of my favorite TV shows of all time:
• “Mad Men” ended on a pitch-perfect closing grace note.
• The “Parks and Recreation” finale was ingenious and lovely.
• The final few episodes of “Breaking Bad” were brilliant.
On the other hand …
• As much as I loved “The Office,” I felt the last episode was a little forced and overly sentimental.
• The “Sons of Anarchy” curtain call also left me cold. Jax’s final act was selfish and stupid and reckless.
• And the next time I meet someone who dug the finale of “Dexter” will be the FIRST time I meet someone who dug the finale of “Dexter.”
Still, when I revisit an episode of “Dexter” or “The Office” or “Sons of Anarchy,” my disappointment in how these shows crossed the final line is a giant non-factor.
Of course every fan has the right to go Stark raving mad, so to speak, if “Game of Thrones” disappoints.
But even if you’ve hated the last few Sundays, and even if you despise how it all wraps up this weekend, does that really mean you’ve wasted all those hours on all those great episodes over all these years.