Top 20 Most Viewed TV Finales Ever
VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton
WRITTEN BY: George Pacheco
These are the TV Finales none of us could stay away from! For this list, we're going by the numbers, ranking the small-screen finales for television shows that had the most butts in seats for their final moments. Our countdown includes “Friends” (1994-2004), “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987-94), “The Golden Girls” (1985-92), “Cheers” (1982-93), and more!
These are the TV Finales none of us could stay away from! For this list, we’re going by the numbers, ranking the small-screen finales for television shows that had the most butts in seats for their final moments. Our countdown includes “Friends” (1994-2004), “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987-94), “The Golden Girls” (1985-92), “Cheers” (1982-93), and more! What’s your favorite? Let us know in the comments!
#20: “St. Elsewhere” (1982-88)
22.5 Million Viewers
Television finales can be a funny thing. Many people tend to tune in, but not everyone is left satisfied at the end. The finale of the ‘80s medical drama “St. Elsewhere” was one that divided plenty of fans, while also serving as one of the strangest ways to send off a series. How strange? Well, how about placing the entire six-season run within the imagination of an autistic child? Yup, over twenty-two million people tuned in to watch, as the setting of St. Eligius hospital was shifted to a young boy’s snowglobe. This was a surprisingly meta and bold decision on the part of the series’ creators, but fans today are still debating about whether or not it was actually a good one.
#19: “Full House” (1987-95)
24.3 Million Viewers
The ABC network’s TGIF lineup of comedies was one that featured a lot of future classics, sitcoms that would go on to define a generation of kids in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. “Full House” was definitely one of those shows, and over twenty-four million people sat on their couches to send off the extended Tanner family after eight seasons. “Michelle Rides Again” was a two-part episode that centered around Michelle Tanner’s amnesia. But don’t worry: it all worked out in the end. The original airing of the episode also featured a curtain call from the cast to the live studio audience. “Full House” was definitely a family show, and this fitting finale emphasized that point to a T.
#18:“The Golden Girls” (1985-92)
27.2 Million Viewers
The creative forces behind “The Golden Girls” made a smart choice when they decided to end the long-standing sitcom’s enviable run once Bea Arthur revealed that she would not be returning for an eighth season. Instead, Arthur’s character Dorothy Zbornak got remarried and moved away to Atlanta, leaving the rest of the cast to embark upon a spin-off series titled “The Golden Palace.” Although this latter show isn’t as well-remembered as its parent sitcom, twenty-seven million viewers still loved these four friends enough to watch “The Golden Girls” one last time.
#17: “Newhart” (1982-90)
29.5 Million Viewers
It’s one of the smartest and most unique sitcom send-offs of all time, a meta joke that still makes us laugh today. The show was “Newhart,” and the final episode also made a narrative gamble, but make no mistake: “St. Elsewhere” this was not. Instead, Bob Newhart awakes in bed with his wife…only it’s actually Suzanne Pleshette, the actor who played Newhart’s spouse Emily in his other sitcom hit, “The Bob Newhart Show.” Turns out that Bob, a.k.a. Dr. Bob Hartley, dreamt up the entire run of “Newhart,” a dream that Emily chalks up to indigestion. Twenty-nine million people had no idea what was coming, and this surprise gag was an absolute stroke of brilliance.
#16: “Happy Days” (1974-84)
30.5 Million Viewers
Fans of the nostalgic sitcom hit “Happy Days” didn’t care that the series basically invented the term “jumping the shark” when it had Arthur Fonzarelli attempt to do just that. Thirty million strong still turned out after a decade-long run to celebrate what they loved about “Happy Days” and a more “innocent” time. “Passages” was the official finale to “Happy Days,” although unaired episodes did later show up in syndication. Here, Joanie and Chachi get married, and there’s a huge celebration that includes actor Tom Bosley directly addressing the audience. He gives thanks, raises a toast and a bittersweet montage plays us out to the tune of Elvis Presley. It’s classy stuff.
#15: “Gunsmoke” (1955-75)
30.9 Million Viewers
Unfortunately, not every series finale is able to tie up all loose plot threads in a neat and tidy bow. Heck, some shows don’t even get to shoot a proper finale at all. “Gunsmoke” was one such show, a television institution that deserved better than getting done dirty after twenty years on the air. Instead, “The Sharecroppers” was just another “Gunsmoke” episode, and not even one with any high stakes or intense drama. Still, thirty million-plus still tuned in, a number that speaks towards the longevity and popularity of the show. “Gunsmoke” stuck around in a different form, too, airing five television films that reunited the cast.
#14: “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987-94)
31 Million Viewers
The world of Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” continues to captivate the imaginations of sci-fi fans everywhere, but it’s this sophomore live-action series from the franchise that just might be among the most beloved iteration of them all. “Star Trek: The Next Generation” did indeed explore strange new worlds, and did so boldly, while the two-part series finale, “All Good Things…” managed to make both fans and critics happy. The episode focused on Captain Jean-Luc Picard and a battle of wits with the enigmatic being known as Q. There are time travel shenanigans aplenty, but “All Good Things…” is overall quite celebratory in tone, and sends off “The Next Generation” in style.
#13: “Everybody Loves Raymond” (1996-2005)
32.9 Million Viewers
Who doesn’t like a little bit of drama in their situation comedy? “Everybody Loves Raymond” was able to balance the heavy subplot of a near-death experience for Ray Romano’s character with some genuine heart and laughs. This makes “The Finale” leagues more successful than the often heavy-handed nature of a “very special” sitcom episode, as the Barone family all react very differently, but believably, to the story. Ray is having difficulty being woken up from anesthesia after a routine medical procedure, and there’s a moment where tensions are high, but nearly thirty-three million viewers were relieved when it all worked out okay.
#12: “Dallas” (1978-91)
33.3 Million Viewers
How do you top the cultural, watercooler juggernaut that was “Who shot J.R.?” Well, if you’re the showrunners of “Dallas,” you attempt to ensure that one of primetime’s most iconic soaps goes out with a bang. The series was no stranger to cliffhangers, and it routinely packed butts in seats as the webs of intrigue, money and romance played themselves out. “Conundrum” is a bit more nostalgic and warm-hearted in comparison, as it basically rehashes the plot of Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Larry Hagman’s J.R. Ewing is on the brink of self-destruction, and we the audience are treated to what “Dallas” would’ve been like without the controversial oil magnate’s existence. Thirty-three million-plus viewers at home tuned in to find out.
#11: “Frasier” (1993-2004)
33.7 Million Viewers
There’s a lot of light-hearted, high anxiety at play here with the “Frasier” finale, “Goodnight, Seattle,” as the Crane siblings are tasked with planning a rush wedding for their father, Martin. It’s a comedy of errors from that point on, reminding us of why the fast-paced humor of “Frasier” worked so well after originally spinning off from “Cheers.” Still, there’s poignancy near the end as Frasier recites an abbreviated version of Lord Alfred Tennyson’s famous poem, “Ulysses,” before leaving his job at KACL. Nearly thirty-four million people wanted to see what Frasier Crane would do next, while the character himself still seemed unsure. By the episode’s end, however, we know that all of these characters we grew to love will be just fine.
#10: “Home Improvement” (1991-99)
35.5 Million Viewers
There was a nice string of plot-points that slowly led “Home Improvement” towards its finale at the end of its eighth season back in 1999. Tim and Al’s “Tool Time” show was experiencing some behind-the-scenes drama, while the latter was preparing for a new chapter in the form of marriage. There were also some sad moments, such as Al’s mother, Alma, dying of a heart attack, but overall, “The Long and Winding Road” multi-part episodes of “Home Improvement” were all about reflection. Over thirty-five million people joined cast and crew in reminiscing on the show’s impressive run, as a “best of” retrospective of moments peppered each episode until the final goodbye. “Backstage Pass” then pulled back the “Home Improvement” curtain for some behind-the-scenes fun.
#9: “Family Ties” (1982-89)
36.3 Million Viewers
“Family Ties” was another sitcom that seemed to find it difficult saying goodbye to its audience. The show prolonged its final farewell in a similar fashion to “Home Improvement,” as a preceding episode, “Wrap Around the Clock,” features a lot of older clips that celebrated the show’s seven-season run. The actual finale of “Family Ties” clocked in with over thirty-six million viewers, as Alex P. Keaton gets ready to move away from his family to the big city. The episode is bittersweet, as Alex’s mother, Elyse, is reluctant to see him go, and we really feel the love that the Keaton family shares with one another. Finally, the entire cast and some of the crew step up for a bow in front of the live studio audience.
#8: “All in the Family” (1971-79)
40.2 Million Viewers
This bold and unforgettable sitcom had people talking right from the jump, thanks to its dedication to daring and envelope-pushing storytelling. “All in the Family” pressed every hot-topic button imaginable, but was still a story of family at the end of the day, with strong bonds tying together all of the extended Bunker clan. Edith Bunker in particular was the moral crux of the show, so when it’s revealed that she’s hiding a serious medical issue from her husband Archie, things come to a serious and emotionally poignant end. “All in the Family” would then be spun-off into a new series, “Archie Bunker’s Place,” but over forty million fans saw the original family of controversy say their fond farewells.
#7: “The Cosby Show” (1984-92)
44.4 Million Viewers
There’s a lot to emotionally unpack when it comes to discussing “The Cosby Show,” both with regards to its controversial star, as well as one notable fact about its series finale. “And So We Commence” was actually broadcast, partially, during the Los Angeles riots of 1992, to the point where star Bill Cosby appealed to viewers of local LA TV affiliate KNBC to stop the violence and instead try to come together in front of the television. Forty-four-plus million people did just that, although the long-term impact of “The Cosby Show’s” final moments has been dulled over time, thanks to the alleged behavior of its lead.
#6: “Magnum, P.I.” (1980-88)
50.7 Million Viewers
Man, talk about power to the people. Fans were very upset that the finale of “Magnum, P.I.” featured their hero Thomas Sullivan Magnum IV getting fatally wounded. So upset, in fact, that they demanded a do-over! Although, by all accounts, Magnum’s original heavenly visit to Limbo was a fine way to send off the series, “Resolutions” is admittedly a happier affair. The knots are neatly tied, Magnum goes back to the Navy, and the episode’s fifty million-plus audience was finally satiated with an ending of which they approved.
#5: “Friends” (1994-2004)
52.5 Million Viewers
“Friends,” for many, fits right alongside some of the older, classic television programs on this list. It was a sitcom that grew alongside its audience for a decade, and as a result, deserved a truly epic sendoff. Over fifty-two million viewers settled in for their final visit with “Friends,” and this finale did not disappoint. Tears were shed, hugs were shared, and laughter was had by all, as Chandler, Joey, Monica, Ross, Rachel and Phoebe bid their final farewells. It was bittersweet, sure, but “Friends” had one hell of a run, and this final episode left many fans fully satisfied.
#4: “Seinfeld” (1989-98)
76.3 Million Viewers
It’s one of the more divisive sitcom finales on this list, but one that’s somewhat gotten better with age. After all, this show “about nothing” wasn’t about to go out and execute some sort of feel-good cliché of an ending, right? Of course not. The finale to “Seinfeld” instead reminded seventy-six million fans about how kind of awful Jerry, Elaine, Kramer and George are at the end of the day. They sort of deserve each other, and the sight of the crew having their collective characters disparaged by a cavalcade of guest stars just sort of fits in with the trouble all of these friends have caused over the years. Love it or hate it, it definitely had scores of people talking.
#3: “The Fugitive” (1963-67)
78 Million Viewers
The next entry on our list might be something of a surprise to some, as the original “Fugitive” series only ran for a few years back in the mid-sixties. Never underestimate the power of a good mystery, however…or forget the fact that there were a lot fewer options for small-screen viewers back in the day. Still, we shouldn’t disparage the fact that nearly eighty million people wanted to see Dr. Kimble clear his name, find the mysterious one-armed man and uncover the truth behind his wife’s murder. It was a huge deal that almost didn’t even happen, as producer Leonard Goldberg apparently heard that execs at the time were “surprised” that viewers at home actually cared about these characters week-to-week and wanted an actual finale.
#2: “Cheers” (1982-93)
93 Million Viewers
It was one of the most satisfying endings to any sitcom, full stop. A perfect storm of sorts that brought down the house for everyone that grew up visiting the place where everybody knew their name. The final episode of “Cheers” was, quite simply, appointment television. About ninety-three million people made sure they were near a television in order to see what was going to happen with their favorite cast of characters. And “One for the Road” didn’t disappoint the nearly forty percent of the American population that reportedly tuned in for this epic, three-part finale. There’s a lot of little touches, too, such as Sam Malone’s subtle tribute to fallen bartender Coach, before telling a stray customer “Cheers” is closed.
Before we name our number one pick, here are some honorable mentions!
“MacGyver” (1985-92), 22.3 Million Viewers
Over Twenty-Two Million Fans Sent Mac Off
“L.A. Law” (1986-94), 22.1 Million Viewers
Who Knew These Lawyers Had Twenty-Two Million Fans?
“Game of Thrones” (2011-19), 19.3 Million Viewers
Nineteen Million Viewers Stuck It Out to the Bitter End
“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (1970-77), 19.2 Million Viewers
A Memorable Farewell Witnessed by Nineteen Million Close Friends
“The Big Bang Theory” (2007-19), 18.5 Million Viewers
Bazinga! Eighteen Million Strong!
“ER” (1994-2009), 16.2 Million Viewers
Sixteen Million Showed Up to Bid This Show Adieu
#1: “M*A*S*H” (1972-83)
106 Million Viewers
“Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” is one of those pivotal cultural moments, the sort of television history that might not ever happen again. Stated simply, it’s the T.V. finale against which all others are measured. “M*A*S*H” truly went out in epic fashion, delivering all of the drama, laughs and tears that defined this groundbreaking dramady for so many years. “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” wasn’t just an episode or two, either, but a full television movie, one that took its time ensuring that every remaining “M*A*S*H” character had their stories properly told. This was one heck of a “goodbye,” and a startling hundred-and-six million viewers were on hand to be a part of history.