6:45am PT by Jean Bentley
Decade in Review: The Culture-Defining TV Shows That Ended in the 2010s
The number of scripted series airing on television has increased exponentially in the past decade, but plenty of influential series also aired their last episodes in the 2010s.
From divisive conclusions — the Lost finale is still being re-litigated nine years after it aired, not to mention the entirety of Game of Thrones' eighth season — to heart-warming happy endings — Jane the Virgin's Villanuevas and You're the Worst's reluctant soulmates each had their own walk-into-the-sunset moments — there were all sorts of resolutions to sprawling stories.
Revisit the decade's most influential series finales — and what The Hollywood Reporter's critics thought of them — below.
Mad Men (2015)
It took a few years before the '60s-set advertising drama made Jon Hamm a household name, but by the time of its finale, the prestige cable drama had become a phenomenon. Of the episode, former THR TV critic Tim Goodman wrote, "Mad Men not only made a finale the bulk of its fans will appreciate, but one that was creatively equal to a number of its best episodes through the course of its seven-season run."
Game of Thrones (2019)
Talk about divisive: The critically beloved series took a turn for the rotten (at least where Rotten Tomatoes' Tomatometer was concerned) for its final season, but did HBO's fantasy epic manage to stick the landing, at least as much as it could have? "Despite an over-magnified and predictably overheated fan meltdown on Twitter about the direction of Game of Thrones, it arguably ended just about as well as one unwieldy, sprawling, complicated epic could end," wrote Goodman.
Breaking Bad (2013)
Before Vince Gilligan and Aaron Paul revisited the world of Breaking Bad in Netflix's El Camino, the AMC series wrapped its six-season run with a finale that didn't see the best fates for science teacher turned meth kingpin Walter White and his student-turned-partner Jesse Pinkman. Wrote Goodman, "More than anything, I love a creator’s ability to end the story as he or she wishes. That doesn’t make every decision acceptable. ... The finale to Breaking Bad — even if it wasn’t what I’d hoped would happen — was more than enough to thrill me and make me appreciate five seasons and six years of brilliant work." One of the first series to benefit from a Netflix boost, it has retained its place in the cultural pantheon — as El Camino demonstrates — throughout the 2010s.
When Shonda Rhimes wrapped up her soapy, Washington-set political drama, she purposely didn't reveal too much about high-powered lawyer Olivia Pope's final fate. As THR reported, Rhimes and her executive producers "intentionally wanted to leave the audience to determine the show's ultimate takeaway about politics in D.C. (Rhimes noted that the finale was more about completing Olivia's journey than making a statement about backroom dealings in D.C.)."
House of Cards (2018)
The finale to Netflix's first original hit was going to look very different before production was halted on the political drama following Kevin Spacey's ouster. But as it stands, the final episode revealed that Frank Underwood was murdered by his closest aide, but wife (and would-be president) Claire covered it up. "Claire reveals herself to be as much of an antihero as Francis ever was," showrunner Melissa James Gibson told THR about how to interpret the ending. "She’s allowed to be as complicated and surprising and dark and everything he ever was." It's those qualities — and David Fincher's direction (and Netflix's budget) — that turned it into the first streaming prestige series.
Orange Is the New Black (2019)
One of the biggest strengths of the female prison-set series was its ensemble cast, and as THR TV critic Daniel Fienberg wrote, the performances in OITNB's final season could fill the supporting actress award fields twice over: "When done right, final seasons can be major legacy boosters, and Jenji Kohan and the Orange Is the New Black team have delivered a final season done right. This closing run of 13 episodes is the most focused season in years, a steady reminder of how smartly political, energetically funny and devastatingly dramatic this show could be."
The Office (2013)
There's a reason NBC paid a reported $500 million to regain the rights to its single-camera workplace sitcom — it's Netflix's most-streamed series, but will move to NBCU streaming service Peacock in 2021. "The Office is one of our most prized series, and we are thrilled it has found an exciting new home where generation after generation will continue to discover and rediscover Michael Scott’s most cringe-worthy moments, Jim and Pam’s will-they-or-won’t-they and the incredible quirky ensemble that makes each episode a masterclass in comedy,” Universal TV president Pearlena Igbokwe said in a statement announcing the acquisition news.
Lena Dunham's Hannah was not necessarily the voice of her generation — a generation, maybe — but her portrayal of twenty-something New York City life in the acclaimed HBO comedy was certainly important. Wrote Fienberg of its final outing, "There wasn't anything that Girls owed me (or you) in Sunday's finale. Most of the characters got the sendoffs they deserved. There were absolutely no mysteries to be solved or outstanding questions that needed answering or anything that so many Peak TV finales have needed to accomplish when they neared the end. ... Anything you really wanted or deserved from a finale came last week when the four main characters crammed themselves into a bathroom and argued about why they haven't been good friends to each other for a while." It was that fearless real talk that turned Girls into the quintessential Millennial series, for better or worse.
The show that turned Ryan Murphy into a TV superstar was creatively all over the place at times, but there's no denying the dramedy about a little high school show choir that could made an everlasting mark on the TV landscape. "I look forward to the idea that as the show will live on for generations, there will still be younger people who see it and go, 'Oh, my God, I've never seen myself represented on TV this way,'" star Darren Criss, who was half of fan-favorite trailblazing couple Kurt and Blaine, told THR at the time of the finale. "The victory that Glee has is even though we became the butt end of a lot of jokes — what issue will they tackle next! — and whether people agreed with them or not, or whether we executed in a way that people vibed with or not, that's irrelevant. The point was we brought it up. And that is a really cool legacy to be a part of."
The final season of the political satire took a hiatus so that star Julia Louis-Dreyfus could recover from breast cancer treatment, but it was worth the wait, according to Goodman. "Veep, one of television's all-time great comedies, closed out its seventh and final season on Sunday with a searing sendoff — and sendup of American politics — that, like the season-long tone of the previous six episodes, spared no one, no issue and, with a particular emphasis, certainly not its main character, Selina Meyer."
Jane the Virgin (2019)
The CW's genre-bending telenovela sendup wrapped its award-winning run with a satisfying series finale that gave a relatively happy ending for the titular character and her family members. "Especially for a character like Jane and her family, who you've been with through struggles, I wanted to see their dreams come true," creator Jennie Snyder Urman told THR of the cliffhanger-free finale. Throughout its run, Jane helped elevate Latinx voices and turned Gina Rodriguez into a star, and it also taught Snyder Urman "the importance of representation and seeing yourself onscreen. ... That's something I will take with me always and really try to lift up other voices that represent communities that I'm not a part of."
The Americans (2018)
There are plenty of things The Americans will be remembered for: its sharp writing; the parallels between cold war politics and the 2010s; Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys' career-best performances; and, of course, their myriad wigs. But it'll also go down in history as having one of the best series finales of all time. Wrote Fienberg of the episode, "Finales typically fall into one of two categories: There are overdetermined finales that feel like they have to solve a lot of mysteries, give as many characters as possible a resolution they deserve and put the show's world to rest. ... And then there are underdetermined finales, which concentrate on resolving thematic issues introduced in the show, but don't care nearly as much about giving 'answers' or giving a decisive narrative conclusion. The finale for The Americans split the difference nicely. It delivered some big moments that fans needed and wrapped up some storylines, but emphasized spiritual and emotional consequences instead of a torrent of arrests, revelations and casualties that I'm sure some fans, perhaps even me on some gut level, expected or hoped for."
When the final episode of critical darling Louie aired in 2015, it was the last before a supposed extended hiatus. A year later, creator Louis C.K. said on THR's awards podcast, "I think the guy that I played on the show — the just-divorced kinda underwater dad/struggling New York comic — I don't think I have stories for that guy anymore." Goodman praised season five of the series as "a thrilling and weird and funny foray into the brain of Louis C.K. and a comedy that’s impossible to pigeonhole or predict or even label as a comedy. It remains, as ever, a wholly original concoction that’s a thing of odd beauty." But as the network cut ties with the comedian following his sexual misconduct allegations, it will also be its last.
Parks and Recreation (2015)
The star-making series — featuring Saturday Night Live standout Amy Poehler and an ensemble studded with reliable character actors, original comic voices and would-be Marvel superheroes — wrapped up its story of small-town government with a sprawling finale that flashed back and forth between 2017 and 2035. Wrote Goodman of the series, "it magically veered away from overt cynicism (especially after that first season, when the show didn't know what it wanted to be or could be). It embraced positivity and American ingenuity and small-town weirdness. It was a show that had a lot of love in it."
Broad City (2019)
"It’s such a privilege, especially as young women, to be able to end something while it’s strong and powerful and our choice to end it," Ilana Glazer told THR of wrapping her and Abbi Jacobson's irreverent, clever, feminist sitcom, whose final outing paid tribute to the power of friendship. Added Glazer, "It’s not about Broad City, it’s just about two friends. Women or men and boys and gender-nonconforming people. ... Everyone can live in Broad City if they carry that kind of spirit of friendship and love and respect and partnership."
Friday Night Lights (2011)
In Goodman's ode to the final season of the small-town football drama, he wrote, "stars Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton (as Eric and Tami Taylor) were doing the best work of their careers and seemed shockingly well-suited to dramatic realism. They became the best portrayal of a husband and wife on television in decades — maybe ever." That relationship — and the fact that the series managed to outlast its perpetual bubble status — helped elevate the network drama (which eventually moved to DirecTV) to all-time great TV status.
Not only did Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof's mysterious survival drama change the way television was created, bringing serialized television to the forefront (even on broadcast networks), it also changed the way it was consumed — the series sparked many an online discourse (and many a 3,000-word think piece). "Lost was a show about people on an island in the middle of nowhere, but metaphorically they were lost in their lives [and in need of] purpose and redemption," Cuse said four years after the polarizing finale. "[The ending] had to be a spiritual one."
The Big Bang Theory (2019)
The rare No. 1 comedy to go out when it was still on top may have started out rocky, but Fienberg pointed out in his review of the series finale that it grew into a broad, popular and quality effort, thanks in large part to the strength of its cast. "There's no secret here: Nerd-baiting may have made The Big Bang Theory into a hit, but strong, funny female characters made The Big Bang Theory into a good show," he wrote.
You're the Worst (2019)
The theme song for the cynical relationship comedy made good on the promise of its theme song — "I'm gonna leave you anyway" — by not actually having its on-and-off main characters get married in the end. But the sarcastic couple did stay together in their own unconventional way. "They were never going to walk off into the sunset, but this is a perfect ending. I'm glad they didn't get married and that they ended up together. The fact that there is a chance that they might one day is realistic, and it's a whole spin on the ceremony of marriage," star Chris Geere told THR. For two characters who lasted through clinical depression, infidelity and serious betrayal, it was the only possible way to end.
How I Met Your Mother (2015)
The conceit of HIMYM — that Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor, but Bob Saget in voiceover) was narrating the story of meeting the love of his life — meant audiences were waiting for answers for a very long time. So it was no surprise that the resolution didn't necessarily satisfy everyone. Wrote co-creator Craig Thomas the night the last episode aired, "Every possible reaction to the last 44 minutes ... thank you all ... The fact that we have been a TV sitcom that has received this much passion from fans, for 9 years (not just tonight) — thank you. We wrote a comedy with dramatic elements till the very end. Thanks for taking that ride with us. We did a finale about life's twists and turns and that is not always what happens ... but THANKS! Seriously — no matter what you thought of tonight, THANK YOU ... you were with us. We love you. Thanks for this ride.
Gossip Girl (2012)
The social media-harnessing teen soap said goodbye by finally revealing the identity of its titular blogger — and surprised many in the process. It turns out that the catty character, voiced by Kristen Bell, was actually outcast turned popular kid Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley) all along. "Gossip Girl is dead," wrote the character in the series finale — though that's not necessarily true, since the drama is being rebooted on HBO Max.
Desperate Housewives (2012)
Wisteria Lane held many a secret, but the juicy drama was only one reason why the primetime soap turned into a bona fide cultural phenomenon. It was the ensemble cast — Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman, Marcia Cross, Eva Longoria, Nicollette Sheridan and later Vanessa Williams — that really brought the show into the spotlight. In its finale, each of the titular housewives left the cursed cul-de-sac for good, but not before leaving room for new drama long after Susan, Gaby, Lynette and Bree departed.
30 Rock (2013)
Tina Fey's showbiz-skewering sitcom was more than just topical jokes and relatable advice — never go with a hippie to a second location, kids. It introduced many a phrase into the lexicon ("I want to go to there," "That's a dealbreaker, ladies," Sherri Shepherd saying "ham"), played with sight gags and cameos and, most importantly, it was fearless in the process. Wrote Goodman, "This was a series that, like Arrested Development before it, worked the entire comedy spectrum and did it with audacity. The episode where Jack acted out Tracy's parents was sheer brilliance. There was never a letup in skewering NBC and later Comcast (Kabletown), in race, religion or any kind of political correctness. With a fearless willingness to do anything to be funny — which takes intelligence and diligence — 30 Rock created a legacy that's in rare air."