Episodes That End At the Climax


A follow-up to my last post: there are some TV episodes that don’t have an “aftermath” scene, a scene where the pressure is lessened and we get either a light or reflective moment. I’m not talking so much about episodes that end with cliffhangers (in many of these shows, if you break down the structure, there actually is some kind of breather in between the climax and the cliffhanger) as episodes that end with the climactic scene — as soon as the story is resolved, we fade out or freeze-frame.

One procedural show that sometimes did this to good effect was Columbo. Some episodes would end later than this, but I recall that a typical ending of a Columbo was as follows: Columbo explains the one mistake that the murderer made, the murderer realizes he’s caught and glares at Columbo, and then there’s a freeze-frame and credits. (The episode where Robert Conrad is a murderous health guru ended like that: Columbo says “you made one mistake, and it’s that mistake that’s gonna hang you,” and that’s the end of the show.) Now, those endings may have been done out of necessity: if they’d gone on for even a minute longer, the murderer would have had time to realize that Columbo’s circumstantial evidence would never hold up in court against the high-priced lawyers that the wealthy bad guys could afford.

Another show that used this kind of ending brilliantly was Cheers, which as it went on, had some of the most abrupt endings in the history of episodic television. It was extremely common for the show to do the blackout and executive-producer credits right after the moment when the story was finished: no tags, no summing-up final scene, not even a follow-up conversation about what we just saw. Instead the ending would be some little gag that wrapped up the final scene or subverted it (i.e. the characters apologize but then do something that shows they haven’t really learned anything). I often felt startled by the endings of Cheers because they arrived at a moment when I had been trained to expect another scene. Friends also had endings like that, but because they also had tags after the final commercial break, their endings couldn’t have the same impact: you’d get the abrupt ending, but then you’d get an extra scene that diluted its impact.

I’m having trouble thinking of many current shows that end this way. Most of the HBO shows and many network shows take their storytelling cues from movies, and movies almost always seem to have a winding-down scene at the end (even if it’s just John McClane’s wife punching out that reporter; you don’t end a movie with the final escape; you end it after the final escape). So they usually do seem to end with something that puts the episode into perspective for us, even if it’s only a few seconds of pensive looks or a brief musical montage. Even shows that could end abruptly choose not to; Arrested Development was made before the networks insisted that their comedies use tags again, but the producers nevertheless decided to have what was essentially a tag, in the form of the “On the Next Arrested Development” segments.  But what are some current shows that like to end as soon as the main story does, with no breathing space?

Filed under:

Episodes That End At the Climax

  1. Law & Order: SVU did this quite a bit in past seasons, I believe, compared to the more simplistic structure of vanilla L&O. It fell off my radar several years ago, though, so I have no idea if it continues.

  2. NCIS does it on occasion- sometimes they do a wrap-up in the earlier episodes, but in the more recent ones more often it has been: find the murderer, bam, it’s over.

  3. But what are some current shows that like to end as soon as the main story does, with no breathing space?

    The Big Bang Theory often ends before the story is wrapped up. But then there’s a tag at the end, which also doesn’t wrap up the story. And I think it’s the tag that creates the impression that the stories peter out, rather than just abruptly stop. So I’d say that BBT is the sort of show that should either A. Do away with the tags or B. Use the tags to properly end the stories.

    Judging by a prior post, I’m guessing you’ll disagree, but, personally, I’d prefer option A. I really don’t think BBT is ever going to be the sort of show people watch for the strength of the storytelling. So better to just go out strong.

Sign in to comment.