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The best and worst series finales in TV history

When a popular show nears its ending after several seasons of careful plotting and layered character arcs, it can be intimidating to figure out how to stick the landing perfectly without letting loyal fans down. Some shows manage to tie up plotlines neatly and in a satisfying way, leaving viewers happy with how their favorite characters said goodbye. Others completely botch their grand finishes, leaving audiences screaming and furious as they watch the universes they love get brought down by bad writing, sloppy execution, and inconsistent character development.

Over the years, TV fans have seen so many classic shows come and go, and while some have stuck their landings spectacularly, others have floundered, working against sky-high expectations and ultimately not delivering on years of potential. From big-budget fantasies to intimate period dramas to raucous comedies, here are some of our all-time favorite series finales, along with some that ended up squandering all the goodwill built up throughout their runs. Naturally, spoilers for all of these shows are to follow.

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Best: Six Feet Under

After the success of his screenplay American Beauty, Alan Ball branched into television, collaborating with HBO on Six Feet Under. A sweeping family drama that focused on funeral home in California, the critically beloved show scooped up plenty of awards during its five-season run and featured plenty of acclaimed actors, including Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy, Peter Krause, Lauren Ambrose, and more.

Its series finale, which wraps up the central family's throughlines in a super satisfying way, is still regarded as one of the best in television history. For a show that focused so much on death, it's only fitting that the finale features flash forwards for each main character to show how they would die, providing true finality for viewers who had followed the Fisher family through all five seasons. Thanks to its huge emotional impact and carefully crafted script, Six Feet Under gave its fans and its characters the ending they deserved, and the finale has resonated with viewers throughout the years since it aired.

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Worst: Lost

Created by J.J. Abrams after the success of his previous ABC juggernaut, Alias, this incredibly ambitious drama told the heightened story of plane crash survivors stuck on a remote and mysterious island. As if being stranded wasn't a big enough problem, the passengers of Oceanic Flight 815 encounter plenty of weird issues on the island, from polar bears to smoke monsters to weird coincidences. Lost is still consistently ranked as one of the best television series of all time and remains endlessly rewatchable, as old and new viewers search for clues and Easter eggs throughout every episode.

Abrams, alongside showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, set up many mysteries that fans were anxious to see solved before the show reached the end of its six-season run. Wrapping up all that dense and twisting mythology, however, was always going to be difficult. After a shaky final season, the show ends just as it started, with a closeup on Jack Shepherd (Matthew Fox) as he seemingly dies. Each character is then seen in a church that seems to represent the afterlife, raising the question of whether or not everyone had been dead for the entire series (a claim the showrunners debunked). There were probably any number of satisfying ways to end Lost, but in the minds of many fans, this muddled yet weirdly saccharine ending wasn't one of them.

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Best: Parks and Recreation

One of the cheeriest and most positive shows on television, the Amy Poehler-led comedy Parks and Recreation let its characters grow and evolve throughout its six seasons, celebrating their triumphs and letting them bounce back from their lowest points. Fans grew fond of the employees of the Parks and Recreation department in Pawnee, Indiana, led by Leslie Knope (Poehler), the world's most enthusiastic government official. Though it initially struggled to escape comparisons to The Office, it didn't take long for Parks and Rec to make a mark of its own, spawning countless memes and even its own holidays, remaining beloved even after it closed out its run on NBC in 2015.

The end of the show sees Leslie saying goodbye to her beloved Parks department as its members splinter off to start new lives around the country. With each farewell from Leslie, each character gets a flash-forward, showing how each of them would go on to accomplish their dreams and make their way in the world. From April (Aubrey Plaza) and Andy (Chris Pratt) having their first child to the purposefully ambivalent shot at Jerry's (Jim O'Heir) funeral that indicates either Leslie or her husband, Ben (Adam Scott), could potentially be president to the naming ceremony of the Leslie Knope library, each character receives the most satisfying sendoff possible, encapsulating the hopeful, breezy attitude of the entire series in a single episode.

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Worst: Dexter

Based on a series of novels by Jeff Lindsay, Dexter told the dark and occasionally amusing story of Dexter Morgan, who works as a forensic scientist in Miami by day and hunts down criminals at night, leading a double life as a serial killer determined to channel his worst impulses in a way that provides justice rather than senseless carnage. Throughout the series, Dexter tries (and usually fails) to save his loved ones from other, worse killers, and even though the first four seasons were incredibly well-received, the quality started to slip in the later seasons, with the sixth season and the final eighth season getting the worst reviews of all.

With such a rocky road to the conclusion, fans were uneasy going into the series finale. They ended up being proven exactly right. After dumping his beloved sister's body in the ocean like trash, Dexter leaves his son with his girlfriend (another serial killer), allowing them to abscond to Buenos Aires before driving a boat into a CGI hurricane, only to resurface as a heavily bearded lumberjack in Oregon after faking his death. After eight seasons spent rooting for Dexter through even his worst moments, this ending couldn't have been more disappointing, completely abandoning the question of whether or not Dexter would get caught or get away with his crimes.

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Best: The Office

Originally led by Steve Carell in a career-making performance as Michael Scott, the well-meaning but buffoonish regional manager of Dunder Mifflin Paper in Scranton, Pennsylvania, The Office chronicled the extraordinarily ordinary lives of the company's employees over nine seasons. In the process, the show made stars out of fresh-faced actors like John Krasinski, Mindy Kaling, Ed Helms, Ellie Kemper, and Jenna Fischer, just to name a few. Adapted from Ricky Gervais' British series of the same name, The Office seemed like just another American remake at first, but quickly became one of the most beloved sitcoms of the 2000s, popularizing the mockumentary sitcom format that would be seen in plenty of shows to follow, including Modern Family and Parks and Recreation.

Even though Carell left the show in the seventh season, it continued running for two more, and fans were disappointed by the decline in quality, from new and irritating characters to a potential split between Jim (Krasinski) and Pam (Fischer), the show's most enduring couple. Thankfully, the final season had a serious uptick in quality, with the series finale — set around the long-awaited wedding of Dwight (Rainn Wilson) and Angela (Angela Kinsey) —delivering satisfying endings for each character, resolution to lingering plot threads, and the best "that's what she said" of all time, The Office closed its doors on an extremely high note.

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Worst: How I Met Your Mother

The ending of a show called How I Met Your Mother should have been pretty straightforward, in theory. The series, told in voiceover by an older version of its protagonist, Ted Mosby (voiced by Bob Saget but played onscreen by Josh Radnor), tells the story of how he met his children's mother to both of his kids as well as to viewers. The long story (nine seasons long, to be exact) winds through anecdotes about his friends, his career, and even the other women he meets along the way. The Mother, whose name is eventually revealed to be Traci, is the perfect partner for Ted… but unfortunately, they still don't get their happy ending.

After a frustrating final season that focused entirely on a three-day span (specifically, a wedding weekend) the finale provided unsatisfying endings for just about every character. Within the first half hour, the couple whose wedding took up the entire last season, Robin (Cobie Smulders) and Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) part ways, and the latter becomes a "changed man" once he has a daughter… which actually just means he starts shaming women. None of Ted's friends really get an ending that honors their entire story, but worst of all, the Mother is killed off in a silent montage just so that Ted and Robin can get back together. Unsatisfying is one thing, but betraying the show to go with a pre-planned conclusion is even worse.

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Best: The Sopranos

Arguably the show that kicked off the golden age of "prestige dramas," HBO's The Sopranos is still ranked as one of the best TV shows to ever hit the airwaves. David Chase's masterpiece that focused on a Mafia family in New Jersey, the show starred James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, one of television's great antiheroes, who struggles to balance his "business" with his family life. A sprawling epic filled with unforgettable characters, incredible writing, groundbreaking performances, and some of the most memorable scenes of all time, The Sopranos remains a television legend.

After wrapping up the stories of Tony and his family as best as possible, the series closed off its incredible run with a shocking finale. Still on the run from enemy mobsters and the FBI, Tony and his family sit in a diner while Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" plays on the jukebox. As people wander in and out, all of whom could potentially be dangerous to Tony, the screen suddenly cuts to black with no resolution. It might seem like this would infuriate viewers (and some thought there was something wrong with their televisions), but the ambiguous ending was actually ultimately beloved as an artful expression of the unpredictable nature of life and death. For such a complicated series, there was never going to be a simple or neat ending, and this may have been the only possible conclusion for the Soprano family.

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Worst: Game of Thrones

After eight seasons of everything from political intrigue to full-out warfare, from fantastical locations to ice zombies and dragons, Game of Thrones had become a pop culture phenomenon, scooping up armloads of awards and tons of critical acclaim, smashing records in everything from Emmy nominations to viewership. Despite plenty of other subplots, the real question came down to which character would end up sitting on the Iron Throne, and fans around the world were anxious to see who would reign over the Seven Kingdoms, with fierce contenders like Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), and Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) vying for control.

In the end, nobody gets the actual Throne, which gets barbecued by a vengeful dragon after Jon stabs Daenerys for the good of the realm, and the newly elected leader of the Seven Kingdoms ends up being Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), an unexpected choice thanks to his lack of qualifications and young age. Pair an underwhelming finale with a disastrous final season, in which half of the show's character development and world-building was promptly thrown out as the creators raced to the finish line, and you get a pretty terrible ending to one of the biggest shows of all time.

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Best: The Americans

One of the most acclaimed series of the 2010s, The Americans tells the story of a suburban couple who aren't what they seem. Set in the 1980s in the midst of the Cold War, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (played by real-life couple Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) seem like the average folks next door, but in reality, they're a pair of KGB super-spies sent by Russia to wreak havoc on America and its government. Further complicating matters, FBI agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) lives right next door, unwittingly tailing his own neighbors throughout the entire series.

After six seasons on FX, during which it became a significant fixture in the TV landscape, The Americans came to an end with "START," in which, after years of intrigue and violence, the Jennings admit their identities to Stan and return to their native Russia, but in a heartbreaking twist, they leave their two children behind in the States. The punishing moment where Paige (Holly Taylor) abandons her parents during their journey back to Russia is harrowing, but stays true to the kind of show The Americans always was, providing satisfying closure for its fans.

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Worst: Gossip Girl

An over-the-top look into the lifestyle of New York's most privileged and pampered teenagers, the CW's adaptation of the popular young adult book series Gossip Girl immediately posed an important question: who is the titular Gossip Girl, and why was she so determined to take down a very specific group of high schoolers? Running an anonymous blog, Gossip Girl spends years tormenting beautiful, super-rich teens like Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively) and Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester), without ever revealing her identity or true goals.

As the show progressed over six seasons, it certainly started to go off the rails, and after an uneven and overly dramatic final season, the show finally revealed the identity of Gossip Girl. It turns out that it wasn't even a girl: Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley), the "ultimate outsider" from Brooklyn, had been pulling the strings all along. All of the characters seem relatively fine with the fact that their closest friend had been cyberbullying them for years, and Gossip Girl's most frequent victim, Serena, even marries her bully. The creators admitted that this hasty and unbelievable game plan was changed partway through the series when fans figured out their original intentions, and since there are plenty of moments where it's clear that Dan couldn't have been Gossip Girl, it certainly shows.

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Best: Broad City

A whimsical and raunchy ode to female friendship, Broad City began as a web series created by stars Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, but after it caught Amy Poehler's eye and she signed on as an executive producer, it ended up finding a home at Comedy Central and running for five seasons. Throughout the series' run, Ilana and Abbi, who share their first names with their characters, go on plenty of adventures by each others' sides, from romantic foibles to terrible jobs, the show always being at its best when Abbi and Ilana are together.

However, as the two creators grew up, they knew they needed to envision an endpoint for their show, and what that meant for the fictional Abbi and Ilana was that they needed some distance. During the fifth and final season, Abbi is accepted into an artist's retreat in Colorado, fulfilling a lifelong dream, but this means leaving her soulmate Ilana behind in New York. Though Ilana is initially resistant, she eventually accepts Abbi's news, and the two of them have one final perfect adventure before we see them FaceTiming coast-to-coast… until finally, the camera pans back, showing multiple pairs of female best friends while Lizzo sings in the background. For a show about female friendship, this ending got it exactly right, showing the importance of staying connected with your best friend, no matter where you both might be.

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Worst: House of Cards

One of Netflix's inaugural original series, Beau Willimon's House of Cards was a groundbreaking series upon its release. With a pilot directed by David Fincher and a cast that included Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Kate Mara, and Michael Kelly, the show focused on the dark underbelly of American politics, specifically concerning the underhanded machinations of Frank Underwood (Spacey) and his very own Lady MacBeth, Claire Underwood (Wright). As the series progressed, the two literally killed to gain and maintain power, and despite being passed over for Secretary of State at the series' beginning, Frank becomes President… and ultimately, so does Claire.

Spacey, however, was hastily written out of the show after serious allegations broke about his history of sexual misconduct. At the start of the show's sixth and final season, audiences were told that Frank had died, leaving Claire to assume the mantle as the show's lead. Despite a formidable performance from a talented actress like Wright, the show had just clearly run out of steam, and the finale finds her in a showdown with Stamper (Kelly), who admits to poisoning Frank before attempting to kill Claire, who wins the battle and watches as he bleeds out in the Oval Office. Cards was always bombastic, but in the wake of Spacey's exit, it's disappointing that it ended with an underwhelming twist.

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Best: Breaking Bad

The heir apparent to The Sopranos, AMC's runaway hit Breaking Bad shared plenty in common with the groundbreaking HBO series, focusing on a criminal antihero trying to protect his family at all costs. Still, Tony Soprano and Walter White are not the same character. As Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin, celebrated actor Bryan Cranston turned in years of dynamic and heartbreaking performances alongside equally skilled actors like Aaron Paul, Dean Norris, Bob Odenkirk, and Anna Gunn, just to name a few. The series may have begun with White entering the meth trade to try and provide for his family in the face of a terminal diagnosis, but as he keeps going, he becomes corrupted by money, greed, and power.

One of the later episodes of the fifth and final season, "Ozymandias," is among its most celebrated, but "Felina," the finale, holds its own perfectly well. As he remains on the run from the DEA, Walt makes sure that his family is taken care of, even managing to say goodbye to his wife and children and freeing Jesse (Paul) from captivity before entering his lab one last time, succumbing to his wounds just as the police arrive. Some critics, namely Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker, have argued that most of it, which ties up quite neatly, could have been a dream sequence, but ultimately, a happy ending with a tragic twist is exactly what Breaking Bad had been building to the entire time.

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Worst: Seinfeld

The infamous "show about nothing," Seinfeld starred stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld in a non-biographical role; despite playing a comedian named Jerry Seinfeld, the character bears little resemblance to the real Seinfeld. Focused on Jerry's life in New York alongside his friends Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), George (Jason Alexander), and Kramer (Michael Richards), the show shines a spotlight on the smallest details of everyday life, pointing out relatable but seldom-discussed mundanities. Holidays like Festivus, terms like "regifter," "low-talker," and "close talker," and catchphrases like "No soup for you!" have firmly remained in the cultural lexicon since the show ended its run in 1998, and thanks to streaming and syndication, it continues to find a new life with new generations of fans.

One of the best things about Seinfeld was its complete lack of morals — each one of the four main characters was, at heart, a selfish and generally pretty bad person, drifting through the series committing petty social offenses without a second thought. However, in the finale, the four are arrested for breaking a "Good Samaritan Law" and end up standing trial for every rude or weird thing they've ever done, sending a fairly muddled message and making the entire thing into a bizarre fable about being a good person, despite everything that had happened throughout its nine-season run.

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Best: Veep

If Seinfeld had one of the all-time worst finales, Julia Louis-Dreyfus at least struck finale gold later in her career with HBO's Veep, in which she stars as Selina Meyer, the titular Vice President who schemes and cons her way into the presidency not once, but twice. As Selina, a wholly corrupt and cruel woman who will stop at nothing and sacrifice everything just to sit in the Oval Office, Louis-Dreyfus delivers the performance of a lifetime, abusing and screwing over everyone for the smallest taste of power.

In the show's final season, Selina is simultaneously at her funniest and her worst, mounting yet another campaign for President. Though she eventually succeeds, she betrays everyone in her life and stabs all of her enemies in the back, weaponizing the #MeToo movement against her opponent. She goes as far as promising to eradicate gay marriage for an endorsement (even though her daughter is married to a woman), and letting her most loyal servant, Gary (an Emmy Award-winning performance from Tony Hale), take the fall for her foundation's rampant law-breaking. Ultimately, she finds herself alone in the Oval Office. From sending Gary to jail to her unhinged rant about her time as Vice President to the moment where coverage of Selina's funeral is interrupted to report on the death of Tom Hanks, the finale stays completely faithful to the dark, hilarious tone of the entire series, providing closure where it's needed while giving the performances and writing a chance to shine.

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Worst: Roseanne

Though Roseanne has lived two lives on TV, thanks to a short-lived revival in 2018 (which shifted to The Conners after star Roseanne Barr went on a racist Twitter rant in that same year), the original series was one of the most beloved sitcoms during its 1988-1997 run. Consistently praised for its down-to-earth and realistic portrayal of a blue-collar family, the sitcom starred Barr alongside John Goodman, Laurie Metcalfe, and Sara Gilbert, telling the day-to-day stories of the Conner family as they dealt with raising teenagers and what it's like when both parents work outside the home.

During the ninth and final season of the original series, things seem to be going pretty well for the Conner family. Dan (Goodman) has survived the heart attack he suffered in the previous season, Roseanne's sister Jackie (Metcalfe) has found love, and the Conner family even wins the lottery, earning them millions of dollars. However, it turns out this was all a made-up story written by Roseanne to cope with trauma, since Dan is actually dead, Jackie is alone and struggling with her sexuality, and the family's financial situation has never improved. This maudlin twist (completely ignored by the eventual revival) stripped the show of the warmth and humor that characterized the rest of the series and left fans confused, angry, and shocked, giving the darkest possible ending to what had been an uplifting and relatable family sitcom.

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Best: Mad Men

Yet another universally beloved drama of the 2000s and 2010s, Matthew Weiner's decade-crossing portrait of an advertising agency made a household name out of its star, Jon Hamm. Mad Men gave audiences an insight into the corporate world of the 1960s, as well as a window into the personal life of Don Draper (Hamm), a brilliant advertising executive who has plenty of things to hide. Across its seven-season run, the series was acclaimed by fans and critics alike.

After years of buildup, the series finale finds Don no longer able to escape his demons. Plagued by the secret that his name isn't actually Don Draper and suffering from a crippling case of alcoholism, he vanishes, alarming his friends and coworkers, especially his protege Peggy Olson (Moss). However, right when it seems that all hope might be lost for Don, the show cuts to him looking tanned and healthy, meditating at a cliffside retreat in California, briefly smirking before the scene cuts to Coca-Cola's famous "I want to buy the world a Coke" ad campaign. By insinuating that Don used his time to spiritually reflect in order to create one of the biggest capitalist campaigns ever, the show wraps everything up while staying true to itself, giving a perfect send-off to this unique series.

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Worst: True Blood

Alan Ball may have provided a perfect ending for Six Feet Under, but he pretty much, well, dropped the ball when it came time for his next hit series. True Blood, a ridiculous, heightened campfest set in the fictional town of Bon Temps, Louisiana, imagines a world where vampires are real and figuring out how to live among humans without killing them, thanks to the recent invention of synthetic "True Blood." However, some are still dangerous, and as an added complication, vampire blood is a potent hallucinogenic for humans, so the two sides remain at an impasse. Amidst all of this, a local waitress and telepath, Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), falls in love with a peaceful vampire named Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), which offers up plenty of complications.

True Blood, despite using the pro-vampire movement as a fairly overt analogy for real-world civil rights struggles (notably, it features complex and diverse characters of all races and sexualities), always trafficked in the absurd. For seven seasons, fans enjoyed the parade of fairies, werewolves, were-panthers, and even maenads, making the lackluster finale even more frustrating. After putting Sookie in the midst of several love triangles throughout the show, she ends up with a never-seen husband rather than any of her previous love interests, while everyone else basically gets a happy ending. For a show that provided such a fun ride for its viewers, fans were furious at the way the finale fizzled, and it's pretty hard to blame them.

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Best: The Leftovers

Based on the Tom Perrotta novel of the same name and adapted for television by both Perrotta and Damon Lindelof of Lost fame, HBO's The Leftovers imagined a world where 2% of the human population suddenly vanishes in a "Rapture-like event." Left behind is a confused, angry, and bewildered group of survivors who have no explanation for why their loved ones were taken from them or even where they went. Though the first season stuck to the book's original story, the superior subsequent two seasons took a different path, exploring new characters and locations while still featuring the show's two lead characters, Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) and Nora Durst (Carrie Coon). Nora, whose children and husband all disappeared during the "Sudden Departure," spends her life trying to figure out what actually happened. In the last moments of the series, it seems like she might be approaching the truth.

Nora tries to use a mysterious machine to travel to whatever realm houses those taken in the "Sudden Departure," and suddenly, audiences see her as a much older woman living in solitude in Australia, welcoming a confused Kevin to her home. Though he doesn't seem to remember her, she knows him, and she tells him that when she "crossed over," everyone was happy. Though it's never clear if Nora is telling the truth, this ambiguity is a perfect finish for this mysterious show.

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Worst: Scrubs

Led by Zach Braff, who starred as Dr. John "J.D." Dorian, Scrubs focused on a group of medical interns making their way through residency and struggling with annoying bosses and tough cases as they grow from meek interns to fully-fledged doctors. Alongside Braff, audiences fell in love with characters like his outgoing best friend Turk (Donald Faison), Turk's wife and nurturing nurse Carla (Judy Reyes), J.D.'s best friend and on-again, off-again love interest Elliot Reid (Sarah Chalke), and J.D.'s perpetually pissed-off mentor Dr. Cox (John C. McGinley). The show told their stories through heightened fantasy sequences as well as more grounded moments that made for a well-rounded comedy.

The last few seasons, however, were disrupted by a network switch, and when Scrubs made the leap from NBC to ABC, the show dipped in quality and aired a series finale during season eight, even though it reappeared with an entirely new cast of interns for another full season, airing one more finale (for which many original cast members returned). Thanks to the fact that actors like Braff, Faison, and Chalke were absent from the bulk of the final two seasons and creator Bill Lawrence seemed hesitant to revive it for a ninth season, Scrubs had not one, but two disappointing finales, neither of which did justice to the entire series.