Now that the frantic May rush of season-ending episodes is over, let's take one last look at some of the networks' grand -- and mediocre -- finales.
The West Wing (May 17, NBC) Since "The West Wing" has been renewed, I'm going out on a limb and predicting that NBC's leader of the free world, President Bartlet (Martin Sheen), survives the season-ending cliffhanger assassination attempt.
"The West Wing" was the most addictive, and smartest, new drama on TV this year. You didn't have to be a political junkie to appreciate the tangy dialogue, the wonderfully flawed characters and the invigorating premise that, despite political gridlock and the human frailties of the president and his people, good work occasionally gets done in Washington. That said, creator Aaron Sorkin's bullet-riddled, action-flick final scene was a jarring departure from the series' cerebral tone. But, maybe because of its very over-the-topness, it worked.
The episode began with Bartlet on stage at a town meeting (excuse me, an MSNBC town meeting) while his staff scurries around distracted by a space-shuttle crisis and the shooting down of an American pilot over Iraq. As Bartlet and his entourage -- virtually the entire cast -- is leaving the town meeting, the Secret Service agent assigned to protect Bartlet's daughter, Zoe, glimpses a suspicious face in the crowd and then a gun in a window. She opens her mouth to scream and ... we flash back 12 hours earlier and spend the rest of the show watching the characters going through their day, unaware of the mass shooting that's in store for them.
Sure, it's been done, but Sorkin's well-constructed script and Thomas Schlamme's taut direction made for one nail-biting hour. As for who got hit in the massacre -- well, if you were smart enough to tape the episode, you've got all summer to scrutinize the video, frame by frame. Since the shooting appeared to be the work of racist youths targeting Zoe and her African-American boyfriend (the president's personal assistant, Charlie Young), it'll be interesting to see how Sorkin portrays the Bartlet administration's response. Will gun control be back on Bartlet's agenda next fall?
ER (May 18, NBC) Carter's a junkie! That was the biggest development in this anticlimactic finale, which played like an afterthought in the wake of Julianna Margulies' May 11 swan song. In that episode, Margulies' Carol Hathaway finally saw the light -- she still loves Doug Ross -- and made the monumental decision to swallow her pride, stop diddling around with Doug clone Luka Kovac and fly off to Seattle to see if Doug (the father of her twin girls) was still available. He was.
George Clooney's surprise, unbilled cameo in the May 11 episode's last minutes was a marvel of superstar body language. Apparently not wanting to look too eager to do his old show a favor, Clooney didn't bother to shave (not that it mattered), and Carol finds him at his private dock working on his boat -- a sly nod to Clooney's upcoming seafaring epic "The Perfect Storm," perhaps? Anyway, it was a genuine heart-tugger, seeing Doug's eyes light up and the long-suffering Carol finally getting her guy. As far as the show's actual season finale went ... did I mention that Carter is a junkie? But he's on his way to junkie-doctor rehab, so we can all stop worrying and go to the beach.
The Simpsons (May 21, Fox) Not only was this rambunctious "Behind the Music" parody an instant "Simpsons" classic, it was the best of prime time's many cross-referenced stunt episodes this season. ("Felicity" enters the "Twilight Zone," "The X-Files" meets "Cops," "Just Shoot Me" spoofs "A&E Biography.") "The Simpsons: Behind the Laughter" was a hall of mirrors satire: It was a parody of "The Simpsons" itself within a parody of the "Behind the Music" formula (complete with "BTM" narrator Jim Forbes intoning such foreboding gems as, "The Simpsons' TV show started with a wing and a prayer; now the wing was on fire and the prayer had been answered by Satan"). It was a parody of every TV fad over the past 30 years within a parody of our bottomless fascination with showbiz scandal. There were many moments to cherish here; my favorite was the one where Forbes tells us, "While he was in rehab, the part of Bart Simpson was played by his good friend, Richie Rich," and, sure enough, there was the stuck-up little comic book kid sitting at the Simpsons' kitchen table, prissily enunciating, "Oh, Mother, don't have a cow!"
The X-Files (May 21, Fox) Chris Carter set up David Duchovny's lightened workload next season by revisiting the show's alien-abduction mythology. At the episode's end, Mulder joined a group of former abductees who had been brought by the shape-shifting alien bounty hunter to a spot in the Portland, Ore., woods to be beamed up aboard the mothership. See ya sometime next season, Mulder. The episode gets extra points for the scene where the dying Cancer Man (William B. Davis) puffs on a cig through the surgical hole in his throat. And extra-extra points for the scene where (in a nod to Richard Widmark in "Kiss of Death") the treacherously baby-faced Alex Krycek (Nicolas Lea) flings Cancer Man down the stairs in his wheelchair. With one arm.
The finale's biggest surprise, though, was Scully's revelation to Skinner in the final scene that she's pregnant. But wait! Wasn't Scully (Gillian Anderson) supposed to have been rendered barren as a result of the tests performed on her during her alien abduction in Season Two? Well, yes. But, then, this is "The X-Files" -- you can't get too hung up on details. If you do, you'll start wondering why United Nations femme fatale Marita Covarrubias was back, since she was near death from the alien-caused cancer the last time we saw her.
Overall, the finale was suitably mysterious, heading as we are into uncharted solo-Scully waters next season. And, no doubt, Carter will get a lot of mileage out of Scully's miraculous pregnancy. Is Mulder the father? Is it an alien baby? Or could the father be ... Cancer Man? Hey, don't laugh. Remember that episode a couple of months ago where Scully took a road trip with her nicotine-choked nemesis because he promised to fetch her an alien disc bearing the cure for all disease? In one scene, Scully fell asleep in Cancer Man's car and woke up in a motel bed -- and she didn't remember how she got there!
The Practice (May 21, ABC) The season finale of ""The Practice" wrapped up a two-parter in which Marlee Matlin played Sally Berg, a grief-stricken mother who shot and killed the soccer coach charged with raping and murdering her 7-year-old daughter. Early in the episode, there was a long, amazing scene between Matlin and Camryn Manheim, as Sally's lawyer, Ellenor Frutt. Ellenor was trying to convince her hearing-impaired client to allow her to mount a temporary-insanity defense, but Sally stubbornly refused to believe that any jury would convict her for her actions.
Matlin and Manheim (who worked as a sign-language interpreter before her TV career took off) argued intensely, their hands and fingers flying, their mouths silently forming words, their eyes flashing. Sitting between them, Ellenor's colleague, Jimmy Berluti (Michael Badalucco), watched fascinated, turning his head from one woman to the other, asking Ellenor what they were saying. Jimmy was presumably our stand-in, as if we couldn't grasp the gist of Sally and Ellenor's exchange. But Sally's pride and rage, and Ellenor's frustration and tenacity, came through loud and clear. A mini silent movie without title cards, this scene showed the beauty and dramatic power of sign language as an art form.
As for Bobby Donnell (Dylan McDermott) and Lindsay Dole (Kelli Williams) getting married at home plate in an empty Fenway Park, it was cute, real cute. And if the Red Sox happen to win the World Series this year, this episode will go down in New England lore as the charm that finally lifted the Curse of the Bambino.
Ally McBeal (May 22, Fox) The finale was a song-and-dance episode featuring cast members belting out old and new tunes by Randy Newman. Thanks a lot. Now every time I want to listen to "Trouble in Paradise" or "Bad Love" or any other album by my all-time favorite jaundice-eyed American balladeer/social critic, I'll have pictures of Ally, the Biscuit and Vonda Shepard in my head. They couldn't have built an episode around, say, Barry Manilow?
Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel (May 23, WB) At the beginning of the season, the transition from Buffy's high school world to her college world was so pokey, it seemed that the series would never regain its energy or the metaphorical zest we deconstructionist "Buffy" heads love. But, oh, how it did.
The wider world of intellect and science opened up to Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) this season, represented by the Initiative, a secret government demon-hunting operation run by psych professor Maggie Walsh (Lindsay Crouse, in a performance as crisp as her white lab coat). The wider world of dorm-rocking, guilt-free sex opened up also, represented by Buffy's intense thing with Initiative soldier Riley Finn (Marc Blucas). But when Maggie and the Initiative dismiss her instinctive, emotional way of demon-fighting as ghost-story mumbo-jumbo (they prefer to tag and bag their demons for vivisection, not distinguishing between bad demons and the complex likes of Oz and Spike), Buffy realizes the validity, and the superiority, of her own fightin' instincts and compassion.
Throw in a terrifying, Mary Shelleyesque view of procreation as a freakish act of uncontrolled hubris (Adam, Maggie's Frankenstein monster of a killing machine, calls her "Mother"), Giles' midlife crisis and, of course, Willow's lesbian awakening, and you have a tantalizing and satisfying first season of a new, more adult "Buffy."
The May 23 finale, like the finale of "The Sopranos," was more of a dreamlike coda than a blowout conclusion. The real climax to the season came the week before in the May 16 episode, when Buffy and her estranged pals Willow (Alyson Hannigan), Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) literally united (by a fusing spell) to defeat Adam and his demon minions. The finale picked up in the wake of that battle, with the Scooby Gang meeting at Buffy's house for a night of video watching. They all fell asleep, and we entered each character's dreams.
Willow dreamed about being "found out"; Xander's dream was a morass of horniness and impotence (he watches Willow and her girlfriend Tara making out in the back of an ice cream truck); Giles' involved an empty baby carriage and a skipping, pre-adolescent Buffy, whom he could no longer control. In Buffy's dream, she saved her friends from danger and wrestled with her own dark strength and magic. The scariest part? Everybody went back to Sunnydale High in their dreams. Nope, you're not the only one who has that recurring nightmare about having to take a final exam for a class you never went to all year.
As for "Angel," it still doesn't have the psychological depth of "Buffy," but its Raymond Chandler meets "Batman" noir and the unlikely bond between soulful vampire Angel (David Boreanaz), "rogue demon hunter" Wesley (Alexis Denisof) and sweet/tart Girl Friday Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) have charms of their own. The first season had a promising end, with Angel gaining a new, much-needed central nemesis -- a smug lawyer who sold his soul to the devil.
And here's something I never thought I'd say: Wesley the wuss turned out to be a more-than-adequate replacement for Angel's beloved, deceased sidekick Doyle. In fact, Wesley, the prissy Brit who was thrown out of the Watcher's Council for failing to control his slayer, Faith, proved himself to be quite the warrior, manfully withstanding all kinds of torture as he fought beside Angel against the forces of darkness and L.A. lawyers. I know, I too hated Wesley when he was a preening coward on "Buffy." But that's what "Angel" is all about -- flawed people in the process of redeeming themselves, becoming new and whole.
NYPD Blue (May 23, ABC) The writers couldn't resist another season-ending personal crisis for Andy Sipowicz, who has already suffered the deaths of his grown son, Andy Jr., his partner Bobby Simone and his wife, Sylvia Costas. This May's catastrophe: Andy and Sylvia's little son Theo is in the hospital for tests; he might have leukemia.
Shameless? That's what I was thinking, until the stunning scene where Andy (Dennis Franz) goes into the hospital chapel to pray and I was reminded of why, despite my frustration with the show's obtuse, haiku-like dialogue, pokey pacing and ill-drawn supporting characters, I can't give up "NYPD Blue" for good. It puts its characters into what seem like standard TV melodramatic situations, but then it refuses to give them standard TV comfort or answers or happy endings; bad things happen here, the way they do in life, and sometimes the characters find meaning and peace and sometimes they don't.
Andy is still looking. In the chapel scene, his black-eyed anger and terror came spewing out. (Expect another Emmy nomination for Franz.) He addressed whatever higher power he was praying to as "you prick" and tried to bully his way to answers as if he were interrogating a perp: Why is this happening? What have I done? What am I supposed to be doing that I'm not? Why don't you just punish me instead of taking away the people I love? What made the scene even more unsettling, and haunting, was the presence of a deaf man in the chapel, unaware of Andy's presence, praying animatedly in the front row -- Andy refers to him as an "idiot." The man remained in the corner of the frame, making moaning sounds, his eyes closed, his hands spelling out words, throughout Andy's soliloquy.
At first, I thought the deaf man was supposed to symbolize Andy's inability to communicate with God or listen to his own heart. But then I woke up that night out of a dream about that scene -- in my dream, Andy was reciting those lines of Macbeth's about life being a walking shadow, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Was the deaf man supposed to be Andy's fear of what God may be -- all sound and fury, deaf and mute, nothing more? Or was Andy the idiot? Damn, just when I think I'm done with "NYPD Blue," it keeps pulling me back in.