There are many elements involved in sticking the landing on a TV show -- not least choosing the right music.
If the song playing as Tony Soprano waited for his onion rings had been a little less dopily all-American, would David Chase's ideas have come through quite as clearly? Would a less nakedly sentimental song have made us cry less over the deaths of the entire Fisher family? Didn't late-era quasi-disco seem more perfect for Carrie Bradshaw's send-off than a dirge would have?
Of course, the show itself has to be good -- the biggest problem with using the Walkmen's emotional "Heaven" for the final moments of "How I Met Your Mother" wasn't strictly about the song. It was that the song was trying to tease out emotions that weren't already there in the viewers, who by and large rejected the show's betrayal of its central premise -- turns out the mother's identity isn't important at all -- but shed a tear over our protagonist getting together with his friend! You can't, in a finale or any other time on TV, force it: "St. Elsewhere" grappled for an easy joke about the fat lady singing in its final minutes, when viewers might've expected a slightly more earnest send-off to a favorite character, while the long-maligned "The O.C." played things a little more muted and managed to get plaudits for the final episode.
The best finale music capitalizes on some element that works in the show -- "Sex and the City's" dizziness, "The Sopranos'" ironic Americana, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show's" open emotionality. And the worst are trying to do too much work, to cover a lack; after 10 years, Ross-and-Rachel was so played out that a Pearl Jam song couldn't make the viewer care. Indeed, it only played up just how old the show had gotten, just like the out-of-touch juxtaposition of the "Seinfeld" gang -- who famously didn't care about one another -- with a Green Day weepy.
If the finale is one of the best, then the music will be one of many complementary elements. If it's one of the worst, the music will be distracting, trying to do far too much. We wait eagerly to see which late-'60s or early-'70s tune will soundtrack the 2015 "Mad Men" finale, and just how much work it'll have to do for the viewer.
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