The finales of popular TV shows like M*A*S*H or Mad Men are big media events, wrapping up the series neatly and bringing in huge numbers of viewers. But some shows tape their final episodes without knowing it’s the final episode, or that the show’s about to get canceled.
On the Air: 1987–1997
The End: An offbeat, cynical, and often crude take on the traditional family sitcom, Married was one of the first-ever shows on the Fox Network. It remained on the air through its 11th season, getting renewed well in advance of the season’s end each year. In early 1997, Fox was noncommittal about another year of the show, but the producers filmed the 11th-season finale as planned—a regular episode in which Al Bundy (Ed O’Neill) prevents daughter Kelly (Christina Applegate) from marrying a jerk. A few weeks later, Fox canceled the show. O’Neill got the news that he was out of a job when a couple of fans bumped into him in a parking lot and expressed their condolences.
All in the Family/Archie Bunker’s Place (CBS)
On the Air: 1971–1983
The End: All in the Family, the satirical show about a loudmouthed, blue-collar bigot named Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) and his “dingbat” wife Edith (Jean Stapleton), was one of the biggest hits in TV history—it was the #1 show for five years. Then, in 1979, the actors who played Archie’s daughter and son-in-law (Sally Struthers and Rob Reiner) quit the show, necessitating a format change away from the “family” setting. So producers changed the name to Archie Bunker’s Place and moved most of the action to the bar that Archie bought in season eight. The new show continued to draw viewers and was a top-20 hit, although it wasn’t as popular as All in the Family. Then Stapleton left. With none of the original characters in the cast except Archie, the ratings plummeted, and CBS canceled Archie Bunker’s Place without a proper ending to the 13-year Archie Bunker story. Instead, the last episode is about the bar’s co-owner trying to win back an old girlfriend. Writer Fred Rubin said that if he’d been given advance notice, he would have written an ending that reunited Archie with his WWII army buddies in Italy.
The End: Gunsmoke debuted in TV’s early black-and-white days, outlasted more than 100 other Western shows, and was still popular in 1975, when sitcoms like Happy Days, Sanford and Son, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show dominated and it was the only Western on the air. For 15 of its 20 years, Gunsmoke was a top-10 show, and no prime-time TV show has ever produced as many episodes—635 in all. Despite all that, Gunsmoke was simply pulled off the air in April 1975, a few weeks after a forgettable episode—the sharecropping Pugh family struggles to get their crops planted before they’re evicted; lead character Marshal Dillon barely appears. The show had slipped to #23 in the ratings, but no one from CBS had ever mentioned to anyone in the cast or on the production staff that the end was even a possibility. James Arness, the star of Gunsmoke for 20 years, had planned to retire after another three years. Instead, he read about the show’s cancellation in Variety.
Read more in Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Tunes Into TV.