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In television, a season finale is the last episode of a season. It may be the last new episode of the show seen for several months, and the writers generally try to craft it in such a way that viewers will feel compelled to tune in for the following season. Classically, season finales air around the end of the spring, when television shows are wrapping up for the summer hiatus, with new scripted programming appearing in the fall.
Several things must be accomplished in a season finale. From the point of view of the network, the finale must draw a large viewership, indicating that interest in the show is still strong, and it must include material which is compelling enough to draw people in when the next season starts to air. Networks may allow additional budgeting leeway for season finales so that the show can include extra special effects, expensive guest actors, and other costly tactics which are designed to make the finale distinctive and memorable.
Classically, a season finale also wraps up long-running plots which have been unfolding over the course of a season. Characters may get married, for example, or a compelling murder mystery may finally be solved. This tidying of loose ends usually does not address any overarching plot arcs in the series, so viewers know that there are ongoing mysteries and problems which need resolution, but they do leave viewers with some feeling of completion.
Many series finales incorporate a cliffhanger ending. A character may be left in critical danger, or an event may be on the verge of unfolding; for example, an explosion might be visible right before the screen fades to black and the end credits start running. The cliffhanger is used to keep readers interested in the story over the show's hiatus, and to provide a jumping-off point for the next season so that the first few episodes can start with a bang.
There is a distinction between a season finale, in which one season of television wraps up, and a series finale, in which an entire television series comes to an end. In shows with a planned ending date, a great deal of thought may go into the series finale, so that viewers can feel like they have obtained a form of resolution. When shows are canceled abruptly, a season finale may serve as a series finale. Sometimes, the cancellation goes through after the show has already wrapped shooting for that season, in which case the season finale may lack the level of resolution desired by viewers. In some cases, a network allows producers to edit or reshoot part of the finale to address this problem.
I think one of the most memorable season finales was when J.R. Ewing got shot on "Dallas." That was one of the first "cliffhanger" finales and it spawned a whole summer of speculation. I remember even my local newspaper got in on the act and had a reader contest to see who did it.
I was a little tickled that I got it right as a 12-year-old. After a great deal of discussion with my sister, we concluded it had to be Kristin Shepard since she was expendable, and so it was.
The "Who Shot J.R.?" question was a publicity bonanza for the show and really started the trend of season finale cliffhangers.
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