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Greatest Performances by an Actor in the Final Season of a TV Show

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The last season of Better Call Saul has been the best in show history. For a show that started painfully slow, the steady ramp up to a thrilling conclusion has feel both organic and deserved. But not only is it the best season for the show, this has been Bob Odenkirk's greatest season as well. Playing three different versions of the same person whether he is Jimmy, Saul or Gene; he always keeps the character's core intact. 

Final seasons of a television show can get weird. Sometimes a show will last so long that so many of the great characters are long gone before the last season. This is true with ER or Law & Order. Or with a show like Lost, the fun of that show was the mysteries surrounding it. Once those mysteries are solved, the enjoyment of the show crumbles. No great show had a worse last season than Lost.


I'm not going to count shows that only had one season. Linda Cardellini and James Franco were great in Freaks and Geeks but while I would count that as a first season, it doesn't feel like a final season. I'm also not going to count Odenkirk in Better Call Saul. There are still three episodes left so that doesn't seem fair. But I'll make this a Top 4 list because barring some awful TV, Odenkirk makes a Top 5 list easily.

So, here are my top 4 performances by an actor in the final season of a TV show:

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4. Dennis Franz, NYPD Blue

After over a decade of watching Andy Sipowicz suffer through so many awful things like: his wife getting killed, his adult son dying, battling alcoholism and having two different partners die as well; it was nice to see things go right for Sipowicz in this final season. He was newly married to a beautiful wife with young children at home and he was sober. His partner was even still alive at the end of the season! 

Franz might be the most underrated television actor of the past 30 years. I don't know if it's because it was on network TV but NYPD Blue hasn't had the same cultural impact presently that some older shows like The Sopranos or Friends have now. Despite running for 12 seasons, it's been forgotten about but Franz is so great in this role and he shows in this last season that he can play happy just as well as he can play tormented. 

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3. Ted Danson, Cheers

The 11th and final season of Cheers is really about Sam Malone becoming comfortable with himself and growing older. He admits to Carla that he wears a toupee. He goes to sex therapy to try to curb his addiction. And in the last episode, he finds peace with not marrying Diane Chambers and realizes he loves his life and the bar. For a character with such a thin veneer of self-confidence covering a lot of loneliness and regret, Malone played all aspects of Sam so well. But it's this version of Sam at the end of the series that's my favorite. He finally lets his guard down and because he does, he finds happiness. 

You can tell how much Danson loves this character and the show in this final season and it's such a rewarding finish to my second favorite sitcom ever (behind Seinfeld).

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2. Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad

The final two picks on this list are chalk. They are the first two names people think of when any great television performance is discussed. But there is a reason for that. They are the best actors in television history.

The last season of Breaking Bad has one of the most traumatic episodes you'll ever see with "Ozymandias". Cranston has to do a ton of heavy lifting in that hour as he watches someone he loves get killed and then loses his family for good. He's excellent in the episode but it's the one after that "Granite State", where you see the aftermath of these actions. The quiet moments is where Cranston really shines. The loneliness is palpable as he is left begging for any companionship. I wish the series had ended with this episode.

1. James Gandolfini, The Sopranos

I'll just say this now. Pretty much any television rankings I do will have The Sopranos as number 1. I consider it to not just be the greatest show ever made but there has been no work of art created that I enjoy more. I've done about a dozen rewatches of the show. I've been to SopranosCon. It's the greatest.


I look at Season 6B of the Sopranos as a standalone season. David Chase said in the Alan Sepinwall/Matt Zoller Seitz book The Sopranos Sessions that he says 6B is actually Season 7. That's good enough for me. From the first episode of the season "Sopranos Home Movies" to the cut to black, Gandolfini is amazing in every episode. We see Tony Soprano somehow become even more evil this season when he kills someone he loves and then not only justify this action but eventually find happiness that he committed murder. We see Tony Soprano exhibit real fear in the final two episodes of the series. The season before he find temporary redemption after serving being shot but in this season, he spits in the face of that second chance and somehow becomes even more depraved than we've seen the character. Gandolfini makes us believe all of it and in this last season, he's doing a lot of it alone. It's my favorite performance in my favorite season of my favorite show.