10 Series Finales That Featured the Return of Beloved Characters


This week, the long-running WB-turned-CW drama Smallville airs its two-hour series finale. No doubt the most anticipated moment of the episode will be the return of Michael Rosenbaum reprising his role as Lex Luthor. The actor, who left the series in 2008, finally decided to come back due to the intense outcry of fans, who lobbied long and hard for the bald villain to bid adieu before Clark Kent flew off the airwaves forever. There are a variety of reasons why actors return to shows they had departed, including wrapping up storylines and honoring the series that launched them into stardom. Here is a look back on other actors who came back for the swan songs of their respective series. (Needless to say, there are spoilers ahead.)

1. Shelley Long on Cheers

In its early seasons, Cheers was defined by the electricity of Sam and Diane’s will-they/won’t-they relationship. Long left Cheers midway through its run to be a movie star — a move to be echoed again and again by TV actors with mixed results — only to end up making a string of flops. She returned for the show’s finale to see if there were still sparks between her character and Ted Danson’s Sam. Of course there was, to the extent that Sam hopped on a plane with Diane to go with her to LA. But in the end he remained loyal to his true love, his bar, just in time to bid a graceful goodbye to the audience in the closing moments of the show.

2. Ashton Kutcher and Topher Grace on That ’70s Show

Grace and Kutcher left the Fox comedy for movie careers in the show’s seventh and eight seasons, respectively. Unlike Cheers, which maintained its quality and viewership in the wake of Long’s departure by replacing her with Kirstie Alley, That 70s Show lagged in both respects without Eric and Kelso. Josh Meyers took over their spot in the gang, and he was so shoehorned into the ’70s world that he even ended up dating Eric’s girlfriend Donna. In the series finale, Grace made an uncredited appearance to rekindle his relationship with Donna, while Kelso… well, he came back too. The series ended with the gang on New Year’s Eve, ushering in the ’80s with one last session pot circle.

3. Dominic Monaghan, Ian Somerhalder, Maggie Grace, Cynthia Watros, Elizabeth Mitchell, Rebecca Mader, and Jeremy Davies on Lost

Unlike many other shows, it was rare for an actor to leave Lost willingly. (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje was the only exception.) So the series was bound to have a lot of beloved characters returning for the finale, even if they had been killed off on previous seasons. The Sideways part of the episode had the feel of a very emotional high school reunion. It served as a chance to reunite favorite couples separated by death (Sawyer and Juliet, Hurley and Libby, Charlie and Claire, Sayid and, um, Shannon) and see pretty Boone again, who lent his name to the burial ground where he and every other dead castaway was buried. The episode provided closure, showing that no matter how tragic their deaths, at least they could at least be stranded together in the afterlife.

4. David Boreanaz on Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Boreanaz left the show after its third season to headline his own spinoff, but came back for the last episode of BtVS to say farewell to the show that launched his own. Angel came into town to help his soulmate Buffy in her battle with The First Evil, and in the process ended up discussing the state of their relationship (including expressing disbelief about her current love interest Spike). Buffy compared herself to cookie dough as a way of explaining she wasn’t ready commit to anyone, even him. This was the last time the two shared the screen together — Sarah Michelle Gellar was supposed to guest star on Angel’s penultimate episode, and Boreanaz was publicly miffed when she did not.

5. Eriq La Salle, Sherry Stringfield, Laura Innes, Alex Kingston, and Hallee Hirsh on E.R.

It’s hard to imagine a show that had more cast changes than this long-running medical drama. So perhaps George Clooney decided to bid farewell to the show that launched him into superstardom three episodes before the series finale, so as not to steal the limelight from other actors who returned to pay their respects. The actual swan song featured former County General doctors Benton, Weaver and Lewis returning to celebrate a medical clinic opened by Dr. Carter (Noah Wyle, the cast member who had the longest run on the show). Dr. Corday also came by with the late Dr. Greene’s daughter Rachel for her medical school interview. The series came full circle when Carter taught Rachel how to put in an I.V, just as Benton had done for Carter in the pilot. Interestingly, because E.R. was on the air for so long and had such a revolving door of actors, the returning characters were barely integrated with the regulars, since the newer staff had no idea who they were, and so had no history with them.

6. Jane Lynch on Party Down

The creators or the Starz comedy wrote the last episode of the second season so that it could be aired as the series finale (which it was, alas). So it was fitting that the Party Down crew’s last event would be to cater the wedding of their former co-worker, the lovably daffy Constance Carmell, played by Lynch. She left the show in the middle of the first season, and despite her new A-list status, returned to the struggling show as a guest star the following season. Besides providing bittersweet closure to the misfit caterers, the episode gave a beloved returning character the rare chance to evaluate her replacement — Megan Mullally’s silly stage mother Lydia — and like the audience, find her not quite up to snuff.

7. Jason Priestley, Tiffani Thiessen, and Gabrielle Carteris on Beverly Hills, 90210

In the final episode of the series, perennially on-again, off-again couple David and Donna got married, an occasion that brought back former Beverly Hills residents, Valerie and Andrea, and inexplicably, West Beverly High principal Mrs. Teasdale. It was understandable for Brenda not to show up, since Shannen Doherty was persona non grata on the set. Much more surprising is that her twin brother Brandon was also a no-show. Instead, he sent in videotaped messages that were shown at the couple’s bachelor and bachelorette parties. Why Jason Priestley felt it was important to appear in the last episode, but could not actually interact with his former castmates is unclear. C’mon Brandon! Not cool.

8. Amanda Seyfried and Aaron Paul on Big Love

The easiest way to have a character leave a show, but leave the door open for a return, is to have him or her get married and move away. Such was the case for Sarah, the oldest daughter of the polygamist Hendricksons clan. Her portrayer left the series as her movie career heated up, while her TV husband moved onto an even more critically acclaimed show, Breaking Bad. The two were back for the final scene of the finale, picking up eleven months after Bill’s death. Scott and Sarah returned for their baby’s christening, and Sarah and Barb shared a moment reflecting on how Bill was responsible for their unusual yet loving family unit. This moment, while moving, was jarring when thinking about how these two were the most vocal in their discontent with Bill. As for Sarah’s sister Teenie, she merited a jokey shoutout in which we learned that she’s been in the bathroom since season 4.

9. Rob Lowe on The West Wing

Like most shows with sprawling casts, there were a lot of comings and goings during the political drama’s seven-year run. But the exit of Sam Seaborn, President Bartlett’s Communications Director, had the most impact. Although his character was a fan favorite, Lowe originally signed on to the show as the lead, and was unhappy that the show evolved into an ensemble series. He departed not long after show creator Aaron Sorkin did, but both returned for the finale: Sorkin, known for his witty, rapid-fire scripts, makes a wordless cameo during the new president’s inauguration, while Seaborn comes back to work in the White House, this time as Deputy Chief of Staff.

10. David Duchovny on The X-Files

Some characters are so fully woven into their series, it is unimaginable to think of a show without them. Think Cheers without Sam Malone, Friday Night Lights without Coach Taylor, The X-Files without Fox Mulder. Yet the latter iconic character did leave at the end of season 7, woefully replaced by a pair of FBI agents who who did not have an ounce of Mulder’s charisma or his pathological interest with the mysteries at hand. While Duchovny made occasional appearances in the last two seasons of the show, he was the main focus of the series finale. Mulder and Scully become fugitives after he escapes a military tribunal that sentenced him to death. The show ends with Mulder and Scully lying together in a motel room, ruminating on Mulder’s motto, “I want to believe.” The phrase could have applied to shippers, who spent the series hoping the agents end up together. Although the finale ended on an ambiguous note in regards to the fate of the world, the status of Mulder and Scully’s relationship was much more conclusive.