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Finales Wowed, Underwhelmed

The TV season is ending with a bang, sometimes literally, as a number of popular shows say goodbye, at least for the summer. But in some cases, it's farewell forever, as Lost and 24 end their long runs. Others left us cliffhanging until they return next fall. USA TODAY's Robert Bianco looks at how effectively each bid adieu. Be warned: For fans still catching up to the finales, some spoilers lurk below.

V - 2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
(ABC; aired May 18)

Red V in the morning.

The space-invasion series needed to exit with an arresting image, and it certainly got one. The V leader, Anna, enraged because her soldier eggs had just been destroyed, turned the skies bright red as people gaped and more ships gathered.

All right, we don't know what it all means. But it sure looked good, and if it left you wondering why, that's pretty much the point.

Granted, V's season finale was more silly than gripping, but that's the show. As Anna likes to say, "The humans won't know what hit them."

What hit you was a lot of plot. Val was kidnapped by the V's, had her baby and then was murdered by Anna, whose own babies were murdered by Erica. The Fifth Column lost Ryan and gained Chad. You'd think with all the Visitors' advanced technology, they'd have learned how to lock a door. And while they're at it, they might want to give us some idea of what they really want. Now that would be a good morning.

Fringe - 3 1/2 stars
(Fox; aired May 20)

On Fringe, two worlds are even better than one.

As befits a show that has, in its second season, turned into one of TV's best, Fringe wrapped up on Fox with the end of a two-parter that was thrilling, romantic, funny and as satisfying as a finale can be. Surely an episode that good left Fringe fans wanting more - and wondering how long it's going to take Peter and Walter to figure out that they brought the wrong Olivia back with them from the alternate universe, and she's up to no good.

It was an hour filled with great twists and great attention to detail (as in the way the "red" of the alternate universe played out in everything from the credits to Peter's comic book collection). And it ended with a knife-in-the-heart cliffhanger: Just as Olivia finally tells Peter she loves him, she gets trapped in the alternate universe in really scary solitary confinement. Clearly, someone is going to have to go rescue her, which means another trip to the alternate world.

Book my ticket for next fall.

24 - 2 1/2 stars
(Fox; aired Monday)

"Damn it, Chloe: Pull the trigger!"

Surely any 24 fan had to take some gleeful pleasure in that exchange between Jack and Chloe, perhaps the season's - or even the show's - looniest yet, as Jack screamed at Chloe to make her shoot him. He had his reasons, but never mind what they were, since like so many of Jack's plans this season, they didn't pan out. Eventually she complied, with one of those patented TV through-and-through shots, leaving Jack free to complete his mission - though what the mission was remained a bit skewed and undefined.

But then with this finale, odd was the currency of choice. But taken simply as two hours of TV, it was exciting in its own insane way. And the ending was, at least, suitably bittersweet, with Jack saying goodbye to Chloe and thanking her for her help before heading off to exile (and a movie). It just wasn't the ending, or the last season, a great series deserved.

Pull the trigger, indeed.

Desperate Housewives - 2 stars
(ABC; aired May 16)

You know it's a bad season finale when it makes the season look worse than it really was.

True, this was not a great year for ABC's Desperate Housewives. But most weeks, the show was able to mask its plotting problems behind some clever lines and our affection for its stars. Unfortunately, the closer had to turn its attention to the stories - and none held up.

Let's put it this way. Last year, the finale put Susan and MJ's lives in danger. This year, the people at risk were Angie and Danny. You can see the "who cares?" problem there, right?

So what you got was a few laughs, some time spent with characters most fans still like, a death and a possible divorce.

As usual, the show spent its closing moments setting up next year's plots. We found out that someone is raising a baby who isn't hers, and we saw who is renting Susan's house: Mary Alice's husband, Paul. Hey, at least he's someone we cared about once, and that's not a bad place to start.

Grey's Anatomy - 3 1/2 stars
(ABC; aired May 20)

Well, that was shocking.

We've been through a lot of crises on ABC's Grey's Anatomy, but we've never been through anything quite as nerve-racking as the show's two-hour season finale. A crazed, grief-deranged widower stalked the halls, shooting surgeons while he hunted - and then shot - Derek.

It was melodrama to be sure, but it was very well done: a stalker movie where you actually cared about the victims. Written by creator Shonda Rhimes, the episode did an excellent job of building and sustaining tension, from the first, sudden murder to the shooting of Derek and Owen.

Was it done in big strokes and with bold, bright red emotional colors? Sure; that's the show. Grey's has always loved grand gestures. You like them or you don't; the only real question is whether the show pulls them off or it doesn't.

This year, it did.

Lost - 4 stars
(ABC; aired Sunday)

With the greatest stories, the answers you get can be better than the questions you ask.

In a manner that tapped into the simple, profound truths of great American works like Our Town, this emotional feast of a finale answered the show's major questions while telling us something about our own need for redemption and community. The characters weren't just lost in the real world of the island (and the island was, indeed, real). They were also lost in a timeless, post-island, "sideways" gathering place for the dead, waiting for Jack to help them move on.

Yes, controversy abounds over the finale, as with all things Lost. But here, we're celebrating the joy in a TV job well done, and in realizing that there are rewards in maintaining faith in people and producers alike.

And in a truly great show.

American Idol - 2 stars
(Fox; aired Wednesday)

For a bad season, that was probably the best ending we could expect.

Even in its best years, Fox's American Idol closes shop with a bloated finale blending the worst of celeb-reunion telethons, school talent contests and low-level awards shows. If this year's seemed less painful, it's because some performances were better (the soloists such as Carrie Underwood, not the badly sung Idol/original artist mashups), and because we cared less about who won.

To compensate, the show devoted much of its time to saluting the departing Simon Cowell. He deserved it, but the time spent diminished the Idols' impact, and reminded us how hard-pressed the show will be to replace him. And is there any show that makes live TV look harder than Idol? We've grown so used to glitches, it was impossible to tell whether the steal-the-mike destruction of Dane Cook's Simon salute was planned or not.

And that's pretty bad.

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