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Monday, May 8, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Several old TV friends saying goodbye in coming weeks

Detroit Free Press

It's the annual bittersweet rite of spring.

Saying goodbye to old friends has become the way of May. A time when hard-core TV fans — and even occasional viewers — gather for the last channel-surfing dance with favorite shows.

This May, the dance card is jammed as several long-running series say adios.

President Bartlet packs up and departs the White House when "The West Wing" throws its farewell fling after seven NBC seasons of Emmy Award glory and distinctive drama.

But Bartlet has a lot of company on the prime-time exit ramp, joined by everyone from the merry gay pranksters of "Will & Grace" to the wholesomely middle-American Camden family of "7th Heaven." They're outta here.

And so are glamorous "Alias" spy Sydney Bristow, those small-town Wisconsin wackos of "That '70s Show," the manic family farce of "Malcolm in the Middle" and the bewitched Halliwell sisters of "Charmed."

If they weren't always the Magnificent Seven, well, fans are forgiving. They just wanna have farewell fun even if the dance beat is bittersweet.

Now come and get those television memories.

"7th Heaven" (finale 8 p.m. Monday, WB). The sweet, upbeat and G-rated tales of Rev. Eric Camden (Stephen Collins), wife Annie (Catherine Hicks) and their children have flown under the pop-culture radar for 10 years while becoming the longest-running family drama in TV history.

Though "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Dawson's Creek" and "Gilmore Girls" generated the big WB media buzz, it was the un-hip, sentiment-enriched "7th Heaven" that anchored the network's lineup as its most watched series.

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Prodigal children Matt (Barry Watson) and Mary (Jessica Biel) return to celebrate the wedding of brother Simon (David Gallagher) for the finale of that modern day rarity — a TV series families could watch together.

"The West Wing" (8 p.m. Sundays, NBC; finale May 14). Snappy political patter never sounded so good. Series creator Aaron Sorkin whipped up a smart, groundbreaking White House odyssey with the stories of President Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his intense, ambitious advisers.

The workaholic producer's unique writing style blessed "The West Wing" with a dramatic tapestry rich in witty repartee, appealing characters, policy wonk substance and an idealized portrait of how the American political system might operate.

When Sorkin departed after four seasons, "The West Wing" suffered in quality and ratings. But pumped up by a compelling presidential election campaign, focused on valuable cast newcomers Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda, "Wing" rediscovered the vivid political zing in its farewell season. (An NBC "West Wing" retrospective airs at 7 p.m. Sunday before the series finale .)

"Malcolm in the Middle" (finale 8:30 p.m. May 14). Poor, exasperated Malcolm (Frankie Muniz). He's the extremely brainy middle child trapped in a human cartoon of family dysfunction on the Fox farce, which found quick fame when it premiered following the Super Bowl in 2000.

An imaginative whirlygig of stylized sight gags, goofball slapstick and sarcastic family banter, "Malcolm" also gave delightful Jane Kaczmarek a breakout sitcom mom role as lovably blunt Lois. The series also helped create a new wave of unconventional sitcoms.

As the series rolls to a conclusion after six years, Muniz' Malcolm struggles to prepare his high-school class valedictorian speech. From start to finish, "Malcolm" has remained true to its rambunctiously over-the-top humor. It's graduating summa cum rowdy.

"That '70s Show" (8 p.m. Thursdays, Fox; finale May 18). The slyly subversive adventures of affable geek Eric Forman (Topher Grace) and his Wisconsin high-school pals have had retro fun with the Me Decade since its 1998 premiere.

Surreal dream sequences and 360-degree whip-around scenes in Forman's basement typify the show's signature zonked-out sensibility.

(A series retrospective, "That '70s Show: The Final Goodbye," airs Thursday on Fox .)

"Will & Grace" (8 p.m. Thursdays, NBC; finale May 18). Ellen DeGeneres bounced out of the sitcom closet first in 1997.

But it was the stories of gay attorney Will Truman (Eric McCormack) and his best friend, straight Jewish interior designer Grace Adler (Debra Messing), that sealed the gay comic sensibility deal in 1998.

Toss in the wigged-out second-banana banter of flamboyantly wack Jack (Sean P. Hayes) and pixilated socialite Karen (Megan Mullally) and "Will & Grace" quickly established itself as an Emmy Award-winning hit.

Eventually, as the writing grew erratic, the series came to rely more on the cheap thrill comic appeal of big-name guest stars like Alec Baldwin, Britney Spears and Madonna. But true to its impudent spirit, "Will & Grace" has never lost its sense of flipped-out fun.

("Will & Grace: Say Goodnight Gracie," a one-hour series retrospective, airs at 8 p.m. May 18, as a lead-in to the one-hour series finale.)

"Charmed" (8 p.m. Sundays, WB; finale May 21). Having hung out in the witches' hollow of WB since 1998, the Halliwell sisters never charmed most of America's television viewers.

But as the last members of WB's first-generation fantasy class that included "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel" and "Roswell," Piper (Holly Marie Combs), Phoebe (Alyssa Milano) and half-sister Paige (Rose McGowan) put a Halliwell spell on a loyal fan base that still chatters obsessively on the Internet.

And let's not forget dear, departed sister Prudence, played by tabloid diva Shannen Doherty. An original cast member, Doherty wore out her welcome and saw her character killed off after three seasons. And, no, Pru won't return for the finale.

"Alias" (8 p.m. Wednesdays, ABC; finale 9 p.m. May 22). Jennifer Garner soared to major stardom, strutting her glamorous action stuff as spy Sydney Bristow.

But even though ace producer J.J. Abrams ("Lost") created a sleek, sophisticated roller-coaster ride of fun that also packed a surprising emotional wallop, "Alias" never became a breakout hit.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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