Brian Lowry

If TV has a window reserved for sentimentality, it's traditionally been May, the sweeps month associated with series finales and cliffhangers. Yet while last year was a veritable feast of fond farewells -- as networks and fans bid goodbye to long-running hits "Lost," "24" and "Law & Order" -- this year, May is a not-so-lusty, "Don't let the door hit you on the way out" affair. Put it this way: When the most suspenseful issue surrounds whether Donald Trump's flirtation with a presidential run might deprive the world of "Celebrity Apprentice," you know the pickings are pretty slim.

May will mark the end of one long-in-the-tooth series, "Smallville," which is old enough to have witnessed the network on which it began, the WB, morph into the CW. At this point, though, the series is going away with minimal fanfare, in a "Wait, that's still on?" fashion. Other than that, the upcoming sweeps mostly signal what an afterthought such rating periods have become, designed for the local-TV community (with the major periods slated for February, May and November).

Granted, many programs will be canceled, but unlike "Lost" or "Smallville" -- able to craft closure to their stories -- these others won't have advance notice that the wrecking ball is about to hit them. Instead, with apologies to Trump, the "You're fired" notifications will arrive when the networks announce their fall lineups the week of May 16.

Shows will simply vanish -- sort of like that Charlie guy on "Two and a Half Men." There's no denying sweeps have been downsized in terms of scope and importance. Once, May in particular overflowed with big-budget miniseries, improbable endings and much-ballyhooed departures. Today, what passes for highlights include Steve Carell leaving NBC's "The Office" -- and his last appearance is actually scheduled for April 28, the first night of sweeps.

A number of ongoing series will seek to up their game with promotable events, including weddings, a few births and several deaths. Even so, any fictional nuptials will likely be overshadowed by the real fairy-tale wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton, which, based on the staggering amount of news coverage and specials planned in advance of that April 29 event, threatens to suck away most of TV's promotional oxygen.

Looking beyond sweeps, other performers and programs are preparing to exit their current stages, though many of these splits fall outside primetime, and in several cases the preference would be to orchestrate an exit without the customary hoopla. Oprah Winfrey will close the books on her daytime program, and while the schmaltz figures to flow freely, it's not like she's really going away, since she has her own struggling cable network to attend to.

Frankly, the most tears will be shed by station executives forced to replace "Oprah" and provide another reliable lead-in to their early-fringe news blocks. Elsewhere in daytime, ABC's long-running soaps "All My Children" and "One Life to Live" will sign off in the next nine months. Meanwhile, Katie Couric's long wind-up to a decision about her future at CBS News is rivaling NBA star LeBron James for drawn-out drama, and Glenn Beck and Fox News Channel have announced their divorce without specifics as to when the mercurial host will officially pack up his chalkboard.

For whatever reason, those seeking truly momentous send-offs -- the sort graced by advance planning and a clear absence of malice -- will find much of the noteworthy action after Memorial Day. NBC's "Friday Night Lights" just returned for its fifth and final season, but already finished its splendid run on DirecTV. And this summer's finale of HBO's "Entourage" will create a void for celebrities eager to play jerky versions of themselves.

Finally, Regis Philbin also has announced plans to give up his weekday talk show -- a program he's co-hosted, locally and then nationally, for 28 years -- in November. Philbin represents an anomaly in our youth-obsessed culture (beyond the confines of "60 Minutes," anyway), allowed to work well past the age of retirement and to leave on his own terms. Come to think of it, if "The Apprentice" really does wind up needing a host who won't trigger equal-time election concerns, Regis might just be their final answer.








TV - Television Shows Depart to Little Fanfare