[Article by Jeremy Grayson]
Television is a fickle business, as they say. One moment, you can be riding high on ratings and acclaim; the next moment, phhht – you’re cancelled.
Nothing good lasts forever. And unfortunately, some good things don’t last very long to begin with. Sometimes, a well-written, well-produced show will be canned after only a year or two. And it’ll sit there on the shelf, until someone releases a Complete Series DVD comprised of all of four discs.
Can anything be done about this? Is it possible to override the general ratings that forever dictate what will or will not be allowed on TV? Can’t we do anything but stand by helplessly as American Idol and Two and a Half Men stay on the air for over a decade while more deserving shows are lucky to last a few months?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the answer is “yes”. So I’d like to take a step back and look at the Ten Best Cancelled TV Shows Ever, because I feel they deserve to be honored for their brief, glorious runs. None of these series I’m about to mention lasted more than two seasons, but all of them, in my quite humble opinion, warranted more. (Well, except one, but I’ll get to that in a moment.)
Note: When I say “Ten Best”, I mean from my own personal perspective. Suffice to say, I’ve excluded shows that I haven’t seen, as well as shows I simply didn’t like. Also, by “All Time”, I mean “from the last 25 years”, because that’s when I feel the quality line starts to blur into nostalgic territory. In any case, you can probably already guess my pick for Number One…
#10. Dollhouse (FOX, 2009-2010) – The Whedon fandom’s response to Dollhouse has always interested me. On the one hand, fans did everything they could to save the show, signing petitions and mounting letter-writing campaigns to save the low-rated series. Yet I’ve rarely heard anyone say this was anything above Joss Whedon’s weakest show, and there’s still a lot of mixed-to-negative publicity surrounding it.
I certainly think the show is flawed. For one thing, the entire premise is at odds with itself. How do you allow a show to support natural character development when the main characters must revert to their personalities to zero at the end of each episode? And man, were those early episodes slow. Things didn’t start to pick up until “Man on the Street”, and even then it took a while for the show to find a clear direction.
But when Dollhouse was good, it was very good. The show was certainly ambitious, and a lot of the ambition was utilized in the later episodes. The second season, though it rushed to tie up all the show’s loose ends before the cancellation blow, was pretty complex and entertaining in its own right.
Now I know we’re talking about a show made by one of the great TV giants here – the guy who gave us Buffy, Angel, and some other show that you might see later on this list. Compared to those three, Dollhouse might come off as a bit flat, but there’s enough intrigue, complexity, and Eliza Dushku to warrant it a spot at the edge of this list.
#9. Murder One (ABC, 1995-1997) – I debated for a while about where this show belonged on the list. On the one hand, the first season was incredible, balancing character development and serialized storytelling with a skill that has rarely been seen before or since. On the other hand, the second season was… not.
Debuting at a time when continuity-heavy shows were still a rarity, Murder One was a legal drama created by TV uber-god Steven Bochco. As Veronica Mars would years later, it followed a single murder case for an entire year. And it took this format very seriously. The twenty-three episodes were titled “Chapters”, and episodes would often flow seamlessly into one another. Best of all, it boasted some terrific character development, the likes of which had rarely been seen at its time.
But in 1995, audiences weren’t quite ready for such a heavily serialized show. So when it came back the following year, Murder One was not quite the same series it had been before. The season was broken up into three individual mysteries, and the show as a whole focused less on the characters than the first season. It didn’t help that the lead character was replaced, with the great Daniel Benzali being substituted by the slicker, far less intriguing Anthony LaPaglia.
So Season Two knocks the show back a few pegs on this list, and part of me just wishes it had ended with the brilliant, self-contained first season. But that first season still packs an amazing punch. So if you’re of the crowd who thinks that all legal dramas are trite and uninteresting, just sit down and watch this delightfully engrossing exception.
#8. Undeclared (FOX, 2001-2002) – Two enjoyable comedies debuted on the Fox Network in the fall of 2001, and both were swiftly cancelled. One of them was The Tick, a hilarious superhero series created by Ben Edlund. The other was Undeclared, a college-set show created by Judd Apatow. The Tick, alas, wasn’t great enough to make this list (though it’s still worth checking out), but Undeclared fared better.
While it never hit the heights of Apatow’s other cancelled series, Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared managed to be witty, unexpected, and, when it needed to be, emotionally engaging. Instead of resorting to frat-boy jokes, it painted a view of college that felt like it was being viewed through a sideways mirror – realistic, yet also sharply satirical. (By the way, for those who haven’t guessed yet, Freaks and Geeks is #1 on this list. For all you Firefly fans who peeked, shame on you.)
Fox aired the episodes out of order (a regular habit of theirs, sadly) and didn’t promote it very well. By the following spring, Undeclared was declared dead.
But for its brief run, it featured great performances, stellar writing, and an interestingly subversive finale. Though it may have lacked substantial depth, the show has enough cleverness to earn it a spot on the all-too-short list.
#7. Freakazoid! (Kids’ WB, 1995-1997) – If you don’t like Freakazoid!, you’re probably not going to like the fact that it’s on the list. If you do like Freakazoid!, you’re probably going to tell me that I should have ranked it higher (and I very nearly did). And if you’re unfamiliar with Freakazoid!, I’m probably not going to be able to explain to you why it’s on this list. Some days, your average list-maker just can’t win.
Freakazoid! was an animated comedy about a superhero who – actually, I should just stop there, because after that it starts to get a little nutty. Freakazoid (the character) spent much of his time engaged in craziness. He went on dates, he drove around in the Freakmobile, he complained to the show’s writers about his scripts. Once in a while, he fought crime. The show pulled extravagant plotlines completely out of nowhere, made numerous random pop culture references, and broke the fourth wall at every opportunity. It was insane. It was also hilarious.
Unfortunately, it was also on a kids’ network. And kids simply didn’t get the show’s sophisticated and off-the-wall sense of humor. Superhero caricatures of Charlton Heston and John Cleese went right over their heads, as did parodies of everything from The Godfather and Mission: Impossible to E.T. and Cops. Some adult viewers tuned in, but not enough to sustain its run.
But the show – one that I come to love more and more as time goes on – is still a treat to watch. Featuring sharp humor, a superb voice cast, and several cameos by Emmitt Nervend, I feel firmly justified in putting Freakazoid! on this list.
(P.S. For those of you studying the picture really closely, that is Steven Spielberg’s name above the title card. Guy did more than fool around with dinosaurs, you know.)
#6. Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-1991) – The early Nineties were a pretty revolutionary time for television. The Simpsons and Seinfeld were breathing new life into the sitcom genre, and Law and Order was putting a grittier, more evocative face on primetime drama. One of the most influential shows of this period was a little show called Twin Peaks, the first drama to tell a continuity-heavy story that required you to catch every episode.
But that wasn’t the most distinctive thing about Twin Peaks. No, the most unique thing about it was that it was really freakin’ weird. It’s probably the strangest show ever created, although I’m told Carnivale is also pretty batty. But there was an enchantment surrounding its strangeness, one that draws you in to this little town and the quirky FBI detective who visits it in the hopes of solving a murder.
For one season, and an early part of the second, Twin Peaks was a wonderful show. Then the networks intervened. Before anyone knew it, the overarching mystery was solved in an abrupt and utterly contrived fashion, and the show spent the rest of the season trying to recover. It never quite succeeded, although the finale did open up some interesting prospects for future seasons, which, alas, never saw the light of day.
Numerous TV writers, including Joss Whedon, JJ Abrams, David Chase, and Rob Thomas, have cited Twin Peaks as a major influence to their work, and it really shows. Whatever missteps the show may have made in its original run, the cultural impact it has had on the last twenty years cannot be denied.
#5. Wonderfalls (FOX, 2004) – It seems fitting that Bryan Fuller, a former Star Trek writer, is so intensely wrapped up in the shows he creates. In fact, it sometimes feels like he’s crafting the shows for his own benefit, without regard for whether or not they’ll appeal to others. (Notorious for this is Pushing Daisies, a short-lived, pseudo-fairy tale series that I didn’t like or care about enough to put on this list.) As far as I can tell, Wonderfalls may well fit into that category of off-putting, unintelligible quirkiness. I don’t care. It’s still a great show.
Premiering midseason, Wonderfalls immediately felt like a knockoff of CBS’ then-new Joan of Arcadia (another short-lived series I’ve excluded because I didn’t like). But it felt fresher and more vibrant than its network competitor, featuring a plot that sounded like something suited for a preschool level, but which actually had some delightfully creepy undertones. (Jaye can talk to stuffed animals! How cute! Wait, are they threatening her?)
The show struggled in its early episodes to find its footing, with episodes that felt like they were being gimmicky just for the sake of being gimmicky. Around halfway through, though, it hit its stride and became a sort of dark romantic comedy, featuring some unexpected story developments, and ended its first season with two spectacular episodes that hinted at a bold, exciting future!
…Which never happened. In the end, Wonderfalls is just a well of untapped potential (much like another cancelled Fox show I’ll speak of in a few moments), but it’s pretty strong in its own right. It has its share of flaws, both structurally and episodically, but there’s enough quirky goodness for me to recommend it.
#4. Sports Night (ABC, 1998-2000) – When people think of Aaron Sorkin, they usually think of The West Wing, that critically acclaimed political drama which Sorkin created and oversaw production of in its first four seasons. They also might think of his film scripts, which include A Few Good Men, An American President, and The Social Network. Very rarely, though, do they think of Sports Night.
Premiering one year before The West Wing made its debut, Sports Night may have lacked the dramatic weight (and the forty-two minute running time) that show would later possess, but it still shared its lightning pace and witty dialogue, not to mention an impressive cast. Centered on the backstage happening at a sports broadcasting show called, fittingly enough, “Sports Night”, the series was a wonderful setpiece to tune into for a half-hour each week.
The series was initially equipped with a laugh track, but this was soon dropped when it became apparent that the audience’s laughs felt forced and out of place against Sorkin’s machine-gun dialogue. Despite much acclaim – TV Guide named it “The Best Show You’re Not Watching” in 2000 – the show never caught on, although its innovative camera stylistics have had an impact on more recent sitcoms, such as The Office and 30 Rock.
The series occasionally rambled, and plotlines sometimes reached disappointing conclusions. But the characters always maintained a likable air, and I’ll keep coming back just to watch their incessant and incessantly lovable banter. If you’re looking for a show that has comedy, an edge, and a heart of gold, I’ll proudly point you in this show’s direction.
#3. Firefly (FOX, 2002) – I’ve no doubt that there’ll be a fair chunk of readers here feeling that I haven’t ranked this show high enough. But I feel pretty assured with it in the #3 spot. When you get right down to it, Firefly only gave us a setup. It essentially laid the groundwork for what could have been one of the most awesome shows ever. Then it got cancelled before it could actually give us that show.
But there’s a sense of awe that comes from watching it. Rarely has any show premiered so confidently, or with so much ambition. The characters and overarching premise all emerged fully formed in the first episode, with incredible nuance and detail. The series itself – a mash-up of sci-fi and western genres – boasts compelling drama, side-splitting comedy, terrific performances, and Chinese swearing.
The show is not without its weak points, but the pilot, the finale, and the stretch of episodes from “Our Mrs. Reynolds” to “Ariel” are all excellent. It’s far and away the best premiere season of any Joss Whedon show – and unfortunately, it’s the only one to never receive a sophomore season.
To this day, fans mount campaigns to try to convince someone to bring Firefly back on the airwaves. It’s not going to happen, but I can’t help but admire their loyalty. The series may have only had 14 episodes, but with all the hype that surrounds it, Firefly almost feels like it’s still around today.
#2. My So-Called Life (ABC, 1994-1995) – By all rights, I should’ve hated this show. Just based on its premise and characterizations, My So-Called Life sounded like a compilation of every high school series cliché in existence. Why, then, is it so very good?
I think the reason lies in its devotion to the material. Yes, this show features a bagful of old chestnuts. But it executes them so skillfully that they feel as real-life as… well, real life. Angela Chase could have been a shallow, one-note character whose exploits were meant to cheaply wring an emotional response out of the show’s audience. Yet with the show’s careful, nuanced writing, she becomes as three-dimensional a protagonist as TV has ever seen. (Claire Danes’ excellent performance doesn’t hurt, either.)
Unfortunately, rich, subtle development did not translate into stellar ratings. The producers had high hopes that the show would become as popular as the flagship Nineties teen series, Beverly Hills, 90210, but it was simply no contest. My So-Called Life ended its first season on a cliffhanger, and then was gone from the airwaves.
Still, the show has definitely left its thumbprint on the television landscape – Joss Whedon even cites it as an inspiration for Buffy – and it continues to hold up long after its demise. With Claire Danes now gathering numerous accolades for her work on Homeland, I’m hopeful that more people will look back on her other work and discover this little gem of a show.
#1. Freaks and Geeks (NBC, 1999-2000) – Really, any attempt I make to try and summarize this show in a few paragraphs will only cheapen the effect of the many hours I’ve spent analyzing it over the past few months. So I’ll instead just put this show at the highest spot on my list, and you can look forward to my series review, which I’ll hopefully be posting in the near future.
[However, There Is Good News…]
Not all low-rated shows are immediately cancelled. Networks will sometimes give a well-received show a chance despite initially lackluster viewership. NBC in particular gave fighting chances to Seinfeld, Cheers, The Cosby Show, Hill Street Blues, 30 Rock, Chuck, and Friday Night Lights, and some of their efforts end up paying off. While their attempts to take risks can extend even to less popular shows – did anyone really want a second season of Joey? – I’m glad that they aren’t conforming to FOX’s tendency to cancel shows within half a season.
And on another note, there’s a small comfort in having these shows cancelled while they’re fresh and untouched, rather than watching as the network mucks around with them to try and make them more appealing to mainstream audiences. (The slow, steady process of executive meddling can perhaps best be witnessed over the seven seasons of Homicide: Life on the Street, which began as a dark, character-driven drama and slowly transformed into a more “accessible” police procedural.)
And if nothing else, the swiftly cancelled show – more than anything else – demonstrates the power of the fanbase. Two of the shows on this list were revived at the movies, and all of them have been given DVD releases. In fact, most of them are currently available on Netflix and Hulu. What are you waiting for?