TV shows are funny things. Sometimes they’re cancelled before they really should be, leaving great fields of potential in the minds of their fans, of episodes and stories that would have been amazing if they’d just been allowed to exist. Other times shows overstay their welcome, continuing long after there’s any reason other than commercial for them to keep going. (cough)
But some beloved shows, despite what fans might think, got cancelled exactly when they should have been, either by design, dumb luck, or as-yet-unconfirmed interference by time travelling TV critics from the future (which incidentally is my pitch for this pilot season)
Ran for – 27 Episodes (2009-2010)
IMDB synopsis – A futuristic laboratory assigns different tasks to its various residents, who then have their memories erased upon the completion of their assignments
I’ve written before about how this was a notable Whedon flop, a show that seemed unfocused and unsure about what story it was telling and what point it was trying to make. It was given every chance to shine, and instead fumbled constantly with tone and character, which is sort of inevitable when your main character is a blank slate with a different personality every week. I still can’t decide whether they should have gone fully serialised straight away or stuck to a more mission-of-the-week format with little tidbits of the larger mythology thrown in, but instead of doing either of those, they decided to try and do both, and the resulting show was a weirdly compelling mess.
Where it shone was in the two season finales, Epitaph One and Epitaph Two, which showed a near-future where the Rossum Corporation’s Doll technology had caused an apocalyptic breakdown of society, and the things people did in that world to survive. THAT was fantastic. I’m not sure why they didn’t make that show instead. Possibly because it allowed less opportunity for Eliza Dushku to wear bondage leathers. Which, hey man. I get it.
But still, after two full seasons, this show had shown us everything it was capable of, and we’d decided that wasn’t enough.
5) THE CAPE
Ran for- 10 Episodes, (2011)
IMDB Synopsis– Vince Faraday is a cop who has been framed for murder leading him to fall off the grid and become the super hero known only as “The Cape”
The Cape debuted in that weird period after NBC’s Heroes (which doesn’t qualify for this list as it continued way, WAY past the point it should have been put out of its misery) had made everyone start thinking about superheroes again, but before Marvel had really started to ratchet up its own characters in movies and TV. Smallville, with it’s Clark Kent who Definitely Isn’t Superman Yet and Never Will Be on Our Show was kind of its own special case. Otherwise, TV creators seemed to think that you needed to come up with your own superheroes, which also conveniently meant you didn’t have to pay anyone a licensing fee. ABC had tried their luck with No Ordinary Family, basically making an unlicensed The Incredibles knockoff about a family of superheores who have to hide their powers. It was terrible.
The Cape, however, was just crazy enough to be sort of brilliant. The main character is a cop who is framed for muder and then through various plot contrivances falls in with a “carnival of Crime” which is a travelling circus which also does bank robberies, who teach him how to use a special tech-imbued fabric as a cape, leading him to be the exact same hero, down to the powers and the costume, of his kid’s favourite comic book character. This all happens in the first episode.
That was apparently too much insanity for some, and despite an execution that’s better than you’d expect for a premise so campy, and hardcore fan calls for six seasons and a movie, The Cape didn’t last one. It didn’t really deserve to, but it gets points for trying. Being weirdly different is less of a TV sin than being blandly ordinary.
4) FREAKS AND GEEKS
Ran for – 18 Episodes (1999-2000)
IMDB synopsis– A television show about two unique groups of teenagers dealing with life in high school during the 80’s.
Okay, so this one probably deserved to stay on the air. The show managed to capture perfectly that sense of high school, of being on the cusp of something and not knowing where you fit in. Of how no one really fits the traditional roles Hollywood movies have always said exist in all school everywhere, the jock and the nerds, the freaks and the geeks. It’s smartly written, well-acted and it could have run for seasons.
But I’m including it here more for the ramifications of what its cancellation meant than for in-show reasons. This was the show that effectively launched the careers of Linda Cardellini, Jason Segal, Seth Rogen and James Franco, and I love all those guys. Being on a show like this was a blessing in disguise- despite being cancelled, all were taken notice of by people in Hollywood, and their careers blossomed.
It also marked a watershed moment for Exec Producer Judd Apatow, who you might know as The Guy Who Makes Every Funny Film in Hollywood Now. Despite already having notable success as a writer for The Larry Sanders Show, Apatow still credits Freaks being cancelled as his driving motivation to be successful, just to prove the suits who cancelled it wrong. Which means in a world where the show ran for seven seasons and had two spinoff series, we might never have gotten Anchorman, which Apatow produced. And that’s just not a world I want to live in.
Ran for – 22 epsiodes (2005-2007)
IMDB synopsis – A down-to-earth account of the lives of both illustrious and ordinary Romans set in the last days of the Roman Republic
The series which basically invented the “boobs and swords” template. If you love the “sexposition” in Game of Thrones or the straight up gratuitous nudity and violence of Spartacus then you have Rome to thank.
Of course it was so much more than that. By weaving in and out of the lives of the movers and shakers of the Roman Empire along with common soldiers and slaves we got to see a multi-layered portrait of life in the greatest city the world had ever seen. There was the fun of watching historical characters come to life, while the stakes were still high for those whose names didn’t make it to our history books, and so could be killed off at a moment’s notice.
Of course, the weaving of the historical with fiction is a delicate balancing act, one which can fall horribly if you push it too far. By the end of series our two main entry characters into the world of Rome, Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, came awfully close to becoming the R2D2 and C3PO of the Roman Empire- present at almost every notable event, while having little side adventures where they bicker at each other.
By the end of the second series Ceasar was dead, and Augustus was firmly on the throne of the fledgling Roman Empire (um, spoilers for over-two thousand year old actual historical events) The series couldn’t have gone much further without a major cast shakeup, which would have killed a lot of the momentum it had already built. And any show that has Titus Pullo in it would be insane to then not have Titus Pullo in it, because Titus Pullo is awesome.
Ran for – 97 episodes (2009-2014)
IMDB synopsis – A suspended lawyer is forced to enroll in a community college with an eclectic staff and student body
Community seems to have been finally cancelled this year, driving a stake into the shambling vampire that was the growing #sixseasonsandamovie campaign, a one-off in-joke in the show (see The Cape) that the show’s fans inevitably turned into a rallying cry.
The show was never going to be a mainstream hit, with its increasingly meta references and self-referential humour that ensured only regular watchers got all the jokes. But it’s one of the best written comedy shows ever, and those who stuck around fell in love.
You could argue that Community overstayed its welcome, coming back for its fourth season without creator and showrunner Dan Harmon, only to have him return for season five without Chevy Chase, and Donald Glover leaving just a few episodes in. But at the very least the series was allowed one last shot at cracking the big time. It never made it, but the final series at least gave it a chance to go out on its own terms, by saving Greendale. (And seriously, we all secretly regard the series 3 finale as the “proper” one. The other two are probably just a dream Abed’s having)
Okay, I should probably explain this before I’m lynched by a mob wearing dusty coats and questionable but warm hats.
Ran for – 14 episodes (2002 -2003)
IMDB synopsis – Five hundred years in the future, a renegade crew aboard a small spacecraft tries to survive as they travel the unknown parts of the galaxy and evade warring factions as well as authority agents out to get them.
Firefly was that rarest of shows- it sprang out of the gate in its very first episode fully-formed with all of its elements in place. It probably didn’t feel like that behind the scenes, but for a viewer that first double-length pilot episode tells you everything you need to know about the show and its characters, and then sinks its hooks in you deep and doesn’t let go. There’s probably someone out there who’s actually watched Firefly and doesn’t care for it, and that person should be watched closely for other signs of potential sociopathy. The constant struggle for Mal Reynolds and his crew to find dishonest work in a hard ‘verse, while staying one step ahead of the Alliance and keeping his ship Serenity in the air is instantly engaging, and arguably the best work Whedon has done, before or since. Yes including Buffy. YES, including The Avengers.
It was cancelled before its time, after being weirdly promoted by a network that didn’t know what to do with it, and then shuffled around timeslots out of order until it was quietly killed. And that’s a tragedy.
It now exists, along with the movie which ties some dangling plot threads up, as this perfect little nugget of TV gold, this unassailable legend of the Perfect Show that was Killed Before its Time. Like Jimi Hendrix or Kurt Cobain, it never has to compete with itself for its own legancy, trying desperately to reclaim whatever spark drove it initially before being lost like a soap bubble in a waterfall.
In other words, it never had time to suck.
It probably wouldn’t have sucked completely. But there’s a definite trend for Whedon shows that stay the distance to get a little bloated and silly the longer they go on. Buffy arguably overstayed its welcome, while Angel was brought back from complete nonsense for a solid final season that was still wildly uneven. Firefly never even got a full first season, and that was its tragedy, but that was its triumph. It exists forever in this vast gulf of unfulfilled potential, never spoiled by questionable story arcs or shocking character deaths.
You know it’s true. Joss is notorious for his writerly tic of killing off characters. At least one of Serenity’s crew wouldn’t have made it past the season finale. It’s a dangerous ‘verse out there, and Whedon would want to underscore that fact. Not to mention there’s several weird plot threads left dangling that might have been terrible (how old is Inara? Who were the Hands of Blue guys? What was Shepherd Book before he was a Shepherd? (that last one was answered in a comic, but still))
It could have all been awesome. It probably would have been. But the show we all have in our heads, that ran for 10 years and was always awesome and funny and wonderful? That show is better than anything we ever would have got. Serenity’s still flying, and we see her again every time we call in sick and do a series binge-watch.