Now that the Spielberg-produced Terra Nova has been consigned to the great dinosaur graveyard in the sky, we cast a respectful eye back over those milestones of modern television that were never given the chance to find their full potential. Pray stand and let us have a minute’s silence as we remember fallen friends, brutally cut down in their prime.
Starring: Matthew Perry, Amanda Peet, Bradley Whitford, Sarah Paulson
What was it? Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing follow-up was a bold (some might say suicidally-so) look backstage at the making of an SNL-style live comedy show. Replacing the White House with a studio lot, Sorkin populated it with a similar ensemble of incredibly smart, funny and principled characters whose fizzing one-liners and rapid-fire banter were a joy to the ears.
What happened? Too smart for its own good, Studio 60 began with an episode that cast aspersions on the integrity of network television while simultaneously poking the Christian Right with a sharp stick; talk about making friends. It wasn’t controversy that killed it, though, but a lack of resonance with the TV watching masses – partly down to the similarly-themed but more comedy-focused 30 Rock, which delivered the laughs without the high-brow subtext. S60 was put on extended hiatus while its Monday night slot fell into the hands of Paul Haggis’ The Black Donnellys (also swiftly cancelled). Studio 60 did eventually return to finish out its first season run but it was just postponing the inevitable. A last ditch attempt to broaden appeal with a hideously misjudged romantic slant drove even the show’s original following into the arms of Tina Fey.
Starring: Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin, Summer Glau, Alan Tudyk
What was it? A space-set Western about a ship of outlaws and misfits, Firefly was as smart and endearing as you’d expect from the creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and was, dare we say it, arguably Joss Whedon’s finest work to date. An incredibly well cast ensemble – led by the superhumanly affable Fillion – filled out a quirky yet immensely charming sci-fi show that defied the modern conventions of the genre and returned it to its roots.
What happened? The worst kind of network stupidity. Unconvinced by Whedon’s feature-length pilot, which set up the premise and the characters with loving care, Fox instead insisted that a subsequent, more action-packed episode be aired first. Naturally this made no narrative sense whatsoever and, combined with an air time on the Friday night graveyard slot and an inexplicable marketing campaign that pitched it as a comedy, led to an inauspicious debut. Only 11 of the 14 episodes were aired before Fox pulled the plug. But there’s a happy ending of sorts: it did find a second life on DVD, and the popularity of that led to Whedon resurrecting the series for a cinematic curtain call with 2005’s Serenity.
Starring: Kristen Bell, Enrico Colantoni, Jason Dohring, Francis Capra
What was it? A surprisingly edgy, noir-ish high school drama about a formerly popular girl now cast out from the inner circle and moonlighting as a private detective. Introducing the world to Kristen Bell, the show didn’t pull any punches in its portrayal of the nastier side of school life, variously tackling rape, murder, incest, paedophilia and sexual blackmail – all the while keeping a fine line in dark humour, thanks to Bell’s sassy, smart-mouthed heroine.
What happened? Good question. The viewing figures weren’t enormous but ratings were actually on the rise when the network decided to take Mars out back and unload a shotgun into the back of its head. Having seen the show slowly gain support over three seasons (the last of which moved the setting from high school to college) the suits at CW did what any of us would have done in their place: they pulled it from the air to make way for a reality show about The Pussycat Dolls. Yes, really.
Starring: Ben Browder, Claudia Black, Anthony Simcoe, Virginia Hey
What was it? Browder starred as John Crichton, an astronaut sucked into a wormhole and catapulted across the galaxy where he ends as part of a motley crew of escaped convicts on a living starship. An Australian science fiction series populated by aliens from the Jim Henson Company, it was hard not to think of this as Star Trek with Muppets; that is, until you actually watched it. Awash with fish-our-of-water gags and pop culture references, Farscape was smarter than its peers, with a a willingness to push boundaries and be boldly original (duplicating the main character, for example, and playing out two concurrent Crichton-led storylines throughout half a season) as well as demonstrating a crackling chemistry between its two main stars, Browder and Black.
What happened? Thanks to dipping ratings and high production costs, The Sci-Fi channel elected to cancel the show after the fourth season (to be fair, the weakest of the bunch). Show creator Rockne S O’Bannon refused to believe it was the end, however, and even though the season ended on a cliffhanger, added a ‘to be continued’ splash at the show’s finale as a promise to his loyal viewers. A truly mammoth fan campaign to resurrect the show drew mass media attention and the mounting pressure enabled O’Bannon to keep his word, eventually leading to the commissioning of a two-part miniseries, The Peacekeeper Wars, which tied up the loose ends and brought closure to the series.
Starring: Eric Stoltz, Esai Morales, Paula Malcomson, Alessandra Torresani
What was it? A weird concept, to be sure, Caprica was a spin-off of the Battlestar Galactica remake that took the form of a kind of sci-fi Dynasty. Set on the titular planet, and focused on two families, the Adamas and the Graystones, Caprica was a prequel to BSG that chronicled the invention of the Cylons and the beginnings of the fall of mankind. A little uneven in places, Caprica nevertheless retained the dark, introspective feel of Battlestar, while building a rich mythology of its own with monotheistic terrorists, Matrix-style virtual worlds and clan-based organised crime.
What happened? Trying to open the sci-fi genre up to a wider audience had a mixed effect on audience reception, with existing fans unconvinced by the subdued tone and newcomers still alienated by the alien setting. While the show had huge potential, it hemorrhaged viewers after its mid-season break and was ultimately decommissioned with five episodes still to air.
Starring: Skeet Ulrich, Lennie James, Ashley Scott, Gerald McRaney
What was it? A post-apocalyptic drama set in the town of Jericho, Kansas, after nuclear terrorism has all but annihilated the rest of the United States. While the show started out mainly concerned with small town squabbling in the attack’s aftermath, Jericho grew in confidence and scale, the town fending off incursions from PMCs (that’d be private military contractors or mercenaries), dealing with spies in their midst and even going to war with a neighbouring township. With a tank!
What happened? The same old story: low ratings. The producers were confident they’d get renewed but CBS announced its cancellation after season one. What followed was one of the largest fan mobilisations in TV history, which ended in Network heads having to install email filters just to deal with Jericho fans and the arrival of more than 20 tonnes of nuts at CBS head office (in reference to a line from the season finale). Amazingly the network backed down under the onslaught of savoury snacks and picked up the show for a second season. It was cancelled again after seven more episodes.
Starring: Ian McShane, Timothy Olyphant, Molly Parker, Brad Dourif
What was it? A Western like no other, this HBO effort set in the legendary town of Deadwood saw all the big names of America’s own mythology pass through its dusty streets, but deconstructed those clean-cut sagas to give us an exceptionally foul-mouthed (“fuck” is said on average 1.56 times per screen minute), disease-ridden, morally-compromised vision of frontier life. Led by saloon owner Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), this was a shock to the system for those raised on Rawhide or Gunsmoke, but given the quality of the cast and writing, a welcome shock all round.
What happened? With no expense spared on the mud and grit (and horses, and location shooting) of the Old West, and an increasingly in-demand cast, the budget had nudged ever upwards. Demands on the time of creator David Milch was also fierce: when he pitched another show, John From Cincinnati, to HBO, they proposed a shorter fourth series of the Western to give him time to do both. He refused that, but countered with an offer of two feature-length episodes to finish the story. That option seemed possible, for a while, but eventually lapsed along with the cast’s contracts and now seems vanishingly unlikely ever to happen.
Starring: Jack Davenport, Idris Elba, Susannah Harkness
What was it? A vampire/ cop show hybrid, this impeccably cast British effort of the late 1990s saw Jack Davenport play a policeman who discovers a world of vampire hunters after his partner (Stephen Moyer, lately of True Blood) disappears. He joins a team that hunts the hunters with scientific means – carbon bullets, concentrated essence of garlic, that sort of thing – in a show that’s part sci-fi, part fantasy and part procedural. Impressively, they barely use the word “vampire” at all, but still manage to rank up there with the best blood-sucking stories ever told.
What happened? In a word, nothing. In a few more words, creator Joe Ahearne felt he had largely aired his ideas and said what he wanted to say about vampires. Since very few shows since have managed to come up with anything more interesting about the genre, he may very well have been right: short of making them sparkly, this pretty much explores all the corners of the myth. Still, full marks for quitting while he was ahead and having a great eye for casting.
Starring: Kevin McKidd, Ray Stevenson, Ciaran Hinds, James Purefoy, Polly Walker
What was it? It’s classical history, as seen through the unflinching eyes of HBO. The series covers the rise and fall of Julius Caesar (Hinds), and the rise of his august successor, er, Augustus (Max Pirkis and Simon Woods), as seen (largely) through the eyes of two soldiers (McKidd and Stevenson), this is blood-drenched and sweat-soaked stuff. And although some of the characters are fictional or fictionalised, the broad sweep of the series is a relatively faithful account of the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire.
What happened? The show was one of the most expensive ever produced, what with its scale and extensive location filming. And it’s arguable that the historical record would have made it challenging to continue after establishing Augustus on the throne. After all, he became so successful and secure that the potential for high-level conspiracy was reduced, and many of the well-known supporting characters (Mark Anthony, Cleopatra) were killed or sidelined during his reign, making it more difficult to attract viewers outside academia. It would also, eventually, have become difficult or impossible to maintain the involvement of Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, the audience’s way in, as history rolled on and they faded into retirement or death.
Starring: William Fichtner, Eddie Cibrian, Kari Matchett
What was it? A serial twist on a Bodysnatchers alien invasion premise, the show began with a hurricane that had unusual consequences for the inhabitants of the small town of Homestead, Florida. Those who spent the storm outside returned from it changed - and not in a metaphorical I’ve’-been-through-a-storm sort of a way. While essentially another Body Snatchers/Puppet Masters clone, the show was compelling and made supremely watchable largely due to the presence of William Fichtner as villain/anti-hero/alien/enigma, Sheriff Underlay who stole the show and trod an ambiguous line throughout the story: part of the problem, or its solution?
What happened? The show opened in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, making its big opening set-piece less a selling point and more a liability. But its cancellation was the usual story of falling ratings: the opening audience of 17 million fell to half that over the season’s run, with viewers apparently turned off by the arc storyline in the early episodes and the show’s scheduling all over the place. Rumours that another network might pick up the show after ABC cancelled it sadly came to nothing.
Starring: Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Jeffrey Tambor, Portia de Rossi, Michael Cera
What was it? The story of a wealthy family brought to its knees by its patriarch’s criminal malfeasance, this is one of the smartest, most surreal, most beautifully written comedies ever produced. Complex and absurd plots build to some of the most elaborately constructed gags you’ll ever see, while the cast are a comic ensemble for the ages. Once you’ve seen it, you’ll understand why all those who have are still agitating for a movie.
What happened? Terrible, awful ratings. Oh sure, Fox didn’t help by scheduling the third season against US ratings juggernaut Monday Night Football – and they added insult to injury by scheduling the finale against the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics – but the show never got the audience it deserved. Of course, since it's now set to come back, it's getting another shot at a longer life. Let’s hope its spiritual successor, Community (which paid tribute to Arrested Development’s Chicken Dance recently), really does get six seasons and a movie.
Starring: Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daley, James Franco
What was it?
The cast and crew list is basically a role call of Hollywood’s biggest comedy A-listers right now – and yet only 12 of the 18 episodes produced were originally aired. A high-school drama about a formerly perfect student (Cardellini) who decides to join the slackers and her geeky brother (Daley), it avoids both the picture-perfect problems of glossier shows – there’s real angst here – but also the overly-mannered dialogue of some wannabe cool high school efforts.
Go ahead and sing it with us: low ratings. Oh sure, now we all know and love Jason Segel, James Franco, Seth Rogen and all, but back then they were just some randomites playing high school kids who nobody was watching. Still, since network NBC is currently in the ratings doldrums and most of the cast of this effort are taking over Hollywood, seems like the freaks and geeks are having the last laugh.
Starring: Lee Pace, Anna Friel, Kristin Chenoweth, Chi McBride
What was it? It’s a Tim Burton-esque, brightly coloured but vaguely Gothic fantasy about a piemaker who can bring dead things back to life with a touch. The catch is that they die again if he touches them a second time, causing considerable heartache when he revives his childhood sweetheart. With a series of insane twists, crazy criminal subplots and bizarro fairytale touches, this was mannered but strangely delightful.
What happened? The writers' strike scuppered this one. Only nine episodes were written before the strike began, so the writers planned to write a second season rather than complete the full 13 of the first. But with ratings tumbling, the network cancelled it rather than making room for any further development. It’s a particular shame in this case given how thoroughly unresolved all the plot threads are. In our heads, for the record, Ned and Chuck live happily ever after after overcoming his curse somehow, and Olive goes off to sing on Broadway.
Starring: Claire Danes, Jared Leto, Bess Armstrong, Tom Irwin
What was it? Arguably the greatest teen show ever made and certainly the best of the '90s (no disrespect to Degrassi), this saw Claire Danes play angsty teen Angela Chase, in conflict with her well-meaning mother (Armstrong), crushing on hot mess Jordan Catalano (Leto) and torn between her old, safe friends and her new, unconventional ones. Smart without being unrealistic – this cast talks like teenagers – its echoes are still felt wherever you see a high-school show that is even slightly smart. And whenever Jared Leto leans.
What happened? The ratings were never high, since the show was scheduled in a massively competitive timeslot against the likes of Friends. But that wasn’t the only problem: Danes was reluctant to return for a second season of the show’s punishing schedule, and faced with that reticence the fight went out of writer Winnie Holzman and the producers as well. While it wasn’t Danes’ call alone, the combination with the low ratings gave the network an out despite a fierce fan campaign to bring it back.
Starring: Kevin McKidd, Gretchen Egolf, Moon Bloodgood, Reed Diamond
What was it? A sci-fi drama that reads like Quantum Leap meets The Time Traveler’s Wife, this saw Kevin McKidd play a reporter who begins – for no obvious reason and with no volition – to experience jumps back through time. Each jump seems to have a purpose, usually helping to change someone’s destiny for the better (one hopes). There are also mysteries in his own life to solve, and difficulties caused by the time travelling to navigate.
What happened? The writers' strike again played a role, since only 13 of a planned 22 episodes had been produced before it hit. But, once again, it was low ratings that lost the day, and even a campaign that involved fans sending packets of Rice-A-Roni to the network didn’t get it renewed for another season. Next time, they should probably try Uncle Ben’s.
Starring: Ellen Muth, Mandy Patinkin, Callum Blue
What was it? Created by Bryan Fuller, the same man behind Pushing Daisies, this is another whimsical look at death. Georgia Lass (Muth) is a college dropout with a temp job who is killed when a toilet seat from the Mir Space Station falls from the sky and hits her on the head. Instead of proceeding to the afterlife, she becomes a Reaper, tasked with helping others to their final rest.
What happened? Fuller left only a few episodes into the first season, and his take on its cancellation after Season Two was that the network was aware of, “a loss of quality and [had] a sense the problems would continue”. The network, Showtime, claimed that ratings were too low to justify a third season, but since those ratings weren’t released we can only assume that that was the case.