Khaaaaaannnnceled!

22 04 2013

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It happens every year. Some ball-tickling new show bursts onto the scene with strong writing, layered and relatable characters confronting intriguing dilemmas, or maybe a freshness that makes you question the validity of everything else you watch. Sometimes it’s a winning combo of all three. Oftentimes it’s the best TV you’ve seen in ages.

And then it’s canceled.

Obviously there are more reasons to take a show off the air than what we, the audience, see. Even so, it sometimes just feels so bloody… wrong. “Bad call, Ripley,” we crow upon hearing the news. Well, I do. I think it anyway. I guess I don’t actually say it aloud. That’d be weird. Especially if I was alone.

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The odd time, an effort is organized to avert the disaster – a letter-writing campaign, a feature film to wrap things up – but for the majority, we never see our beloved characters live happily ever after, or even again at all. And each time I’m left a little more jaded. Not just because my enjoyment of an awesome show has been quashed, but also because frequently what isn’t canceled is so staggeringly off-putting in comparison.

So in an effort to chip away some of the encrusted bitterness that has accumulated since my teens, I’ve compiled a list of the most unfortunate ‘we hardly knew ye’s I can think of. The mere possibility that someone may read this list and decide to give one of these gems a look-see is already lessening the ache.

For your aborted viewing pleasure…

#5. Terriers

2010 ~ 13 episodes ~ open-ended

Jessica Fletcher, Remington Steele, Jim Rockford, Tom Magnum… Hank Dolworth. It even sounds like it belongs. Which makes it even sadder to think that it will likely never ring synonymous with those other staples of the detective genre.

Airing on FX in the fall of 2010, Terriers is the kind of show I would refer to as ‘a hoot’. It introduced us to Hank Dolworth and Britt Pollack, a pair of low-rent gumshoes willing to take any case, or dognapping job, in order to scrape by in sunny Ocean Beach, California. The concept may sound familiar, but it was the dynamic between Hank and Britt (largely due to the easygoing chemistry between series leads Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James) that placed the show firmly in ‘hoot’ territory.

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Creator Ted Griffin, aided by TV vets Shawn Ryan and Tim Minear, delivered gut-busting laughs, rib-snapping fisticuffs and head-scratching mysteries. But all that was really just window dressing. The real meat of the show lay in watching Hank and Britt trying, and often failing, to become better men. Story arcs concerning Hank’s alcoholism, his ex-wife’s remarriage, his troubled sister, and Britt’s criminal past all mixed a tasty cocktail about male friendship and responsibility for one’s actions.

FX aired all thirteen episodes unbroken but the show never garnered any widespread notice. Admittedly, the title isn’t the grabbiest, and much of the early marketing was too vague to give viewers something to anticipate. Despite some damn fine storytelling, FX dropped the curtain. Although the primary story threads were resolved, several of the leftovers hinted at bigger and better in store for Dolworth & Pollock Investigations. It still stings two and a half years later. So much so that a Terriers feature film is a frequent dream scenario bandied about by TV aficionado nerds like moi.

Oh, and the opening song was the tits.

#4. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

2006-2007 ~ 22 episodes ~ ended

Matthew Perry seems to have nine lives. They just keep throwing shows at this guy. But I suspect he’ll never again feel the deep sting he must have when NBC canned this SNL-inspired behind-the-scenes workplace dramedy.

Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 focused on the put-upon showrunners of a late night sketch comedy show. Exec producer Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) and head writer Matt Albie (Perry) juggled the perils of show business, the politics of comedy and the shambles of their personal lives. The show functioned as a pulpit for Sorkin’s issue-heavy style of storytelling and was basically executed as The West Wing populated by the cast and crew of Saturday Night Live, which may sound forced in theory but actually worked in practice.

Unfortunately, the show suffered from the same characteristic that arguably hinders (unfairly or not) all of Sorkin’s TV fare – every character is smarter than most people watching. It also proved too gray and complex to entice a broad audience. To his credit, Sorkin addressed this refusal to compromise in the show itself, the characters often having to duke it out with ‘the suits’ over what audiences can be expected to watch nowadays. But by the time NBC pulled the show from the schedule for three months, the writing was on the wall. The show was too expensive, too highbrow, too… good. The final six episodes aired in early summer to low ratings. That was it for Matt, Danny and the gang.

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“Canceled? But we speak so intelligently.”

I feel for Perry most of all, who had finally landed a character that played to his strengths, demonstrated he was more than what he had become known for and allowed him an opportunity to walk a line between comedy and tragedy that television actors seldom receive. Oh well, the guy’s a millionaire. Guess I shouldn’t pity him too much.

#3. Jericho

2006-2008 ~ 29 episodes ~ “wrapped up”

Action, drama and social commentary delivered through a believable post-apocalyptic scenario. Stephen Chbosky, Carol Barbee and Jon Turtletaub fashioned a consistently engaging ‘what if’ through line that frequently eschewed a weekly return to the status quo in favor of charting and evolving new territory.

The story centered on Jake Green (Skeet Ulrich), his brother (Kenneth Mitchell) and their father, Johnston (a scene stealing Gerald McRaney in one of those roles that give you the sense the actor was just waiting to reach a certain age in order to play the part they were meant for) who also happens to be mayor of Jericho. The Green family fights to keep their town alive after a nuclear attack devastates most of the United States. Isolated and completely in the dark as to when/if help will arrive, the overnight tectonic shift in necessity for the characters was endlessly intriguing. Jake’s murky past in the Special Forces was mined in interesting ways. And the show was careful not to leave too many questions unanswered for too long, eventually paring things down to one all-important mystery revolving around the creepy Robert Hawkins (Lennie James, last seen CLEEEAR!ing over at AMC), a newcomer to Jericho just prior to the disaster, with information no one else has and motivations to match.

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Too dark for the average CBS viewer? Maybe. But after steadily declining ratings (even though the quality of storytelling improved inversely) the show was canceled. After one of the cliffhangeriest cliffhangers ever, fan outcry rang loud and clear and an inventive letter-writing campaign chastised CBS into a reprieve. They granted Jericho a seven episode second season for the express purpose of tying up the story. Was it enough? Debatable of course. Undeniably a better outcome than if season one had ended the series, but the actual closeout did give the impression that the stay of execution was being used to change the network’s mind. A gamble that ultimately left a further feeling of incompletion. Maybe that’s why they felt the need to continue the story again in comics form. Devil’s Due Publishing began releasing Jericho: Civil War in 2009.

#2. Millennium

1996-1999 ~ 67 episodes ~ “wrapped up”

Chris Carter’s most potent creation. And this is coming from a supergeek whose high school bedroom was littered with X-Files memorabilia – I had the ‘I Want To Believe’ poster above my desk (just like Mulder!).

Millennium followed the exploits of Frank Black (Lance Henriksen in the role of his career – makes sense as it was written for him), an ex FBI profiler with the uncanny ability to see into the minds and motivations of the most depraved of killers. The compounded effects of his gift/curse forced his retirement and he went to work for the Millennium Group, a consulting firm of ex law enforcement with odd methods and mysteriously substantial resources. Again, a familiar concept, and while it can’t be said that Millennium invented the ‘profiler’ character archetype, it bloody well made it watchable in a way it never had been.

Saturated with rain, always foreboding and incessantly dark, the show’s appeal lay in its provision of something not airing elsewhere on television combined with a capitalization on the palpable real life anticipation for the coming unknown. As the series progressed, it became less of a ‘serial killer of the week’ procedural and delved more successfully into its mythology, implying a sinister plan at work in correlation to the impending… something.

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“How ’bout instead of going to that party we stay in and watch Millennium?”

Despite some brilliant and ominous marketing (“when the wait is over, the suspense begins,” the eerie poster read), and multiple award nominations, the show never saw X-Files numbers. By season two hardly anyone was watching. It had already suffered typical network fatigue, the writers stretching to fill nine programming months. And it didn’t help that the story became more complicated along the way. An uneven second season, while containing the series’ most engaging storylines and thrusting enigmatic character Peter Watts (the incomparable Terry O’Quinn) into the foreground, paired with a piecemeal episode delivery, managed to thoroughly deadify the show in the ratings. Millennium was simply too difficult for viewers to connect with. The second season finale is one of the most unTV episodes of television ever. Carter returned as exec producer to “save” the show in the third season, but the damage was done.

From the creator of The X-Files, then the flagship of FOX, Millennium had enormous expectations foisted upon it. Not only did the network expect a hit but they had committed to a maximum of four seasons at the outset, so it wasn’t really allowed the warm-up period most shows enjoy. The final irony would be that Frank Black’s story would only be “wrapped up” courtesy of The X-Files in the season seven episode ‘Millennium’, which was neither in the spirit of what Millennium was nor a sufficient finale for such an amazing TV show.

#1. Odyssey 5

2002-2004 ~ 20 episodes ~ incomplete

I reserved the top spot for this little known gem for two reasons. One, because it was little know, and two, because its potential was so grossly incongruous to the disregard its network seemed to hold it in.

Created by Manny Coto, Odyssey 5 was about the crew of the space shuttle Odyssey. There were (you guessed it) five of them. After observing an inexplicable species-ending disaster from orbit, the crew are granted an opportunity to travel back in time five years (there it is again) to stop the cataclysm from ever taking place. Because they don’t know the cause, however, they’re at an obvious disadvantage. Added to which, it doesn’t take long before the lives they lived begin unfolding in ways hugely different from before.

A cast led by the stony Peter Weller as mission commander Chuck Taggart (yes, he’s as gloriously curmudgeonly as his name sounds) tackled storylines concerning everything we’d all long to fix should we have a ‘do over’ button at our fingertips – broken relationships, the death of a child, the opportunity for wealth, etc. It was an insightful examination of the human condition in regards to the choices we make.

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Along the way, the show developed a meaty central arc concerning sentient, sometimes menacing, artificial life. It was only scratching the surface of where it could’ve gone by its unfortunate, cliffhanger-to-the-nth finale.

Of all the cancelations listed here, I think this one gargled the smelliest balls. Airing over thirteen weeks in the summer of 2002, the show then took a 2-year hiatus before dumping its already-in-the-can final six episodes over two weeks in October 2004. I was among the seven remaining viewers at that point and sadly, we weren’t enough to convince Showtime to keep the show in production. Intelligent, entertaining, in-the-now sci-fi dramas are rare. The way this one turned out, they’ll probably continue to be.

-Honorable Mentions-

The Unit

2006-2009 ~ 69 episodes ~ incomplete

Good guys and bad guys shooting at each other is nothing new on television. But on The Unit, it felt more earned. Based on Eric Haney’s book Inside Delta Force, the show followed Jonas Blane (Redwood tree of a man, Dennis Haysbert) and his fellow team members as they conducted clandestine operations around the globe and wrestled with the consequences of their careers on the home front.

The Unit was at its best when it didn’t shy away from the fact that it was basically The A-Team while simultaneously making you realize just how stupid The A-Team was. Henchmen don’t land safely intact on the ground when you blow up their helicopter, and in a show about soldiers, characters shouldn’t always come home alive just because their names are in the credits.

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I KNEW President Palmer would eventually get to shoot a gun!

Solidly crafted by David Mamet and Shawn Ryan, the story struck an uncommon balance between engrossing drama and plain old ass-kickery. And other than a couple of ill-advised episodes that reeked of ‘demo appeal’ the show was a constant entertainment.

I debated whether this one even belonged on the list. It’s hard to say a show that ran for four seasons didn’t get its shot, but the fact remains The Unit was fumbled repeatedly. After a strong first season broadcast over an uninterrupted eleven-week period in the spring, CBS started pulling the old network tricks airing episodes sporadically with weeks in between. But the real soul-crush came when after three years of hanging in, cancelation always looming, the plug was pulled before the planned final fifth season. Everything was up in the air for our heroes and we were left to make do without the last act. At least the 80% we got was as good as this type of show gets.

Firefly

2002-2003 ~ 15 episodes, 1 feature film ~ open-ended

You may be wondering why this one didn’t make the list. I guess it’s because of all of these shows, this one feels like the most obvious injustice. And I suspect all of you who read this already share my sadness on Firefly’s cancelation. But also, this is the one show that really did get its happy ending. Not literally I guess, if you’ve seen Serenity, but the feature spawned by the show does function as a worthy final act to one of the most entertaining space shows ever. And although I’ll never see Mal and co. soar again in new adventures, I’m okay with that. Because I know they’re out there, fighting to get by. You can’t take the sky from them. … Remember. Like the song.

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You canceled this guy?! Jeez, why don’t you just put Dallas back on the air.

On that note, TV execs may be able to shitcan the good shows I enjoy in favor of more of the same that I won’t, but they can’t take the sky from me! I enjoyed these magnificent programs. And so can you. Give a few a try. Whatya have to lose? They’re already canceled.

– Jaron

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4 responses

22 04 2013
Tim Hildebrand

glad The Unit made it on here. i was sad to see that one go. the personal drama and family life stuff played pretty flat at times, but that’s cuz the writers were all action guys…and what action it was. i still remember the time Jonas sent up a cable on a balloon, and a rescue plane flew over and yanked him away at a million miles an hour. wonderful.

23 04 2013
Jaron

I remember the ep you’re talking about. Believe it was the 2nd season premiere. That scene was my first exposure to the show. I watched it from the beginning after that.
I don’t think the writing staff was particularly ‘action’ heavy though. Other than Mamet, who has done films like Spartan, The Edge, The Untouchables, Ronin, I think most of the writers came from 1-hour dramas and procedurals.
I do agree that the unit-members-on-missions aspect was the definite strength of the show. My brother started me off watching it and he used to joke that the best promo CBS could run would have the voiceover, “This Sunday on The Unit – no wives!”

23 04 2013
Ryan

I’ll definitely have to check a few of these out. I’m not sure you’ve ever steered me wrong before.

23 04 2013
Ryan

P.S. That song is RIDICULOUSLY catchy.

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