1. Sons & Daughters (ABC, 2006)
ABC’s wildly funny, partially improvised comedy Sons & Daughters arrived in the wake of Arrested Development’s cancellation, and could never quite lure that show’s fans, who saw this one as a pale copycat. Yet in the 10 episodes that aired (and the one that didn’t), the series showed it had different aims than AD, adopting a looser feel more akin to a Robert Altman film than a sitcom. Focusing on an extended, more-functional-than-dysfunctional family, Sons & Daughters was surprisingly warm without going in for easy sentimentality, and lead actor and co-creator Fred Goss carefully delineated the intricate connections between all the family members in ways that ring true in this age of sprawling family trees. Sadly, the series remains unavailable on DVD, thanks to its profligate use of Grateful Dead music.
2. Kings (NBC, 2009)
NBC’s woes under network co-chair and all-around punching bag Ben Silverman were legion, but at least he managed to get this thrillingly ambitious alternate history of the United States/retelling of the Old Testament story of Samuel on the air. Meticulously detailed, solidly imagined, and wonderfully performed by such old hands as Ian McShane and Brian Cox, Kings started out a little shakily, but soon found its feet, and by the end of its run, it was one of the best shows on the air. In its portrayal of people living in a world where the divine regularly reaches down to interact with the mundane, the series got at religious concerns that TV rarely dares tackle, like how people live when they know the world is lined up against them.
3. Aliens In America (The CW, 2007-08)
The proper place for a sweetly winning sitcom about the perils of growing up in a small Midwestern town—and the culture clash between the United States and the Middle East—wouldn’t seem to be The CW, but the terrific, barely seen Aliens In America cropped up there for one season. Starring a small, tight-knit ensemble of actors who went on to be funny on lesser shows, Aliens started from a rather obvious place. Initially suggesting that it’s easy to feel like an alien in high school even if you’re not a foreign-exchange student from Pakistan, it broadened and deepened both its characters and its world with each episode. True to its form as the spiritual successor of Freaks And Geeks, the series was little-watched and canceled after a season. (It also remains unavailable on DVD.)
4. Invasion (ABC, 2005-06)
ABC’s first attempt to clone Lost generated a slow burn, starting ominously and gradually building tension until it came to a boiling point in the series’ first and only season finale. The pilot, seen by more than 16 million viewers, was kind of a snooze, leaning heavily on dark portent while never providing the jolty thrills of its most obvious inspiration. But along the way to cancellation, creator Shaun Cassidy (yes, the singer) did turn what seemed like a rote alien-invasion story into an investigation of frayed family dynamics, the ways communities knit together (or tear apart), and how people look for a second chance that seems unlikely to come. By the finale, Cassidy was layering in political references, deepening his mythology, and portraying moments of absolute horror, but no one was watching.
5. Andy Richter Controls The Universe (Fox, 2002-03)
Just as Sons & Daughters seems to have been reborn on ABC as Modern Family, this short-lived Fox series from creator Victor Fresco has been re-imagined by Fresco as ABC’s Better Off Ted. Which you prefer will depend on whether you like well-done whimsy (Richter) or pointed satire (Ted). Both series indulge in both, but Richter’s portrayal of a man trying to get through a boring job by escaping into flights of fancy created a TV rarity: a whimsical comedy that never became too twee. Along with a gregarious performance from the title star, the show was anchored by an ensemble cast full of actors who went on to do good work on other series. Yet their talents were rarely as well-utilized as they were here. (Richter himself, sadly, went on to Quintuplets before reuniting with Conan O’Brien on The Tonight Show.)
6. Wonderland (ABC, 2000)
Peter Berg’s first TV series was often too frenetic by half, but in its dedication to showing a mental hospital The Way It Really Is, the series sported a verisimilitude that few shows even dare approach. Filled with actors who went on to flit through numerous other acclaimed series of the decade—Michelle Forbes and Martin Donovan, to name two—Wonderland could be darkly humorous, but it was often just dark, willing to go to places of bleak despair. Since it was kind of like a major-network Oz, and since it was on after Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, it was quickly shown the door, though DirecTV’s Channel 101 has broadcast the previously unaired episodes.
7. Wonderfalls (Fox, 2004)
Bryan Fuller’s television career has been chockfull of disappointment. His quirky, singular visions get on the air, but they’re soon rejected by audiences and consigned to one-and-done DVD sets. His Wonderfalls, a weird blend of Gen-X snark and Amelie, attempted to turn the story of a more-special-than-she-thinks antisocial 24-year-old into an excuse to bounce through a colorful world of talking animal figurines and lawn flamingoes. Improbably, Fuller, co-executive producers Tim Minear and Todd Holland, and star Caroline Dhavernas (who has sadly disappeared into “wife” roles in assorted movies) made the mundane fantastic and vice versa, crafting a low-key version of Fuller’s other late, lamented series, Pushing Daisies.
8. Jack & Bobby (The WB, 2004-05)
Greg Berlanti’s painfully earnest style of television can be too much when ladled over a giant cast or sprawling storyline—as on ABC’s Brothers & Sisters, his first real hit—but when he keeps his focus small, few producers are better at coming up with recognizably human and heartfelt stories about the ways we disappoint and support each other. Berlanti’s talent for faux-Americana and a nostalgic tone were nicely utilized in this short-lived series about two brothers, one of whom was destined to die before his time, and another who grew up to be president. Christine Lahti played their prickly college-professor mother, and Berlanti’s eye for great young talent landed Matt Long and Logan Lerman their best roles yet. A lot of shows in the wake of 9/11 reached for timelessness and accessibility. This was one of the few that worked.
9. Lucky (FX, 2003)
It’s rare for an acclaimed cable series to get the boot before its time, especially as cable economics are much more dependent on factors like critical buzz than they are on network economics. But FX’s first stab at an original comedy drew a quick cancellation to accompany its great reviews back in 2003. Maybe the show was just a step ahead of its time. Lucky’s world of dark, desperate gamblers feels more of a piece with the crippling economic rot of the latter half of the decade than with the heady days of the decade’s mid-period, when the real-estate bubble just wouldn’t stop inflating. Regardless, Lucky’s dark, witty scripts were a solid vehicle for John Corbett’s natural hangdog talent, and the series’ vision of a poker table as a circle of hell felt dead-on. America’s love of gambling broke out in a real way in the ’00s, which makes it too bad Lucky couldn’t as well.
10. Eyes (ABC, 2005)
John McNamara’s dark pulp has rarely seemed as intoxicating as it did in this ABC detective drama, briefly plopped on the schedule after Lost and Alias in the former’s first season. McNamara is in love with television clichés, but he also loves exploding them, and his version of a private-investigator series was carried off with a wit and panache that the genre has been missing for a while. ABC, banking that serialized dramas like Lost and Desperate Housewives would carry the network, canceled Eyes, but the unaired episodes prove this was a series just finding its groove. The tone McNamara goes for would be mostly gone from the networks by the end of the decade, relegated to places like USA and FX. This series was one of its last gasps on a broadcast network.
Bonus five: Boomtown (NBC), Karen Sisco (ABC), Maybe It’s Me (The WB), Now And Again (CBS), Pasadena (Fox).
Note: If you don't see your favorite one-season-wonder on this list, it may be because it made our list of the 30 best shows of the decade, to be unveiled on Thursday. Or we might have awful taste and just excluded it. You'll know later this week.