AVQ&A: Most-missed TV shows
Welcome back to AVQ&A;, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you'd like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week's question: What canceled-before-its-time TV show do you miss the most?
Years before the networks broke my heart by killing Freaks And Geeks and Arrested Development before their time, I learned how cruel the TV gods can be when CBS unceremoniously dumped the hottest one-hour high school journalism drama of 1988, TV 101, after only 13 episodes. As an aspiring 11-year-old journalist, I was hooked from the very first episode. My school didn't have a newspaper, much less a newspaper that was turned into TV station by a renegade newsman-turned-teacher, so TV 101 was an opportunity to live vicariously through muckraking student reporters (the cast included Matt LeBlanc, Teri Polo, and Stacey Dash) exposing corruption in the principal's office and human rights offenses committed by strong-armed seniors toward exploited freshmen. How could anyone not relate to this show? As far as I knew, the rest of the country also had TV 101 fever and couldn't wait to sit at the knee of handsome star Sam Robards every week to learn another valuable lesson about the Fourth Estate. In reality, TV 101 aired opposite a murderer's row of popular juggernauts that included Roseanne, Who's The Boss? and Matlock. Twenty years later, you can still watch those shows in syndication while TV 101 is all but forgotten. But I remember. While I mourn the loss of Freaks And Geeks, Arrested Development, and other cult classics we all know and love, I also feel affection for the shows nobody loved save for a small handful of inexplicably enthusiastic fans desperately out of step with the rest of the world.
Though I mourn several shows that were pretty much perfect from their beginnings to their untimely ends—such as obvious favorites like Freaks And Geeks and Arrested Development—the mismanagement and early demise of Showtime's Dead Like Me still rankles, if only because of the success of Pushing Daisies, which was also masterminded by series creator Bryan Fuller. (Fuller also helmed Wonderfalls, which I haven't seen but understand has its own crowd of devotees who curse its early cancellation.) Granted, by the time Dead Like Me unceremoniously dropped off the Showtime schedule at the end of its second season, it was really a shadow of its early self, thanks in part—if not entirely—to Fuller's departure during the first season. But had Fuller not been bullied out of his show by meddling Showtime execs, I maintain that Dead Like Me could have been a sort of comedic counterpart to the network's hitDexter, what with its dark, twisted sense of humor and quirky setup that walks the line between morbid fantasy and everyday reality: A group of grim reapers—headed up by Mandy freakin' Patinkin—muddle through everyday life on earth, plucking the souls from the soon-to-be-dead in between their humdrum daily duties as an office drone, a meter maid, a petty criminal, and the like. If nothing else, the loss of Ellen Muth—who played young reaper George Lass with an uncannily likable grouchiness, and has acted in pretty much nothing else since—rates as a major bummer. Work is wrapping up on a direct-to-DVD film version of Dead Like Me, but the conspicuous lack of involvement from both Fuller and Patinkin doesn't bode well for a late-stage revival.
To my mind, Freaks & Geeks is bar-none of the five or so greatest shows ever to air on television, a scrupulous, funny, and painfully honest evocation of growing up gawky in '80s suburbia. Yet the show's cancellation is a classic example of the "beautiful corpse" theory. To wit: Is it better for a show to have one perfect season and leave a beautiful corpse, or get renewed for several more seasons, risking the possibility of network tinkering or creative lapses tarnishing its legacy? Of course, the heartbreaking thing about Freaks & Geeks is that NBC didn't even allow it to have the one perfect season; it was cancelled after 12 episodes, leaving three more that were eventually run on cable and another three that didn't appear to most viewers until the long-delayed DVD came out. Viewed as a whole, creator Paul Feig's bittersweet nostalgia piece has a satisfying arc, taking the audience through the school year and into the summer, where the brainy Linda Cardellini makes a decision that's informed by all the episodes leading up to it. Unlike many of the shows on this list, there are no questions left unanswered, and yet, with such a rare collection of talent on both sides of the camera, there will always be a part of me that never wants to the story to end.
The late-'80s saw the debut of a bunch of shows that tested the boundaries of TV formula then were forced to slink away while those boundaries were confirmed. "Dramedies" became a frequently used, if lousy, tag for half-hour comedies with no laugh track, fully sketched characters, a cinematic look, and the occasional weighty theme. Created by WKRP In Cincinnati creator Hugh Wilson, Frank's Place was one such show. WKRP' Tim Reid executive produced the show with Wilson and starred as a Brown-educated Boston college professor who inherits Chez (pronounced "shez") Louisiane, a venerable New Orleans restaurant. The Chez is home to a cross-section of New Orleanians and the show used warm humor to explore and subvert expectations of race, class, and regional origin. Not that I necessarily got all that as a freshman in high school when the show aired, mind you. But I loved the characters and the regional flair and the credits introduced me to one of Louis Armstrong's best songs. A writer's strike, low ratings, and a lead-in from the far-more-conventional Kate & Allie conspired to kill the show after one season and no one's bothered to put it out on DVD yet (though a few episodes can be found on YouTube.)
The A.V. Clubdebated about whether to include this, because it's just so obvious, but any discussion about prematurely canceled TV shows is incomplete without mention of Arrested Development. It's the apotheosis of the phenomenon: a brilliant, critically lauded show with a small, but fervent fanbase, cut down in its prime. Although I came late to the party (during season two), the survival of Arrested Developmentquickly became personal for me. The devotion was understandable: The show had a brilliant ensemble cast with a sparkling rhythm and sharp wit, from low-brow double entendres to more high-minded satire. Each episode was delightfully dense, with new jokes revealing themselves on subsequent viewings. Losing Arrested Developmentwas made all the more painful by its third season: Even as it became obvious Fox would not renew the show, Arrested Developmentpacked in some of its best episodes, providing a rushed, though fitting, sense of closure at the end. Now we, the faithful, cling to the hope of an Arrested Developmentmovie. Michael Cera, won't you give us our dream?
There's still a giant void in me where Angel used to be, and although I know I could pick up the recent comic book series to find out who lived and who died in that alleyway, I will always feel cheated out of a proper sixth season of one of my favorite shows. But when it comes to screaming "Why?" at the heavens, that honor goes to David Milch's brilliant Deadwood, a willfully ugly, brutally violent—and yet somehow moving and very funny—series that left a big, smoking bullet hole in my heart. I'm actually not big on Westerns; raised in Texas by folks who spent their childhoods on honest-to-God ranches, I declared my independence by rejecting cowboy culture for city slicker dreams long ago. Still, Deadwood was like no other Western I'd ever seen before: Its characters were morally gray, capable of being tender and vicious in the same scene, and they spoke in purple, Victorian prose that made particularly inventive use of the word "cocksucker." And after I'd finally deciphered the language, learned to appreciate the complexities of the main players' relationships to one another, and come to love living in this harsh wilderness with them, well, they up and canceled it, just as it reached its dramatic peak. People complained about The Sopranos denouement, but to me nothing was more frustrating than the end of "Tell Him Something Pretty": Seth Bullock, newly stripped of his badge, impotently sends Hearst on his way after he's left the rest of the camp in utter turmoil, and that's fucking that. Sure, one could argue that we already know how this story ends—we're standing here in its epilogue, after all—but after being denied twice the chance of a movie to bring things to a proper end, all I'm left with is feelings of abandonment and bitterness as I wonder how things specifically shook out for Tolliver, Jane and Joanie, Alma, and yes, even that weasel E.B. Farnum. Not to mention Al Swearengen, one of the greatest characters ever committed to the small screen. Thanks a lot, HBO. You do indeed suck cock by choice.
The Critic's early cancellation deprived the world of years of adroit film parodies as succinct as they were hilarious and Jon Lovitz in perhaps his signature role: a balding, acerbic television film critic who draws deep and lustily from a bottomless well of pessimism and negativity. The Critic was a charming valentine to New York—that, as its creators bitterly note on the show's despairing, candid audio commentaries, never caught on in New York—as well as a satire of Hollywood that was both affectionate and biting. After The Critic was put down after a mere two seasons fans wanted it back in the worst way. That's exactly what they got when The Critic lurched back to life like some sort of brain-dead pop-culture zombie as a crudely animated, bite-sized "webtoon" that did away with most of the show's awesome supporting cast, most disastrously Jay's genially insane aristocratic adopted father and Ted Turner-like hillbilly tycoon of a boss, in favor of a sexy/forgettable new love interest. But there's only one thing to say about the proper show's premature demise: it stinks!
I'd say Twin Peaks, except that by the time it was cancelled, it really deserved it. I would have liked to see more of that show if only it had lived up to the promise of the brilliant first season. That said, I'm most frustrated about the early demise of an obvious Twin Peaks descendant, HBO's Carnivàle. Like Twin Peaks,Carnivàle had a tendency to follow a stunning revelation with long periods of nothing that wasted its potential and viewers' time — the plotline where Ben Hawkins was captured by hillbillies was particularly aggravating and meaningless—but when it was on message, it was the best thing on TV at the time. Beautifully shot, admirably dark, and vastly ambitious, it had the texture and punch of an excellent film mixed with the depth of a long-form serial. Granted, it was stupidly expensive to make, and creatorDaniel Knauf had an unlikely plan for the series that mandated a six-year run but still left enough slack time in the first two seasons that viewers turned away. Plus, Knauf's legal battles with HBO over control of the series couldn't have helped. It makes sense thatCarnivàle got cancelled. We just don't have to like it — especially the David Lynch-esque massive cliffhanger in the final episode, which, no matter what HBO said at the time, was not a "natural end" to the story.
Back in the crazy days of early September 2008, with the tragedy of the 25th annual VMAs still fresh in everyone's minds, and the McCain and Obama attack ads pummeling us from all sides, there was only one thing that I could count on to cheer me up: an episode of Fox's Do Not Disturb, every Wednesday at 8pm. (Well, two Wednesdays before it was canceled.) The sitcom followed the ups and downs of a staff of a boutique hotel—and boy did they have a lot of ups and downs! Everything just seemed so fun, if thoroughly unbelievable, at that boutique hotel. Many times I would wish that I worked there, forcing a laugh at Niecy Nash's sassitude, and Jerry O'Connell's lovable smarminess. Unfortunately, though, Fox canceled the show after two episodes, leaving me here to wonder: But what about the dumb blonde girl? She could have really gotten into some shenanigans. Or the guy with glasses? Just think about all the quips he could have made before being drowned out by a laugh track. Now those shenanigans and quips will go unseen and unheard forever. But at least the cancellation of the show released Jerry O'Connell from the sitcom star cage, allowing him to roam free to pursue whatever entertainment goals he so desires. Thanks, Fox. Thanks a lot.