We live in a time that many have called the best ever for quality television. Looking around, it’s hard to argue with that.
Top-tier Dramas like Game of Thrones and House of Cards rack up nominations time and again for their quality storytelling. On the comedic end, you’ve got shows like Modern Family, Louie, and Community that keep people in stitches week after week. And that’s not even mentioning some of the equally great shows that don’t get as much love. Hannibal and Rick and Morty come to mind.
If a network plays its cards right, a show that tells a good story will pick up an audience, stick around for a few seasons, and win the network accolades from around the world. But sometimes that doesn’t happen. Sometimes a show doesn’t find an audience until it’s too late. Sometimes great shows leave us too soon. If we’re lucky, some of them come back. However, more often than not, we're left to wonder what might have been.
Network executives are a stubborn bunch, and we can expect more great shows to be cancelled before they reach their natural conclusion. At the moment, there are a few high quality shows that have been given the ax prematurely. A to Z, a new NBC comedy that received very positive reviews, has been cut short due to its poor ratings. Legit, FX's raunchy comedy starring Jim Jefferies, was just shown the door in June, despite the positive reviews the show was beginning to receive.
Here are 15 great shows that were cancelled for low ratings.
Let’s clear this one off the list right away. Yes, Firefly was a great show. Probably the best thing Avengers director Joss Whedon has ever done. And yes, Fox mishandled the show, airing episodes out of order and generally making a mess of the wonderful universe Whedon created. But the sad truth is still that nobody watched the thing until after it was already gone.
This space western did well enough on DVD, and had enough fan support, that Universal backed a film sequel called Serenity... that also didn’t quite snag enough viewers. Some fans still quietly yearn for another outing in the series, but it’s probably best to acknowledge that it’s just not going to happen.
14 The Legend of Korra
A follow-up to the popular “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” The Legend of Korra was a bit more of a mature look at the world of martial arts masters who can manipulate matter and energy.
That ended up being a problem for Nickelodeon. The show’s audience wound up being composed heavily of the same audience as The Last Airbender – people now in their teens and twenties, and unlikely to watch the show on TV, or to buy any merchandise.
The show was moved to online-only distribution midway through season three, and then back to airing on TV midway through season four. It’s likely this will be the last we see of this world, at least on television.
You gotta give it up for Dan Harmon and Community. Somehow, in spite of everything that’s gone against it, the show is going to be getting a sixth season.
As funny as it is, Community never caught on in a big way, with some speculating the humour was too different for widespread popularity. After three seasons, showrunner Dan Harmon was fired, replaced by David Guarascio and Moses Port... and then rehired for season five. In as much as NBC wanted the show to be a little more mainstream, it turned out that wasn’t the right fit for the show. Finally, though, after five seasons, NBC pulled the plug because of low ratings – and Yahoo swept in and renewed the show for a sixth, online-exclusive season. This show just doesn’t want to die.
12 Family Guy
Is Family Guy the best ever? No, but it has its merits. Like Community, Family Guy was cancelled for having low ratings. Actually, it was cancelled twice. In 2000, after Fox announced the show would no longer air, a change of heart led the show to remain on the network’s lineup. And then it was cancelled again in 2002.
It found a huge audience after old episodes began to air on Adult Swim, and enormous DVD sales prompted Fox to go back to Seth MacFarlane, hat in hand, to ask him to bring the show back. He did, and years later the show still gets consistently strong ratings.
11 Freaks and Geeks
This show has a pretty amazing fandom now, years after it aired. Looking at the cast, there’s little wonder why. James Franco, Seth Rogen, Linda Cardellini, Jason Segel, and Tom Wilson are just a few of the big names to star on the show, which was created by Bridesmaids director Paul Feig and produced by Judd Apatow.
Despite all the – then relatively unknown – talent the high school comedy had, it had a difficult time attracting an audience, and was only aired for 15 of the 18 episodes that were made. To this day, the show is praised both for the humour and dramatic depth it offered, and even some of the cast get excited at the idea of a reunion.
This HBO western wasn’t as hard up for viewers as other shows on this list, which made its disappearance something of a mystery at the time. To this day, there has been no official explanation offered as to why it ended, unresolved, after three seasons. Speculation says it was because the show’s cost of production was higher than its audience justified having.
For a time there was talk of a TV film or two being made to complete the story, or at least offer fans some amount of closure. As recently as 2011 it seemed like a possibility, but in 2012, creator David Milch acknowledged it was unlikely to happen.
9 Arrested Development
With all the fanfare surrounding this show’s return to Netflix in 2013, you might be surprised to learn that it just wasn’t all that popular when it was first on TV.
Though it lasted three seasons, low ratings kept Arrested Development in that uncomfortable zone where cancellation was always likely. Finally, after the third season, showrunner Mitch Hurwitz called it a day, turning down an offer by Showtime to produce a smaller, lower budget version of the show.
Though the cast moved on, talk of a sequel season or film never went away, and finally the show returned for a fourth season on Netflix. A fifth, or a film, are still possibilities.
No, this is not the pinnacle of television greatness. It is, however, an iconic TV show, and so it’s a little surprising that it was cancelled after a single season before returning for ten more.
You had David Hasselhoff, aka. the guy from Knight Rider, in the starring role, and a bunch of ladies in swimsuits. Little wonder why the creative team fought to get the show back on the air after cancellation – or that it worked.
Of course, the best thing to come of the Baywatch phenomenon is the short-lived weirdness that was “Baywatch Nights.” The Hoff worked as a detective fighting the supernatural, because that is the obvious place for that franchise to go.
7 Party Down
Better known for his stellar mystery series Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas is also the creator of a hilarious comedy that aired on Starz from 2009-2010: Party Down.
The show starred several familiar faces, including Masters of Sex’s Lizzy Caplan, Parks and Rec’s Adam Scott, and Glee’s Jane Lynch. Still, the show, which followed a group of misfit caterers, was unable to draw in the viewers, and only found a real following after it was off the air.
Still, fans of the show should take heart that a script for a film sequel was being worked on as recently as in 2012. Nothing is confirmed, but that’s a solid first step.
JAG, the military law drama that ran for ten years from 1995-2005, was actually a pretty big disappointment when it first aired. Similar to Law and Order in that it based many of its stories on real life events, it was unable to attract viewers in its freshman outing, and so was placed on the chopping block.
It was snapped up by CBS, and somehow ratings picked up considerably, allowing it to enjoy nine more seasons on the air. It also inspired the spinoff series NCIS, which has itself spun off two more, being NCIS Los Angeles and New Orleans.
It seemed like there was a good amount of excitement for Jericho when it first began to air, or at least plenty of marketing to hype it up. Somehow it wasn’t able to cut it, and so the show was axed after its first season.
Like a few others on this list, Jericho was saved by its fanbase, which staged a campaign to get CBS to reconsider. They did, but only for a season.
Perhaps it was just ahead of its time. The show, which dealt with a group of survivors navigating life in America after a nuclear attack, would likely find fans among the Walking Dead crowd.
Another Whedon show that got kicked off the air too soon. Dollhouse starred Eliza Dushku and centered on people who rented their bodies to a company that would upload custom personalities into their brains, allowing customers to live out their fantasies with made-to-order dream people.
The show never did well in the ratings, but was spared cancellation after its first season after a Fox executive humorously pointed out that the Whedon fanbase would be in uproar. It never was quite able to find an audience – it didn’t help that the show was moved to the Friday night slot, typically a difficult one to grab viewers with.
3 Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
The first season started out pretty average, but over time The Sarah Connor Chronicles became something special. It explored deep themes related to humanity, love, and the nature of personhood. And it did it all while throwing deadly robot assassins from the future into the mix.
The show ended on a hell of a cliff-hanger, with a young John Connor transported forward in time to a future in which he had never led the human resistance. Naturally, that’s where the show got cancelled. For a while it looked like there might be some sort of continuation, but all talk of a sequel is dead now, and new Terminator projects are on the horizon. Too bad.
2 Pushing Daisies
It was visually stylish, delightfully whimsical, and one of the best written shows around. Naturally it was cancelled after just a couple of seasons.
The show followed Ned, also known as the pie maker, a man whose touch restored life to the dead. Together with his resurrected girlfriend Chuck and his partner, detective Emerson Cod, he solved murder mysteries by speaking with the deceased.
There’s been talk of a sequel, with Bryan Fuller, the show's creator, apparently interested in doing a miniseries to wrap the show up. With Fuller now hard at work on the equally great Hannibal, though, and the cast moving on to big things, it’s unlikely a sequel will arrive any time soon, if at all.
1 The Black Donnellys
In 2007, the television world made a huge mistake. Sure, Heroes was entertaining, but that entertainment lasted for a season and a half and then descended into chaos and stupidity. The Black Donnellys, the show that followed Heroes for its first season, could have been something special.
It’s the story of four Irish-American brothers in New York, men who get mixed up in crime and face the consequences when trouble invades their neighbourhood.
Here’s the thing: it probably should have come back. The show was the second-most streamed program on NBC’s website, right after Heroes. Anybody who watched the thing loved it. Then again, considering how much NBC has screwed up in recent years, it’s hardly a surprise that they bungled this, too.