We’ve all been there. You start a new show and become invested in the characters and the storylines. You start telling all of your friends about this new show you discovered and you invite them over to have a viewing party. Your friends think you’re crazy because they’ve never heard of this show before and your description doesn’t do it justice. You tell yourself that it's fine, that this show can be your private little event, something for you to enjoy personally. But when you tune in the following week, the show is gone. It leaves an inexplicable void in your life. It never seems fair, but that’s the business.
Television is a numbers game. Executives pick from a list of television pitches and select the shows that they think will make the most money. Typically fandom translates into large audiences, which in turn translates into profit. There are times, however, when positive reviews are not enough to save a show.
The following is a list of quality shows that were unable to survive beyond their first season. Reasons vary, sometimes shows failed because networks didn’t provide the necessary support. Sometimes, while having great critical reviews, shows fail because they aren’t able to garner the attention from audiences. Sometimes shows are just doomed to fail.
Some of the shows on this list have developed dedicated fan bases since being cancelled, while others have faded into obscurity. But one thing many of these shows have in common is having left us with a cliffhanger that will never be resolved, making us all the more depressed that we’ll never see the conclusion to the stories of these funny, battered and engaging characters.
11 Luck - 2012
Luck is a show that many people are not familiar with, but having been produced by HBO, developed by David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood), and starring Dustin Hoffman and Dennis Farina, it’s insane to think how this show flew under the radar.
Luck is hailed for its elegant writing, beautiful cinematography, and spot on performances. It shows the seedy underbelly of horse racing, and of course the gambling that takes place. Luck tells the story of Ace (Hoffman) who has just been released from jail and is looking to exact revenge on the people who put him there.
Ironically, Luck was cancelled due to a bout of monumental bad luck. Despite taking the proper precautions (only racing the horses three times a day and allowing for proper rest), two horses broke their legs during the filming of the first season and were euthanized. PETA and the American Humane Association began attacking HBO over the euthanization of the two animals, which ultimately resulted in the show being cancelled after its first season.
10 Terra Nova - 2012
You probably remember this one because Fox hyped the proverbial crap out of it. Terra Nova was a show about people from the future travelling to the distant past to start a new life. The humans in the 22nd century were facing extinction, so they decided to send an elite squad back to pre-historic times to begin a new civilization.
People were stoked. It was praised as one of the most exciting and promising shows to premiere that season, and of course it was. It was a struggle to begin a new civilization as they went head to head with dinosaurs, what could go wrong?
Well it appeared the Terra Nova was too big for its britches. The show optimistically stated that it wanted to be bigger than Lost - one of television’s most celebrated and important series. The number didn’t match up with the hype, so Fox decided to put it on the shelf. There were reported talks about extending the show on Netflix, but in the end nothing materialized out of that - ending any hope of the show progressing beyond its first season.
9 Trophy Wife - 2013
Trophy Wife starred Malin Akerman as a young pretty blonde woman who married a middle aged lawyer. Kate (Akerman) had to figure out how to live in a family setting as the matriarch while facing off with her husband’s two ex-wives. The show was praised for never stooping to the easy stereotypical jokes, and it received very positive reviews.
Trophy Wife is an example of a show that was placed in an awful time slot. It was placed on Tuesday evenings, and if you can find a show that was able to succeed in the Tuesday night timeslot, I will give you a bunny… but not actually.
8 Enlisted - 2013
Enlisted is a procedure show that takes place in - you guessed it - a warzone. Three brothers are sent to Afghanistan after an altercation with a commanding officer. Although it took place the show took place during war, it was given credit for not falling on either side of the political spectrum.
The show was received well, and it achieved an 86% on Rotten Tomatoes, which as everyone knows is the epitome of evaluating the quality of media, but the show petered out because of predictable reasons.
Enlisted is another example of how vital a time slot can be; it was not even allowed to complete its entire first season being cancelled after only nine episodes. It was given a time slot on Friday evening, which, as everyone knows, is already occupied with drinking away the previous week’s drudgery. Rather than give it any real shot, Fox chose to discharge Enlisted (see what I did there?).
7 The Black Donnellys - 2007
The Black Donnellys is a television series that was developed by Hollywood heavyweight Phil Haggis. It’s about a working class Irish family in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, who are swept up in petty crime and eventually confrontations with the Italian mob.
Haggis pulled from real life historical figure the Black Donnellys from his native London, Ontario, when he created this show, and his representation of working class Irish families is spot on.
The Black Donnellys wasn’t even allowed to finish its first season as NBC pulled it after only five episodes but aired the rest online. The show was cancelled due to low viewership.
6 Undeclared - 2001
Undeclared is widely regarded as the spiritual successor to another show on this list Freaks and Geeks. Judd Apatow developed it and it starred one of his muses Seth Rogen, and saw some impressive guest appearances including Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell.
The show was about Steven Karp (Jay Baruchel), a freshman at the fictional University of Northeastern California as he tried to figure out his place in the world. A typical nerd throughout high school, Steven quickly learned that university was a place to remake his identity.
One of the chief reasons Undeclared was cancelled was that Fox aired its episodes out of order - a trend that we’re going to see again on this list. It was hard for audiences to get engaged in the story as each episode may have had plot lines and even jokes that seemingly made no sense. Because of this, it was doomed before it even aired.
5 Terriers - 2010
Terriers was a show that aired on FX in the beginning of the golden age for the network. It was about ex-cop Hank Dolworth teaming up with his friend Britt to form a private eye company.
Terriers was met with praise from critics, including being placed as one of the top 10 shows in 2010 by multiple sources, and it was even nominated as for Outstanding New Program by the Television Critics Association.
What makes Terriers particularly unique on this list is that it was thoroughly explained why it was cancelled by the FX President. He cites his own network’s failure to properly promote the series by spending an exorbitant amount on marketing for the show, but often times featuring a dog of some sort in the advertising. This caused audiences to believe that this was some bizarre show about dogs, and that was it for this promising buddy cop comedy.
4 Clone High - 2002
This is a big example of writer’s bias as Clone High is my own personal favorite show on the list. Clone High is a cartoon about a high school completely populated by genetic duplicates of history’s greatest people. The main character is an awkward and lanky Abraham Lincoln as he tried to navigate popularity, girls, and of course being a clone.
At its heart Clone High is actually a parody of the numerous high school drama series which were being pumped out of major networks around this time (think Dawson’s Creek, The OC, etc.). The show often satirizes adolescent and ultimately inconsequential problems.
The biggest reason for its cancellation was the outrage it sparked in India over its depiction of Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi is Lincoln’s best friend in the show and he suffers from ADHD, and is also quite the womanizer. Upon discovering Clone High many Indians felt deeply insulted and even threatened a hunger strike in response to the show. The show creators Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are doing pretty okay today, having been the main creative team behind Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and another one of my favorites, The Lego Movie.
3 My So-Called Life - 1994
My So-Called Life is a teen drama that was praised for its accurate portrayal of adolescent life, and it arguably launched the career of Claire Danes. It follows the story of Angela Chase (Danes) as she tries to navigate the pitfalls of adolescent life in the 90s. The show could be compared to - I’ll say it - an American rendition of Degrassi.
Danes won a Golden Globe for her performance, and the show was nominated for four Primetime Emmy Awards, uniformly well received by critics. So what happened?
Interestingly enough, My So-Called Life is credited as generating the first fan campaign to renew a show for another season, and if you’re a fan of Community you know how powerful that force has become. Apparently, the show ended as Danes no longer wanted to be a part of it. Upon hearing this, show creator Winnie Holzman stated that she no longer wanted to create a show if it wasn’t something everyone believed in.
2 Freaks and Geeks - 1999
Freaks and Geeks has gone down as not only as one of the best shows to be cancelled after one season, but maybe one of the greatest triumphs ever to be on the small screen - well before they cancelled it.
Freaks and Geeks followed a pair of siblings - Lindsay and Sam - as they faced the troublesome arena that was high school in 1980. The show had an impossibly good cast including Rogen, James Franco, and Jason Segel and it was even featured in Time Magazine’s Top 100 Shows of All time.
So what happened? Well, the show received low ratings upon its release and was pulled before it could even complete its first season. Many people feel that the show was ahead of its time in the way it developed characters in a complicated and realistic manner without sensationalizing them, and now we’ll never know what happened after that fateful summer.
1 Firefly - 2002
Was there any ever doubt? Firefly is the story of a cargo ship in space as it ducks the law and tries to do right. The show successfully blended sci-fi and western motifs and even had space zombies before the huge zombie craze of the 2010s.
As we’ve seen before, Firefly suffered at the hands of Fox deciding to air the shows in improper order, which proves to be disastrous for television programs. It wasn’t even given a shot.
Firefly is not just number one on this list due to it’s quality, but also what it was able to achieve after it was cancelled. Firefly achieved true cult status, and after its cancellation fans hit the web and petitioned Fox to renew it for a second season. While the show was never renewed, Universal Studios picked it up and created the film sequel Serenity.
Firefly offers a tremendous example of what fans are able to accomplish with the internet when they band together. Shows like Community, The Legend of Korra, and even Family Guy would not have survived without the fan base demanding more, and because of that Firefly is number one on this list of top shows to only last one season.