4. Five TV Shows That Didn’t Get the Chance They Deserved
Maybe Netflix can resurrect some of these?
Over the years I’ve had the misfortune of falling head over heels for a new TV show only to see brilliant network executives cancel it before an audience could appear. It seems to be an issue more often these days. New series come and go, shattered by the network hammer long before they have a chance to garner fans and viewers.
It wasn’t always this way. Shows like Seinfeld and Taxi took years to develop a following, while networks often keep “prestige” shows like 30 Rock on the air despite poor ratings. Recently in The Hollywood Reporter, columnist Tim Goodman posed an interesting question: “Do TV Series Get or Deserve Second Chances?” Before basically answering “yes and no,” Goodman noted:
The fact is, it’s getting harder and harder to cultivate a hit series on television and keep the numbers steady. Already the mythological 500-channel universe is rapidly becoming a reality, diluting the available audience. It’s a wider, not deeper world now. Consequently, the definition of a hit, particularly for network television, continues to nosedive. Any series above 10 million total viewers is a massive hit – when, in the not-too-distant past, that was a number that could get you canceled.
Here are five shows that didn’t get the chance they deserved. I’ve limited myself to the last 20 years in compiling this list. The nice thing is that, with modern technology like DVDs, Netflix, and YouTube, people can become fans of these shows all over again.
We’ll start with a show that tackled one of the most divisive eras in our nation’s recent history…
5. I’ll Fly Away (1991-1993)
The networks rarely choose to portray the civil rights era on series television, but one drama tried in the early ‘90s: I’ll Fly Away. Much of the show, which ran for two seasons on NBC, was filmed in and around my hometown, so I have a bit of a personal connection with it.
I’ll Fly Away tells the story of the nascent civil rights movement through two parallel stories. Small town attorney Forrest Bedford (Sam Waterston) is a widower raising three children. His law practice is successful, but when he begins to take on civil rights cases, his view of the world changes. Meanwhile, his black nanny (Regina Taylor) also sees the sea change taking place in the South, inspiring her own political activism.
Filmed on location in small towns in Georgia, the show’s Southern details hit the mark (as did the accents). The writing and directing were excellent, in spite of an earnest, left-leaning bent. The children on the show were precocious and thoughtful without being saccharine. Both Waterston and Taylor played their roles with a quiet intensity that contrasted with the stormy nature of the times.
I’ll Fly Away won two Emmys and several other awards in its short run. After NBC cancelled the show, PBS made a TV movie to tie up the loose ends. PBS also reran the entire series one time. I’ll Fly Away has never been released on DVD, and it seemed as though it would be a series lost to the past. However, one YouTube user has made all of the program’s episodes available in a playlist. Thanks to modern technology, viewers can seek out I’ll Fly Away again.
Next we’ll look at a heartfelt comedy set in the world of sports media…
4. Sports Night (1998-2000)
One of the most underrated comedies of the last years of the 20th century was Sports Night. Aaron Sorkin created and developed the series, which was set at a Sports Center-type show, also called Sports Night.
The cast was amazing and not well known at the time. Felicity Huffman starred as producer Dana Whitaker. The anchors Dan Rydell and Casey McCall were played by Josh Charles and Peter Krause and modeled after ESPN anchors like Dan Patrick, Craig Kilborn, and Keith Olbermann. Joshua Malina and Sabrina Lloyd portrayed associate producers Jeremy Goodwin and Natalie Hurley. Rounding out the principal cast was the venerable Robert Guillaume as network honcho Isaac Jaffe.
Sports Night bore many of the hallmarks of its creator’s films and TV series. It was a quick-witted program with fast-paced banter, and Sorkin’s iconic “walk and talk” segments appeared again. Plenty of poignant drama brought depth throughout the show — in fact, it’s better described as a comedy-drama than as a traditional sitcom. During the first season, ABC added a laugh track to the show, but they gradually lowered the volume throughout the season and got rid of it for the second.
The show wasn’t afraid of controversial issues: From the legalization of marijuana to the fight over the Confederate flag to violence against women. Guillaume suffered a stroke in the middle of the first season, and his condition and recovery were written into the storyline.
Sports Night was nominated for eight Emmys and won three. The show’s stars have gone on to other well-known roles. Krause currently stars on Parenthood, while Charles is a member of the cast of The Good Wife. Huffman won an Emmy for her role on Desperate Housewives.
After the second season ABC cancelled Sports Night. Sorkin received offers to relocate the show to HBO, Showtime, or USA, but he declined, choosing to focus on The West Wing. Comedy Central acquired the rights to the show and ran it at least once, and it has appeared internationally too. Fortunately, the series is available on DVD and Netflix, and it’s well worth checking out.
Next we’ll take a look at a trippy, time-bending show…