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…
3. Life On Mars (2008-2009)
Imagine this scenario: you’re an NYPD detective in 2008, and you’re hot on the trail of a suspect. You get hit by a car, and when you wake up it’s 1973. That was the premise of ABC’s brilliant and imaginative Life On Mars, which was a remake of the BBC series by the same name.
Life On Mars is a clever take on the old fish-out-of-water premise, with Jason O’Mara starring as Sam Tyler, the detective who was transported back in time. Sam’s shock in adjusting to the ‘70s is palpable. Between the clothes, the antiquated police techniques (No warrants? No DNA?), and the attitudes toward women it’s clear that he is a stranger in a strange land. As viewers, we feel his visceral shock at seeing the Twin Towers still standing.
Terrific characters portrayed by great actors populate the series. Michael Imperioli is unforgettable as the uncouth Ray Carling, while Jonathan Murphy is pitch-perfect as the spacey young detective Chris Skelton. Gretchen Mol plays Officer Annie Norris with sweetness and determination, and Harvey Keitel is at his unhinged best as Lt. Gene Hunt.
Life On Mars especially shines when Tyler tries to solve crimes in 1973 without the benefit of modern law enforcement technology. Sam also spends plenty of time trying to figure out why he somehow stumbled 35 years into the past. He has a surprising ally in Annie, who humors him even if she doesn’t exactly believe him.
There are some fantastical elements in the show that add to the mystery of Sam’s state. He hears voices through his television and radio alluding to doctors, leading Sam to wonder if he is in a coma or dead (in 2008). Though he never really solves the mystery in 1973, the program ends in a satisfyingly tongue-in-cheek kind of way, a nice reward for those who supported the show through all 17 episodes.
ABC only gave Life On Mars a single season. It would’ve been nice to have seen the mystery play out over two or three seasons. Life On Mars is available on DVD and Netflix for those who want to give it a shot.
Next we’ll witness a future comedy great in his early years…
2. The Ben Stiller Show (1992-1993)
Before Ben Stiller became one of the go-to guys for neurotic movie comedy he created a short-lived sketch comedy series on Fox. The Ben Stiller Show was as edgy and hip as comedy got on network TV. It was timely and trendy, from the cast to the parody subjects, all the way down to the cool Dweezil Zappa theme music (which still sounds great):
The series starred a veritable who’s who of cutting edge comics: Stiller, Bob Odenkirk, Janeane Garofalo, and Andy Dick, and the writing team was led by Stiller and Judd Apatow. The humor was fast-paced, and the show consisted mainly of television, movie, and commercial parodies. The sketches were inspired: Cape Fear featuring Eddie Munster in place of Robert DeNiro, various celebrities audition to host The Tonight Show, and U2 managed by Mr. Kincaid of The Partridge Family and doing cereal ads.
Some sketches had specific targets, while others were more general. Take a look at one that skewers commercials that rely on sex appeal:
Granted, much of the show is dated to the early ’90s, but it’s still funny and holds up well. One of the show’s unintentional treats is the chance to see Garofalo before she became a complete Marxist moonbat. In many of her roles she essentially parodies what she has become today. To see her making fun of PBS pledge breaks or Sinead O’Connor’s holier-than-thou platitudes is a delicious irony.
Unfortunately, The Ben Stiller Show was apparently too hip for prime time viewers (even on Fox) and only lasted 12 episodes. Comedy Central has rerun the series at least once. All 12 episodes came out on DVD a few years back along with a previously unaired episode and it’s available on Netflix.
Finally, we’ll look at a show that captured the changing lives of returning World War II vets…
1. Homefront (1991-1993)
A truly good historical drama can immerse the viewer in a completely different time. Homefront, which ran for two seasons on ABC, was one of those shows:
As a group of young soldiers return to their hometown of River Run, Ohio, they and their families adjust to the changes. The women who worked in the factory during the war lose their jobs to “the boys.” One soldier comes home to find his fiancee in love with his younger brother, while another breaks his girlfriend’s heart by bringing home his English wife, and yet another doesn’t make it home alive.
The show also documents two young residents of the town as one starts a show business career and the other tries out for the Cleveland Indians. The series also chronicles the division within the town as one man tries to establish a union at the factory. In addition, Homefront tackled issues of racism, antisemitism, and sexual discrimination.
The beautifully written show captured the essence of the ’40s with spot-on sets, costumes, and music. In fact, the program won Emmy awards for costuming, hairstyling, and art direction.
Many of the series’ cast members have gone on to greater success on other shows. Kyle Chandler recently won an Emmy for his work on Friday Night Lights, and Hattie Winston went on to costar on the Ted Danson comedy Becker. Ken Jenkins and Mimi Kennedy have had long careers as character actors on many shows, and John Slattery is best known for his memorable role as Roger Sterling on Mad Men.
Sadly, the show has never been available on DVD, except in bootleg form. It has been on rerun on a couple of smaller cable networks but has rarely been seen since its original airing. A few years back, there were several fan sites and petitions asking to have the show released on DVD, but most of the websites seem to be inactive now. It’s a shame that such a great show appeared to be consigned to memory, until one YouTube user uploaded the show scene by scene. Homefront should have had a longer run. It deserves to be seen again, and with the advent of the internet, it can.
These are just a few of the great television shows that never got a chance to find fans. Hopefully the networks will one day learn to nurture series and give them time to develop an audience, but I’m not holding my breath.
Feel free to share your thoughts and comments. I’m interested to see if others remember these programs, and I’d love to find out about other short-lived shows.