Friday, December 11, 2009

Misunderstood TV: Great (and Sort of Great) Shows that Lasted Only One Season


It's a tale as old as television time. Someone comes up with a fantastic idea for a show, it premieres to rave reviews and critical praise, it seems poised on the brink of success...and no one watches it. There's no real formula to these things. No matter how strong a show, there's no way of knowing whether it will become a runaway hit or fizzle out into obscurity. With all the terrible shows that have been on the air for ages, it's clear you just can't count on the viewing public.

Thankfully, the internet hosts more than its fair share of elitists and snobs who are more than willing to show us all the error of our television watching ways. Really, just look at anyone who comments on the Onion's AV club. These types quick to tell us all what heathens we are for holding mainstream television viewing habits. To these TV snobs, popularity amongst the masses is the kiss of death. Everyone knows the only way to determine quality is if everyone hates something. Aside from a select chosen few who have the unique wisdom and intelligence to understand it, of course.

Luckily for you, I'm only sort of like that. I wouldn't consider myself an elitist. I just think I'm smarter than everyone else. What? I'm kidding. Only most people.

Joking aside (and for the record, I am joking), it's not about snobbery. It's just pure luck, plain and simple. Some shows make it, and others fly under the radar and face cancellation. Thanks to the almighty power of DVD, though, not to mention all sorts of online clips, there's hope for you yet on some of these:

Freaks and Geeks



This is one of those classic examples, the show everyone brings up in praise of underrated media everywhere. While nowadays some people are sick of the ever-growing Judd Apatow empire and its monopoly on the comedy market, back then he was a fledgling producer pushing a little show about high school misfits. He assembled a team of talented young comic actors and gave them a great script, but audiences just weren't biting. Apatow was loyal to his cast picks, though, and featured them all heavily in future projects. It's safe to say that even if you never saw an episode of Freaks and Geeks a day in your life, you'd recognize most of the ensemble today.

The show was set in the 1980s in small-town Michigan and focused on the daily lives of two groups of social outcasts: the "freaks" and the "geeks". It's a winding story of adolescent self-discovery and tribulations, and the show treated its characters with respect. Despite its disparaging title, the show's characters were more than the stereotypical nerds. They were multifaceted enough that we could relate to them in a distinctly human way. It's no wonder the show's become a cult classic: with the extensively detailed and commentated DVD release, it's every elitist nerd's dream.

Unfortunately, audiences responded similarly tepidly to Apatow's sophomore sitcom effort, college comedy Undeclared which lasted a single season from 2001-2002. You've got to admire his stick-to-it-ness though. He certainly got his due.



The Ben Stiller Show



Creating a sketch comedy show requires a delicate balance. Over the years, the marketplace has been flooded with them, some funny and some falling flat. It's always something of a crapshoot. This Ben Stiller's foray into sketch comedy came early in his career, preceding his ascendancy into movie stardom. And, surprise, surprise, Judd Apatow wrote for this one too. Was there any TV pot in which he had no hand? Any unpopular ones, I mean.

This show was 90s incarnate. With supporting stars like the then-unknown Janeane Garafalo and Andy Dick, this show oozed Gen X-iness from every frame. It began with a short run on MTV and was later picked up by FOX, impressed with the debut. The show mainly parodied popular media, but it was just a tad too witty and wicked for its own good. It overstepped that boundary of middle America by giving us multi-layered creative jokes that don't test well with wide audiences. TV snobs, yes, but regular people, no. That equation, however, usually equals good DVD sales over a decade later from die-hard fans, so it wasn't a total loss.


The Critic



Okay, okay, you got me. There were technically two seasons of The Critic, though each had a very limited number of episodes and showed on two different networks. In The Critic, Jon Lovitz stars as Jay Sherman, "New York's third-most popular early-morning cable TV-film critic". The show parodied popular movies and Jay offered his critiques, set against the backdrop of plots based on Jay's everyday life. In an ironic twist of fat, the Jay character has an aversion to popular taste and is generally contemptuous of well-liked media. No wonder elitists like this show so much. Jay is them. He is the epitome of the snobby intellectual New Yorker on which all intellectual poseurs base their TV show preferences. A near-perfect fit.

A full season of the show was produced, but ABC canceled The Critic after thirteen episodes. As other episodes were already moving through production, FOX jumped on the bandwagon and picked up the rest of the season, only to drop it once the remaining ten had aired. The now-defunct UPN was in talks to air some more episodes, but the deal fell through. Webisodes premiered in 2000, but it just wasn't the same. You'd think a show with Simpsons crossovers would be able to garner some interest, but it just never took off.


My So-Called Life



No, your eyes do not deceive you. I posted the entire first episode above, in hopes that you'll watch it and be pulled into the angsty goodness that was the underrated My So-Called Life. This is one of those other quintessential examples of a show that died too young. I may never recover from the shock of learning I'd never find out the answer to the season finale's cliffhanger. It plagues me still. Brian or Jordan? If you have any insights, do share. I'm still considering the possibilities.

On the other hand, this show was pretty heavy-handed with the issue-tackling. It squeezed so much into its 19 hour-long episodes, it's almost hard to imagine a continuation. In one episode, Angela muses, "When someone dies young, it's like they stay that way forever, like a vampire." Such is the case of My So-Called Life. In its existing canon, it's nearly perfect. It never took that ratings-seeking risk that could have tainted its goodness. It gets to stay that way forever, as it should. Like a vampire, only with less bloodsucking and sparkling in the sunshine.



The Dana Carvey Show



Like I said, sketch comedy shows are shaky ground, creatively speaking. Not everything that succeeds as a smaller part of a larger show will fare well when released into the wild unshielded by the popularity of its parent show. Dana Carvey was very popular on Saturday Night Live, and had a loyal following ABC hoped to to bring on board to his self-titled debut. The show was a little risque, especially considering it aired right after the family comedy Home Improvement. The sponsors were none too pleased with the iffy content, which combined with the plummeting ratings spelled imminent early cancellation.

We did get one good thing out of it: The Ambiguously Gay Duo, which later re-premiered on SNL. Thanks, Stephen Colbert and Robert Smigel. You guys did us proud.


Of course, there were many other shows that didn't get their due, but that's all we've got time for today, folks. Now they really didn't get their due, considering I wouldn't even pay tribute to them here. So, I'm sorry, Eerie, Indiana, Twin Peaks, and all you others. You've been doubly screwed. Luckily, there will always be a vocal contingency of TV elitists to keep singing your praises, canceled TV shows. There's hope for you yet. You know, on DVD--the TV snob's medium of choice.

27 comments:

Badass Geek said...

If only the network execs who cancelled some of these shows could have looked into the future a bit and see how much they would be exalted. They probably wouldn't have been cancelled, but that may have changed the scope of things.

Oh well. Hindsight is 20/20.

Sadako said...

Yeah, we got TEN SEASONS of 90210, six really long ones of Dawson's Creek, a bunch of Felicities, Smallville is STILL on the air, but only one of the Critic, My So Called, and Freaks and Geeks? Is there no justice?!

Every time I rewatch those shows I try to write in my head what would happen. Is Daniel going to continue to be all D&D? Does Lindsay get in trouble for following the dead? Does Graham move out and does Patty cope? Does Brian ever get any loving?

Sonja said...

THANK YOU for posting this!!! For the life of me I could NOT remember the name of this show last night and one of the guys was on Bones last night! lol

& I had NO idea James Franco, Seth Rogan, and that other guy from Forgetting Sarah Marshall was in this!!!

A Real Housewife said...

I never did watch Freaks & Geeks but wish I had. I heart James Franco.

Noelle said...

My So-called Life was the best show ever! So ahead of its time! I too have never gotten over it's cancellation. So sad! Freaks and Geeks was great too.

for the love of pictures said...

I never got into Freaks and Geeks when it was actually on the air, but I have since :) It really was very good.

I used to watch The Critic though - yeah, I'll admit it :)

Jaime said...

Loooove My So-Called... have the DVD! Such an under appreciated show!

Meg said...

I've found that if I mention that such and such actor was in Freaks and Geeks, people look at me like I have 2 heads. Shame, because the show was awesome.

Maggi said...

Ah, Freaks and Geeks, so young, so cancelled. :(

Ice Queen said...

I forgot about The Critic. I think I caught an episode and thought it was very strange...I guess a lot of other people did too. Haha

Melissa Blake said...

I STILL miss My So-Called Life!

crabigailadams said...

i just have to share my unpopular opinion regarding "my so-called life": i was fifteen when it aired, exactly the same age as angela chase. i was so into the show! it was totally appointment TV. my younger siblings moaned & groaned, but i just had to see what was going to happen next between angela & jordan & his illiteracy & whatnot. when it was released on DVD some years back, i was so excited. i rushed out & rented it & staged a viewing of the entire season for my friends & roommates. & i was SO DISAPPOINTED. god, it did not hold up to the test of time AT ALL. i hated every character & wanted them to burst into flames. in retrospect, i totally understand why it got canceled, even though i was crushed as a teenager & perhaps even wrote some strongly worded letters to ABC.

Amber said...

Freaks and Geeks is kind of a given, but I'm really glad that you mentioned The Critic! That show was the definition of AWESOME!

Melissa said...

Freaks and Geeks was the greatest ever, and the cast was incredible. That's always one I look back on and wonder how in the world it ended so soon!

Christy said...

I loved Freaks and Geeks!!! So sad that it only lasted a short time.

Melanie's Randomness said...

Ya know what's funny? I watched tons of TV in the 90's but i think i only caught Daria out of these few. heh.

Blissseeker said...

ah yes!! My so called life was one that I watched religiously in '94 and Freaks and Geeks...I was pissed that they canceled it.

bibberly said...

I loved these shows. You might be interested to know that there was a book of what would happen after MSCL ended. It's called My So-Called Life Goes On, and it's not that great... but it's something to tie up some of those loose ends. Although the choice for who Brian loses his virginity to is... questionable, let's say.

Katie said...

Loved My So Called Life! Freaks and Geeks too.. What great shows!

Lil' Woman said...

I liked Freaks and Geeks..I def. didnt think the cast was going to become as big as they are now.

Julie said...

As soon as I saw the subject title, I thought "My So-Called Life"! While I do agree that we never really had to witness the show jump the shark (which can be so painful for the viewers), it would have been nice to have at least a few more episodes to enjoy before shark jumpage.

Also, yay for mentioning The Dana Carvey Show! I tend to forget about that one.

Autumn Twig said...

omg thats the 'Spiderman' guy and the 'How I Met Your Mother' guy! lol, excuse my lack of celebrity knowledge

Meghan said...

I'm still angry Freaks and Geeks was cancelled. Thank god for dvd box sets.

thatissophat said...

The only one I've seen is My So-Called Life. I don't get why these shows weren't a success. Was there not enough promotion? Did it seem stupid?

Jackie said...

THIS is the post that started it all for me. I had certainly heard of it, but I had never watched My So-Called Life. I let boredom and curiousity get the best of me, and I watched the pilot right here on this very page. I was too intrigued by the ubiquitious flannel and distant memories of the 90's it evoked. I ended up forming a brief but intense relationship with Hulu and watched an episode daily. FOr awhile, it was bliss! I tried to lure my friends in, but they either were not interested or had already been through this when they originally watched it all those years ago. At this point, I had totally forgotten the series ended abruptly...I had to endure it alone. I was and still am left with countless nagging questions. The effing cliffhanger will forever haunt me, and it's your fault.

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