Television can be a cruel mistress. Just when you’re falling in love with a new TV show, the network can gut it and leave you high and dry. It’s a cutthroat industry – if you don’t have the viewers, then you don’t get to keep having a show. It’s as simple as that. A crummy sitcom like The Millers that no one watched and wasn’t funny will very quickly tank and die, while a more prosperous show like Friends will gain more and more viewers every year for a decade, fueling hours of water cooler conversation at the office, and the network will never let it die. That’s when the creators get to decide when the show ends, and that’s an extremely rare privilege for writers. Hardly any of them have that luxury. Most of these decisions are left up to the judge, jury, and executioner that sits at the head of the table in the network’s board room. Those guys don’t care how great a show is, how much new ground its broken, how much its few fans absolutely adore it, how well-received it is by the critics – all they see is the ratings, and if those ratings don’t meet their high standards, they cancel the show. Thanks to this system, we’ve lost so many brilliant TV series over the years. These are the 15 we miss the most.
15. Dead Like Me
Bryan Fuller, sadly, has not had the best of luck with the TV shows he’s made. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all great – he’s just had trouble with keeping them on the air. Pushing Daisies, Hannibal, and Wonderfalls were all cancelled far too early and his shows that were successful – American Gods and Star Trek: Discovery – replaced him as showrunner midway through. He called the making of another doomed show of his, Dead Like Me, “the worst experience of my life.” Dead Like Me is about the lives of a pair of grim reapers who operate out of Seattle. Fuller left the show after five episodes, citing creative differences as the reason, and the show didn’t last much longer after that – but while it was on the air, it was great. Its premise is wildly original and the two lead actors, Ellen Muth and Mandy Patinkin (that’s right, Saul Berenson), lap it up. It’s a shame that it ended after just two seasons, because it had so much potential and it was very enjoyable.
This show is a truly wonderful romantic comedy series with a great premise behind it. It’s a modern day adaptation of Pygmalion, the story behind My Fair Lady. It updates the Pygmalion story for the present day, in this age of social media, as it follows Eliza Dooley (based, of course, on Eliza Doolittle), played by the great Karen Gillan, who becomes obsessed with getting famous through Instagram selfie posts and begins to realize that friends online don’t equal friends in real life. That’s where John Cho’s character Henry Higgs (based on Henry Higgins) comes in, to teach her the true meaning of friendship. It was a delightful show with a lot to love. But alas, the world didn’t take to it. The ratings were so poor that there were only ever thirteen episodes made, with the first seven airing on ABC before the other six were moved to Hulu. It’s seriously a shame, because it had so much potential.
There’s a very obvious reason why Wonderfalls failed, and it’s because it’s so damn weird. It’s about a philosophy graduate who works a dead end job as a sales girl in a gift shop in Niagara Falls and converses with some inanimate objects in the store: a wax lion, a brass monkey, a stuffed bear, and a mounted fish. That’s insane! But it worked. The show was awesome. And they had so many storylines planned for future seasons of the show: Jaye was going to be institutionalized, a new wax lion was going to come in and question her trust in the other one, it was all going to go off. People clearly miss it and lament its cancellation. In 2013, Wonderfalls was included on a list in TV Guide of the sixty TV shows that were “Cancelled Too Soon.”
Jericho is a post-apocalyptic action drama series about the fictional Kansas city of Jericho, where some survivors are struggling after a nuclear holocaust. The show was going to be cancelled after its first season, initially, since the ratings were subpar and TV is a business, but then CBS decided to bring it back for a limited run of seven episodes, effectively to give them a satisfying and less abrupt ending to the series. But it was still far too soon, and the fans still weren’t happy. TV Guide ranked Jericho at number 11 on their list of the Top Cult Shows Ever. The fans of Jericho continue to watch it in reruns on The CW and they get to see the continuing storyline in the form of comic books, but it’ll never be the same as the show. If only it had found the same audience as shows like The Walking Dead.
11. My So-Called Life
My So-Called Life is a teen drama about the lives of a bunch of kids in high school. It was adored by critics throughout its first season and it was expected to get a second, so the writers ended it on a cliffhanger – and then the network cancelled it! Why, oh why must they do this to us?! The show was an early vehicle for future stars like Claire Danes, aka Carrie Mathison, and Jared Leto. The people who did watch My So-Called Life loved it. It has a perfect 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes for its “realistic portrayal of the average American girl,” it’s the 35th highest rated show on Metacritic, it was named the second Best School Show of All Time by AOL TV, it was ranked number 9 on Entertainment Weekly’s list of the 25 Best Cult TV Shows from the Past 25 Years, it received the second place on TV Guide’s list of 60 TV shows that were “Cancelled Too Soon,” and the same publication named it number 16 on their 25 Top Cult Shows Ever list.
10. Happy Endings
You know how the pilot episode of New Girl had Coach in, but then in episode two, he was replaced by another token black character named Winston, and for the rest of the show, Coach was gone – until he came back halfway through, a couple of seasons later. That was because the actor, Damon Wayans, Jr., committed to another series called Happy Endings and he had to duck out to do that. It was a great show, beloved by a lot of people – but in season 3, that amount of people dwindled smaller and smaller until the show was finally canned and Wayans could return to New Girl. ABC screwed up the scheduling for the third season of the show, and that’s why it later became its last – no one could find it! Pop culture site Vulture named the cancellation of Happy Endings one of the “worst TV decisions” of the year. They’re not wrong.
9. Pushing Daisies
Pushing Daisies was a mysterious supernatural drama that mixed in elements of black comedy and advertised itself as a “forensic fairy tale.” This series about a pie-maker with the ability to bring dead things back to life with his touch was canned after just two seasons and 22 episodes. In Esquire magazine’s TV Reboot Tournament, which was held to determine which old TV shows fans wanted to be brought back the most, Pushing Daisies was voted into the first spot. It won seven Primetime Emmy Awards out of seventeen nominations over its short run – that’s more than most shows that last ten seasons can ever dream of. Early reviews compared the show to Tim Burton’s work and declared, “ABC has found its next Lost!” What the hell went so wrong?
Judd Apatow’s career in producing movies like Superbad, Bridesmaids, and The Big Sick began with a career in producing television, but with little success. He started with Freaks and Geeks, a show that perfectly captured the high school experience in a way that was, in equal parts, hysterically funny and beautifully touching. After that show was cancelled after one season, despite strong fan support and critical acclaim, he decided to do the same thing with the college experience with the show Undeclared. It starred a bunch of great actors who would go on to become huge stars, like Seth Rogen, Kevin Hart, Jason Segel, Carla Gallo, Amy Poehler, Kyle Gass, How to Train Your Dragon’s Jay Baruchel, and Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam. But it went the exact same way as Apatow’s previous series: beloved by critics and a handful of viewers, but cancelled after one season. It’s a shame, as it was described by critics as “a dead-on look at college life that manages to be both hilarious and sweet.”
7. Veronica Mars
Series creator and writer Rob Thomas found more success with his later shows, 90210 and iZombie, but his greatest achievement will always be Veronica Mars. It starred Kristen Bell as a feisty, badass student who moonlights as a private investigator. With this premise, the show could’ve gone on for years. There was so much potential, and it was such an enjoyable series. Sadly, it only lasted for three seasons before getting canned in favor of a stupid reality show called Pussycat Dolls Present. Bell and Thomas would later launch a Kickstarter campaign to get a Veronica Mars movie made, and the support from the fans was so great that they reached their $2 million goal in less than eleven hours and ended up receiving more than $5.7 million. The film was a box office failure, but the fans and the critics loved it, thus making it a worthwhile endeavor. It’s all about the fans.
6. Party Down
Critics loved Party Down. It’s the story of a bunch of Hollywood hopefuls who have dreams of stardom, but are instead getting by with terrible, low-paying jobs as waiters. It aired on the Starz network and was a wonderfully biting portrayal of the reality of being an ambitious actor or screenwriter struggling to get your big break. The show had a great cast of comic actors, including Adam Scott, Ken Marino, Jane Lynch, Ryan Hansen, Martin Starr, Lizzy Caplan, Jennifer Coolidge, and Megan Mullally. The show was well-received by critics and beloved by a small audience. But when the producers lost Scott to Parks and Recreation and Lynch to Glee, they knew the show didn’t stand a chance anymore and had to end it. Blast! Still, when God closes a door, he opens a window. We got the characters of Ben Wyatt and Sue Sylvester out of it.
Have you ever wondered why we’ve got dark, gritty, grisly cable dramas in the genres of gangster (The Sopranos), zombie (The Walking Dead), spy (The Americans), medieval fantasy (Game of Thrones) – but none in the western genre? The Old West provides a rich tapestry for sex, violence, drinking – all the kinds of things people love to see in shows on premium cable networks like HBO – so why, aside from Westworld, which is more science fiction than western, do we not have a GoT or Sopranos-style cable drama set in the Old West? Well, guess what, we do. It’s called Deadwood and it was cancelled far before its time, because no one was watching it. There’s often talk of plans for a feature film or a new season, but so far, nothing has come to fruition. Cancelling Deadwood was a crime, just like only a select few people tuning in was a crime, just like pretty much anything anyone ever does in this beautifully crafted and often difficult to watch series is a crime.
4. Arrested Development
Fox executives should’ve told themselves, “I’ve made a huge mistake,” back in 2006 when they cancelled Arrested Development after its third season. The quirky show about a dysfunctional family that launched the careers of Jason Bateman, David Cross, Michael Cera, Will Arnett, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, and many more of today’s most beloved comedy stars is one of the best comedies ever made. It has one of the highest joke rates of any series. The story structure is funny, the episodic plots are funny, the characters’ dialogue is funny, the characters’ characteristics are all funny, the delivery of each line by the great cast is funny, the running gags are funny, the in-jokes are funny – everything’s funny! It’s one of the most outright hilarious shows ever made, and it should’ve never been cancelled. It was brought back by Netflix in 2013 during their early push for original programming, but that fourth season was a little disappointing (too complex and not funny enough). There’s a fifth season on its way on Netflix, but it’ll never get back to its glory days on Fox.
Joss Whedon bounced back from the failure of Firefly, career-wise, as he’s since gone on to direct the first two Avengers movies and take over directing duties on Justice League from Zack Snyder following a family tragedy. In fact, one could suggest that this wouldn’t have happened if Firefly had been more successful. In this strange little science fiction western series, Nathan Fillion stars as Malcolm Reynolds, the lovable rogue captain of the starship Serenity, and the storylines mix the tropes of the science fiction and space opera genres with the tropes of the western genre, and if you’re a fan of both, it’s delightfully effective. Unfortunately, not that many people are diehard fans of both space operas and westerns. The show was cancelled after fourteen episodes, which left the show’s few, yet passionate fans deeply heartbroken and disappointed, so it was resurrected as a movie called Serenity, which sadly, also tanked. The franchise is dead, but it paved the way for Whedon’s career after it. So, the cancellation of Firefly, in retrospect, is bittersweet. Sure, we would’ve loved to see more seasons of Firefly and more movies about those characters, but if we had seen them, we may not have had The Avengers and its first sequel, so you win some and lose some.
2. Freaks and Geeks
This series launched so many careers of famous actors: Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini, Busy Philipps, Martin Starr – the list goes on. A show starring all of them now would be the biggest hit on television, but back then, sadly, no one was watching. With Freaks and Geeks, Paul Feig and Judd Apatow painted a portrait of high school life that captured the pressures, the frustrations, the tensions, the heartbreaks, the dynamics, the awkwardness, the struggles to fit in – they depicted it all more perfectly and accurately than any other high school movie or TV show ever made. Freaks and Geeks walked a line between comedy and drama so fine that it achieved a level of verisimilitude (read: realism) that no other show since has been able to match. It was the perfect show and its cancellation is one of our greatest failings as a species.
1. Twin Peaks
Not only was this a great show that got cut down in its prime after just thirty episodes across two seasons, it left us on a cliffhanger! It’s one thing if your favorite show gets canned and you won’t get to see all your most beloved characters again, but it’s especially gut-wrenching when a network goes and cancels a show that just left you on the biggest and most mysterious cliffhanger ending of all time. No spoilers for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet (because you absolutely, definitely, one hundred percent should), but it’s the kind of ending that leaves your jaw dropped and questions your sense of trust and brings your whole world crumbling down. And then the network decided we’d had enough. The show’s biggest problem was revealing who murdered Laura Palmer. As soon as they killed that golden egg-laying goose, viewers stopped tuning in, and the show was brought to its knees. Thankfully, last year, Showtime finally brought it back for another season, dubbed The Return, and it did not disappoint.