In this time, with a record amount of scripted TV airing (around 500 shows are expected to air in 2017, which is NUTS), you might think that it would be easy for a show to get cancelled. But in fact, the opposite is sort of true: even low-rated shows can continue on for years. In part, it’s because the demand simply outstrips the supply; in part, it’s because no network wants to risk missing out on a “Breaking Bad” (which was low-rated at first before exploding in its later seasons); and in part, it’s because digital downloads, streaming services and a boom in the overseas market for U.S. shows mean it’s easier than ever for a show to become profitable. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” for instance, is the lowest-rated show on network TV, but was renewed for Season 3, in part because it’s a hit on Netflix both here and around the world.
That said, this is the peak TV era, and shows do still get cancelled — yesterday, for instance, the plug was pulled on FXX’s Jay Baruchel comedy “Man Seeking Woman,” a show we’d checked out of early but heard had gone from strength to strength over time. And yeah, some of those shows are good ones. To honor the fallen, and to remind those on the chopping block that they could have already achieved a kind of immortality, we’ve picked out 10 of the best prematurely cancelled shows of the Peak TV era.
To clarify, we’ve tried to keep it to the last decade or so, after the boxset boom, so there’s no “Freaks And Geeks” and the like here. And we’ve tried to keep it to series that fell after two or three years. With that in mind, find our 10 most-missed shows below, and let us know your favorites in the comment.
We nearly didn’t include “Deadwood” on this list — it got three seasons, which is more than most here, and was a little early for what we’d describe as true “peak TV,” airing between 2004 and 2006, before seminal shows like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” hit the air. But also, come on, it’s “Deadwood.” Or as a character in the show would likely say, it’s motherfucking, cocksucking, shit-pissing “Deadwood.” Despite its relative brevity compared to some of the other HBO classics, David Milch’s classic of the Old West, revolving around the lawless South Dakota settlement of the title in the 1870s, remains one of the network’s greatest achievements. With an absolute murderer’s row of character-actor greats, many of whom were playing real-life figures — Ian McShane in the performance of a career, Timothy Olyphant, Molly Parker, Jim Beaver, W. Earl Brown, Kim Dickens, Brad Dourif, John Hawkes, Paula Malcomson, William Sanderson, Robin Weigert, Garrett Dillahunt, Titus Welliver, Keith Carradine, Brian Cox, Sarah Paulson, etc. etc. — the show had an ambition somehow greater even than most of the great TV dramas: it’s a story of the birth of America, and the rotten capitalism that has been at its heart since the beginning, told in Milch’s lyrically profane dialogue in a way that makes it feel not just like great TV, but something close to poetry. Alas, it was a dense and difficult show (one that, at a time when DVD boxsets were just catching on and streaming was barely imagined, was tricky to catch up on), more expensive than most to make and with ratings around a fifth of what “The Sopranos” was pulling in, so HBO pulled the plug at the end of the third season. The plan was to wrap up the story with two two-hour movies, but Milch got waylaid with “John From Cincinnati” and “Luck” (both of which only lasted a season apiece), and a decade on, it remains undone. That said, he’s rumored to be at work on the scripts still…
Lasting two seasons on HBO back at the beginning of the decade, “Enlightened” was in some ways a pioneer — not just in reminding us of the greatness of Laura Dern (who co-created the show with Mike White, and had been relatively quiet in the years before but now has an Oscar nod, acclaim for “Big Little Lies” and a “Star Wars” role on the way), but also by virtually creating, with “Louie” the year before, the sort of small-screen indie sad-com that has since become rather in vogue. With every episode penned by White, it centers on Dern’s Amy Jellicoe, a self-destructive woman recovering from a nervous breakdown who attempts to rebuild and improve her life, but mostly ends up reeling others into her chaos. Often darkly funny rather than laugh-out-loud hilarious, and sometimes brave enough to be not quite either (as with highlights like season 2’s “Higher Power,” focusing on Amy’s ex-husband Levi (Luke Wilson) in rehab), it built a remarkably complex portrait of a woman in a way that helped to set the scene for something like “Transparent.” Amy could be unsympathetic, monstrous even, and yet you still found yourself somewhat rooting for her in her attempt to bring down the corporation she worked for. And White, when he wasn’t directing himself, assembled a killer team of filmmakers including Miguel Arteta, Nicole Holofcener, Jonathan Demme, David Michôd and Todd Haynes, making it stealthily the best-directed show on TV. Alas, it landed at a time when we were at peak white-male antihero, and ratings were continually dismal, causing HBO to cancel the show after the second season. That said, it wrapped up relatively satisfyingly, even if we’d love to see more of Amy Jellicoe down the line.
“Good Girls Revolt”
We’ll acknowledge here that “Good Girls Revolt” is probably the least of the ten shows on this list, and arguably the least substantial in some ways. But the Amazon drama, which quietly debuted last year to mostly ho-hum reviews and a swift cancellation by the streaming service (which hardly ever cancels shows), deserved a better chance than it got: it was more watchable and entertaining than many more high-profile shows that arrived last year, and we’d much rather have seen this continue than get, say, more episodes of “The Get Down.” The show was a loose adaptation of Lynn Povich’s non-fiction book which told the story of how 60 of the female employees of Newsweek magazine sued their employer in 1970 to force them to hire female reporters. Dana Calvo’s adaptation fictionalized it, for the most part, though it brought in real-life figures including Eleanor Holmes Norton (Joy Bryant) and Nora Ephron (Grace Gummer), as well as weaving real-life history throughout. One of the reasons the show was dismissed so quickly by many was that it was compared immediately to “Mad Men,” but that’s a slightly unfair point to make — while it had similar production design, it was a different show with different aims, one undoubtedly less dark and weighty, but not a bad series for that. And yeah, it could be a bit heavy-handed, and it arguably moved a little slowly in only getting to the big lawsuit in its finale, but the flaws were papered over by a very strong cast: the three young female leads, Genevieve Angelson, Anna Camp and Erin Darke, all did stellar work. Accusations of sexism were thrown around when Amazon cancelled the show a month after it debuted (“I dunno what to tell women, scared of their own president, who ask why you cancelled a hit feminist show 30 days in,” Angelson tweeted at the network at the time), with rumors that the company’s head Roy Price wasn’t a fan, and efforts to shop it to ABC, Freeform and USA ultimately came to naught, which is a shame, given that it felt like they were just getting started.
You couldn’t really say that “Hannibal” didn’t get a fair shake. Despite being one of the lowest-rated shows on network TV (and infinitely more artsy and violent than most of NBC’s network), the show did get three full seasons, in part because it performed well internationally. But ultimately, the economics just couldn’t be made to make sense, and the story was left to a Sherlock Holmes, Reichenbach Falls-ish cliffhanger. Such was the show’s greatness that we suspect that the Fannibals will still be asking about a possible revival as long as the show’s cast members are still alive. It should have been a train wreck: the umpteenth network serial-killer show, adapting a character who’d been mostly defanged thanks to a series of unnecessary sequels, prequels and reboots already. But in the hands of one of TV’s most distinctive creators, “Pushing Daisies” creator Bryan Fuller (a surprisingly twee choice, until you realize the extent to which death had been front in center in his work), and director David Slade, who helped establish the show’s Damien Hirst giallo visual style, it became something extraordinary: thrilling (some of the best fight scenes on TV) and gruesome (with images that haunt us to this day), yes, but also strangely beautiful, and even moving. Mads Mikkelsen did the unthinkable and threatened to become the definitive interpretation of the part that Anthony Hopkins made his most famous, while the rest of the cast, including Hugh Dancy, Laurence Fishburne and Caroline Dhavernas, found fascinating new territory in familiar characters. So yes, it had a good run, but that we never got to see Fuller’s take on “The Silence Of The Lambs” still feels like a sort of robbery.
With more recent debuts “Outsiders” and “Underground” having proven successful, especially given few knew what the network was a few years ago, WGN America has done a pretty good job of pulling an AMC and reinventing itself as a home for original drama. But its initial offerings weren’t as successful at bringing in large — or really any — viewers, which was a damn shame in the case of their second show, the ambitious, well-executed “Manhattan.” Unrelated to Woody Allen, the show, from relative newcomer Sam Shaw, was a period drama about the scientists working to develop the atomic bomb in Los Alamos in 1943 and 1944, with John Benjamin Hickey as the lead scientist in charge, and a terrific supporting cast including Olivia Williams, Rachel Brosnahan, Daniel Stern, Katja Herbers, Harry Lloyd, Christopher Denham, Michael Chernus, William Petersen and “Stranger Things” breakout David Harbour. With TV veteran Thomas Schlamme as the principal director, it had a confidence that belied its minnowish status in the peak TV pool from the off, and for the most part managed to avoid Difficult Men familiarity with its brilliant-but-troubled central character, thanks in part to the specificity of the performance by the oft-underrated Hickey. It melded family and relationship drama and espionage-y genre fare in a way that few bar “The Americans” tried, and while never hitting the greatness of that show, was consistently engaging and often even moving. As a sort of midpoint between “Mad Men” and “The Imitation Game,” you’d think it would have caught on, but it got lost in the Peak TV landscape, and while it managed a second season (which improved on the first), the axe fell after the end of the second. Still, that finale wraps the story end up fairly neatly, so it’s well worth catching up on.