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Old 15th Apr 2014, 17:07   #1
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Default Top Ten Short-Lived TV Series

My favorite television series that didn't last as long on the air as they should have:

1) Firefly (Fox, Syfy Network) - it's puzzling that Fox didn't give Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Joss Whedon more time with this wonderful combination of Western and space opera.

The cast were new talent, most of whom went on to successful careers in cinema and television, and the very talented Ron Glass (of Barney Miller fame). They paid for more episodes of Whedon's Dollhouse (26 compared to Firefly's 19), which came nowhere near to inspiring the intense cult of fans Firefly did and had the lowest ratings of any American television series to be renewed for a second season.

For those who've not seen Firefly, it's set on the space freighter/salvage ship/smuggling vessel Serenity, which is captained by Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a veteran of the bitter civil war which ended in the forcible union of the worlds settled by refugees from Earth - primarily from China, the US and Europe - into the Alliance of Planets, a bureaucratic, evil empire which is largely indifferent to the human suffering on its member worlds as long as they all pay danegeld to the Alliance.

The cast was largely people who weren't "names" until Firefly (and the movie "Serenity" which was a spin-off from the series, reversing the usual pattern for such things). except for Barney Miller veteran Ron Glass. That almost all of them went on to nice careers in TV and the movies after Firefly is because they acted their asses off in Firefly.

This series inspired such a loyal and large following that the turnout of enthusiastic Firefly fans at every science-fiction convention demanding that Fox reverse its decision to cancel Firefly (in favor of more mindless "reality TV" and the anemic SF series Fringe) assured that Joss Whedon had relatively little trouble convincing Universal Pictures to make Serenity, to close up the series' dramatic loose ends - and incidentally make a an even better story than the excellent television series which preceded it.

2) Wolf Lake (CBS, Paramount Television) - A series with an all-star cast including Lou Diamond Phillips, Tim Matheson, Sarah Lawrence, Graham Greene and Bruce McGill, Wolf Lake is set in Wolf Lake, a suburb of Seattle, Washington populated entirely by werewolves. Lou Diamond Phillips's character is a Seattle detective who traces his abruptly missing girl friend to Wolf Lake, takes a leave of absence from his job to move to the town and find his lost love.

This is a quirky, understated corker of a tale, in which Graham Greene often ends up slyly stealing the scene with his wry portrayal of an amiably irreverent elder of the community, who delights in tweaking outsiders who arrive intent on unravelling the secrets of Wolf Lake. The biggest mystery of Wolf Lake is its cancellation by CBS while much less appealing shows were renewed. Paramount Television network picked it back up, but didn't do more than show the already filmed episodes not broadcast by CBS. It's a shame, because this was a smart, sexy interesting series; perhaps it just didn't fit in with the rest of the CBS lineup that year.

3) Threshold (CBS, Syfy, Sky1) - another CBS feature, produced by Paramount Star Trek veteran Brannon Braga, with another all-star cast (Carla Gugino, Charles Dutton, Brent Spiner, and Peter Dinklage) portraying an ad hoc team of scientists and investigators tasked with countering an alien invasion by electromagnetic and audio signals which transform human DNA into an alien form - the human victims either go homicidally mad or become aggressively carnivorous (the illness also turns its victims into obligate carnivores, probably to replace all that Earth protein with the good stuff) but otherwise rational and bent on converting the human population of Earth into people like themselves. Quirky, fast-paced, ably acted and well-directed, Threshold is another victim of abrupt cancellation for no discernible reason.

4) Kings (NBC, Syfy) - Another all-star cast (Wes Studi, Ian McShane, Susannah Thompson, Macaulay Culkin, Brian Cox, Ajay Naidu, Miguel Ferrer and more) directed by a series of talented directors, produced by a man with a vision - that being an alternate reality in which Judea, Israel and their neighbors in the Book of Samuel are modern-day states, and the saga of David, King Saul, Jonathan and Michal is re-played as a modern drama.

While this dramatic conceit sometimes slips into hokiness, it's generally very entertaining and even addictive. New face Christoper Egan does a great job of being the modern version of David, "David Shepherd," who stumbles into fame by taking out an enemy "Goliath" tank with an improvised anti-tank weapon and rescuing King Silas Benjamin's (Ian McShane) son, the crown prince Jonathan Benjamin... for which he is promoted from enlisted man to captain and immersed in thick, potentially lethal intrigue at the court of King Silas (who is haunted by a tortured relationship with God and crippled by superstitious visions and urges, and eventually by jealousy of David's much closer and natural relationship with God).

Kings was not only sponsored by the insurance company Liberty Mutual, it was briefly woven into their PR campaign (centered around the concept of responsibility). Apparently Liberty Mutual either ran out of money for more episodes, or lost faith in their concept, for Kings went the way of all good things after eight episodes, was shuttled around NBC's weekend schedule and eventually over to NBC/Universal's USA and Syfy satellite networks. I can see why Kings might have legitimately ran into trouble with ratings - it was a far-out concept, even for speculative fiction. But it was so GOOD. (sigh)

5) The Lone Gunmen (Fox) - What could be solider than a TV series spun off from The X Files, based on the antics of Fox Mulder's off-the-books technical experts Frohike, Byers and Langly (collectively named the Lone Gunmen)? And how could they have missed being a hit when the first episode very nearly predicted the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center with commercial airliners?

This is perhaps the most comprehensible failure of the failed, but worthy science-fiction television series I've listed so far. The otherwise manic but intellectual interplay between Frohike, Byers and Langly was mixed in with the incomprehensible addition of the character Jimmy Bond, a tall, good-looking idiot who starts as a foil for the Lone Gunmen's wisecracks and graduates to being their conscience, in a thoroughly schmaltsy way. Only the other added regular character Yves Adele Harlow (an anagram for "Lee Harvey Oswald") played by smolderingly sexy Zuleikha Robinson with wry disdain for the three nerds and a detached romantic interest in Jimmy Bond saves the episodes from clogging up with schmaltz altogether.

And the series, while cut off almost before its natural story arc, ended as designed, with the Lone Gunmen dying while saving Washington, DC from a terribly lethal and contagious disease. It's a real shame, because it was reliably funny, fast paced, and actually had some intrigue and suspense going for it, too. I personally don't think that The X Files's directing and writing team intended for the Lone Gunmen to last more than two seasons. It's just a shame, that's all, for this movie was The X Files's funny id.

6) The Delphi Bureau (ABC) - was Lawrence Luckinbill's first brush with fame (before becoming Spock's half brother in a Star Trek movie). He was cast as an agent for a top-secret investigative agency called the Delphi Bureau. Since in the 1970s, there was a rash of usually short-lived series about investigators and other heroic protagonists with super powers, ABC decided to give Luckinbill's character a photographic memory, which got him out of binds because he seems to have spent his off hours memorizing diagrams of the insides of door locks and harvesting machines driven by bad guys intending to bale him to death. Still, it was performed with a light, ironic touch and it's a shame it didn't last longer than it did, as we can say for

7) Kolchak, the Night Stalker (ABC) - a vehicle for Darren McGavin, but a good one, in which he played a disreputable reporter whose beat turns out to be the unexplainable and lethally occult. McGavin was at the top of his comic form for this series, and it deserved a longer run than it had.

8 ) The Green Hornet (ABC) - made by the same production company that did the campy "Batman" television series, The Green Hornet was also adapted from a comic book series, but there the similarity ended. No Pop-Art graphics during the fight scenes, no arch dialogue, and no Spandex outfits, The Green Hornet was remarkable for the relative tautness of its plots and as Bruce Lee's major media debut (as the hero's lethal sidekick/chauffeur "Kato"). It was in every way better than Batman, but didn't have anywhere near the ratings success of that terrible, terrible show.

9) Cajun Justice (SyFy) - one of the very few "reality" television series that didn't deserve an early death, Cajun Justice was about the daily travails of the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff's Office (in the state of Louisiana, parishes are the equivalent of English and American counties, and sheriff's offices are the US equivalent of county constabularies in the UK). It told those stories with an understated dramatic style. Often, episodes had comic relief which wasn't contrived, it came about as the natural result of the cases shown on the show.

Cajun Justice had the distinction of being (along with Swamp People) one of the few reality shows requiring the use of subtitles when American citizens were speaking - because of the very strong local accent to spoken English there. Its early demise came with the election of a sheriff who thought the show portrayed the people of Terrebonne Parish and his department in a bad light. Cajun Justice was still a great show, in my humble opinion as a former resident of Terrebonne Parish and a former holder of a deputy's commission in the Terrebonne Parish Sheriff's Office (held while working as a law enforcement officer for a state agency which had no police powers of its own).

10) Salvage One (ABC). Salvage One, for all of its 16 broadcast episodes (of 20 filmed), managed to entertainingly predict what the United States actually did in space that made economic sense - the main character, Harry Broderick (ably played by Andy Griffith, the amiable sheriff of Mayberry in The Andy Griffith Show), bought an old spacecraft and refitted it so he could go into space, retrieve old satellites, re-fit them and re-sell them.

Does anyone else here see foreshadowing of the Space Shuttle's "rescue" of the ill-starred (sorry for the pun) Hubble Space Telescope, and later, Elon Musk's capture of the private space transportation market - his "Space X" firm is about, just now, to become NASA's prime private space contractor - replacing the Shuttle at the same time as his electric car company Tesla Motors is about to expand and dominate that part of the automotive industry?

The show's concept was fine - simply too ambitious for Hollywood's writers of the 1970s, I think. While Salvage One perished for legitimate writing-related reasons (too much schmaltz in the plots far too early in the series' story arc), it was an extremely good idea, and it captured the hearts and imaginations of many US television viewers. Just not enough to keep it alive.


Science fiction, even good science fiction, is a chancy endeavor in the US television market. Only the Star Trek franchises from the 80s to the first decade of the 21st century and The X Files had what anyone would call huge successes among science-fiction television series in the US. Nothing like Doctor Who, with several generations of loyal viewers, running almost continuously for several decades, has yet happened in American television science fiction.

It's interesting that until the last half of the renewed Star Trek franchise, the lead actors (the starship captains) in every Star Trek series from Star Trek: The Original Series to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine have acted in Shakespeare for significant portions of their acting careers. William Shatner, Patrick Stewart and Avery Brooks were all Shakespearean actors for significant amounts of time... and it showed in their diction and other ways (Shatner's legendary tendency to over-act was a pitfall of acting Shakespeare parodied in Monty Python's "Royal Hospital for Overacting" sketch).
"The proper study of man is everything." C.S. Lewis

"Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make ridiculous." P.J. O'Rourke

Last edited by loupgarous; 25th May 2014 at 18:14. Reason: "i" before "e" except after "c"
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