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Old 15th Apr 2014, 16:07   #1
loupgarous
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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.

Afterthoughts:

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).
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Old 15th Apr 2014, 21:45   #2
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Default Re: Top Ten Short-Lived TV Series

I don't have ten - but I have three (so far):

Ultraviolet (1998 ) - a Channel 4 series about vampires in the UK: dark, unfunny, but cancelled after one series. It starred Jack Davenport and Idris Elba.

Torchwood - I think the first two series showed that it could adapt and grow, but RTD seemed resolved to break the US market but also simultaneously appeared keen to actually kill the whole enterprise off. The latter of which he did, very successfully.

Dark Skies (1996) - US sci-fi aliens in the 1960's drama, with the wonderful JT Walsh.

And what the hell, I will add Bugs (1995 +) - because we enjoyed it - which gave both Jesse Birdsall something to do after El Dorado, but also had the lovely Jaye Griffiths.
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Old 16th Apr 2014, 9:07   #3
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Default Re: Top Ten Short-Lived TV Series

Great idea for a top ten! I can't think of ten right now, but I'd agree with both Firefly and Dark Skies, and would add:

Space: Above and Beyond (1995-1996), which wasn't perfect but had some interesting characters and real potential.

Heat of the Sun from 1998 starring Trevor Eve as a policeman in thirties Kenya.

Lillies (2007) which I think looked too Catherine Cookson-ish to appeal to a wide audience, but was wonderful and funny and ten times better than Call the Midwife.

Life (2007-2009) with Damian Lewis.

And if Col is going to pick Bugs (!) then I'm going to go for:

Outcasts (2011) which I was actually beginning to really enjoy by the end.
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Old 16th Apr 2014, 16:45   #4
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Default Re: Top Ten Short-Lived TV Series

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Originally Posted by David View Post
Great idea for a top ten! I can't think of ten right now, but I'd agree with both Firefly and Dark Skies, and would add:

Space: Above and Beyond (1995-1996), which wasn't perfect but had some interesting characters and real potential.

Heat of the Sun from 1998 starring Trevor Eve as a policeman in thirties Kenya.

Lillies (2007) which I think looked too Catherine Cookson-ish to appeal to a wide audience, but was wonderful and funny and ten times better than Call the Midwife.

Life (2007-2009) with Damian Lewis.

And if Col is going to pick Bugs (!) then I'm going to go for:

Outcasts (2011) which I was actually beginning to really enjoy by the end.
DAMN! I'd forgotten all about Space: Above and Beyond, D.B. Wong's introduction to prime-time television both as an actor and a writer (Wong has had a long-running supporting role in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit as the unit's consulting forensic psychiatrist/FBI liaison). Good call, and I wish I'd made it - Space: Above and Beyond had both the "ripping yarn" style and a certain "X-Files"-ish undertone.

The first episode of Space:Above and Beyond, I remember, featured the only science-fictional appearance of a Project Ithacus spacecraft (which in real-life was a suborbital spacecraft so big that it could deliver an entire light infantry division's men and some of their toys to any spot on Earth in half an hour - which it was actually designed to do).
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Old 16th Apr 2014, 16:59   #5
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Default Re: Top Ten Short-Lived TV Series

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Originally Posted by Colyngbourne View Post
I don't have ten - but I have three (so far):

Ultraviolet (1998 ) - a Channel 4 series about vampires in the UK: dark, unfunny, but cancelled after one series. It starred Jack Davenport and Idris Elba.

Torchwood - I think the first two series showed that it could adapt and grow, but RTD seemed resolved to break the US market but also simultaneously appeared keen to actually kill the whole enterprise off. The latter of which he did, very successfully.

Dark Skies (1996) - US sci-fi aliens in the 1960's drama, with the wonderful JT Walsh.

And what the hell, I will add Bugs (1995 +) - because we enjoyed it - which gave both Jesse Birdsall something to do after El Dorado, but also had the lovely Jaye Griffiths.
I agree with you that Robert T. Davies seemed intent to outrage as many American sensitivities in Torchwood as he possibly could. Which is an artistic decision he was perfectly entitled to make, and echoed in several of the later Dr. Who episodes (the one in which most of the people turning into receptacles for fat were Americans, for example).

That's Mr. Davies' business, of course, but it had me and a number of other American Doctor Who fans (I've followed the show on US public television stations since the very early 1980s) doing something else, unaccountably, when BBC America broadcast new Doctor Who episodes. Cars won't wash themselves, and you can't put root canal surgery off until something actually goes wrong with your teeth - even in a country which fluoridates its water and where tooth-brushing is the first step toward successful dating.

Fortunately, BBC and TimeWarner market almost the entire classic Doctor Who oeuvre on tape and DVD.

It's a shame that Davies has that idee fixé about an entire nation. You could excuse Anthony Burgess thinking that way, his wife had been raped by American servicemen (the penalty for rape in the US Armed Services' Uniform Code of Military Justice used to be death, no lollygagging about it, and unfortunately is no longer), and it's thought the trauma from that experience informed A Clockwork Orange.

Sigh. Time to stop dwelling on unhappy thoughts, as my wife would tell me.
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Old 16th Apr 2014, 18:08   #6
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Default Re: Top Ten Short-Lived TV Series

Hey, I was disappointed when Eldorado closed down. OK, it was tripe, but it was tripe in a Mediterranean climate.
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Old 16th Apr 2014, 22:27   #7
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Default Re: Top Ten Short-Lived TV Series

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Originally Posted by Colyngbourne View Post
I don't have ten - but I have three (so far):

Ultraviolet (1998 ) - a Channel 4 series about vampires in the UK: dark, unfunny, but cancelled after one series. It starred Jack Davenport and Idris Elba.
I have a DVD of a movie called Ultraviolet which I seem to remember being vampirish (that was during the Years of Fentanyl for Cancer Pain, and my memory of that time has more holes than fabric in it). It seemed to be about a hot vampire chick not unlike the protagonist in Resident Evil with a taste for shooting people, but I also seem to remember that the end of the movie was pretty much the end of the bad guys, which would have killed the prospects for a TV spin-off.

Quote:
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Dark Skies (1996) - US sci-fi aliens in the 1960's drama, with the wonderful JT Walsh.
My wife and I sat through that series with our jaws open... they had America in the '60s DOWN PAT... until it came time to for everyone important in the show but J.T. Walsh's character to go hippie, which killed the show for me, because everyone knows that serious alien-dealing-with people were much too serious back then to take LSD and wear their maiden aunts' clothes.

<action: shrugs> That's when my willing suspension of disbelief up and died, anyway. And until then, they had it so RIGHT....
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Old 17th Apr 2014, 19:36   #8
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Default Re: Top Ten Short-Lived TV Series

Two series I'd honestly forgotten that belong on the list ahead of, say, The Delphi Project and Salvage One:

11) Max Headroom (ABC) In which (a half-hour into the future, as the intro screen tells us, but a little more dystopian than any political party has managed to create, so far - but give them time... ) reporter Edison Carter (played by the frenetically talented Canadian Matt Frewer) sped out of his broadcasting studio's underground parking garage on his motorcycle a bit too fast, hit the sign over the exit (which said "Max Headroom... (some number a bit lower than Carter's head) ), and was given up for dead, handed over to the studio's pet genius for experimentation, and whose mind was recorded on computer... Carter got better, and the copy of his mind remained in cyberspace... good was done to the accompaniment of Carter's riotously funny id Max Headroom, thereafter for a far too short run of episodes... especially given that Carter's partner was Theora Jones, played by the eminently edible Amanda Pays.

and

12) Doctor, Doctor.. (CBS), also featuring Matt Frewer, and until The Big Bang Theory, the funniest television program the Columbia Broadcasting System had telecast before or afterwards. Frewer is a master of comedic timing, and could write like a demon... he also acted in the SyFy series Eureka, which lasted too long, if you ask me... any science in that "science-fiction" series happened purely by mistake, but Frewer's acting (as the cryptid hunter "Rob Taggart") was one of the very best things about the show.

Last night, Max Headroom came to mind along with another late, lamented series featuring a female lead with a body made for sin, but I've since forgotten it. Old age strikes again :(
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