Thursday, June 24, 2010

Five Cancelled TV Shows You Should Watch

Gone are the days of television producers holding out for that mythical 100th episode in order to guarantee a syndicated afterlife following cancellation. With DVD rentals, Netflix and, On-demand services from your cable provider, and entire cable channels devoted to running and rerunning every old TV show ever produced, no TV show is ever truly gone.

Even so-called failed shows, shows with no ratings and a single season (or half season) run, can have real impact, 
often years after airing only a few episodes on broadcast TV. Shows like Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks, Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night, or Joss Whedon’s Firefly can meet untimely ends, but still stick around long enough to find their audiences, sometimes 10 years after their cancellation. Some of these shows were ahead of their time, some were just too idiosyncratic to find their audiences, many were ambitious and brilliant but flawed, and others just aired in the wrong timeslot or on the wrong channel.

Today I’m looking at 5 recent additions to the list of my favourite ‘failed’ shows. I’ll be sticking with shows of 1-hour length, and leave the sitcoms to a future post.

The Unusuals (2009, ABC, 10 episodes)
Minutes after watching the first episode of The Unusuals, I immediately emailed a friend, writing: ‘watch it while you can, it won’t survive long.’ Sadly I was correct, and the show’s cancellation was announced just after the airing of its sixth episode.

Filmed in New York City and set in an NYPD unit of misfit cops tasked with clearing the district’s ‘unusuals’ file (reports of cat killers, zombie sightings, naked gunshot victims), the show has a retro feel that is genuinely refreshing. While the cast has some recognizable faces—Amber Tamblyn (Joan of Arcadia), Jeremy Renner (Oscar-nominated for The Hurt Locker), and the always entertaining Adam Goldberg—it is a true ensemble show. Crimes do get solved along the way, but the show’s principle focus is on the characters, who amid the bizarre crimes and absurd situations, are invested with a surprising humanity and warmth.

This was a show which genuinely needed more time to develop and reach its full potential. For a real taste of everything that is unexpected and sometimes brilliant about the show, watch the fourth episode, with its ‘zombie’ plot and a resolution that quotes freely from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat Cradle.

Life (2007-2009, NBC, 32 episodes)

At first blush, Life looks like just another quirky cop procedural. It’s not.

Life stars Damian Lewis as Charlie Crews, an ordinary cop sent to prison for a crime he did not commit. Our story picks up twelve years later, when Charlie, finally exonerated, leaves prison and, intent on tracking down the people who framed him, returns to the world that had left him behind. Lewis is stunning in his portrayal of not only of Detective Crews’ eccentricities (a Zen appreciation for fresh fruit and casual sex, and a careless relation to his new material wealth, received as a settlement for his false incarceration), but also of his painfully internal life. His time in prison was brutal, both physically and psychologically, and the show is at its best when it explores the true costs of his 12-year incarceration.

The show also features Adam Arkin as a disgraced financier Crews met in prison and a conspiracy storyline that keeps on giving. Despite the intricate conspiracy plot, the show lets the larger story tell itself, structured with the same restrained intensity as its main character.

While its first season was a partial victim of the 2007 Writers’ Strike, the series did get picked up for a full second season before being cancelled. Without giving too much away, I can say that from both a plot and character perspective, the series does arrive at a satisfying, albeit premature, conclusion.

Chase down and watch the stunning first episode.

Keen Eddie (2003, FOX, 13 episodes)

Keen Eddie is a cop-out-of-water story, with fast-paced dialogue, quick editing, and a compelling and recurring cast of eccentric characters. Brash NYPD Detective Eddie Arlette (Mark Valley) follows a drug case to London and ends up temporarily assigned to Scotland Yard. 

Think of it as Due South meets Guy Ritchie.

It debuted on FOX in June of 2003, and was cancelled unceremoniously 7 weeks later, having never found its audience. (Only seven episodes were ever broadcast, the remaining six airing only once the show was sold to Bravo a year later.)

The always charismatic Valley, currently back on FOX with the promising action drama Human Target, is used perfectly here, and is believable in both the action and comedy sequences. With a cast that includes Sienna Miller (Layer Cake, Factory Girl) and some BBC TV regulars, there is a real British feel to the series. The writing and direction is razor-sharp and funny, and the show invests fully in every character, even those with only a few minutes on the screen.

Its ambitious musical soundtrack, which included many popular UK artists, such as Orbital, Madness and The Specials, who are rarely heard on American radio or television, was a powerful element of every episode, setting the tone and pace of the comedy and action. A warning however: when Paramount released the show on DVD in 2004, it replaced almost all of the music, presumably to keep costs down. Keep your eyes open for reruns on cable to get the full experience!

The Middleman (2008, ABCFamily, 12 episodes)

Based on a 2005 comic series by TV writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach (Lost, Charmed), The Middleman tells the story of a young struggling artist (Natalie Morales) who is recruited by a secret organization to fight the forces of evil. Matt Keeslar also stars as the show’s title character, a fixer of “exotic problems.” It was picked up as a series by ABC Family in the summer of 2008, and it still remains a mystery to me how this profoundly original series ever ended up on the channel that airs The Secret Life of the American Teenager and Make It or Break It.

The series is tightly written and uniquely filmed, with a colour palette to rival Pushing Daisies. Its dialogue is firmly ensconced in the popular culture of film, TV, and comics, and despite its absurd plots (alien boy bands intent on world domination, Lucha Libre masked ninjas, vampire ventriloquist dummies, and evil doppelgangers), the show is contagiously optimistic and with just enough heart to never fall into pure parody.

Morales (a welcome late season addition to White Collar, currently on the USA Network and Canada’s BRAVO, and soon moving to NBC’s Parks and Recreation) plays Wendy Watson with a finesse and intelligence that consistently breaks through the show’s broadly drawn cartoonish elements. Keep an eye out for Kevin Sorbo’s awesome guest spot.

Simply put, the show is a joy to watch. Find the full series on DVD and check out the comic series if you can!

John from Cincinnati (2007, HBO, 10 episodes) 

John from Cincinnati tells the story of three generations of a surfing family living near Imperial Beach, California. If there is a television series rightly called ‘flawed, but brilliant’, this is it.

John was David Milch’s follow-up series to his critically acclaimed Deadwood. It debuted on HBO immediately after The Sopranos’ finale, and was met with both high expectations and suspicion by Milch fans who immediately resented the show as the main reason why Deadwood never saw its necessary fourth season.

This ensemble drama brought together TV veterans (Bruce Greenwood, Rebecca De Mornay, Luke Perry), familiar faces from Milch’s acting stable, and non-actors, most notably the deadpan Greyson Fletcher, a professional skateboarder with no acting credits to his name, brought on to play the 14-year old surfing prodigy Shaun Yost. Ed O'Neill (finally and forever shaking off the last remnants of Al Bundy and now gracing the witty ABC sitcom Modern Family) is riveting as a near-senile retired police officer, given to talking to himself, his dead wife, and his pet birds.

Like Deadwood, ultimately John from Cincinnati is a show about language. The richness of the spoken word is explored in almost every scene, and at its centre, there is a character (the eponymous John, played by Austin Nichols) who spends the entire season doing nothing but repeating the dialogue of other characters.

Does the show work? Well, almost always. When it works best, there is nothing better. There are 30 second scenes of breathtaking pathos and beauty that rival any show on the air. But when it stumbles, it shows its seams pretty transparently. This is David Milch undistilled: without the historical framing narrative which gave form and structure to Deadwood, the show sometimes loses focus and as a drama, it was often too abstract to carry its story forward. The language of John from Cincinnati, while always rich, made it challenging even for dedicated viewers to make sense of its plots and the relations between characters, who had the propensity to speak in lengthy, revealing monologues.

I regret deeply that the series never had the opportunity to grow beyond its first season. For Milch, it was a further attempt to present his idiosyncratic humanist theology. With its unique mix of magical and harsh realism, it was a poetic, rambling, often beautifully incoherent representation of faith, love, community, addiction, and capitalism. There was simply nothing else like it on television.

-- Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.


  1. How true. There are so many gems out there that did not find a home on tv but which make for great rainy day rentals!

    I have seen Life (loved it's main character's intensity) and Kean Eddie (a fun little show) so I look forward to watching your other suggestions. Especially When one by Milch who definitely earned my respect with Deadwood.

    Your opening proposition provokes the question: what does a show need to be considered a success nowadays? Two full seasons? Three?

    Are story arcs changing to take this into account?

  2. Party Down belonged on a channel that'd take the time with it like an FX. Paired with "Always Sunny" it would of killed! Hell, even HBO would of given it time to develop...

    It's not the only shows canceled before their time this year:

  3. The Vonnegut reference makes Unusuals a must-see for me. It'd be nice if there was a site where TV directors and writers listed the novelists who had the most influence on them.

    Is there any place where I can learn more about Milch's humanist theology?