The most popular television shows often find themselves lasting for years and years; The Simpsons will be starting its 29th season this year and it’s showing no signs of slowing down, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit will be starting season 19 soon, and Grey’s Anatomy has been going strong for fourteen years. Other shows don’t run for quite that long, but have a solidly spectacular run. Breaking Bad ran for five seasons, and Eastbound & Down was originally supposed to last for only three seasons, though the HBO comedy was ultimately brought back for a fourth and final outing.
However, some shows aren’t recognized for their greatness until after they get unceremoniously cancelled due to low ratings. Star Trek was infamously cancelled after only three seasons (so much for the “five year mission,” right?), and Arrested Development ended its original run on FOX after only three years before Netflix stepped in and revived the series a whole seven years after its initial cancellation.
Still, some shows are snuffed out after only a single season on the air. Sometimes its for the best – who in their right mind wanted more of CBS’s Bad Teacher or ABC’s ill-advised Heather Graham sitcom, Emily’s Reasons Why Not – but other times, the powers that be cancel great shows before they ever get a chance to prove themselves to the world.
These programs shined bright like diamonds for a brief period of time during their short lifespans. Here are 15 Great Shows That Were Cancelled After Just One Season.
15. Freaks & Geeks
Freaks & Geeks was created by Paul Feig and produced by Judd Apatow; long before the days of Knocked Up, Bridesmaids, The 40 Year Old Virgin, and The Heat, they both worked on this teen drama with a healthy helping of nostalgia and comedy.
Aired during the 1999-2000 season, Freaks & Geeks followed a group of teenagers in 1980, and starred a group of unknowns who would later become big-name stars, including Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jason Segel, Busy Philipps, Ben Foster, and Lizzy Caplan.
Despite the talent involved — both in front of and behind the camera — NBC had little faith in the show, which led to erratic scheduling and airing episodes out of order, which, in turn, alienated the show’s audience. Ultimately, NBC only aired 15 episodes of Freaks & Geeks, leaving three to make their debut when the series aired in syndication on the Fox Family network. The show had a passionate fanbase, and its legend continued to grow as its stars and producers became Hollywood household names.
Along with Joss Whedon, Bryan Fuller is the de facto king of cult television shows. From Pushing Daisies to Hannibal, Fuller’s shows lived hard and died young, so to speak. Hannibal managed to survive for three seasons, while Dead Like Me and Pushing Daisies lasted for only two each.
2004’s Wonderfalls, like most of Fuller’s greatest work, is an endearingly atypical combination of comedy and drama, with healthy helpings of dark humor to bolster its ample heart. The mid-season replacement starred Caroline Dhavernas as a worker at a Niagara Falls tourist shop who inexplicably gains the ability to converse with statues of animals, who guide her to help the people around her and, in turn, improve her own life.
The quirky show became a cult favorite, but Fox aired the first four episodes mostly out-of-order before unceremoniously cancelling the series. Of course, the show became an instant classic on DVD, which placed the episodes in their correct order. As for Bryan Fuller, his subsequent shows were all critical darlings with criminally low ratings, but his current project on the Starz network, American Gods, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman, has become one of premium cable’s buzziest shows.
13. No Ordinary Family
This 2010 superhero series was created by Greg Berlanti, who would go on to co-create The CW’s Arrowverse (Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl). Inspired by The Fantastic Four, No Ordinary Family was about an average family who develops superpowers after their vacation goes sour and their plane crashes in the Amazon.
Michael Chiklis and Julie Benz starred as father and mother; Chiklis is imbued with super strength, and Benz gets super speed. Their daughter, played by Kay Panabaker (sister of The Flash‘s Danielle Panabaker), was gifted with the power of telepathy, while the son (Jimmy Bennett) gains a superior intellect and perceptiveness which would make Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock jealous.
In addition to regular superhero antics, the family gets embroiled in a vast corporate conspiracy, headed by characters played by Lucy Lawless and Stephen Collins. The show earned praise from critics and had decent (if middling) ratings, but it wasn’t enough to keep the family-friendly adventures of the Powell family from getting canned after just one season.
This much-hyped 2012 mid-season replacement series was produced by J.J. Abrams, and it debuted to an impressive 10 million viewers, but excitement quickly died down, and the season finale brought in less than half that number.
Starring Sam Neill, Sarah Jones, and Jorge Garcia, Alcatraz posited the notion that, following the closing of the infamous San Francisco prison in 1963, hundreds of prisoners and guards mysteriously disappeared without a trace, only to return in the present day, appearing to have not aged at all in the intervening fifty years.
The show played like a procedural, with a different prisoner wreaking havoc in each episode, but with a myth arc about unraveling the science fiction mystery behind the sudden disappearance and reappearance of the inmates. The season ended with a sudden cliffhanger, but Fox opted not to renew the show, so fans were left dangling, never to discover Rebecca’s ultimate fate.
11. Death Valley
This high-concept, single camera half-hour comedy show (co-starring Legends of Tomorrow‘s Caity Lotz) aired on MTV and was like The Office meets Hill Street Blues…with monsters. Death Valley followed the Undead Task Force, elite (well, elite-adjacent) cops who comically bungle their way through the blood-soaked streets of California’s San Fernando Valley while doing battle with zombies, vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural suspects.
The show debuted in Summer 2011, around the same time as MTV’s other monster-tinged show, an in-name-only dramatic take on the Michael J. Fox comedy, Teen Wolf. Due to decidedly less-than-stellar ratings for the irreverent and gory comedy, MTV decided to only move forward with Teen Wolf, leaving Death Valley to disappear and ultimately fade into half-forgotten obscurity…like Teen Wolf 2, starring Jason Bateman.
10. A Gifted Man
These days, Patrick Wilson is a well-known actor thanks to his work in films like Watchmen, The Conjuring, and Stretch, and his star is about to be seriously elevated by his villainous role in the highly-anticipated Aquaman film, but he is also an esteemed television actor, having earned praise for his leading role in season 2 of FX’s Fargo, based on the Coen Brothers classic.
In 2011, Wilson starred in A Gifted Man, an emotionally gripping medical drama with a supernatural twist. Wilson played Dr. Michael Holt, a wealthy physician to New York City’s upper-class residents, who is inexplicably visited by the ghost of his dead ex-wife, played by Jennifer Ehle (Zero Dark Thirty, Fifty Shades of Grey), who asks him to volunteer his time at the free clinic she had been running. Drama ensues.
The show was bolstered by its tremendous cast, which also included Margo Martindale, Pablo Schreiber, and Rachelle Lefevre, as well as the creative backing of the late, great Jonathan Demme, who also directed the pilot episode. Unfortunately, the series was cancelled due to low ratings, and the show ended with what was supposed to be a cliffhanger, but must instead be interpreted as a definitive – and heartbreaking – conclusion.
9. The Lone Gunmen
The X-Files is one of the most notable cult television shows of all time. The adventures of Mulder and Scully (and Doggett and Reyes and Skinner and the Smoking Man) and their investigations of unexplained phenomena ran for nine seasons from 1993 to 2002, and was recently brought back for a six episode tenth season in 2016, with an eleventh season coming soon.
Throughout the early years of the series, a trio of recurring characters, The Lone Gunmen, made a strong enough impression that they eventually got their own series. The three independent journalists were avid conspiracy theorists and friends of Agent Mulder, and their series aired in 2001. Contrary to the more sci-fi/drama-angled direction of the original show, The Lone Gunmen was more of an espionage comedy, with the titular Gunmen trying to expose government malfeasance and other nefarious deeds.
After the show’s untimely cancellation after only thirteen episodes, the main cast was brought back for “Jump The Shark,” a season nine episode of The X-Files, which closed the series in dramatic fashion. Some fans didn’t appreciate the ultimate fate of the Lone Gunmen, but others thought it was a fitting end for patriotic heroes.
8. Pan Am
It’s easy to dismiss Pan Am as “Mad Men with planes,” due to its corporate nature and 1960s setting, but supporters of the series know that there was so much more to this ABC series than its fancy aesthetic. It was an intricate drama about the height of the Jet Age and the regular men and women who adopted globetrotting lifestyles due to the nature of their work.
While the show debuted to average ratings upon its 2011 debut, viewership quickly dropped off, and the season finale only managed to bring in 3.77 million viewers. Perhaps due to its international nature, the show was a bigger success in Europe, where it won Best Series at Europe’s Rose d’Or awards. As a result of this, the show was nearly picked up by Amazon, but negotiations ultimately fell through, and the show was dead for good. Now it only lives on in the memories of its fans.
7. Birds of Prey
Following the success of Smallville in 2001, the WB network followed up with Birds of Prey, a new take on Gotham City and the Batman mythos. Set after the mysterious disappearance of Batman, Birds of Prey takes place in the crime-ridden metropolis of New Gotham. The Dark Knight is gone and Catwoman is dead, so a new trio of heroes rise up to protect the city’s innocents: Huntress (the daughter of Batman and Catwoman), Oracle (the erstwhile Batgirl), and Dinah Redmond, the telepathic daughter of the Black Canary.
The show had a record-high debut for a WB show, but quickly dropped off to critical levels, leading to the show’s unexpected cancellation after only thirteen episodes. Aside from its magnificent production values and intriguing premise, Birds of Prey also earned major geek cred by having Mark Hamill reprise his role as The Joker for the pilot of the series. While the character was played by a different actor, Hamill’s voice was dubbed in during post-production. Today, Birds of Prey can be seen on CW Seed, the network’s streaming service.
6. Clone High
This wild animated series from the minds of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie) and Bill Lawrence (Scrubs, Cougar Town) aired on MTV in 2003, but was cancelled after only one season, following backlash over the portrayal of nonviolent Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi.
Set in a high school populated by clones of famous figures from throughout human history, Clone High followed clones of Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Gandhi, and numerous others as they explored a mix of typical high school antics and over-the-top situations punctuated by historical in-jokes about the characters.
The show’s version of Gandhi has trouble living up to the iconic status of his “clonefather,” so he gets into the party scene instead, and at one point gets beat up in a fight, prompting outrage from India which, according to Christopher Miller, led to a nervous MTV pulling the plug on the series.
The creative team behind the series has toyed with the idea of bringing the show back in one form or another (Will Forte reprises his Abe Lincoln role in The Lego Movie), but nothing has come to fruition…yet.
5. Just Legal
Producer Jonathan Shapiro is no stranger to forgotten classics, having produced shows like Justice, Life, and The Paul Reiser Show, among longer-running staples like The Practice and Boston Legal.
In 2005, his latest effort, Just Legal, debuted on the WB, and was swiftly cancelled after only three episodes due to low ratings in the target “young people” demographic. The show starred Don Johnson (Miami Vice) and Jay Baruchel (Man Seeking Woman) as lawyers in Santa Monica, California. Baruchel plays Skip Ross, a 19-year-old legal whiz-kid who can’t get a job at any law firm because he’s too young. Johnson plays Grant Cooper, a washed-up alcoholic lawyer whose best days are behind him. Together, they try cases and help people!
The chemistry between Johnson and Baruchel was palpable, and the show had a wonderful blend of legal plot drama and character-based comedic dialogue, but it was doomed to failure. It was the kind of show that probably would have survived on a network like ABC or CBS, but it just wasn’t a fit for the WB.
Worst of all, the show has never been released on DVD or on a streaming service, so it’s lost to all except those who were lucky enough to see it when it first aired all those years ago. Perhaps it’ll make its way to CW Seed one day…
4. My So-Called Life
Teen shows have a reputation for having the vibe of a preachy “after school special” which talks down to their target audience. This was very much not the case with My So-Called Life, which delivered the truth of teenage existence in its raw, natural state. The show followed typical high school girl Angela Chase (played by Claire Danes) and her odyssey through the mind-numbing existential crisis of being a teenager. The show also co-starred a young Jared Leto as a troubled teen with whom Angela begins a relationship.
The show ran for one critically-acclaimed season before being cancelled due to lukewarm ratings. The cancellation triggered what is known to be the first internet fan campaign to save a TV series. The outspoken teenage fanbase finally had a show that spoke to them at their level, and they were heartbroken that it was being taken away from them. Unfortunately, their efforts didn’t bring the show back for a second season, but they did cement My So-Called Life as an immortal cult classic which will be championed for generations to come.
3. The Good Guys
Mismatched buddy cops; it’s an age-old formula dating back to Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, and if the casting is right, then it’s a source of endless entertainment. In 2010, Fox tried to launch a new entry in the genre, but it just didn’t work out.
The Good Guys starred Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) as Dan Stark, a hedonistic middle-aged cop with little ambition outside “busting punks” and coasting off his heroic past. Colin Hanks (Fargo) plays Jack Bailey, his young, idealistic, and rules-bound partner who is stuck working with Stark after his by-the-book approach leads to him getting shunned by most of the force. Together, they fight crime!
The chemistry between the stars was natural and wholly entertaining, and the plots were full of bouncy comedy and righteous coolness. On top of all the overt awesomeness, however, was a beating heart and surprisingly deep characterization, especially for Dan, a good cop broken up over his love for justice and his fear of obsolescence. Sadly, the excellence didn’t last long, and it met a swift end after its initial 20 episode run.
2. The Honeymooners
Here’s an interesting case. Jackie Gleason may be best known to audiences for his scenery chewing role in the Smokey and the Bandit movies alongside Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, and Jerry Reed, but he was also the biggest name in the 1950s comedy television scene. Back in the day, he had a variety show, The Jackie Gleason Show, and a segment on the show focused on Ralph Kramden (played by Gleason himself) and his wife, Alice, a regular couple living in the slums of Brooklyn, New York.
In 1955, the recurring sketch was turned into a full sitcom, The Honeymooners, starring Audrey Meadows as Alice, Art Carney as Ralph’s best friend, Ed Norton, and Joyce Randolph as Trixie, Norton’s wife. Across 39 episodes (known as “The Classic 39” today), the domestic misadventures of Ralph, Ed, and their long-suffering wives became the gold standard for three-camera sitcom hilarity. Unfortunately, the show was a surprising flop in the ratings department, and was not renewed for a second year. Instead, the sketch quietly returned to The Jackie Gleason Show. It wasn’t until syndication that The Honeymooners became the cultural cornerstone that it is today.
Fun Fact: contrary to increasingly-popular ignorant belief, Ralph never hit Alice. He often yelled at her (impotently, and for comic effect), and expressed his desire to give her a good whack (“to the moon!“), but for all his bluster, he never raised his hand at her – and she knew it. Some of the best comic moments in the show came after Ralph worked himself up into a seething rage, and she would disarm him with hilarious one-liners of her own.
Was there ever any doubt? Could any other show possibly be number one on this list? What more remains to be said about Firefly, one of the greatest space sagas since Star Wars? Joss Whedon’s short-lived swashbuckling galactic western was plagued with behind the scenes problems at the Fox network, who sabotaged the series with inconsistent scheduling and airing the episodes out of order.
Upon its release on the home video market, the show became an instant cult classic, and was eventually revived thanks to its feverish fan base as a movie, Serenity. Unfortunately, Serenity surprisingly failed to make a profit at the box office, though it is highly regarded as one of the greatest movies of 2005.
Every once in a while, rumors pop up that the crew of Serenity may one day reunite for another adventure, but that’s a real pie-in-the-sky dream. Still… Between The X-Files, Ash vs The Evil Dead, 24, Twin Peaks, and Prison Break, we’ll never say never to the prospect of new episodes of Firefly. It’s the new Golden Age of Television, and anything can happen.
What do you think? What’s your favorite one-season wonder? Would you do absolutely anything to get new episodes of Firefly and Wonderfalls? Can we please get a proper home video release of Just Legal? Will the cast of Birds of Prey make cameo appearances on Arrow? Sound off in the comments section!
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