Keeping a television show on the air is a delicate balancing act. As a creator, you have to worry about remaining true to your vision, while pleasing studio execs and keeping fans happy. The plot has to be spooled out over time, so as not to burn out material too quickly, but keep things moving at an entertaining pace.
These days, there is certainly no shortage of excellent TV, with more fresh content always on the way. No doubt anyone can think of shows that are no longer deserving of their place on your TV (do we really need thirteen seasons of Grey’s Anatomy?) and yet, brilliant new series like The Good Place are already on the verge of cancellation. Seriously, if you’re not watching this show starring Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, you’re missing out on one of the most inventive series of the last several years.
A show can get the axe due to its promotional campaign or a dreaded death time slot, but usually, the series just doesn’t find an audience before execs with itchy trigger fingers decide its fate. Whatever the reason, there have been some remarkable series that were snuffed out before reaching their full potential. Here are 16 Great TV Shows That Were Canceled Too Soon.
16 Happy Endings
It’s difficult to explain why Happy Endings is so good. On its surface, the show follows the misadventures of six best friends living in Chicago. The tough part is describing what differentiates it from numerous other comedies with a similar premise. It’s not just the incredible chemistry between the amazing cast of actors, although that is definitely part of it. There are the rapid-fire jokes, the ubiquitous pop culture references, the unexpected revelations. What other show would turn a 3rd season Thanksgiving episode into a tale about how several of our core group met on the set of The Real World: Sacramento?
Flighty Alex (Elisha Cuthbert) abandons her stargazing fiancé, Dave (Zachary Knighton), at the alter. This leaves their four friends unsure of where they stand. There’s Alex’s perfectionist sister, Jane (Eliza Coupe) and her overachieving husband, Brad (Damon Waynes Jr.). We also have the romantic-at-heart Penny (Casey Wilson) and her slacker ex-boyfriend, Max (Adam Pally, playing the least stereotypical gay man ever portrayed on television). There are countless moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity, from Dave’s food truck, “Steak Me Home Tonight” to Alex’s racist parrot, whom she bought from someone she read as ARyan 420. It was really Aryan 4/20 (Hitler’s birthday). The show only got better as it continued.
So why was it cancelled in 2013 after only three seasons? It wasn’t promoted much by ABC, episodes were aired out of order, and its time slot changed. There have been rumors of a 4th season percolating for years. We can only hope!
15 The Crazy Ones
Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer waited a long time for Sarah Michelle Gellar to return to television. Her first attempt, Ringer (2011), had a super cool premise, but turned into a muddy mess before being canceled. Her next vehicle, The Crazy Ones, had a bit of a shaky start before hitting its stride, but once it did, the show was great! It was funny, full of heart and had lovable characters. The problem was that no one was watching.
Executive produced by David E. Kelley (Boston Legal), the series centered on an off-kilter ad exec named Simon Roberts (Robin Williams) and his all business daughter Sydney (Gellar), who were constantly butting heads. The first few episodes were kind of contrived, with Williams coming across as a bit too over the top. Thankfully, Gellar and Williams were backed by a fine supporting cast: Hamish Linklater as the sarcastic art director, Andrew, James Volk as the charismatic copywriter, Zach, and Amanda Setten as the ditzy assistant, Lauren. Once the actors gelled and the writers found their groove, the show became deserving of a second look.
Sadly, it never got one, and CBS canceled the series in 2014. It was in a rough spot -- as in, the same time slot as Grey’s Anatomy, which is steep competition. There will never be a chance of revival, obviously, because Williams tragically committed suicide mere months after the show’s cancellation.
14 Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Let’s get this out of the way: this show did not get off to a good start. It was clunky, John Connor (Thomas Dekker) was a big, whiny baby, and the pacing was off. However, by the end of season one, the show had finally begun to live up to its name. Season two continued to surprise, as the show revealed itself to be character-driven, complex, and action packed. Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister on Game of Thrones) was a perfect Sarah Connor, and every bit as badass as Linda Hamilton, which is no easy feat! Shockingly, the show’s other resident rebel was none other than Beverly Hills 90210 alum, Brian Austin Green. Somehow, the dude who was once the lamest student at West Beverly High got a super cool makeover.
One of the show’s strongest points was the evolution of John Connor. He may have started out as TV’s most annoying teen, but slowly, Sarah was able to mold him into the man that the world needed him to be. Another incredibly important reason to watch the show, of course, was Summer Glau. The Firefly star initially appeared to be John’s classmate, but was eventually revealed as a cyborg sent from the future by John himself. Cameron Phillips (Glau) was certainly an upgrade from Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator, at least for a teenage boy. Their relationship was both complicated and interesting. Too bad we’ll never see where the show was headed, because Fox canceled it in 2009 after only two seasons.
Conceived by Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, Bunheads should’ve done better. It had the same charm and snappy dialogue as its predecessor. Sutton Foster proved to be an excellent leading lady, while several members of the Gilmore Girls cast appeared as well. The likes of Sean Gunn and Liza Weil dropped by (among others), and Kelly Bishop herself had a supporting role.
The show revolved around a former ballerina turned Vegas showgirl, Michelle Simms (Foster), who capriciously married one of her admirers, Hubbell (Alan Ruck). She moved home with him to his small fictional town, located near Ojai, California. He is tragically killed in the pilot, leaving Michelle behind with his disapproving mother, Fanny (Kelly Bishop). She gives Michelle a job at her ballet studio, and despite their differences, the two women eventually grow close. Michelle also gets really tight with her students, who wind up helping her as much as she helps them.
Palladino’s writing was as sharp as ever and she managed to deftly mingle the comedic aspects with the more dramatic elements of the series. Bunheads never reached the same creative heights that Gilmore Girls did, but then again, it was never given the chance. ABC Family canceled the show in 2013 after only one season. Palladino hinted that money, or lack thereof, was the underlying issue.
Don’t worry, we’ll get to Freaks and Geeks, but while Judd Apatow’s follow-up wasn’t quite as strong, it was still great. Undeclared did for the college experience what Freaks and Geeks did so well for the high school one: it took an incredibly honest look at post-adolescence, managing a surprising amount of heart, all the while mining every embarrassing situation for its innate comedy. Over the years, it has become, like its predecessor, a series that is mournfully missed by everyone who watched (although there weren’t that many who did).
Airing on Fox for a mere seventeen episodes from 2001-2002, the show starred Jay Baruchel, Carla Gallo, Monica Keena, Seth Rogan, Tim Sharp, Loudan Wainwright and an incredibly dreamy pre-Sons of Anarchy Charlie Hunnam. Undeclared also employed actors that have become Judd Apataw’s usual suspects: Busy Phillips, Martin Starr, and the best recurring character of the series, Jason Segal as Lizzie’s (Gallo) on again/off again, completely obsessed boyfriend, Eric. The pillowcase she has with his face on it is amazing (not to mention that screensaver).
The series had really fun guest stars like Adam Sandler (who appeared as himself), Will Ferrell, and Ben Stiller pop in to provide some star power on occasion. There were also tons of new faces that appeared in the series before they were famous, such as Tom Welling, Amy Poehler, Kevin Hart and Felicia Day. Apatow reportedly had awesome plans for season 2; too bad we’ll never get to see them play out.
11 My So-Called Life
This series winds up on pretty much every list of shows axed too soon, and for goof. My So-Called Life aired only nineteen episodes from 1994-1995, but it was one of the most influential shows ever to grace the airwaves. It launched the careers of Claire Danes (Homeland) and Jared Leto (Suicide Squad). Ricky Vasquez (Wilson Cruz) was the first openly gay teenager on American network television. Rayanne Graff (A.J. Langer) realistically portrayed not only drug abuse, but recovery as well. The show dealt with real issues that teens face and delved into relationships in a way never before seen on the small screen.
It was not only a genuine look at the lives of teenagers, but of adults as well. Bess Armstrong and Tom Irwin were central to the show, going through their own struggles, not only as parents, but also as people. Creator Winnie Holzman imbued her characters with undeniable authenticity, and the show's social and personal issues were treated the same way. Regardless of the themes being explored, whether it was homophobia, homelessness, or child abuse, My So-Called Life never felt like an after school special.
MTV aired episodes when the series wasn’t gaining enough viewership in its impossibly rough time slot on ABC, but that didn’t save it. The show was canceled before its first season ended. Apparently, Danes had no desire to return for a second season anyway. At least fans can take solace in the fact that Holzman knew the show’s fate and gave it an amazing sendoff.
Considering this show made it through three seasons before ABC canceled it in 2014, there is a surprising dearth of people who have seen this underrated suburban satire. Suburgatory could switch beats in an instant, vacillating between the serious and the absurd, and somehow making it all work together to create a lovable sitcom. The tropes themselves may have been familiar, but the way that this show implemented them was not.
George Altman (Jeremy Sisto) is a single father who moves his teen daughter from New York City to the suburbs in an effort to give her a better life. For her part, his daughter Tessa (Jane Levy) looked as though she had been dropped into that Elvis Costello song, “This is Hell”. Despite their opposing viewpoints on where they should call home, George and Tessa’s relationship was, in large part, what anchored the series. However, their supporting cast was stellar as well. Cheryl Hines, Ana Gasteyer, Alan Tudyk and breakout star Carly Chaikin are just a few of the fine and funny actors who made the show stand out. While many of these characters began the series as walking punch lines, over time, they were fleshed out and the show became more of an ensemble piece. Let’s also not forget about that awesome Clueless reunion when Alicia Silverstone showed up as George’s ex.
Dollhouse had so much going for it: a great cast, an intriguing premise, and Joss Whedon at the helm. So, why then did it get the axe from Fox in 2010 after only two thirteen-episode seasons? Admittedly, it was bleak subject matter, although anyone familiar with Whedon’s work knows that the Whedonverse has its dark places. The show’s detractors even argued that the idea of Dollhouse was a regressive step for Whedon, an outspoken feminist. However, the series was more about deconstructing identity than sex.
Eliza Dushku played Echo, one of many “dolls” living in the Dollhouse. We are initially led to believe that these dolls are willing participants, although the more we learn about the titular establishment, the more sinister it becomes. The dolls are essentially blank slates that become imprinted with new personalities so that rich folks can rent them out to indulge their every whim. When the job is done, it’s tabula rasa for the dolls. Some felt that the characters were difficult to connect with because they were different every episode, but if you could get behind the show’s original conceit, it was easy to get hooked.
Dollhouse was more than its premise, though. The show’s backdrop was an intricately woven mystery, and each new piece of the puzzle only raised more questions. We’ve seen the heights that Whedon is capable of taking a series to, so it’s a shame indeed that this was one mystery that we never got to fully unravel.
Created by Brian Fuller (Hannibal, also canceled too soon) and Todd Holland, this delightful show aired on Fox in 2004. The series revolved around Jaye Tyler, played by a wry Caroline Dhavernas. She’s a brilliant chick with a philosophy degree, so naturally…she works in retail. Her dead-end job in a Niagara Falls gift shop isn’t exactly giving her life meaning, but she can’t get it up to do much else. Her successful family has no doubt largely shaped her worldview. “They all work really hard every day and they’re dissatisfied. I mean, I can be dissatisfied without hardly working at all.” Here comes the awesome part
Here comes the awesome part: Jaye begins to hear inanimate objects talking to her. Slowly, with the help of a wax lion, a brass monkey and lawn flamingos, among others, she (reluctantly) begins to find her way by helping people. These objects give her rather perplexing instructions, and if she doesn’t follow them, she’ll never get a moment of peace. Seriously, that wax lion can sing all night long.
Wonderfalls was critically adored from its pilot episode, but struggled to find an audience. Fox airing the episodes out of sequence and switching the show’s time slot didn’t help matters, and after only four episodes, the series was canceled. Luckily, all thirteen installments were later released on DVD.
7 Arrested Development
These days, Arrested Development is so beloved that it is almost impossible to believe its overwhelming lack of popularity when Fox canceled the series in 2006. Not only is it difficult to imagine a time when the Bluths were not a household name, but also to consider what the television landscape would be like without this series. Sitcoms were something else entirely before creator Mitchell Hurwitz assembled one of the greatest casts in the history of television. Their absurdist world was full of cleverly constructed jokes and intersecting narratives that rewarded repeat viewing. Because the show never really found much of a following while it was on the air, its fate was continually in question. By season three the series had truly become meta-comedy:
Michael: So, what's going on with the fundraiser?
George Sr.: Well, I don't think the Home Builders Organization is gonna be supporting us.
Michael: Yeah, the HBO's not gonna want us. What do we do now?
George Sr.: Well, I think it's "Show Time."
Viewers were watching with bated breath, desperately hoping that the Bluth family would find its network savior. They didn’t, at least not until much later. When Netflix revived the series in 2013, it had already reached new levels of popularity from DVD sales and streaming. Unfortunately, while the 4th season was definitely brilliant, it wasn’t quite what fans were expecting, and the reactions were mixed. However, the impact of Arrested Development has become an unassailable truth. Here's hoping season 5 lives up to expectation.
6 Party Down
Speaking of great casts, it doesn’t get much better in terms of comedy chops than the Party Down ensemble. The series was the brainchild of Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas (iZombie), along with John Enbom, Dan Etheridge and Paul Rudd. It aired on Starz in 2009 and hung on for two hilarious seasons.
The show was a comedic take on how life keeps happening while you’re waiting for it to start. It takes its title from the catering company these six aspiring writers and actors are working at while they wait for something better to come along. Henry (Adam Scott) quit acting after his career was torpedoed by a popular beer commercial that he did. Casey (Lizzie Caplan) is trying to make a go of it as a comedian. Kyle (Ryan Hansen) is the dumb, pretty boy, hoping to catch his big break on those looks alone. Roman (Martin Starr) is a judgmental writer who feels his hard sci-fi should’ve taken him further by now. Constance (Jane Lynch) was once a successful actress, and she’s got all the disturbing stories to prove it. Ronald (Ken Marino) is sort of the patriarch of this little family, although he can barely take care of himself.
Lynch left the series after the 1st season to star in Glee, and Scott was leaving for Parks and Rec at the end of season two. Its lack of viewers already had the series on the verge of cancellation and these departures certainly didn’t help matters.
5 Agent Carter
Agent Carter took Haley Atwell’s Peggy Carter from Captain America: The First Avenger and promoted her from side character to leading lady. The result was a show that was unlike anything else on television. The series was an action packed espionage show, set in the 1940s, with an incredibly intelligent and badass woman at the forefront. The latter was, and still sort of is, kind of a big deal, considering the startling lack of strong female characters in the MCU. Her lack of anything resembling superpowers made her far more relatable than many other characters that populate that universe.
While Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. initially struggled to tie into the MCU, Agent Carter was in the unique position of predating most of those films. This left the series unburdened by its movie counterparts and gave it the freedom to grow into its own entity. As a founding member of S.H.I.E.L.D., Carter would always have her ties to the rest of the universe, anyway. However, AoS is often at its best when it truly feels like a part of the MCU, and fans love it when everything ties together. It may have been this lack of familiarity that accounted, at least in part, for Agent Carter’s lack of viewers. Haley Atwell is amazing in the titular role, but unfortunately, the series ended on a cliffhanger when ABC canceled it earlier this year after only two seasons. The series isn't completely dead in the water, but the clock of relevance is ticking, Marvel.
While we’re on the subject of shows that were unlike anything else on TV, Firefly was one of the most ambitious and innovative series ever attempted. It is also the second entry on this list that was created by Joss Whedon (an argument could be made against Angel’s cancellation as well). Despite airing only eleven of its fourteen episodes before Fox gave it the axe in 2002, this infinitely cool space western has developed one of the most passionate followings in television history. So passionate, in fact, that Firefly was given the big screen treatment with Serenity in 2005. The film gave the show the tearful farewell that it deserved and almost fifteen years since the cancellation of the series, its loyal fans, Browncoats, are still a force to be reckoned with.
Like Whedon’s other shows, the series boasted an intricately crafted world, populated by unforgettable characters. Firefly also had Whedon’s trademark wit, and several Buffy/Angel writers contributed episodes. Unfortunately, those episodes were aired out of order and Fox never made much of an effort to promote the series; and when they did, it wasn’t accurately portrayed. Although Firely didn’t get a fair shake, it did get a happier ending than any other series on this list. Aside from an ever-increasing fanbase thanks to DVDs and Netflix, and the widely revered film, the lives of our beloved characters have continued in several comic book adventures. An excellent new series, Serenity: No Power in the ‘Verse, just started last month.
3 Freaks and Geeks
At this point, Judd Apatow is such a successful auteur that it is kind of ridiculous that he’s produced not one, but two incredible TV shows that were canceled well before their expiration date. Few shows made adolescence as heartfelt or as funny as Freaks and Geeks. Plus, it’s got one of the most awesome television soundtracks of all time! In fact, that’s where most of the show’s budget went.
The cast was comprised of largely (then) unknown actors, including James Franco, Jason Segal, and Seth Rogan, all of whom are huge stars now. The man cast was rounded out by Busy Philips, Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daley, Samm Levine and Martin Starr, and they've all gone on to do great things as well.The show continues to resonate with viewers today, thanks in no small part to the contributions of creator Paul Feig, who went on to write and direct many beloved films, such as Bridesmaids and Spy.
Like pretty much every show on this list, the debut of Freaks and Geeks was met with positive reviews, but it couldn’t keep an audience. After airing episodes out of order (why do networks think that’s a good idea?) and changing the show’s time slot, NBC canceled the series in 2000 after airing only twelve of the eighteen episodes shot. The show’s cancellation is widely considered a travesty, and trust us, if you haven’t seen it, you need to!
2 Pushing Daisies
Pushing Daisies marks the second entry on this list that was created by the brilliant Bryan Fuller. The series aired on ABC for two seasons from 2007-2009. It combined so many elements that should not have worked together, and yet, this recipe of fairy tale, musical, romance, mystery and noir somehow blended seamlessly to bake one of the most delicious pies you’ve ever tasted. Seriously, if you’ve seen the show, the pie metaphor makes total sense, we promise!
Narrated by the incomparable Jim Dale, whose presence was every bit as important as an actual character, the series centered on Ned the pie maker (Lee Pace). He could bring back the dead, but only for one minute at a time. After that minute, someone else would die in their place. Once brought back, he can never touch them again or it’s dead for good. His closest companion is his golden retriever Digby, whom he can only pet with a wooden hand.
The series had two other main characters: Emerson (Chi McBride), a P.I. who Ned works with by bringing back the dead for one minute to learn who killed them, and Chuck (Anna Friel), Ned’s childhood sweetheart, who he brought back for a minute, but couldn’t bring himself to touch again. Their love affair is one of the sweetest you will ever see rendered in television or film, and the show’s endless creativity, plus its incredible supporting cast (Kristen Chenoweth, Ellen Greene, and Swoosie Kurtz) make it truly unforgettable.
1 Veronica Mars
With the central mystery of Twin Peaks and a heroine who was kind of a combination of Nancy Drew and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars developed an incredibly passionate following. Veronica (Kristen Bell) is the daughter of a P.I. (Enrico Colantoni), and the two had the most awesome father-daughter relationship on TV. Every season had a large mystery running through it, and each episode added another piece to the puzzle as Veronica solved a weekly case as well. The greatest thing about these cases, especially the season-long one, is that they always managed to subvert expectations without underestimating the intelligence of the viewer.
The series aired on UPN in 2004, before moving to the CW for its 3rd and final season. That season was great, but one could almost feel the invisible hands of the network interfering, trying to make the show friendlier to the casual viewer. Creator Rob Thomas (his second appearance on this list) shot a trailer for the 4th season that never happened --centered around Veronica’s FBI training -- which wound up in the DVD collection. However soul crushing the cancellation of Veronica Mars may have been, this story also has a happy ending.
In 2013, Rob Thomas launched a Kickstarter campaign that met its two million dollar goal in less than eleven hours, eventually reaching $5.7 million. Aside from the completely underrated film that resulted in, Thomas has co-written two great novels continuing the adventures of our favorite sleuth. Hopefully, Veronica will soon be back on another case.
What other TV shows do you think were cancelled too soon? Let us know in the comments.