Saturday, February 27, 2010

Favorite Short-Lived Shows, Part 2

6. Miss Match (NBC, 2003): How this show didn't take off is one of the biggest mysteries of my life. Well, not really, but you'll understand what I mean soon. Miss Match was created by Darren Starr (Sex and the City, original Melrose Place and Beverly Hills, 90210) and starred Alicia Silverstone in her first role on television as a matrimonial lawyer who doubled as a matchmaker for wealthy clients. What could be wrong? Beloved, cute star: check. Successful creator: check. Romantic comedy plotline: check. Seriously, this should have been a hit.

But once again, we have a promising series relegated to the deathslot: Fridays at 8:00. Why do networks do this? Friday nights should be reserved for cheap, reality fare; these suits can't possibly expect to successfully launch an original series aimed toward young audiences on a night when those very same viewers are not at home. It just doesn't make sense to me.

In the case of Miss Match, the talent is clearly there: this show launched the career of Psych's James Roday and provided a nice "Welcome back!" to Firefly's Nathan Fillion, plus it featured Charisma Carpenter in her first role post-Angel and Ryan O'Neal in his first regular TV role since Peyton Place. What gives? Silverstone was even nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance, although it seemed to be too little too late. NBC canceled Miss Match after only 11 of its 18 episodes aired, and it has never been seen since. Perhaps the caliber of talent involved outshined the content; the concept was overly simple, but that should've worked in its favor, since intelligent and/or unusual series don't even usually last 11 episodes. The whole thing is just one big question mark.

7. Surface (NBC, 2005-2006): So by now I'm sure you've realized that I'm a fan of "genre" shows: the weird, the sci-fi, the superantural. You've probably also realized that the successes of these shows are few-and-far-between. Buffy and Angel are two of the very few examples of successful genre shows; Surface is yet another example of an unsuccessful genre show. It was an epic tale of something brewing beneath the surface of the world's oceans, namely a new breed of scary sea creatures. We get personal stories from several viewpoints, including a marine biologist (played by Lake Bell, of Miss Match shame) who is the first to encounter the animal and a boy who finds a very young one and keeps it in his family's pool. The mystery that unfolded was riveting, including a government conspiracy (of course), the possibility of extra-terrestrials, and a huge storm that threatens civilization. The season finale was a ridiculous cliffhanger, and it was implied by NBC that there would be more episodes once the Winer Olympics were finished. Unfortunately, that never happened.

Once again, this series' cancellation is a mystery to me. It was originally intended as miniseries, but positive ratings saw it extended into a full series. Its ratings were decent (ranging from 2.6-3.8 in the 18-49 demo, numbers NBC would kill for these days), yet it was unceremoniously canceled after only fifteen episodes. Canceled is actually the wrong word: it was just not renewed. NBC didn't care enough to say outright "Surface is canceled" after implying it would be returning sometime after the Olympics. It's yet another confusing situation from the Peacock; looking back at some of these decisions, it's no wonder the network is floundering years later.

8. The Book of Daniel (NBC, 2006): This controversial primetime soap was a midseason replacement for NBC. It was about an Episcopal priest, his dysfunctional children (one gay, one with a criminal record, one adopted), his marital problems and his own prescription drug abuse. It's basically the same plot as any soap opera, but this time it focused on a man of the cloth and his flaws. It addressed issues of hate crimes, drug abuse, mental health, and much more. It was really a beautifully handled premise, especially the scenes in which Daniel (Aidan Quinn) had philosophical debates with a disinterested Jesus about his addiction. But since most people (read: the Bible Belt) are uncomfortable with any portrayal of priests as flawed and even more uncomfortable with the portrayal of God as anything less than what they have dreamed up, this series was short-lived due to controversy.

NBC could not sell advertising due to protests from several religious groups. The ratings were very good, however, especially considering it was on Fridays at 8:00 (are we sensing another theme?) and that many NBC affiliates refused to air it. I'm sure the controversy helped, but without any cash flowing in there simply wasn't a show. The Book of Daniel was canceled after only three weeks on the air. We are left with only a glimmer of the beauty of what might have been, including some truly heartbreaking performances from Aidan Quinn, Christian Campbell and Alison Pill. But the bottom line is that this series showed real life. Daniel was a priest, but he was also a man; he had problems like all of us, and this series dared to show them to us. Unfortunately, the close-mindedness of Americans kept others from seeing it.

9. Drive (Fox, 2007): This show had the most confusing run ever. Just now I was looking it up to see how its ratings were (assuming that was the reason it was pulled so quickly 3 years ago), and I saw that it aired 4 episodes in just 8 days. That just didn't sound right, but it was. And the ratings weren't that bad, either. And the worst part? There were only 2 more episodes to air! Why did Fox pull it just two weeks early? It's such a bizarre situation, and I still don't understand it. If you order 13 episodes of a show and then cut it to 6, you should either commit to airing all 6 or not air it all and eat the losses. Just my opinion. Anyway, Drive followed a group of people forced to compete in a cross-country race, all for different reasons. We find out the main character (Nathan Fillion in yet another failed series) is there because his wife was kidnapped, and she will only be returned if he races; another character is fresh out of prison for armed robbery (literally, he is given the invitation to race with his personal belongings as he leaves the prison); another has a terminal illness and wants to race because it will be his final thrill in life. The characters were fascinating, and finding out how they were all connected was one of the many things I was looking forward to.

But this show was on Fox, so naturally it was canceled prematurely. We never figured out why they were all racing, who organized it, how they were all connected, what the ultimate goal was, etc. Every question opened up in the pilot was still present in the final episode. You know what I call that? Bullshit. Seriously, Fox... just stop greenlighting serialized shows if you're going to cancel them before the viewers get any closure. Imagine Lost getting canceled after the fourth episode... how pissed would you be? Now you understand.

10. North Shore (Fox, 2004-2005): I really should have just called this list "Shows that Fox Pissed On, and the Fans Who Will Never Forgive Them for It." This little soap was about a hotel and resort in Hawaii and the people who ran it. It was basically an excuse to put beautiful people in a beautiful location. Writing was secondary to shots of the island, but that didn't matter. Because we all know that primetime soaps are addictive, whether or not they're good. If a show had to be good in order for me to love it, I'd be watching less than half of what I do. This show was pure, mindless fun; for that, I loved it. Nevermind the fact that it featured Shannen Doherty's return to TV, it was just stupid entertainment that never bored me.

But let's remind ourselves that this is a show on Fox and that I liked it. So inevitably it ended with a cliffhanger and with just one more episode to air. Why, oh, why can't Fox just air these episodes? How many times must they torture me with the prospect of just one more episode that I will never get to see? Granted, it did do terribly in the ratings and almost no one watched it. But then why commit to a full season in the first place? Clearly I don't understand the ins and outs of running a network.

Favorite Short-Lived Shows, Part 1

Everything I love gets canceled. It never fails. When I commit to a new show, it gets axed after half a season. Now that I have TiVo, it's not that big of a deal; I can watch whatever I want, whenever I want. So it's not that big of a commitment. But in the past, watching a show meant making sure that I was home and in front of my TV every week at the same time. That's a tall order for a high school student and an even taller order for a college student. So here are some of my favorite shows from the past that I committed myself to... only to be kicked in the balls by the networks who don't care that I gave up my life to watch their product just because I don't have a Nielsen box attached to my fucking television. In case it's not clear, I'm still bitter about these cancellations.

1. Firefly (Fox, 2002): Anything that Joss Whedon touches turns to gold. This show was no exception. It was a wonderful blend of classic Whedon wit, Western-film ideals (and locations), and futuristic sci-fi adventure. It told the tale of a group of outlaw misfits travelling intergalactically in a rundown spaceship named Serenity, trying to escape the universe-controlling (and ultimately corrupt) Alliance and the cannibalistic-rapists the Reavers. The characters included a space hooker, a doey-eyed female mechanic, a captain who wore the tightest pants television has ever seen, and a whacked-the-fuck-out teenager whom the Alliance performed freaky-ass experiments on because she basically has superpowers. WHAT?! Exactly. But it worked somehow. Outrageous shoot-outs, deep conflict, and brilliant philosophy filled every hour of this show. Luckily, Firefly found its fanbase when it was released on DVD a year later; it was even spun-off into a film with the entire original cast in 2006, called Serenity.

So why did this show fail so miserably while it was on the air? Fox dumped it on Friday nights and then started airing new episodes after its coverage of the World Series. New episodes weren't airing until well after midnight. Who is watching an involved hour-long comedy/drama series at two in the morning? Obviously, no one.

2. Haunted (UPN, 2002): It would seem nowadays that if you had an original horror-mystery series starring Matthew Fox, it would run for years. Because that's basically what's happening now at ABC with his mega-hit Lost. But before that, there was Haunted. It was a little show that debuted on a little network after what was one of its biggest disappointments. Haunted premiered in September of 2002 after the final season premiere of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But it gathered less than two million viewers per night, a small number compared to its competition and to its lead-in. So it lasted a mere seven episodes; yet years later the WB aired a similarly-themed and plotted show called Supernatural... and that show is entering its sixth year.

Haunted told the story of a man who acquires the ability to solve crimes after a near-death experience leaves him in close communication with ghosts. Week after week he helps dead people and their loved ones, while still trying to find peace with his dead child and the malevolent spirit of a pedophile he killed. It was a very entertaining mix of The X-Files, The Sixth Sense and Kolchak. The SyFy Channel resurrected this series briefly in late 2007 when it re-aired all seven episodes. But other than that, this little show has never been heard from again... which is a real shame. It was a fun supernatural-mystery-thriller series, and Matthew Fox was (as always) a heartbreaking leading player.

UPDATE: The complete series (all eleven episodes, including the four unaired ones) was released to DVD by Phase 4 Films on April 13, 2010. Score!

3. John Doe (Fox, 2002-2003): 2002 was a terrible year to fall in love with Fox shows... unfortunately this was the second of three I did just that with. John Doe was not brilliant by any means, but it was entertaining and thought-provoking. It made the best water-cooler fodder in years. It starred Dominic Purcell, before he found fame on Fox's Prison Break, as a man who wakes up naked on an island without any memory of who he is or how he got there. The remainder of the series saw him aiding the police department in investigations because somehow he had garnered the ability to know absolutely everything about everything. Unlikely? Of course. But some of the situations John Doe got himself into were great, including one episode about an online sex-ring. He also, of course, used his knowledge to find out who he really is, and he randomly saw things important to his past in color while the rest of his vision was black-and-white. It was a very strange series, and I'll admit that it sounds terrible on paper. But somehow it was completely engrossing.

With John Doe Fox committed to a full twenty-two episode season (unlike its other casualties of this same season; see numbers 1 and 4). They ulitmately canceled it after the season finale.... but WHAT A FUCKING FINALE!!! They ended on what was honestly one of the most ridiculously crazy cliffhangers ever put on film, with absolutely no explanation thereafter. Not a movie-of-the-week special, not one more episode, not even a press release discussing what the future would have been had the show continued. This is one of the many reasons I will never commit to another Fox show. If you're curious about what the conclusion would have been (revealed many years later by the show's creator), google the series. The answer is mind-blowing within the context of the series.

4. Greg the Bunny (Fox, 2002): Really, Fox? Are you fucking kidding me at this point? Greg the Bunny should have been my warning not to get invested in Fox shows, because it was the first to go in a really strong season that saw all the strong shows getting axed. This is honest-to-God the funniest sitcom I have ever encountered; and this is coming from someone who still watches Will & Grace reruns and DVDs on a daily basis. Greg the Bunny was set in an alternate version of America where puppets (sorry, Fabricated Americans) exist on their own as real beings. They are incorporated into everyday life as baristas, television stars, pool boys, you name it; however, they face a certain amount of racism and are constantly labeled as inferior. I realize this doesn't sound funny, but it is. Why? How about this cast: Seth Green, Eugene Levy, Sarah Silverman, and an array of puppets such as an alcoholic ape, a vampire with a speech impediment, a giant monster with three tits, and a turtle whose famous lines include "These crayons taste like purple!" Throw in guest appearances from Michael McDonald and Marilu Henner, and it's a ridiculous shame that this show couldn't find an audience.

What was the problem? It was too smart. Of course it resorted to potty humor at times, but most of the gags on this show were just too witty and probably flew over the heads of most Fox viewers. I mean, it's only live-action sitcom is currently 'Til Death. I rest my case.

Do yourself a favor: rent or buy this show on DVD. You won't be disappointed.

5. Tru Calling (Fox, 2003-2005): Are we sensing a theme? Tru Calling, I'll be honest, was not a very good show. I can admit that. But it doesn't mean that I didnt look forward to watching it every week, because I did. And even though some of the early episodes are painful to watch, there are some wonderful moments in this series about a young would-be med student, Tru Davies (played by Eliza Dushku) who takes an internship at the local morgue to beef up her resume. While there she discovers her ability to "relive" days when asked for help by people who have died wrongfully. She literally has the ability to save lives, without there being any actual superpowers like flying or superstrength. Yes, it sounds hokey. And yes, it was. But it was so much fun, and there were also some pretty touching moments.

But the best thing about this show is that just as it was canceled, it was beginning to build its own complicated mythology. We find out that Tru is not the first to have this ability: her mother, who was murdered in front of Tru as a child, also had this ability. Then a stranger in the form of Jason Priestley shows up with the same ability, but he puts a different spin on it: he refuses to save the people who ask for help. The good vs. evil plot takes off, but is soon complicated by this stranger: he believes that saving people upsets the natural order of the world... so for every person Tru saves, he ensures someone else's death. It was a fascinating cat-and-mouse scenario, and Priestley is such a great villain. But unfortunately, this show was up against the final season of Friends and suffered from the fact that it took nearly an entire season (about 14 of its 26 episodes) to establish an over-arching plot that would establish the show as an intriguing serial drama rather than as a procedural. Miraculously, it was given a second season; but it was pushed back to midseason replacement, which meant it was off the air for eleven months before returning. Then its episode order was cut from 13 to 7. Then they halted filming on the seventh episode and chose to air the completed 6 and see how the ratings went. Well, only the real fans stuck around, and it was axed after 5 of its 6 episodes aired. Luckily Tru Calling lives on DVD and reruns on the SyFy network, who eventually broadcast its final episode in 2008.

P.S. - After the show's cancelation, producer Doris Egan revealed where it was headed... and it would have been amazing. Basically Tru and Jack (Jason Priestley) were the latest in a long line (since the beginning of humanity, actually) of people chosen to control the fate of the Universe. Each decision made by either of the two opposing powers changes the predestined future of the world. Epic? You bet.