(CS: I actually wrote something long on Saturday but then realized it was better to never be read by anyone ever, so it is erased now. Instead, time to do another repost from my old Collective Publishing columns as I slowly give many of them a new home. Since this is when we'd normally have a new fall TV season, this seemed like an appropriate column.)The 2013 Fall TV season is creeping up on us, and a horde of new shows are prepping to battle for your attention. (CS: Remember when there was a time that we had actual new shows to watch because things could be filmed?) History clearly shows that several of these shows are destined to be flops and will have disappeared before the first season is even finished. We’ve also learned from history that a quick cancellation of a TV show doesn’t always mean it was garbage.
Sometimes real gems just aren’t able to find an audience or get the proper support from the networks. There are several series that had a very short run that countless TV lovers hold dear. The shows are now considered to be of high quality. Their failure could be blamed on coming out during a time the networks and the audiences just weren’t ready for them yet.
Here are 10 series that failed to be major hits, because they were aired far too many years too soon.
Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000): The comedy drama about teenagers who didn’t fit into the popular crowd trying to survive high school in the early 80s ended up only airing 12 episodes before NBC expelled the series from the network. The two major factors that lead to this show flunking was the odd decision to put a teenage program on Saturday nights when the target audience is often out of the house, and the network not clearly promoting this show as a comedic drama, which lead to the older audience assuming this was just another Dawson’s Creek knock-off. Just imagine if a series created by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat) (CS: Even though I still like almost everything he has made since 2013, I feel some of his drawing power has diminished a bit) and produced by Judd Apatow (40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up) came out now, because not only would it be getting a cushy time slot but it would have truckloads of publicity backing it up. (CS: That would still be the case now.) The movies that both guys grab audiences from would also be the same crowd that would likely be nostalgic for a comedic drama set in the ‘80s.(CS: 1980s nostalgia seems even bigger now and the teens dig it like my generation was into 1970s or 1960s.) Well produced nostalgia shows usually start off well, and grow an audience if the writing and stories are compelling.
The star power on this show is pretty impressive now (even though it meant nothing then) with hot actors like James Franco, Seth Rogen, and Jason Segel. (CS: Come on man, show Linda Cardellini some love.) Though if these guys were cast as high school students now, then you’d question the intelligence level of their characters or it’d make the casting of Luke Perry as a teenager in Beverly Hills 90210 a realistic decision.
My World and Welcome to It (1969-1970): Cartoons were generally expected to be for children and families in the ‘60s, and this was likely the reason why this live-action and animated mixed series couldn’t find an audience. The sitcom was also largely based off James Thurber’s comic strips and short stories that often found humour in eccentricities in the lives of the average person. Exposing the quirkiness and flaws of ordinary people wasn’t really common in television at the time, and when it did happen, it was done in much broader terms.
A cartoon series that challenges the audience wasn’t something people were looking for, but time has definitely proven people are far more open to Thurber’s style of humour now. Many of his anthologies and books have become very celebrated and popular, and one of his short stories is even being adapted into a Ben Stiller motion picture this Christmas, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. (CS: That was also a remake of a movie, and not really well remembered in 2020)
Twin Peaks (1990-1991): Mark Frost (Fantastic Four, Rise of the Silver Surfer) and David Lynch’s (Mulholland Dr, Elephant Man) serial drama about a FBI agent investigating the murder of a homecoming queen and then discovering the dark secrets of the small town was a huge hit its first season but couldn’t maintain things so it was ultimately cancelled the second season. ABC got nervous when the ratings started to dip and forced the writers to reveal the killer in the second season, which likely hurt the series’ creative process and plans.
The big problem was that TV dramas at the time were mainly episodic with everything being neatly resolved at the end of each week’s 60 minute run time, and even more importantly, the bizarre nature of the show was so far from anything else on TV. Mysteries, dark secrets, and the supernatural started to become much more popular in the 2000s, especially after the debut of Lost. A show like Lost maintained popularity for several years despite constantly creating questions that would either take seasons to answer or would never really be answered. Audiences got used to things not immediately being wrapped up and having new questions that are presented on a weekly basis. This series was far more focused and strongly written than Lost, and the fact it is talked about today shows it could have been a long term hit if it waited about ten years to premier. (CS: I think the revival proved Lynch isn't really going to ever be a hit for a mainstream audience no matter how much some critics and others love his stuff.)
Sports Night (1998-2000): The Aaron Sorkin created dramedy series about the ups and downs of running an evening sports news show was a critical darling, but failed to find a large audience after two seasons. Pulling back the curtain and revealing the operations of a news program with this type of detail and drama was uncommon at a time where sitcoms were still expected to be broad comedy with one-dimensional characters. The influx of reality television over the past decade has made audiences far more interested in seeing how businesses are run and viewers are now prepared to see office drama and conflict.
The witty and sharp writing would have been the perfect series for a cable channel, which has grown to be a popular place for critically acclaimed and smartly written TV series. I could see a show like this be a massive hit on AMC or even take advantage of the creative freedom allowed on HBO or Showtime. (CS: I haven't watched an AMC series in years, but FX would now be a perfect home for a reboot of this series as they have some of the best shows of the past decade and this would fit their style. Plus, it wouldn't need zombies to get greenlit.)
The Critic (1994-1995): This was a critically acclaimed TV series that started out with dreadful ratings and started to grow an audience but networks are never known for their patience. The animated series about a New York film critic was a smartly written series that poked fun at both criticism and movie clichés, but the biggest detractor may have been people constantly comparing it to the other major prime time animate series, The Simpsons. (CS: Much easier to survive on that comparison now.) The two series were really very different as The Critic was attempting to find a more mature audience with humour that was a mix of the broad and witty along with a protagonist that wasn’t supposed to be likable.
The series was also around during a time that Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were the few critics known at a national level, and so outside of the film parodies, it wasn’t material that could appeal to a large audience. (CS: Though I'd argue now that they are still the only nationally known critics and Siskel passed away over 20 years ago. Plus, the review show was a ratings giant for years and still loved today.) Today the internet has exploded with web sites and videos that deal with film criticism, and a site with fans dissecting and critiquing the latest major motion picture is more prevalent than a Starbucks. They could rename this show Movie Blogger and really lampoon our current obsession with analysing movies until their smashed into a fine powder. (CS: Based on the current state of social media, it would be better framed as a horror show than comedy now.) Hollywood has really found a formula with their comic book action films and paranormal horrors, and that current trend is even more susceptible to fun satire. (CS: One of those subgenres is still prevalent in 2020,)
The Honeymooners (1955-1956): Almost everyone has heard of the Jackie Gleason starred series about a bus driver and his sewer worker friend constantly trying to find ways to strike it rich while also trying to keep their patient wives happy. You may be surprised to hear that the series only lasted one season, even though before it was a sketch comedy on Cavalcade of Stars and The Jackie Gleason Show. The series already had a loyal audience when it premiered, but unfortunately, the rating dipped as it progressed.
This was the first American sitcom about a working class family, and was the obvious inspiration for The Flintstones, but also ended up paving the way for shows like All in the Family. The Ralph Kramden character was rough around the edges and had a relationship with his wife Alice that was volatile and intense (though you knew deep down they loved each other), and probably threw many viewers off who were used to “perfect families” being on television. (CS: This dynamic also would inspire stuff like Married with Children and The Simpsons.)
A working class man who speaks his mind and trying to find a way to break out of his current place would have been the perfect series for the 1970s when the public was getting disenfranchised with the establishment and demanded more realistic depictions of the American family. The success of All in the Family during the time is proof that The Honeymooners would not only have found a large audience but would have been able to deal with tougher content than was accepted in the ‘50s.
My So-Called Life (1994 – 1995): The thought-provoking and strongly written series that looked at the emotional and daily struggles of the life of teenagers wasn’t able to find an audience. This was a series about authentic teenagers with real problems during a time most teen shows were either goofy comedies or romantic focused soap operas. The cleverly written show really wasn’t even designed for the teenage market, but something adults would appreciate, except must mature viewers likely assumed a teen show would be immature and unrelatable.
Fast forward ten years and that perception would change as Twilight and Harry Potter were novels and films series about children and teens that snatched the imagination of many adults. There were smartly written films about teens like Juno and Election that many adults loved, and have created an audience more willing to try out series about adolescents. Even though HBO’s Girls is about people in their twenties rather than teens, its critical acclaims and loyal audience shows people are now ready for a smart show like My So-Called Life, and it is unfortunate the amazing reviews of the time weren’t enough to find an audience. (CS: I always find it fascinating that people complain that critics panning a show or movie are responsible for tanking it yet there is so much evidence that praise did nothing for shows or movies that an audience wasn't ready to see.)
Addams Family (1964-1966): Based off the Charles Addams’ New Yorker cartoons, the black and white series of a macabre and supernatural family of outcasts likely always had a cult following, but was not a hit in the ratings during its original run. It was a dark comedy that parodied the “ideal American family” sitcoms of the time, and often had material that would invoke memories of the gothic horrors from classic literature and B-films. The series was far smarter than its direct competition of the time The Munsters, but the latter was a warmer and more accessible show. (CS: It is also the one that was still in rerun syndication when I was kid, though it never got its own theatrical movie.)
The series was witty and smart compared to the very vanilla flavoured sitcoms of the time, but it was the dark atmosphere that would have thrown audiences off. The 90s brought in a new gothic movement where the macabre and dark became trendy, and this show would have been a huge hit with such a crowd. Actually, the success of two films based off the series (the original movie was the seventh highest grossing film of 1991) that were released in the ‘90s is proof there was an audience clamouring for this type of material.
Profit: (CS: No idea why I left out the year it aired when I had it for every other series, but it was 1996.) This series about an employee willing to take illegal actions in order to move up in a major global company was the perfect example of a show that aired far too soon. Audiences in 1996 weren’t ready for an antihero who had a skewed moral code and a series that often dealt with the questionable ethical practices of corporate America. It only lasted 8 episodes, and wasn’t even well received by most critics at the time.
Films had already dealt with dark protagonists several times, but people still expected TV series to have somewhat virtuous heroes with stories that didn’t challenge audiences’ perceptions of society. The show really laid the ground work for thought-provoking television with flawed ‘heroes’ in popular series like Sopranos, Dexter, Breaking Bad, The Shield, and Boardwalk Empire. This is another series that would have been better suited for cable television rather than FOX, and likely would have been a big hit if it premiered on FX today. (CS: Huh. So, I was aware of FX and its quality at the time. I don't think it was available in Canada yet though.)
Sledge Hammer! (1986-1988): In 1986, sitcoms were expected to be taped in front of a studio audience, have multiple cameras, have a laugh track, and usually be about an American family. Sledge Hammer! was filmed with a single camera, so it looked more like a drama, and was a preposterous parody of the renegade and tough as nails cop made famous by the Dirty Harry franchise. Audiences were probably expecting a police procedural, but instead got an in-your-face satire that was far more chaotic and violent than expected from a sitcom at the time.
The farcical elements would be similar to what South Park would end up doing, and the filming style is like current comedies Modern Family or Community. (CS: Now both are finished but all over streaming services.) The other major problem that killed Sledge Hammer! was ABC just didn’t think there was a market for something so different and constantly tweaked it to make it “appropriate” for network television. (CS: One of the things that I don't understand about executives in the entertainment industry is why they approve and greenligh stuff that they obviously don't understand and keep tweaking to the point it is no longer what they approved.) Networks are far more flexible now, but there also would be several cable channels willing take on a more risqué sitcom that modern audiences would be far more willing to accept and understand.
Many of these series are now considered cult classics, but none of them were hits during their original airings. Some shows just end up arriving far too early for an audience and critics to understand. Luckily, DVD box sets, Netflix, and Hulu will allow these shows to find a new audience and finally get the appreciation they deserve. (CS: I know a few of these have been on streaming but others I think haven't aired anywhere since they were cancelled.) It will be interesting to see if any of the upcoming series turn out to be flops that 10 years from now will be classics that we just weren’t ready for. (CS: Have there been any great shows that were cut short since 2013?)
What are some TV series flops that you love and would be huge hits today?