Mostly Film mourns for tv shows cancelled after just one season (and still available to stream online)
Famously the X-Files only made it to a second series thanks to overseas sales and global fans because, as far as US network TV was concerned, it was a ratings dud. How wrong they were, but shows still suffer from the ratings curse. Every network and channel has a different definition of success. When a show is aired, how it is marketed and how expectations are therefore set, who it stars and the expectations that they set and what show it follows can all have an impact on a series; and sometimes great shows get cancelled.
Take for instance Freaks and Geeks (presently available to stream in the UK on Netflix). This 1999-2000 NBC TV series was cancelled after just 12 episodes, even though 18 were made. The show is now considered one of the 100 greatest shows of all time and launched the careers of Judd Apatow, James Franco, Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, Busy Philips, Linda Cardellini and John Francis Daley. If you watch it you will understand why; the story of high school kids that just don’t fit in is hackneyed to say the least, but the young stars and the clever writing created a bitter-sweet, humorous and sometimes heart breaking drama. It just took a while for an ostensibly kids show that was aimed at anything but, to find its audience. (See Harry Backhouse’s Freaks and Geeks appreciation below)
Not every TV show immediately finds its audience. It can take time for word of mouth to build, even in these days of social media and streaming services. Channels aren’t always willing to invest more money in a show if the audience, and advertising, don’t immediately arrive. Perhaps as the TV model continues to change this too shall change? Perhaps streaming will allow word of mouth to build and audiences to find the time to catch up? Time will tell.
There are many shows that were cancelled after one series. Some are famous (Freaks and Geeks, My So Called Life). Some are not. So what happens when you stumble across a great show on Netflix or Amazon, fall in love with the characters, and get caught up in the season finale cliff hanger only to find that the channel/network that commissioned it cancelled it? Mostly Film writers share their experiences with shows currently available to stream on Amazon or Netflix that were, in their opinion, chopped too soon.
TheTramp: Constantine (available on Amazon Prime UK)
Constantine is based on the DC comic book character John Constantine, a British exorcist and occult detective. Fans of the character will tell you that Constantine’s cynicism and wit, as well as the characters from heaven and hell that he deals with, are the comic’s key attractions. This is perhaps why an NBC show featuring the character, despite the present dominance of TV and movie comic universe adaptations, never felt like an obvious fit to me.
Airing from October 2014 into February 2015, Constantine was axed just halfway through its first season. Just 13 episodes exist, which is rather a shame because having watched shows like Arrow, The Flash, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Legends of Tomorrow and Agents of Shield, I think Constantine was much more engaging.
It seems I am not alone. Despite being axed, Constantine, played by British actor Matt Ryan, has guest starred in an episode of the fourth season of Arrow and is set to come back as an animated web series in 2017 (Matt Ryan will again give voice to the character).
Amazon Prime exclusively aired Preacher in the UK 2016, perhaps one of the strangest, darkest and (again in my opinion) most interesting TV show adaptations of a comic to have been aired. It was developed by the AMC network in the USA and a second season is due later in 2017. If Preacher can find an audience perhaps there is hope yet that another network will pick up Constantine and finish where NBC left off? I hope so. Which is just one of the many reasons that I recommend you watch this dark, witty, Brit-led slice of Southern Gothic online. Although the primary reason is that it is really very good indeed.
Helen Archer: Good Girls Revolt (available on Amazon Prime UK)
Amazon’s decision not to renew Good Girls Revolt came as something of a shock. The programme, in its short lifespan, had amassed a small legion of fans, and viewing figures were rumoured to be double that of the online broadcaster’s other hit, Transparent. Yet for some reason, the man in charge (and it was a man) passed on a second season of a show which tackled intersectional feminism, racism, journalism and civil rights just at a time when the topics seemed most relevant. Baffling.
Based on Lynn Povich’s memoir, “Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace,” the programme tells the story of Newsweek, which in 1970 was sued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for the systemic gender discrimination of its female staffers. In order to put the personal very firmly into the political, the central characters were created specifically for the show, though it features, too, the very real figures of Nora Ephron and Eleanor Holmes Norton, played by Grace Gummer and Joy Bryant, respectively. With other storylines focussing on the Black Panthers and Vietnam, it’s a programme which wears its revolutionary spirit with pride.
Most reviews compared it to Mad Men, and it’s easy to see why – both are period pieces set in offices of New York, both are concerned with the changing mores of the time, and both have a real attention to detail, from the costumes to the sets to the music. Though Mad Men retains for much of it a very 1950s aesthetic, Good Girls Revolt is the ‘70s through and through – it is Robert Altman to Mad Men’s Douglas Sirk. And, of course, Mad Men looks at the world around it from a very male perspective. Good Girls Revolt centres the women.
Mostly, the decision not to renew just didn’t make sense. The hope became that it would be picked up by another channel, but just two weeks ago, series creator Dana Calvo confirmed its absolute demise on Instagram. “Good Girls Revolt wasn’t picked up by any other network,” she wrote. “We made what felt like a 10-hour play, and I will miss the world and the characters that our cast brought to life.” She’s not the only one.
Harry Backhouse: Freaks and Geeks (available on Netflix UK)
Life’s a happy song…
This is a bit pointless, isn’t it? I mean, you’ve seen Freaks and Geeks. It’s the go-to reference for things that shouldn’t have been cancelled, beating even Firefly. Time Magazine said it was both one of the 10 best shows of its decade and the hundred best shows of all time, so me treating it like some kind of lost classic is a bit ridiculous. Of course you’ve seen it. Oh. You haven’t? Well, you should; it’s magnificent.
Freaks and Geeks came to screens in 1999, the brainchild of Paul “Bridesmaids” Feig and Judd “Bridesmaids” Apatow and is still the best thing either one of them has ever produced. This isn’t to disparage their later work, but F&G was a remarkable confluence of exceptional script, craft and performance which seldom occurs. It was so good that its failure is almost impossible to explain, but fail it most definitely did. It aired on NBC on, I think, Tuesdays in primetime and averaged 6.7 million viewers over its short, truncated run. To put that in perspective, Thursdays on NBC was ER which, in the 1999-2000 season averaged 30 million viewers, so after 12 of its 18 episodes were aired NBC pulled the plug. From a commercial viewpoint it’s hard to argue with the decision; from an artistic one it was criminal.
Possibly, it was a tough sell. It’s an ensemble piece about school children in 1980s Michigan, after all, and might not have immediately appealed to an audience used to white teethed heroic medics and their love lives, but it was their loss. The writing is witty, observant and humane; the young, (then) unknown cast are, genuinely without exception, perfect and the use of the music of the period is evocative and effective without ever being too on the nose.
I’m not going to list the cast (all of who are now very famous) or the writers (all very successful) and I certainly don’t need to outline Apatow’s and Feig’s triumphs. I’m just going to share one of my favourite memories of the show and I remember a lot of it, which – given that I saw it once fifteen years ago, and regularly forget the names of my children – is some sort of testament. In the episode “The Little Things”, Ken, played by Seth Rogen, has reason (well, he doesn’t actually, but I’m, not going into it) to imagine he might be gay. He checks his heterosexuality by yes, looking at Playboy and then some gay softcore, but also by listening to both Bowie and Sabbath. He prefers boobs and Sabbath, he determines, but the beautiful, open-minded, yeah-I-can-see-the-appeal nods that he gives to the Bowie and the gay porn are a perfect microcosm of the show. Truthful, kind and very, very funny.
It’s a fantastic piece of work, and though practically everybody who went anywhere near it has gone on to huge degrees of success, both in front of and behind the camera, we can mourn the loss of the two or three more seasons of it that we never got to see.
theTramp: Backstrom (available on Netflix UK)
I rather like detective shows, I have something of a weak spot for them. I think the USA is particularly good at a certain type of detective show – the buddy or team detective show. Longer running examples of such shows hail as far back as Starsky and Hutch and Chips, with more recent examples including Elementary and Castle. I came across Backstrom on Netflix. It stars Rainn Wilson, an actor best known for the US version of The Office, a show that I have never watched. It was billed as a ‘comedy-drama’ detective show. I was intrigued.
Backstrom is framed in the first ten minutes of the opening episode of this series as a racist, misogynistic, unhealthy, bitter, lonely, yet brilliant detective. Long running gags of the – they get funny thanks to repetition – variety and humour that hails from cynicism and political incorrectness is far more Brit in style than American. It made me smile a lot and at least once an episode I would laugh. Whether this was thanks to the oddity of this humour hailing from a US show, one that tries desperately to create a redemptive narrative arc for a character for whom redemption can surely only hail from acceptance – which he clearly has – or whether it really is just pitched at a level to amuse me I cannot say, but amuse it did.
I can see why it was cancelled. US TV audiences are not used to this type of humour or characters that are quite so unrepentantly awful. It may well be that a more traditional narrative arc crept in across the duration of the series, but I suspect (and ratings numbers back this suspicion out) that not enough viewers stuck with the show for long enough to uncover this. The show’s star, Rainn Wilson, is quoted as saying that Fox put the show on the wrong time slot. Rotten Tomatoes highlights mixed reviews to the series, suggesting that it was more than just a time slot that divided audiences. Personally I felt that the show found its stride just as it was axed.
All of the aforementioned shows are available on UK streaming services for the time being