10 great one-season wonder TV shows

Senior Television Writer
12.09.10 231 Comments


The day he announced the cancellation of the fantastic but low-rated private eye drama “Terriers” after a single season, FX president John Landgraf said, frankly, “This isn’t the first good show we’ve had to cancel, and it won’t be the last.”

Great shows get canceled all the time, often as quickly as “Terriers” was – if not sooner. (This is, after all, the same season in which the best new broadcast network series, FOX’s “Lone Star,” lasted all of two episodes.) And though the cancellation of “Terriers” is a sad thing for fans of quality TV, it also means the show gets to join some pretty august company: great series that only lasted a single season. And in some ways, those shows can wind up better-remembered than ones that lasted longer. While it’s terrible to fall for a one-and-done show, there’s also something to be said for leaving the audience wanting more. Most TV shows will ultimately give you a bad season, or multiple bad seasons – it’s the nature of a business that usually demands keeping shows on the air past the point where everyone has stopped caring – but the one-and-dones lived fast, died young and left good-looking DVD corpses.

The “Terriers” cancellation is still too close for me to have perspective on where it might rank on any list of my favorite one-and-dones, though I wouldn’t be shocked if it wound up sitting in second place behind a show I have a hard time imagining ever losing the top spot.

The following list spans the time I’ve been working as a professional TV critic, starting with the 1996-97 TV season, which means no “My So-Called Life,” “Police Squad!” or anything earlier, and I decided to limit it to 10. Your own lists will vary, whether including shows I just didn’t like (“Wonderfalls”) or ones I liked but not more than these (“Action!”).

“Freaks and Geeks” (NBC, 1999-2000): It’s easy to argue that this dramedy about misfits in a 1980 Michigan high school was ahead of its time, given that showrunner Judd Apatow and stars Seth Rogen, James Franco and Jason Segel have done incredibly well in the movies, often collaborating with each other and often using the same mix of of uncomfortable humor and pathos that got “Freaks and Geeks” canceled after 18 episodes had been made. I do think, though, that Apatow and company’s movies have generally been sunnier and less cringe-inducing than the show was, and there’s not as wide a market for a show that perfectly, painfully captures the worst parts of adolescence. But if it hurt to watch “Freaks and Geeks” much of the time, it hurt so, so good, as those 18 episodes were a magnificent blend of big laughs and heart-tugging emotion. Much as I wish the show could have continued, I understand why it didn’t, and the finale – written when Apatow and creator Paul Feig could see the writing on the wall – is as perfect a closing note as any show has ever had. (I revisited all 18 episodes of “Freaks and Geeks” a few summers ago on the old blog.)

“EZ Streets” (CBS, 1996-97): As with Apatow on “Freaks and Geeks,” this is a case of a writer/director failing on network TV before blowing up in the movies. Years before “Million-Dollar Baby,” “Crash” and “Casino Royale,” Paul Haggis crafted this dense, riveting crime drama centered on three men coming into conflict in an unnamed Rust Belt city: a reckless, possibly bent cop (Ken Olin), a good-hearted but violent ex-con trying to win his family back (Jason Gedrick) and a sociopathic rising crime lord (Joe Pantoliano, in a performance that makes Ralphie from “The Sopranos” look like a choirboy). A sweeping, cinematic look, great performances and all the other elements that would become familiar on cable dramas in the following decade, yet I can only think of a handful of dramas of the ’00s I enjoyed more than the handful of “EZ Streets” episodes Haggis and company got to make.

“Cupid” (ABC, 1998-99): Right show, wrong network, wrong time. A pre-“Entourage” Jeremy Piven, in by far his most likable performance ever, played Trevor Hale, who was either an emotionally-damaged man or the Roman god of love, banished to Earth without his powers until he could unite 100 couples in true love. Rob Thomas’ series, co-starring Paula Marshall (also never more charming) as Trevor’s skeptical shrink, was a delightful confection of humor, romance, music, and even tragedy. (The best episode involved a “perfect match” where the woman received the dead man’s heart.) But the struggling, identity-less ABC of 1998 wasn’t in any condition to support such a show, and it failed in two suicidal timeslots on Saturday and then Thursday. Still, the show was so good, and so obviously right for 21st century ABC’s brand, that Thomas was asked to give it another shot a couple of years ago. But the remake (with Bobby Cannavale and Sarah Paulson as the leads) was mainly a cautionary tale about how hard it is to get lightning in a bottle twice. (On the old blog, I revisited the original “Cupid” – which isn’t on DVD but is on YouTube – during the 2007-08 WGA strike.)

“Firefly” (FOX, 2002): That this oddball Western/sci-fi mash-up – about a crew of bandits working jobs on the frontier of a new solar system – worked so well creatively is a testament to the talents of creator Joss Whedon, producer Tim Minear (who also has “Terriers,” “Wonderfalls” and a bunch of other done-in-ones on his resume) and the rest of the “Firefly” team. That it was a commercial failure – a blend of one genre that hadn’t been commercially successful in decades and another that usually attracts niche audiences at best – should have surprised no one, particularly once FOX decided to air the first episode last, and otherwise tinker with the show. Still, “Firefly” – highlighted by the alternately dark and funny leading man performance by Nathan Fillion – became arguably more beloved than any other Whedon show, to the point where a movie spin-off called “Serenity” was made to appease the rabid fans. Like the show, “Serenity” was terrific and yet little-seen. (I revisited “Firefly” on DVD this summer on HitFix.)

“Undeclared” (FOX, 2001-02): Apatow tried to learn from the “Freaks and Geeks” failure with this follow-up series, set in a college’s freshman dorm. Gone were the period setting and the truly agonizing moments you had to watch from behind your couch, while he kept the improvisational humor and commitment to well-rounded characterization. Didn’t matter, as the lighter, often funnier but still terrific “Undeclared” only got to make 17 episodes, one less than Apatow and company had on “Freaks and Geeks.” (Dan and I discussed the series in episodes 19-26 of the Firewall & Iceberg Podcast.)

“Nothing Sacred” (ABC, 1997-98): This drama about an unconventional young priest (Kevin Anderson) would likely have been doomed even if the Catholic League hadn’t gone on a crusade against it – among the show’s alleged sins were that the priest briefly contemplated giving up the collar to run off with a married ex-girlfriend, and in another episode counseled a parishioner who wanted an abortion without strongly urging her not to – because the audience for challenging, theologically-themed drama isn’t especially high. Still, the 15 episodes that aired (another 5 have never seen the light of day) were complex and thoughtful and moving.

“The Middleman” (ABC Family, 2008): When former ABC Family boss Paul Lee addressed the press on his first day as head of ABC proper, he mentioned the failure of this show – Javier Grillo-Marxuach’s adaptation of his own light-hearted comic book about a pair of anonymous monster hunters (played by Matt Keeslar and Natalie Morales) – as one of the biggest regrets of his old job. Like many of the shows on this list, it was a metric ton of fun. And like many shows on this list, it didn’t fit comfortably on the network that aired it, and its target audience never knew to go looking for it.

“Karen Sisco” (ABC, 2003): A spin-off of the Jennifer Lopez character from “Out of Sight” – with Carla Gugino as the tough US Marshal title character and Robert Forster as her private eye dad – was the rare TV adaptation of a great movie to actually capture most of that film’s spirit. It was smart and sexy and cool, and Gugino was a revelation in the title role. But while “Out of Sight” is well-remembered, it wasn’t actually a box office hit, and the show’s noir sensibilities proved no more successful on the small screen.

“Now And Again” (CBS, 1999-2000): Most of the shows on this list either got to make some kind of proper conclusion (the “Freaks and Geeks” finale, the “Firefly” movie) or at least closed on a note that made cancellation slightly less excruciating. “Now And Again” creator Glen Gordon Caron, on the other hand, crafted a season finale designed to dare CBS to cancel the show – a strange, fun and often exciting sort of “Six Million Dollar Man” update about a middle-aged family man (John Goodman) whose brain winds up in a genetically-perfect body (Eric Close) designed to be a government super-soldier – and CBS unfortunately called his bluff. I still wince thinking about the final scene, in which our hero decides to go on the run from murderous handler Dennis Haysbert, and to take the wife and daughter who think he’s dead along with him. No closure, and not even the sort of “we’ll never know exactly what happens, but this part of the story is incredibly satisfying as is” resolution that “Freaks and Geeks” or “Terriers” got.

“Kingpin” (NBC, 2003): After David Simon and David Mills won a pair of Emmys for their work on the HBO miniseries “The Corner,” the two friends split up to make two very different shows about the War on Drugs. Simon famously made “The Wire,” a hyper-realistic epic using the drug war as the spear tip for an attack on the the crumbling state of the American dream, where Mills made “Kingpin,” a larger-than-life pastiche of “The Godfather,” “Traffic” and a bunch of other crime and/or drug epics, about the reluctant boss (Yancey Arias) of a Mexican drug cartel. Not remotely as deep as “The Wire” (where Mills would wind up working a few years later), but fun and exciting on its own day-glo terms.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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