FOX canceled “Lone Star” on Tuesday afternoon, after only two episodes had aired. And even though it was my favorite new network show of the season, the debut ratings were so bad that the network frankly would have been justified for canceling it after only one.
Even with the ratings, I know some fans of the show were shocked by the abruptness of the cancellation. I, unfortunately, have been covering TV long enough to be numb to the idea of cancellation after 3, 2 or even 1 episode. What’s relatively rare about the “Lone Star” case is that it’s a swift cancellation for a show that the networks and the press liked. I’m not saying that critics’ darlings are guaranteed a long lifespan, but a disastrously-rated show that’s working creatively will tend to get a longer leash than one that’s terrible.
This cancellation made me think back to ABC’s great, controversial priest drama “Nothing Sacred” from the late ’90s, and I remembered it as another one that got yanked quickly due to ratings and pressure from The Catholic League, but in fact 15 episodes aired. For all the talk of how badly NBC and FOX treated Judd Apatow with “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared,” those shows produced 18 and 17 episodes, respectively, and got to air most of them. Similarly, “Firefly” fans like to curse FOX for how the network treated Joss Whedon’s outer space Western, and yet 11 of the 14 episodes aired before the plug was pulled. Not great, but far, far better than the “Lone Star” people got.
When you run down a list of stillborn shows like this, they tend to be awful, like David E. Kelley’s “girls club” (2 episodes) or the Brian Bosworth action show “Lawless” (1 episode). At best you’ll find something mediocre with a good cast and/or creative pedigree, like John Wells, Ray Liotta and company with “Smith” (3 episodes).
So I decided to cast my memory back over the 15 or so years I’ve been a TV critic to think of other shows I liked a lot that didn’t make it out of single digit episodes aired. It was harder than I thought (especially if you leave out something like “Andy Barker, PI,” where the network only ordered six episodes and aired all of them), but here are five I came up with (and please note that Fienberg insisted that I at least mention the 4 episodes of “Wonderfalls,” even though he liked that show a whole lot more than I did):
“EZ Streets” (CBS, 1996): First loves always break your heart. This Paul Haggis-created crime drama about a rogue cop (Ken Olin) chasing a crazy mobster (Joe Pantoliano, never better) and the ex-con caught in the middle (Jason Gedrick, also never better) was literally the first pilot episode I watched as a TV critic. It was fantastic, but also years ahead of its time, as it would have been better off in a world where cable was making a lot of original drama series. CBS aired two episodes in the fall, pulled it and promised to do a big relaunch in the spring that would involve re-airing those first two (since the show had a very complicated story arc), but instead just jumped ahead to episode three and pulled it after 8 episodes total had aired. I still have the unaired ninth episode on VHS, and it’s so good that I’ll occasionally plug in the ol’ VCR to watch it again.
(Haggis and “EZ Streets” writer Bobby Moresco, by the way, would essentially try to re-do “EZ Streets” a decade later with NBC’s “The Black Donnellys,” which was a less interesting show but still good enough that its cancellation after six episodes disappointed me.)
“Action” (FOX, 1999): Jay Mohr played a vicious movie exectuve named Peter Dragon in a show that, even with the content restraints of a broadcast network, is the Hollywood comedy that “Entourage” on its best day wishes it could be. On the DVD commentary, creator Chris Thompson and producer Joel Silver (on whom Dragon was loosely based) admit that HBO was interested but that they wanted the bigger payday that FOX was offering. Their reward: cancellation after only 8 episodes had aired.
“Wonderland” (ABC, 2000): Before he produced “Friday Night Lights,” or built a fairly successful career as a feature director, Peter Berg helped create this drama about the staff of a New York public mental hospital. My old writing partner Matt Seitz said at the time that, with its jittery visual style (which was actually more hyperactive than the stuff Berg has directed in the 10 years since), “This is the most uncompromising and stylistically innovative approach to TV drama since ‘NYPD Blue’ maybe since ‘Hill Street Blues’ 20 years ago.” But the subject matter (including a storyline about a pregnant doctor who gets stabbed in the belly with an infected blood sample) was incredibly bleak, and ABC pulled the plug after two weeks. (DirecTV’s The 101 Network, which helped save “FNL,” aired all the episodes last year.)
“Keen Eddie” (FOX, 2003): This was the latest of FOX’s many attempts in the late ’90s and early ’00s to program original scripted TV in the summer, a light drama about a brusing New York cop (Mark Valley) who moves across the pond to work out of Scotland Yard. It’s the best role Valley has ever had, up to and including “Human Target,” featured a young and saucy Sienna Miller and lots of good London locations. Everybody seemed to like it except viewers, and FOX pulled it after 7 episodes. (Another 6 aired the following year on Bravo.)
“Love Monkey” (CBS, 2006): Right show, wrong network. Tom Cavanagh from “Ed” played a record company executive who has a Jerry Maguire moment, loses his job and winds up hustling for a small independent label, trying to find and break new artists at the same time he hung out with his buddies and looked for love in the big city. With its mix of comedy, romance and a lot of indie rock, it would have been a perfect fit over at ABC airing after “Grey’s Anatomy.” Instead, it was on CBS at a time when every other drama on the schedule seemed to be a “CSI” spin-off. Three episodes and out.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com