Fans of "Firefly" were aghast when the innovative science fiction-western mashup was cancelled by Fox after just 13 episodes in 2002. If, through the power of time travel and extrasensory perception, we could go back and read fans' minds, we might have seen thoughts like, "How could those dumb, unimaginative network executives not realize that this was the greatest TV series ever spawned from the forehead of Zeus?"
But then again, we don't really need special powers to know just how "Firefly" fans felt. The truth is most of us who watch TV have been confronted with the same sort of incomprehensible (at least to us) injustice at some point. Some of us were dumbstruck when "Gidget," which featured young, future movie and TV star Sally Field, didn't make the cut at ABC in 1966, or when "Earth 2" was axed by NBC in 1994. And there probably are at least a few people out there in the vastness of the American TV viewing audience who still mourn the demise of "Then Came Bronson," "The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.," "The Double Life of Henry Phyfe," "The Lone Gunmen," or any number of other briefly-lived, ratings-challenged wonders that were unable to survive in the cruelly Darwinian world of television.
You might expect cold-hearted network executives to shrug their shoulders and say: The ratings numbers don't lie. Truth is, though, some of them agonize about terminating good shows that, unfortunately, for whatever reasons, can't seem to pull in the requisite audience to make a buck.
Here are 10 shows that died too soon, leaving their cult followings clinging to recorded episodes and "What if?" scripts on the Web.
This show, which aired on the cable channel AMC in 2010, was probably intended to draw the fans who'd once been devoted to "The X-Files." Like that incredibly popular, long-lived show, it was based upon the classic conspiracy-theorist worldview: Beneath the official established power structure of society lurks a mysterious group of elite individuals, who surreptitiously control global events and guide the fate of people and governments for some hidden, murky purpose.
But unlike "The X-Files," which explored that premise through the action-filled adventures of dashing FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, "Rubicon" portrayed the doings of a group of desk-jockeys at an obscure academic think tank, the American Policy Institute. The team's leader, Will Travers (played by James Badge Dale), was a whiz at pattern recognition, not hand-to-hand combat with monsters and alien-human hybrid super-soldiers. The subtly chilling, Kafka-meets-Pynchon ambiance of the show intrigued critics, but apparently some dark group of conspirators rigged the ratings, depriving us of ever seeing the brilliant-but-malevolent Truxton Spangler (Michael Cristofer) get his comeuppance.
"Terriors," FX's offbeat update on Raymond Chandler's existential private-eye noir, which aired in 2010, was set in a seedy Southern California beach town in the throes of gentrification. It was the brainchild of producer Shawn Ryan, whose critically-acclaimed cop show "The Shield" had been a major hit on the cable network.
But some say "Terriers" had two strikes against it from the start: For one, its quirky name led some confused potential viewers to assume it was a show about dogs. And two, its protagonists, down-on-his-luck, ex-cop Hank (Donal Logue) and his equally threadbare ex-burglar partner Brett (Michael Raymond-James), were likeable but conspicuously flawed heroes, who might be brilliant and noble one moment and hopelessly screwed up and dangerously inept the next. The plots were complex and blackly humorous, and the bad guys sometimes came out on top.
With just 500,000 viewers in the 18 to 49 demo, "Terriers" was FX's lowest-rated show ever, and it cancellation was inevitable. It was a tribute to the show's brilliance, though, that FX President John Landraf held a post-mortem press conference, in which he blamed the show's demise on the public's inability to appreciate it. "I don't know if subtlety is something the American public is buying in droves today," he lamented.
8: 'The Green Hornet'
In the fall of 1966, ABC was eager to replicate the success of its comic-book superhero show "Batman" with "The Green Hornet." The show was based on a 1930s radio serial about a crusading newspaper publisher, Britt Reid, who secretly poses as a criminal himself to combat wrongdoers. But unlike "Batman," whose appeal was rooted in its campy humor, "The Green Hornet" tried to be a serious crime show, which may have been a fatal mistake. The casting of handsome but woodenly uncharismatic Van Williams as the Green Hornet/Britt Reid character didn't help, either.
But what made "The Green Hornet" remarkable was the casting of a young Chinese-American actor and martial-arts virtuoso, Bruce Lee, as the Hornet's chauffeur-sidekick Kato. Lee introduced American audiences to the exquisitely graceful but startlingly powerful Chinese martial art of kung fu, and his leaping, spinning kicks and lightning knife-hand strikes created a sensation. After "The Green Hornet" was cancelled in 1967, Lee eventually went on to become a martial-arts movie star in Asia. Sadly, he died of an allergic reaction to a headache medicine in 1973, shortly before the U.S. premiere of what would be his biggest film, "Enter the Dragon." Clips of his fight scenes from "The Green Hornet" are still popular on YouTube. Interestingly, when comic actor Seth Rogen remade "The Green Hornet" as a 2011 movie, he added the humor that the original production left out. The film version has made &36;225 million in the box office worldwide.
7: 'The Outsider'
In some ways, "The Outsider" was the 1968 version of "Terriers." It came along at a point when TV action heroes had become so suave and glamorous as to strain credulity, even within their fictional worlds. The most ridiculous example was the protagonist of the 1963 to 1965 series "Burke's Law," a millionaire playboy who doubled as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department's homicide squad, and was chauffeured from dinner dates with sexy models to crime scenes in a Rolls-Royce.
In contrast, "The Outsider" told the story of bottom-feeding, threadbare private detective David Ross, portrayed with sardonic grace by Darrin McGavin, who lived in his fleabag office, smelled the milk carton each morning to check whether it was sour, and drove a 1957 Plymouth that was so decrepit he had to stick his arm out the window to signal for turns. An ex-cop who'd been framed and done time for a murder he didn't commit, Ross wasn't the smoothest operator; he often got beat up, and sometimes outsmarted, in the course of an investigation, and he never seemed to get much of a payday from his efforts.
Unfortunately, "The Outsider" didn't make much money for NBC, either. But it did help resurrect the idea of the private detective as a working-class, existentialist hero, resolutely doing battle with the corrupt and powerful. And it influenced scores of movies and TV series that followed it.
6: 'Kolchak: the Night Stalker'
Darrin McGavin had the good fortune -- or misfortune, depending upon how you look at it -- of being in two of the best, most influential TV shows that only lasted a single season. "Kolchak: The Night Stalker," which aired on ABC during the 1974 to 1975 season, starred McGavin as Carl Kolchak, a newspaper reporter who investigated crimes with paranormal angles that police were unwilling to pursue. The series grew out of a 1972 made-for-TV movie "The Night Stalker," also starring McGavin, which set what was then a record for the highest ratings of any straight-to-TV film.
"Kolchak," by all rights, should have been similarly successful. It was an innovative blend of supernatural fantasy and hard-boiled noir. McGavin's rumpled, cynical reporter character tossed off acerbic, B-movie wisecracks and made a running stream of blunt, darkly witty observations as he dictated notes for his articles into his tape recorder (which also provided the story with a voice-over narration). For reasons known only to the Nielsen gods, the show didn't become a hit, though it did attract a small, fervent cult following. Among those fans was Chris Carter, whose 1990s hit show "The X-Files" was so influenced by "Kolchak" that Carter even convinced McGavin to do a cameo as a burned-out veteran paranormal investigator.
5: 'Freaks and Geeks'
This comedy-drama series about a teenage girl's 1980s evolution from high school brainiac to rebellious slacker was cancelled after 12 episodes of its scheduled 18-episode run on NBC during the 1999 to 2000 season -- though an impassioned campaign by the show's handful of fans convinced the network to air three more episodes.
Despite its weak ratings, critics also loved the show's faithful depiction of adolescent joys, traumas and absurdities; in 2007, Time magazine put "Freaks and Geeks" on its list of the 100 best TV shows of all time, and Entertainment Weekly ranked it in 2008 as the 13th best series of the previous 25 years. The show's producer, Judd Apatow, went on to much greater success as a movie producer, director and writer, with hits like "Anchorman: The Ron Burgundy Story," "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," and "Knocked Up." Two of "Freaks and Geeks" cast members, Seth Rogen and James Franco, also went on to big-screen stardom.
4: 'The Beast'
You might say this 2009 crime drama on the A&E cable channel was doomed from the start. The show was about a pair of Chicago-based undercover FBI agents caught in a conspiratorial web and continually confronted with painful ethical dilemmas. But its star, Patrick Swayze, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer shortly after the series was green-lighted by network execs.
Swayze bravely chose to keep working through his ultimately fatal illness and put on what may have been the best performance of his career. His ravaged body and grim, fatalistic ambiance -- so startling to those who remembered him as the robust young leading man in the hit film "Dirty Dancing" -- gave "The Beast" a desperate sort of energy.
3: 'My So-Called Life'
This 1994 to 1995 ABC series, from "Thirtysomething" producers Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, took viewers inside the life of a teenage girl. Unlike the carefee, idyllic adolescent reality depicted on shows like "Happy Days," hers was dysfunctional and confusing. Everything about the show was slightly off-center, from its unusual setting in a Pittsburgh suburb to the awkward, coltish charm of its 15-year-old star, Claire Danes, who went on to a successful career as a film actress.
The show continually broke new dramatic ground, with its painfully accurate depiction of the tense, discordant marital relationship of the protagonist's parents (portrayed by Bess Armstrong and Tom Irwin), and its incorporation of controversial issues like homophobia and child abuse. Slotted against the hit comedy "Friends," "My So-Called Life" was doomed, but its fate was sealed when Danes reportedly told the producers that she was leaving to work in movies. Nevertheless, the influence of "My So-Called Life" can be seen in the slew of successful teen-angst dramas that have followed it.
This blackly humorous satire of big business, which aired on Fox in 1996, was a bit too far ahead of its time. It was the first show with a malevolent, sociopathic protagonist, Jim Profit (played by Adrian Pasdar), who thought nothing of engaging in blackmail, bribery and even murder to climb the food chain at the multinational conglomerate of Gracen & Gracen.
Viewers eventually learned that he was confined in one of company's shipping crates as a child by his abusive father, whose lack of empathy Profit seemed to have inherited. The plot premises of "Profit" ingeniously mimicked real-life corporate scandals, from tainted baby food to the theft of sensitive technology from corporate partners. In the end, "Profit" vanished, but not before presaging a slew of antihero shows that would come along a few years later, like "The Sopranos" and "Breaking Bad."
1: 'The Prisoner'
This British-made TV series aired in the UK during the 1967 to 1968 season and in the United States in 1968 to 1969. It was deliberately short-lived because its star and creator, Patrick McGoohan, reportedly could only come up with ideas for 17 episodes. McGoohan, who had quit the hit British TV show "Danger Man" (retitled "Secret Agent" in the United States) because he'd become bored with the 1960s espionage craze, figured out an ingenious way to subvert that theme. What if a disillusioned former spy (who bore an unspoken resemblance to his character, John Drake, in the first show) tried to quit the clandestine service, but the government decided that he knew too much to be allowed to walk away?
In "The Prisoner," that agent was knocked out with sleeping gas pumped into his apartment, and woke up in a mysterious place known only as "The Village," surrounded by others who apparently also had been quarantined. The hamlet's quaint architecture, cheery cafe and schedule of recreational activities, of course, was a facade; behind it lurked high-tech surveillance equipment and a bizarre giant ball that bounded forth to retrieve anyone who dared try to escape. The implication of "The Prisoner" was that the good guys in the Cold War were perhaps not so different from the bad guys, and that democracy was a sham that concealed a totalitarian national security elite. That theme -- and "The Prisoner's" dreamlike narrative, psychedelic production style and tart humor -- have resonated ever since. In 2009, shortly after McGoohan's death, AMC aired a miniseries version of "The Prisoner" that reinterpreted his idea.