Continuing with my look back at the past decade of TV, here are the best brilliant-but-canceled shows, the ones that should have become huge hits but never did. They were yanked from the airwaves before their time, but thankfully live on through DVD box sets. Seriously, go watch all of these if you haven’t already.
Once again, my rules declare that the series had to start in 2000 or later, so no “Freaks and Geeks.” I know, it was an awesome show, maybe the most brilliant-but-canceled series ever, but it doesn’t count. Just barely missing this list: “Karen Sisco” (with Carla Gugino picking up where Jennifer Lopez left off in “Out of Sight”), “The Tick” (good, but the animated version was better), and “Andy Richter Controls the Universe” (awesomely weird, and you can see traces of it today in “Better Off Ted”).
Onto the list. And notice how often Fox shows pop up. Hmmm, can you guess which network’s executives really deserved to be fired?
10. “Keen Eddie” (Fox, 2003). It only lasted a handful of episodes, but this action/comedy about a New York cop working on assignment for Scotland Yard quickly won me over. Maybe it was the frenetic Guy Ritchie-inspired style it was shot, or the cool Britpop/trip-hop soundtrack, or the on-location filming that brought London alive. Or maybe it was just a combination of clever writing, rapid-fire banter that left double entendres strewn about and a rock-solid cast, including Mark Valley, Sienna Miller (before she became tabloid fodder) and Julian Rhind-Tutt. A very fun show.
9. “Greg the Bunny” (Fox, 2002). Here’s a series that really would have worked better on cable (and did). Fox had no idea what to do with this sitcom set behind the scenes at a children’s show, in a world where the muppet creatures were as real as the humans. There was great potential: Imagine the backstage workings of “30 Rock” meets the cast of “The Muppet Show” meets the vulgarity of “South Park.” But it was never allowed pushed the edge quite enough, which is mind-blowing when you consider that it featured Seth Green (“Robot Chicken”) and Sarah Silverman, two of the most hilariously twisted young minds in Hollywood. The muppet characters were great too, from the innocent Greg the Bunny, to the, um, “slow” Tardy the Turtle (“These crayons taste like purple”) to the egomaniacal drunkard Warren “the Ape” DeMontague. The show didn’t die entirely when Fox pulled the plug; IFC (where the series’ concept was born) aired a series of shorts, and next year Warren the Ape will get his own MTV show.
8. “Wonderfalls” (Fox, 2004). Quirky doesn’t begin to describe it. This was a wonderfully weird hourlong comedy from future “Pushing Daisies” creator Bryan Fuller about a jaded 20-something girl working a dead-end job at Niagara Falls, who one day finds inanimate objects talking to her and telling her to do good deeds. Which she was usually too lazy or hungover to do. Was she crazy? Was it God talking to her? We never found out. But for a brief period, it was the most clever, most fun and most snarky show on TV.
7. “Pushing Daisies” (ABC, 2007-2009). Speaking of Bryan Fuller and quirky, this was a series that I knew wouldn’t last from the moment I saw it. Just way, way too quirky for network TV. But it lasted two seasons, about one and a half more than I thought it would. The technicolor, visually delicious modern fable about a Pie Man who can raise the dead (but only momentarily or else someone else nearby will die) was jaw-droppingly creative and wildly ambitious. With dialogue that sounded more like poetry, full of alliteration and sing-song meter, and an immediately likable cast — including Lee Pace, Anna Friel, Kristin Chenoweth and Chi McBride — it was an utterly delightful series. I don’t often use the word “delightful” in everyday life, but if you ever saw this show, you’d know there’s no other word to describe it.
6. “Firefly” (Fox, 2002). This was “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon’s attempt at an outer-space Western. Fox butchered it, showing episodes out of order so the plot didn’t make sense, and viewers were never able to catch on. It’s too bad, because this was a really, really cool show. The vividly imagined galaxy that the series existed in was a little bit “Star Wars,” a little bit “Stagecoach,” yet wholly original. The characters were well developed and easy to root for, and the storylines (once you saw them in order) were compelling. And so what if Nathan Fillion’s roguish Capt. Mal Reynolds was a Han Solo ripoff? He totally made it work. The series had an incredibly loyal fan base, who finally were rewarded with a bit of closure in the terrific 2005 movie “Serenity.”
Warning: This one’s NSFW
5. “Chappelle’s Show” (Comedy Central, 2003-2006). In the tradition of Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle delivered the most groundbreaking racially charged comedy of his time. For two seasons (he quit as the third was being shot), Chappelle delivered a brutally hilarious, racially antagonistic show that became a pop culture phenomenon, and the best sketch comedy show of the decade. The show didn’t shy from controversy, dropping certain epithets at will and finding laughs in crack dealers, gun violence and racial stereotypes. As a white dude, I wasn’t sure I was approved to laugh at some of it, but it was so funny that I really didn’t have a choice. Between Wayne Brady’s dark side, Prince playing basketball, “I’m Rick James, bitch!” and Tyrone Biggums’ intervention, how could anyone not laugh? And hard? The series abruptly ended when Chappelle walked away from a $50 million contract for vague creative-control reasons.
4. “Undeclared” (Fox, 2001). Seth Rogen. Jason Segel. Judd Apatow. Guest stars Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller. How in the world did this series fail? Probably because Fox never promoted it. Comedy was dead after 9/11, remember? The series followed the wacky hijinks of a group of college freshmen, and for a few short months it was the funniest thing on TV. Instead of going the “American Pie”-model sex/gross-out comedy route, the show was actually fairly realistic, finding humor in the stresses and emotional turmoil (and, OK, potty humor) that defines the college years. Who didn’t know guys just like Marshall and Ron (Timm Sharp and Rogen) in college? There were so many high points: Loudon Wainright III as the dad who wants to be one of the guys; the pre-”Sons of Anarchy” Charlie Hunnam (he’s British!) as a pretty-boy drama student; and my favorite character, Perry (whatever happened to Jarrett Grode?), the deadpan, sarcastic guy who stole every scene he was in and could break into freestyle rap at the drop of a hat. It had witty, razor-sharp dialogue, was consistently hilarious and heartfelt and a stars-of-tomorrow cast. Of course it was doomed to fail.
Warning: This one’s NSFW
3. “Deadwood” (HBO, 2004-2006). It was described as Shakespeare in the Wild West. The brilliant series set in a Dakota Territory boomtown used language like no show before or since. The dialogue was the most foulmouthed stuff you’ve ever heard, yet literate and somehow proper, and it was fascinating to listen to. The characters were fantastic, and included one of TV’s all-time great antiheroes, Al Swearingen (Ian McShane), the ruthless mob boss/entrepreneur who ran the town. Intended to air over four seasons, it ended after just three for the worst possible reason: “John From Cincinnati.” That’s the series (which turned out to be terrible) that creator David Milch opted to switch gears to, leaving the final season of “Deadwood” to wither and its actors’ contracts to expire. I still haven’t forgiven him.
2. “Veronica Mars” (UPN/The CW, 2004-2007). OK, so there’s this high school girl who was raped, and her best friend was murdered, and her dad is a pariah in the community and her mom walked out on them. Hey, doesn’t that sound like a fun show? Yet somehow it was. Blending mystery, teen drama and a good dose of comedy with some seriously dark situations, it was the best show about teenage alienation – and featured TV’s coolest heroine – since “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Kristen Bell was perfect as the title character, a jaded-before-her-time, whip-smart, wisecracking young investigator/high school student. It deftly dealt with topics ranging from class warfare to date rape to babies switched at birth, yet never veered near “a very special episode” preachiness. Crackerjack dialogue, a dense mythology and a general sense of spunkiness carried this noir classic for three seasons before it was canceled due to low ratings.
1. “Arrested Development” (Fox, 2003-2006). I know, another list, another time “AD” is No. 1. This is the last time, I promise. But for such a brilliant show that some – cough, cough – have branded the best sitcom ever, it got shockingly little network support and not many viewers. In a final “F-You” to the show, Fox aired the final two episodes against the Opening Ceremonies of the Winter Olympics. But three years later, it’s not quite dead yet: An “Arrested Development” movie is in the works for 2010.
Previously: The top 10 sitcoms of the decade.