Just because a TV show is great doesn’t mean anyone’s watching. The history of television is full of shows that were canceled too soon, and often it’s because their fan bases were of the small-but-loyal variety. Thankfully, streaming services and pop culture hindsight can give these short-lived series an extra shot at finding an audience. Bonus: If you’re looking for something new to binge but don’t want to commit to 100+ episodes, these five great shows might be just the programming you need.
(Note: This list omits miniseries that were only intended for single-season runs, but that’s no excuse not to watch the likes of Sharp Objects and The Night Of if you haven’t already.)
Few figures loom larger in the world of genre television than Joss Whedon, who’s responsible for shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. But many Whedonites lament that his futuristic space-cowboy series Firefly, starring a pre-Castle Nathan Fillion, was so short-lived. The sci-fi drama lasted just 14 episodes and to this day, fans long for a return.
Whedon once described his vision for Firefly as “nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things.” And even though this universe was set in the year 2517, the problems the characters encountered were quite relevant to viewers. “Nothing will change in the future,” Whedon said of his outlook. “Technology will advance, but we will still have the same political, moral, and ethical problems as today.” Much of the Firefly action takes place on the spaceship Serenity, where the crew is tasked with navigating both outer space and their inner demons. Luckily for fans, even though they never got a second season of Firefly, it’s post-cancelation popularity allowed Whedon to continue the story in the 2005 film Serenity.
"Freaks and Geeks" (1999 to 2000)
Before Judd Apatow hit it big on the silver screen, he was responsible for a string of beloved TV shows that never found the wide audience they deserved. The first of these was Freaks and Geeks, which aired just 18 episodes during the 1999 to 2000 season. Only 12 aired before the show was axed by NBC, who eventually relented after devoted fans convinced the network to broadcast the remaining six. Even if you’ve never seen the show, you’re familiar with several of the actors whose careers it launched: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Linda Cardellini, Jason Segel, and Busy Philipps, to name a few.
Cardellini was the star, an intelligent high-school student who falls in with a group of underachieving “freaks” at the same time that her younger brother (played by John Francis Daley, who has since co-written Spider-Man: Homecoming and co-directed the hilarious Game Night) becomes further entrenched with his close circle of “geek” friends. The show was highly attuned and often sympathetic to its characters — several of whom were rough around the edges but were lovable in their own way. Beloved by critics and its small-but-devoted fanbase alike, Freaks and Geeks is now regarded as a cult classic.
"My So-Called Life" (1994 to 95)
Long before she was a troubled CIA officer on Homeland, Claire Danes was a teenager trying to figure it all out on My So-Called Life. She won a Golden Globe for her performance, critics heaped praise on the coming-of-age drama, and ‘90s youths saw themselves represented onscreen in a refreshing new way — and unfortunately, none of this saved the show from being axed by ABC after just 19 episodes. Making the cancelation even more painful for fans was the fact that My So-Called Life’s final episode ended on a cliffhanger, as all involved expected (or at least hoped) to return for a second season.
Today, many fans take to the internet to try to save their favorite shows, from Community to Friday Night Lights to Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but such a thing was unheard of in 1995. The campaign to bring My So-Called Life back from the dead (which was given the punny name “Operation ‘Life’ Support”) is recognized as the first such event of its kind. In addition to inconsistent ratings and logistical difficulties in producing it, the series was ultimately doomed by the fact that Danes herself was reluctant to return; she was just 15 at the time and was having difficulty balancing work and school.
Unless you have a bizarre aversion to shows that deftly blend comedy and drama, there’s no reason not to watch Terriers. An under-the-radar gem about two San Diego private eyes, the show is what you might call a sunshine noir. It featured Donal Logue as an ex-cop and Michael Raymond-James a reformed criminal — the vibe is usually on the brighter side, but there’s real darkness lurking underneath.
What made Terriers special was how lived-in and authentic its entire world felt — neither glamorized nor unrealistically grim. The series was exceptionally well-received by critics. It was even nominated for Outstanding New Program by the Television Critics Association but had the misfortune of being in the same category as another new show: Game of Thrones. The series was canceled within a week of airing its 13th and final episode, but at least the leads found new day jobs: Logue went on to star in Gotham and Raymond-James joined the cast of Once Upon a Time.
"Trophy Wife" (2014)
What happens when a beautiful young party girl marries a middle-aged lawyer who has two ex-wives and three children? Why, hilarity ensues, of course. Any number of family-oriented sitcoms explore the generation gap between parents and their children, but few also show what happens when newlyweds themselves have to navigate that same tension. Trophy Wife did so with charm and humor, much of it thanks to a talented ensemble cast: Malin Åkerman and Bradley Whitford starred as the May-December lovebirds, while Marcia Gay Harden and Michaela Watkins were a constant presence as the ex-wives who remained a vital part of the family unit.
After premiering on ABC in the fall of 2013, Trophy Wife made it through 21 episodes before being canceled in the spring. And though most reviewers bemoaned the show’s unfortunate name, critics praised it and routinely called it one of the best new shows of that season. There’s nothing stopping you from going back to binge-watch the show in its entirety, but be forewarned: you’ll really wish there were more once you’re done.
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