This began as something different. Originally, I had thought to write a "most underrated TV shows" list. Two things became apparent very quickly. First, there are about three million "underrated TV shows" lists currently floating around cyberspace. I doubt the world needs another. Second, it's very hard to define "underrated." All in the Family is generally recognized as one of the all time greats, and yet in my mind, it remains underrated.
I decided to focus instead on shows whose runs, for whatever reason, were sadly cut short. I confined myself mostly to prime time American drama and comedy, but I allowed for exceptions. I also set two seasons as a somewhat arbitrary limit. A great number of beloved shows ran three seasons, and I wanted to keep the field clear for the ones that barely got off the ground. And so here they are: a dozen shows that deserved better than they got:
Fair Exchange (Sitcom; CBS, 1962-63): Just imagine what Showtime would do with the premise today. War buddies, one in England and one in the U.S., decide to swap teenage daughters for a year. The Patty Duke Show, which would premiere the following year, would play in a similar sandbox. But whereas the identical cousins tended toward silliness, Fair Exchange tended to be smart in satirizing cultural differences. It was initially an hour long, still rare for a sitcom. And when it was cancelled, impassioned fans demanded its return. Unfortunately, the return, now at 30 minutes, still failed to capture enough audience.
The Senator (Drama; NBC, 1970-71): This political drama was part of a rotating series of shows called The Bold Ones, and was initially designed to run a single season. It won several major Emmys in 1971, but there was no interest in extending the run. Too bad. Hal Holbrook's Senator Hayes Stowe is sorely missed today.
Fawlty Towers (Sitcom; BBC2, 1975 and 1979): Twelve perfect episodes that chronicle the destruction of modern man at the hands of... well, everything. Monty Python member John Cleese, along with his wife Connie Booth, handcrafted this gem, considered by many in England to be the finest show that country ever produced. It has been rerun by many American PBS stations and it represents a British model which promotes programs with intentionally limited runs. The BBC would have gladly aired more episodes. But the pressure on Cleese, who micromanaged everything, wore him down.
NBC News Overnight (News; NBC, 1982-83): In the beginning, television news was a serious, somber thing read by serious, somber men. Today, much of what passes for television news is a vaudeville comedy. But somewhere along the line, television achieved the perfect balance. It came at the rough midpoint of television history, when, in the hands of Lloyd Dobyns, Bill Schechner, and the incomparable Linda Ellerbee, television news was serious and witty, informative and entertaining.
Frank's Place (Dramedy; CBS, 1987-88): There was a brief run of this new type of show -- half-hour comedies, filmed like hour-long dramas with no laugh track -- in the late '80s. Another husband and wife team, Tim and Daphne Maxwell Reid, created and starred in this one, set in a restaurant in New Orleans. It offered a totally different vibe than most other network shows at the time. The music alone made it worth watching.
Twin Peaks (???; ABC, 1990-91): It's true that by its second season, even devoted fans could no longer follow David Lynch's indefinable show. But that didn't mean they wanted it to end. They wanted to see how the grand master would work his way out of the weeds. The first year is arguably the best season of television ever produced in America.
The Critic (Cartoon Sitcom; ABC/Fox, 1994-95): It's hard to cast Jon Lovitz in a lead role. He's an acquired taste. Jay Sherman, the caustic film critic voiced by Lovitz, was an acquired taste too. His wit in skewering modern film, and the rest of pop culture, made it all worthwhile. It was picked up by Fox after ABC cancelled it, which led to Jay's cameo on an episode of The Simpsons. I would have chosen it anyway, but it seems oddly appropriate to be thinking about The Critic in the wake of Andrew Sarris' death.
My So-Called Life (Drama; ABC, 1994-95): There's a great paper to be written tracing the evolution of the television teenager from Leave it to Beaver to My So-Called Life. Call it "From Wally to Angela." The best, most sophisticated depiction of American teenagers ever put on the small screen. Fans howled when it was cancelled after five months. Beaver ran six years.
Sports Night (Sitcom; ABC, 1998-2000): Aaron Sorkin based his sitcom on Dan and Keith on ESPN and fought the networks to get rid of the inane laugh track. He eventually gave up so he could focus on his new show, West Wing.
Freaks and Geeks (Dramedy; NBC, 1999-2000): Though I have a warm spot in my heart for Sarah Jessica Parker's Square Pegs, this is the true comic version of My So-Called Life.
Banzai (Game Show; Channel 4/Fox, 2003): I wanted a game show. This may not please ardent game show fans, but this English import, which Fox aired for one month in 2003, was unlike any other show that had been seen in this country. I miss it dearly.
Outcasts (Sci-Fi; BBC One, 2011): I also wanted a sci-fi program and there were others to choose from. But this eight-episode British drama epitomizes why I wanted to write this list in the first place. Many critics dismissed it when it premiered. Many viewers did too. It took some time to settle in and figure itself out. By the time it did, it was highly compelling. And it was already cancelled.
Many of these shows were innovative and influential. The lesson is that innovation and influence doesn't always occur overnight. Sometimes, they need a little extra time. Sometimes, we pull the plug too fast.