Friday, December 21, 2007

SDD's Top 100 Series of All Time -- Supplemental list #8: One-season wonders

The one-season wonder is a phenomenon almost completely unique to television. If there's an analogue for it in any other medium, it's probably the one-hit wonder, but even that is based on an artist who never quite lives up to their promise again. The creators of many of the best one-season wonders went on to create other shows that did much better (or came to their one-season wonders from a show that did much better). The best one-season wonders wrap up a bit of the promise of a great series that never was to be with some of the conciseness we expect from the best of television.

There have been one-season wonders on the list already (Firefly and Robbery Homicide Division, for two), but here are a bunch that almost made the list and then didn't for one reason or another. Don't consider this an exhaustive summary of one-season wonders either. There's a lot of stuff out there just waiting for you to discover it if you look hard enough.

First, the shows that AREN'T on DVD. . .

5) John from Cincinnati
HBO, produced 2007

I almost put John from Cincinnati on the list at #100 pre-emptively because as I watched it this summer, I really had no idea what the hell was going on, and I'm terrified that 50 years from now, I'll wake up, suddenly understand the series in its entirety and curse myself for never doing anything about it. HBO's series about mystical surfers and the second coming of Christ was the sort of show that TV fans hate the most -- the one you have to work at. That alone made me think that maybe it's a hidden work of genius. But at the same time, I have nagging suspicions that there's no there there in JFC, outside of a few terrific scenes (like that sermon at the motel in episode six) that hinted at what the series could have been. I already had other David Milch series on the list, so I ultimately cut the series from the list, but I do want to see it again on DVD. I have the feeling that over the years, we'll all parse out its weirdness together and realize there was a lot more lurking there than we initially thought. Either that, or we'll realize the whole thing was an extended curious riff, a goof on television forms and storytelling that was interesting but never quite cohered. JFC practically demands second viewings on DVD, so it's a good thing it comes from HBO, which diligently puts nearly everything it does out. (And, indeed, shortly after I wrote this, HBO announced a season set to debut in March.)

4) Sons & Daughters
ABC, produced 2006

Sold as the next big, wacky comedy, Sons & Daughters was actually a more subtle show about family dynamics in the age of the non-nuclear family. The series started out a little slowly but truly cohered into something wonderful by the end of its run, willing to take its characters to tough places and have them joke about it. A huge cast led by Fred Goss played an extended family tree that had branches and roots flying all over the place, but all of it tied back to the loving parents, played by Dee Wallace and Max Gale. I've heard that you always remember the first series you love that's canceled on your watch as a critic, and Sons & Daughters was that for me. I've mildly overrated it in my own mind only because I would love to spend more time with these characters (and I almost got to -- ABC canceled it at the last possible moment), particularly Eden Sher's Carrie. Sons & Daughters was a terrific look at the way that families endure, even when they want to kill each other, and its tossed-off, almost Altman-esque qualities made it a true joy. The series used a lot of music from the Grateful Dead, which is keeping it off of DVD, but much of it is available on YouTube. The clip above from the pilot isn't the best the show would get, so if you like it at all, seek out the rest.

3) Now and Again
CBS, produced 1999-2000

At a time when TV was mostly chasing ER-style ensemble dramas and Friends-style "young people" sitcoms, Now and Again brought the creator of Moonlighting back to television to do a goofy spin on the spy shows of the '60s that presaged most of the serialized television that would become so popular with the debuts of 24 and Alias two seasons later. At first, Now and Again seems like it's going to be really stupid -- fat guy becomes young hunk after a subway accident, and now the government is going to send him on missions -- but it was a terrific spin on the Six Million Dollar Man scenario, finding every possible avenue the story could go down, including one of the weirdest love triangles in the history of the small screen (even if it was mostly ripped off from Superman). Glenn Gordon Caron's dialogue was still sparkling, and the cast boasted familiar faces like Eric Close and Dennis Haysbert. Here's hoping that CBS releases the show sometime soon. It would be fun to figure out just how much Alias ripped off from it.

2) Nothing Sacred
ABC, produced 1997-1998
Please enjoy the clip from Rushmore. No one has thought fit to upload any of this to YouTube.

For most of its life, ABC has been the home of critically-acclaimed, low-rated dramas with terrific demos. In the mid-90s, it turned out show after show that lasted only one season and then found itself canceled due to viewer lack of interest (see the next entry). Nothing Sacred was just one of those shows and an attempt to do something new with the MTM-style workplace drama (where every week, a new story involving some social issue or another rose up to confront the characters). To be fair, Nothing Sacred was never quite as good as its premise -- a liberal-leaning priest works to help people in a dessicated inner city -- promised. But the finest hours of Nothing Sacred (including a deeply controversial one involving a priest with AIDS) were frank looks at the place religion had in modern American society, especially the Clinton years, when it was all too easy to take the church for granted. Nothing Sacred was the subject of instant controversy, thanks to the Catholic League, meaning it was subject to dozens of network notes and never quite lived up to its potential, even as it was so obviously striving to. I'm interested to see Nothing Sacred again to see if it lives up to my memories of it or if it had its problems. Then again, the same could be said for many a 1990s ABC drama -- take a look at them on Wikipedia; if any of them lasted only a season, they probably have ardent fans.

1) Cupid
ABC, produced 1998-1999

Cupid is, hands-down, my favorite one-season-wonder that didn't make the regular list. It's a new spin on the Moonlighting "they're going to do things and try to fight their attraction" format, but it actually works, God bless it. Jeremy Piven was never better than he was in the role of an off-putting asshole who might have been crazy but was also inadvertantly charming, and Paula Marshall's work here has endeared her to me for life, despite her generally poor choices since the series aired. But the series most endeared me to creator Rob Thomas, who wrote smart, punchy scripts that offered twists on every romantic plotline you'd ever heard and threw them together with the two great central performances and his witty dialogue. Cupid always balances on the edge of hitting DVD, but it never has, largely because its studio is seemingly uninterested in television now. That said, almost the entire run of the series is up on YouTube, unproduced scripts are easy to come by, and Thomas is randomly remaking the whole series for the new, resurgent ABC. Here's hoping lightning can be caught in a bottle twice.

And here are five that are ON DVD. . .

5) EZ Streets
CBS, produced 1996-1997

And here the list intersects with Paul Haggis, of all people. I've never been as quick to write off Haggis as many Internet folk, because I've seen what he could do in the television medium, where this series stands as his greatest achievement, a complicated, twisting noir about the interconnectedness of the cops, the politicians and the criminals that pulls off a lot of things that The Wire would do five years later. The series, anchored by two terrific performances by Ken Olin and Joe Pantoliano, aired two episodes before being pulled by CBS, then came back for a handful more the next year. Several of the series' episodes (including the magnificent pilot) have been collected on DVD, and the entirety of the series' run often airs on cable's Sleuth channel. Paul Haggis has contributed to a number of noteworthy dramas (including thirtysomething), but EZ Streets stands as the best evidence that he CAN, indeed, do complex things and not boil them down to simple Screenwriting 101 stereotypes.

4) Space: Above and Beyond and Invasion
Fox, produced 1995-1996; ABC, produced 2005-2006

Two smart twists on old sci-fi storylines that lasted for one full season and then disappeared occupy this slot on the list, in loving memory of all of the one-season wonder sci-fi series I got invested in back in the day. Space: Above and Beyond came from two X-Files writers who took the structure of old World War II adventure movies and tossed them in space, pitting their characters against a mysterious alien race that no one saw until the first season finale. The effects on Space are atrocious, and there's stuff here that feels corny in the post-Galactica era, but the series' dedication to telling war stories stood in marked contrast to the dominant sci-fi series of the time -- Star Trek. At its best, Space was enjoyably pulpy sci-fi, and it deserved more episodes. Invasion, on the other hand, overcame a slow start to turn into one of the more horrific series I've ever seen, including a scene where scads of humans were mass-converted into alien-human hybrids. The basic concept was very much in keeping with paranoid fantasies of the '50s, but creator Shaun Cassidy (yes, that one) turned the show into an examination of post-9/11 worries and concerns and offered up some of the best network sci-fi allegory in recent years. After Lost, few wanted to watch another complicated serial, so Invasion suffered and withered, but it didn't deserve to. Fortunately, the whole thing is preserved on DVD.

3) Profit and Wonderfalls
Both Fox, produced 1996 and 2004

If you've got an awesome, short-lived show from the last 15 years that lasted for a handful of episodes or seasons and then disappeared, despite having a cult-ish audience and critical acclaim, chances are it was on Fox and it's on DVD now for no real reason. Fox's long, long list of canceled series, taken before their time, is way too long to go into here, so I'm focusing on my two favorites here. Profit was an icy-black satire of the world of corporate business with a truly dark and disturbed Adrian Pasdar performance at its center. The act breaks in the pilot (especially, "Hi, Mom") are just terrific, and the series' takedown of the medium that was airing it is also legendary. There's some stuff that doesn't work in Profit, but in its handful of episodes, it was funnier and more witheringly dismissive of corporate America than any other series of its time. Wonderfalls, meanwhile, was a goofy stroll through the life of a disaffected twentysomething who started getting messages from. . .somebody. Caroline Dhavernas was perfect in the lead (and why hasn't she had more work since?), while the series creator, Bryan Fuller, went on to do the similarly acclaimed Pushing Daisies. Fox gets credit for developing all of these cool series, but when it's just going to cancel them, it's probably useless to develop them in the first place. Fortunately, in recent years, they've just been trying to develop series to air with House.

2) Police Squad
ABC, produced 1982

Better known by most viewers as, "Hey? Isn't that The Naked Gun?" Police Squad is actually the series that spawned The Naked Gun, which was greenlit years later after the low-rated six episodes of this series became a cult hit on video. Police Squad probably got the best possible result when it was canceled after its six, nearly perfect episodes, since there's no way the ZAZ style of spoofy comedy could have gone on for much longer, but this attempt to bring Airplane-esque shenanigans to the small screen is remarkably accurate, right down to the perfect opening credits (watch above. . .they may be my favorite of all time, and they're certainly the funniest). Almost all of the run of Police Squad is up on YouTube, so if you enjoy this, it's worth checking that out, but the DVD is even better, as then you can watch whatever you want, whenever you want, in actual quality. The Naked Gun movies were amusing enough, but they never quite matched up to what the series did; they skewered cop shows, but they didn't seem like they really meant it. Police Squad definitely meant it.

1) The Ben Stiller Show
Fox, produced 1992-1993

Now what was I saying about Fox? And Judd Apatow? Oh, yes. This is sort of cheating, as a proto-version of this show aired on MTV in the season before it aired on Fox, but the Fox show is the one that everyone remembers, and it's the one that's been released on DVD, and it DID last only one season, so. . .Anyway, The Ben Stiller Show hails from an era when Stiller wasn't one of those annoying guys who starred in too many movies and was still just an agreeable doof who hosted stuff on MTV and dated Janeane Garofalo. The cast was full of perfect early '90s hipsters, including Stiller, Garofalo, Andy Dick and Bob Odenkirk. While not as heartfelt as Judd Apatow's later series, Ben Stiller is very funny, and its take on sketch comedy as something to be done without a laugh track makes it feel weirdly like an ancestor to Arrested Development. The whole thing's available on DVD, and there are plenty of sketches up on YouTube, so check it out while you can.

And if you liked this brief journey through the history of one-season wonders, take a look at even more. There are tons of undiscovered gems, just waiting to be rediscovered, and most of them lasted only a handful of episodes before disappearing forever. For every Viva Laughlin or Cop Rock, there's a Leaving LA or Andy Richter Controls the Universe (sadly unable to be added to the list, due to its two-season run).

Today's Christmas Tune: You know where it's summer during Christmas? Brazil. Weird. Well, here's a Christmas song from there at any rate.

Places 30-21, including another one-season wonder and one old sitcom.


Lee said...

I totally would have put Vengeance Unlimited on that list. Otherwise, good calls - especially Cupid and Now and Again.

Andrew said...

I'm enjoying these lists, but frankly the image placement confuses me at times. The cast photo at the top, for example. I can't figure out which show it goes to, or whether it's not on this list.