October’s a brutal month for the TV industry. With new shows debuting on every major US channel in September, all industry eyes are glued to the ratings, in the hope that audiences are adopting a similar position. Sadly, despite the months (often years) spent developing a show, the axe falls on underperforming programmes with ruthless efficiency. There’s no time for a slow start – a bad premiere is forgiven, a poor follow-up tolerated. But if the audience is still unconvinced by episode three, you’re as good as dead.
And that’s the hand that was dealt to The Playboy Club last week. NBC’s big new drama of the season, The Playboy Club was set in the 1960s, and was clearly hoping to emulate Mad Men’s runaway success. However, unlike Don Draper’s cable show, The Playboy Club was constrained by the fact that it was airing on network TV. That meant no swearing and certainly no nudity. In essence, it was portraying a world where people genuinely buy Playboy for the articles.
As the show’s third episode posted its worst viewing figures yet, NBC pulled the plug quicker than a gold-digger pointing out the ‘do not resuscitate’ sign in her husband’s hospital room. To be honest, no-one seemed particularly upset by the decision, least of all the right wing Parents Television Council, which released a statement celebrating the show’s cancellation, reading: “Bringing The Playboy Club to broadcast television was a poor programming decision from the start. We’re pleased that NBC will no longer be airing a program so inherently linked to a pornographic brand that denigrates and sexualizes women…” Next they’ll be accusing Dora the Explorer of being a climate-change propagandist.
In this instance, NBC may well have made the right decision. However, the networks don’t always get it right. Some shows take a while to cast their spell – needing time for the writers to find their voice and the cast to find their feet. So in honour of The Playboy Club’s swift demise, let’s celebrate a few shows that deserved to be kept on life support a little longer.
OK, let’s get this one out of the way first. No ‘gone too soon’ list is complete without a reference to Joss Whedon ‘space and saddles’ saga. It may have only run for thirteen pacey episodes, but that was long enough to establish it as one of the best-loved, short-lived TV shows of all time.
Forget about Cowboys & Aliens – if you want a compelling, funny and genuinely interesting mash-up of sci-fi and western, Firefly is where it’s at. Although, interestingly, Whedon was insistent that there would be no aliens in his interplanetary tale. Instead, it was up to the eclectic mix of mercenaries, rebels, whores and preachers to create the drama.
Fan support was so strong that Universal picked up Fox’s dropped ball and financed a mid-budget big screen adventure for Mal and his crew. If nothing else, this means that Buffy’s creator can claim the dubious honour of having made a hit TV show out of a failed movie, and a hit movie out of a failed TV show.
2. The Comeback
When the world’s biggest sitcom finally called it a day after ten glorious years, everyone wondered what the cast would do next. And, more importantly, who’d be most successful. Whereas most of the Friends settled for roles and opportunities not a million miles away from their Central Perky personae, Lisa Kudrow went in the opposite direction.
Realising that reinvention after a successful role is nigh-on-impossible, she did precisely that, and even wrote a show about it. If you’ve never seen The Comeback, I recommend you give it a go. As well as giving Kudrow a chance to show her considerable acting skills, it’s a stunningly prescient vision of reality TV from a time when the concept was still relatively new.
Kudrow plays Valerie Cherish, the one-time star of a hit sitcom, who’s being filmed by a reality TV crew for a show called The Comeback. They follow her as she auditions for a cheesy new sitcom, the condition being that she’ll only get the reality series if she wins the role in ‘Bed and Bored’. Problem is, Valerie is grasping, shameless and utterly transparent. It’s not a comfortable watch, in fact, you’ll cringe so hard you may need to see a chiropractor. But if you enjoyed The Office, The Comeback is well worth a few hours of your time.
3. Family Guy
Not all these stories have an unhappy ending, as occasionally a network will bow to fan pressure and resurrect an aborted project. Family Guy is as show that actually got cancelled twice - once after the second season, and again after the third.
Unable to find anyone willing to pay for the rights to air old episodes, Fox practically gave them away to Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. At the same time, seasons one and two were released on DVD and became a massive hit. In fact, Family Guy was 2003’s biggest selling TV DVD.
The following year, sniffing out a chance to make money, they welcomed series creator Seth MacFarlane back with open arms, and the show has been running ever since. Looking back at the three-year hiatus, Seth claimed that the show benefited from its cancellation, since it have the team a chance to re-evaluate what did and didn’t work. Many shows aren’t nearly as fortunate.
Introduced during the summer of 1984 as a replacement for Doctor Who, The Tripods was a big-budget sci-fi experiment for the BBC Co-financed with Australia’s Seven Network, it told the tale of three young boys determined to fight back against a race of all-powerful aliens who’d enslaved humanity and dragged society back to the middle ages, like a Republican party wet dream.
To my nine year-old eyes, the Tripods was terrifying, thrilling and breathtakingly tedious, in equal measure. Every Saturday for two consecutive summers, my sister and I would be glued to the screen, biting cheese flavor Hula Hoops off our fingers and cheering our hapless heroes on their epic journey.
As the second series finished, Will escaped the City of Gold and Lead to return to the rebel stronghold in the White Mountains, only to find that it had been destroyed by the Tripods. We didn’t bat an eyelid when JR took that bullet, but this was a cliffhanger that had us desperate to see how the story would be concluded.
Months later, an announcement followed in the Radio Times that there would be no concluding series. Effectively muttering under its breath, the BBC told its viewers that the show’s high budget and comparatively low ratings, meant that a third series would not be commissioned.
Buffy’s creator can claim the dubious honour of having made a hit TV show out of a failed movie, and a hit movie out of a failed TV show.
It’s not just the big budget serials that get killed off in dramatic fashion, soaps can also fall victim to merciless executives. I’m not going to talk about Albion Market, since there are probably only three people in the UK who miss that show. And that’s because they were in it. However, I’m sure I’m not alone in lamenting the premature demise of Eldorado, the BBC’s sun-dappled alternative to the decidedly downbeat EastEnders.
Clearly originating in a late eighties brainstorm where the words ‘European community’, ‘diversity’ and ‘international sales’ prominently figured, Eldorado took the Albert Square model and plopped it down in mainland Spain. With a cast that represented pretty much every country in Europe, but not a single reputable acting school, the early months were a disaster. Many of the performers spoke so little English they had to learn their lines phonetically. And you’d be forgiven for thinking the same about some of the British performers.
Bizarrely, a couple of major culls and some drastic rewrites actually did the trick and against all the odds, Eldorado became a soap worth watching. Just as Alan Yentob signed the death warrant. Sadly, we never got to see the much talked about bus crash ending, which had promised to send the entire cast on a day trip, only for them to topple over a cliff like some alternative ending from the Italian Job.
6. Without Prejudice
In a world of reality trash and tacky game-shows, it’s doubtful that anyone would mourn a hybrid of the two formats. But that’s because they probably never tuned into Without Prejudice?, which only ran for two short series. On the surface, it didn’t appear to be anything special – a panel-based game show hosted by Liza Tarbuck. Already Cash in the Attic is starting to look like an appealing prospect. But this feisty little show had a concept that elevated it to instant classic status.
Each episode involved two groups of five people – one group acted as the judging panel, whilst the others were the contestants. In five simple rounds, the panel simply had to decide who deserved a £50,000 cash prize (reduced to £20,000 in series two). The panel had nothing else to go on, other than their own preconceptions and prejudices – hence the bitterly ironic title. And although you often found yourself rooting for a particular contestant, the real joy of the show was watching the panel in action. If ever you wanted an insight into the dark heart of a Daily Mail reader, or the ignorance of a red-top fan, this was the show for you. “I’m sorry, but I’m completely opposed to giving this money to a bloody lesbian” was heard far more often than you might imagine.
It really was extraordinarily revealing, and often ended in particularly vitriolic exchanges. In one memorable episode, a single mother who wanted to go back to university to finish her studies was denied the money by a judging panel dominated by a bingo-winged matriarch with frosted tips. Instead, they gave £50,000 to a man who had already made his fortune, arguing that he was more likely to spend it wisely.
After the money was awarded, and they were finally allowed to ask how he intended to spend the money, he told them “I plan to buy three bracelets, one for my wife, one for my daughter and a third for my ex-wife.” One of the panelists was inconsolable with grief at the missed opportunity to change a life. Of course, the real tragedy in all of this, is that Channel 4 cancelled the show because no-one was watching it. Audiences would rather their reality TV come partially scripted and entirely staged, rather than holding up a magnifying glass to the ugly side of human nature.
7. Police Squad!
Hot off the success of Airplane!, Zucker, Abrahams & Zucker pitched a half-hour comedy show to ABC. Carefully constructed to replicate the scattershot format of their big screen disaster spoof, Police Squad took its inspiration from two popular police procedurals – M Squad and Felony Squad.
As we all know, the show continued Leslie Nielsen’s late-in-life shift towards broad comedy, and immortalized him as the hilariously inept Frank Drebin. Only six shows were ever made, but that didn’t stop it inspiring the hugely successful Naked Gun series several years later. For the record, the DVD commentary claims that the President of ABC Entertainment took the decision to cancel the show “because the viewer had to watch it in order to appreciate it." Imagine that.
Despite its frustratingly short run, Police Squad gave us some classic TV comedy moments – my favourite being the scene where an undercover Drebin breaks into the villain’s office and gets caught snooping around: “Who the hell are you and how did you get in here?” He asks. “I’m the Locksmith, and I’m a Locksmith” Drebin replies. Pure genius.
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