TV in Short

The significance and impact of American TV shows are usually measured by longevity since it takes an inordinate amount of public will, critical favour and cultural reputation to dodge cancellation year after year. But every so often a programme with a relatively short life on the air ends up being hugely influential in TV, art and culture. Premature cancellation often becomes part of the show’s cult – see Josh Whedon’s Firefly – or masks a rapid decline in quality that makes another season seem deeply undesirable. Either way, these programmes tend not to be cancelled before their time but are just way ahead of their time. It’s hard to see how many of these shows could go on but harder to imagine what future denizens of popular culture would have done without them as inspiration. Here are some TV shows with small runs that ended up being a big deal:

Freaks and Geeks (NBC, 1999-2000)

The future of American popular culture

A Wonder Years for the remaining 99.99999% of the American population that didn’t draw a life lesson from every single incident of their education, this stripped-back yet heart-warming look at high school from the perspectives of its most marginalised students lasted only one season on the air. But the show has sent ripples through American popular culture ever since. Producer Judd Apatow and stars Seth Rogen, James (Di optional) Franco and Jason Segal have completely sewn up US movie and TV comedy in the 15 years since the show aired and they now rank as some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Moreover, Freaks and Geeks incorporation of the socially outcast and physically different into mainstream teen television made a cultural phenomenon like Glee possible and the show’s unglamorous depiction of young Americans is the essence of Apatow and Lena Dunham’s hit HBO series Girls.

Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-1991)

Like Laura Palmer Twin Peaks dies young.

Widely credited as the show that brought American TV into touch with fine art, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s sci-fi procedural super-soap also heralded a revolution in television storytelling. Melodramas such as Dallas and Dynasty had already shown that ongoing stories and cliffhanger endings weren’t an anathema to primetime popularity but Twin Peaks demonstrated that a single storyline could captivate audiences over a year of television. The question of ‘Who killed Laura Palmer?’ would have normally been answered in as little as 60 minutes of television but took over a year and half to be settled. Now detective programs all over the world from Denmark’s Forbrydelsen to Britain’s Broadchurch wear the season-long mystery as a badge of quality. In fact, it was only when Twin Peaks tied up the Laura Palmer case and pursued half-baked replacement storylines that the program was cancelled following its second season.

Cop Rock (ABC, 1990)

Cops Rock!

By 1990, producer Steven Bochco was already established as someone who mixed television genres but this medley of musical and police procedural was a step too far for most people when it aired. How times have changed. One of the biggest TV hits of recent years has been Glee, a high school dramedy liberally peppered with musical numbers and – as witnessed by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and How I Met Your Mother – it’s long been considered de rigueur for TV shows to have a musical episode. Of course, it’s one thing to have a show whose premise falls naturally into song and another to try to crowbar music into a decidedly spoken-word genre. It’s also worth remembering that what viewers enjoy about one-off musical episodes is their novelty and Cop Rock was relentlessly musical. It’s maybe why the show never lasted beyond 11 episodes.

Doctor Who: The Movie (Fox, 1996)

Before Dr. Phil there was…

The long-running cult UK science-fiction series had been off the air for 7 years when Fox decided to revive it as a show that could live in America and alongside stylish adult science-fiction like The X-Files. The feature-length pilot tried to keep one foot in both camps, playing as a continuation of the series rather than an American re-make while changing some of the key aspects of the programme’s mythology. Consequently, the revival alienated both the fan base and new audiences and the pilot was never picked up. The people behind the re-launched UK version of the program were obviously not as turned off as viewers at the time. New Doctor Who has taken on many of the US re-vamps, including its romantic predilections, focus on special effects and elaborate set design, and these have helped make it the international hit it is today.

 

 

 

 

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One Response to “TV in Short”

  1. […] wrote a blog post about this very subject a short while ago: TV in Short | Watching TV with Americans. Freaks and Geeks deserved several more seasons, although the history of American film and TV […]

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