Too Quirky To Live: 5 Shows That Were Too Offbeat To Survive On Network TV

quirky shows

It would be unfair (and untrue) to say that there is no room for originality on network television. Many unusual shows have not only been greenlit by the big four and The CW (which it must be said was more likely to take risks when it was The WB and UPN), but have also went on to be hits, or at least critical darlings.

Twin Peaks, The X-Files and Arrested Development all survived long enough to impact the television landscape and make it just a little bit safer for programming that was–and I mean this in the best way possible–weird. However, the networks are in the business of mass appeal and if a niche program isn’t making them money, it gets the ax or it gets retooled in hopes of infusing it with a dose of normalcy.

My biggest fear for next season is that the Dan Harmon-less Community will be stripped of all its oddball charm. I went through all five stages of grief when news broke that Harmon had been let go before I finally realized how grateful I should be that three unabashedly strange and meta seasons of this kooky show exist at all. Not all unconventional network shows are so lucky. Sometimes a concept is so weird the networks balk almost immediately, or the viewers never show up at all. The history of network television is littered with shows that were experimental oddballs that were just too quirky to survive, but I found the untimely demises of the five shows listed below particularly heartbreaking.

1. Firefly (Fox)
 

firefly

As a legion of Browncoats will proudly tell you, Firefly was the best show in this or any verse. The sci-fi/western hybrid explored themes like space colonization, chosen families and freedom from an oppressive government and still made time for quips. The crew consisted of a ragtag group of outlaws headed by a jaded ex-soldier, Captain Malcolm Reynolds, played by the now beloved Nathan Fillion. Firefly came from the mind of Joss Whedon, so the fact that it featured quality storytelling was just a given. Whedon created a world that was wholly unique, one where the characters swore in Mandarin and flew around in a rickety spaceship lovingly called Serenity. It was like nothing else on television at the time and like nothing that’s been on since.

Fox viewers weren’t ready for a dusty space opera though, either that or they found it impossible to follow the plot thanks to the constant scrambling of the episode order (the pilot was the last episode to air) and Serenity’s crew was grounded after a mere 14 episodes–only 11 of which aired. After cancellation, the show went on to garner a passionate fanbase and a big screen outing in the form of Serenity, but fans still dream about the second season that might have been if only the show had been a runaway hit.

2. The Tick (Fox)
 

the tick

You wouldn’t think that a show about a superhero who called himself The Tick and wore a blue costume replete with antennae could be described as smart, but you would be wrong. The Tick was smart; it was also incredibly funny as long as you liked your humor on the bizarre side. The Tick, along with his trusty sidekick Arthur and fellow superheroes Batmanuel (played by Lost‘s Nestor Carbonell) and Lady Liberty, formed a sort of super team of lovable weirdos. The show, with its bright colors and comic book spirit, was a pleasure to watch. Barry Sonnenfeld directed the pilot and infused it with his trademark whimsical style, but what made The Tick special was the man who created the title character, Mr. Ben Edlund.

Supernatural fans (and Firefly fans for that matter) can attest to Edlund’s vast writing talents, but nowhere are his skills on display as fully as they are in The Tick. Maybe it’s because The Tick is pure, undiluted Edlund from top to bottom. Only he could make “Spoon!” seem like a perfectly respectable rallying cry.

3. Wonderfalls (Fox)
 

wonderfalls

Bryan Fuller makes great shows. They are always cancelled. It started with his sardonic look at the afterlife, Dead Like Me that aired on Showtime. Fuller left the show after four episodes due to creative differences and it went on to last a mere two seasons. Then came Wonderfalls, a show about an aimless twentysomething who began to receive messages from an unknown higher power through the form of talking stuffed animals and other assorted knick-knacks with faces. It was quirky with a terrifically deadpan sense of humor and a flawless cast that included the underrated Caroline Dhavernes, Lee Pace and Katie Finneran.

It lasted exactly four episodes. Luckily, the show’s entire 13 episode run is available on DVD where it has deservedly earned cult classic status.

4. Pushing Daisies (ABC)
 

Pushing Daisies

Again, Brian Fuller makes great shows. They are always cancelled. Pushing Daisies actually started out as a modest hit for ABC. Its short first season garnered positive buzz and a whole slew of Emmy nominations, then the writer’s strike happened and by the time it finally made its way back on air only a handful of its viewers were still there waiting for its return.

While only 22 episodes of the show were produced, they are 22 episodes of television that will bring you pure, undulated joy. Pushing Daisies is happiness in a televisual form. From the colorful set designs to the comforting fairy tale style narration from Jim Dale, Pushing Daisies created a distinctly vibrant world full of pies, second chances and musical interludes. Capable of pathos and pithiness in equal measure, Pushing Daisies was truly something special.

5. Drive (Fox)
 

drive

Drive isn’t as beloved as the other shows on this list even though it did come from the very talented Tim Minear (who also worked on Firefly) and starred Nathan Fillion and a before she was famous Emma Stone. Only four episodes of the show about an illegal cross-country race aired, and the show has never been released on DVD, but never mind that.

The four episodes that did air were cool despite the horrible CGI occasionally used in the car chase scenes. Thanks to its sprawling cast and unusual set-up, Drive had the potential to be a great show. Whether or not it would have lived up to that potential if given the chance we’ll never know.

 

It appears Fox is responsible for most of the cancellation fueled heartbreak in my life, but I would love to hear which quirky network shows you think departed the airwaves too soon. Tell me all about them in the comment section!

Follow me on Twitter @sljbowman