Design & Living / What Could Have Been

The Cult TV Shows That Were Cancelled Too Soon

From Twin Peaks to Freaks and Geeks, Laura Allsop reflects on the television offerings that were cancelled in their prime – and are all the more memorable for it

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Freaks and Geeks, 1999

Television can be a brutal place. Its history is littered with stillborn shows that never got past the pilot stage, or languished fatally one or two seasons in, their characters forever banished to fanciful afterlives on fan fiction websites. The former might occasionally be the stuff of televisual lore; the latter, the stuff of cult fandom, generating teary cast reunions, endless listicles or, as is increasingly the case, resurrections on Netflix. There is a romance to the cult show that was phased out in its prime, when the characters were still vital and engaging, and before any sharks could be jumped. Imagining what might have been, at the exact moment a beloved show died, is a delicious but inevitably fruitless pursuit. Here, we select our favourite cult shows, all of them cancelled after less than two years but with far-reaching legacies.

Twin Peaks
Like Twin Peaks' many fans, creator David Lynch has shown himself to be equally reluctant to let go of the strange yet homey town with a population of 51,201. The seminal show and 90s pop cultural artefact first aired to impressive ratings in April 1990, but was cancelled just over a year later, finishing on an explosive cliffhanger and with plenty of threads left untied. As the story goes, dwindling viewing figures and pressure from the ABC network forced Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost to reveal Laura Palmer's killer much too soon, right in the middle of the second season. (One wonders if, left alone, they'd have revealed it at all). After that, the show limped along for a handful of episodes until it was finally axed. Lynch went on to shoot a feature-length prequel, the almost universally panned Fire Walk With Me, which explored the events leading up to Laura Palmer's murder; more than 20 years later and seemingly out of nowhere, he announced a reboot for the Showtime channel, set to air in 2017. A 200-strong cast was recently announced, including old faces from the original show – Sheryl Lee, Kyle MacLachlan – and new ones ranging from Sky Ferreira to Jennifer Jason Leigh. Expectations of a chronologically cohesive narrative and complete biographies of characters' lives over the last two decades are unlikely to be met. Imagining what might have been back in 1991 is best left to the master. Yet in the supernatural logic of Lynch and Frost's creation, one could imagine its characters having existed all along in a parallel reality – beyond the trees, perhaps, or inside a mirror. Speaking on Letterman in 1991, Lynch said: “If it has to end, that's alright, but if it doesn’t have to end – that’s even better.”

My So-Called Life
My So-Called Life was aired three years after Twin Peaks was cut off, also on ABC, and remains one of the best-loved teen shows of all time. Launching the careers of Claire Danes and Jared Leto, and created by Thirtysomething staff writer Winnie Holzman, it was a refreshingly unvarnished take on the awkwardness of adolescence, far removed from the overly knowing brat pack offerings of the previous decade. Unlike Twin Peaks, with its aesthetic nods to the 1950s, My So-Called Life was rooted in the time it was made, reflected in references to Bill and Hillary as much as Kurt and Courtney; watching the show now is like experiencing an idealised version of the early 90s, set to the melancholic strains of REM and swaddled in plaid. Claire Danes was around the same age as her character Angela Chase, and, like her, experienced some of the same things for the first time while on set, including being tutored on how to make out by Leto. But while Danes was extraordinary in the role, guileless and gauche and utterly convincing, My So-Called Life was really an ensemble piece, mixing up characters from across the high school spectrum with teachers and parents for a more rounded glimpse into world of a teenage girl. Despite a devoted following, critical acclaim, and an online campaign to save it, the series struggled to maintain viewers. As a short piece in New York magazine at the time put it, "The critics love My So-Called Life. But so far, anyway, the Nielsens don't. Networks are into this finding an audience thing, so the young lady might be permitted to linger." It wasn't to be: after 19 episodes, and with its lead actress increasingly courted by Hollywood, the show was shuttered, finishing on an agonising cliffhanger. In the years since, its cult status has only intensified, with reams of fan fiction online and even a sequel novel, My So-Called Life Goes On, published in 2002. Holzman and other cast members have talked about where the show might have gone had it not been pulled (a messy divorce; a love triangle; a pregnancy) but Angela Chase will always be 15 in 1994.  

Freaks and Geeks
Freaks and Geeks was a time capsule of its own: set in 1980, but leaning aesthetically towards the 70s, and with parents out of the 1950s. (It actually aired on NBC in 1999). Its main character was the precocious Lindsay Weir, played by Linda Cardellini, who, like Angela Chase, decides one day to overhaul her identity following an existential crisis. All of a sudden, the good girl is stomping around her suburban high school in her dad's army jacket and hanging out with pot smoking "freaks" — a motley crew played by Seth Rogen, James Franco, Busy Philipps and Jason Segel — while her younger brother remains firmly ensconced in a band of geeks. Created by Paul Feig and executive produced by Judd Apatow, Freaks and Geeks was an unglamorous and hilarious antidote to earnest and excessively articulate teen shows of the time, preferring to revel in the humiliations of high school than to psychoanalyse them. But though the show was much loved, yet again, it struggled for ratings, and was finally taken off the air after a stop-start run of just 18 episodes. "Part of the problem of the show was it should have been on HBO," Apatow later said. "Everything that’s popular now you might call 'independent television'… But there was no home for us in 1999." Feig has been open about how his characters might have developed, imagining that Lindsay  — who in the final episode runs off to follow the Grateful Dead on tour — would have ended up a performance artist in Greenwich Village before becoming a human rights lawyer. The series continues to draw fans and in 2012, the full cast was reunited for Vanity Fair issue guest-edited by Apatow; the comedy impresario recently tantalised a roomful of TV critics with the possibility of a Freaks and Geeks comeback. Watch this space.

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