Too many great TV shows are canceled before their time. All we want is another season, yet all we’re left with is bittersweet nostalgia of a beloved series that ended too soon. Abrupt finales leave viewers unfulfilled with a laundry list of questions. We ranked the top 30 TV shows cut down in their prime by networks that care more about numbers than fandom.
A spinoff of the cultural phenomenon Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1996 – 2003), Angel was another fan-favorite from creator Joss Whedon. Over the course of five seasons, audiences experienced what life was like for the titular vampire (David Boreanaz) burdened with a soul, venturing off on his own in Los Angeles and becoming a private detective.
Network execs over at The WB allegedly waffled on renewing the acclaimed series for a sixth season, and after prompting to either piss or get off the pot by Whedon, the network brought the ax down and it became one of Whedon’s first canceled tv shows, cheating fans out of what would have surely been an even more stellar season.
Despite winning several awards and critical acclaim, including 6 Emmys, 1 Golden Globe, and 2 AFIs, Fox’s Arrested Development made canceled TV history when it was axed mid-season 3. Compared to the 22 episodes in season 1, the final Fox season aired a measly 13. (Ominously, season 2 was also shortened down to18 episodes.] Though its viewership wasn’t the worst, the show did not have the numbers for network television.
Arrested Development actually has a happy ending, as it was revived on streaming service Netflix for a fourth and fifth season seven years after cancellation, with a new season and film planned. And it’s a good thing too, as audiences clearly were nowhere near done with the Bluths.
Freaks and Geeks
Judd Apatow‘s first canceled TV show was true to its name, focusing on two distinct groups of high school outcasts. The misfits collectively navigated the messy transition from childhood to early adulthood, with varying degrees of success. While typical topics are covered such as bullying and popularity, Freaks and Geeks veers into dark and troubled territory such as grief, emotional abuse, and the search for identity.
The dramedy was canceled after season one, and Apatow has said everything he’s done since was revenge on NBC for canceling the show so abruptly. A solid season of TV, Freak and Geeks gave a platform to nearly every main person connected with the show, most notably James Franco, Seth Rogen, and Jason Segel.
Sleepy Hollow hit many tick marks out the gate with its action, drama, and supernatural attributes. As a particularly delicious bonus, the on-screen chemistry between show leads Nicole Beharie and Tom Mison enticed the show’s audience for more of this unique horror/buddy comedy.
This new spin on an old classic eventually ended up lopping its own head off once the Powers That Be saw fit to axe show lead Abbie Mills (Beharie). Ichabod Crane (Mison) seemed lost without her, and the charm the show once had left with Abbie. “I’m rooting for my co-stars and crew…,” Beharie said in a statement. “But, most of all, Sleepyheads for all of your love – what an honor. I will never be the same. Stay tuned.” Despite her well-wishes, the show ended shortly after her departure.
Acclaimed creator Joss Whedon strikes the list again with Firefly, a western/sci-fi fusion that earned a hardcore fan base of Browncoats (the coat worn by show lead Nathan Fillion as Captain Malcolm Reynolds) after only being given one season to air. “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the road less traveled by and they CANCELLED MY FRIKKIN’ SHOW,” Joss Whedon said of the cancellation. “I totally shoulda took the road that had all those people on it. Damn.”
Whedon took a step back from his first series Buffy the Vampire Slayer in order to give his full attention and dedication to the film. While some fans were able to receive closure with the spinoff film Serenity in 2005. to this day Browncoats still await a revival or a follow-up film.
A series that was a winner of several prestigious awards–including Emmys for Outstanding Lead and Supporting Actor for series star James Spader and William Shatner– David E. Kelley’s Boston Legal almost made it to five full seasons before getting the axe, ending on a two-hour series finale after a shortened 13 episode season.
“ABC didn’t want us back,” Kelley told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. “It’s as simple as that. They didn’t even want us back for this year at all. We had to fight to get back on with 13. It’s not a product they care to market.”
More true to the comic book source material than the film preceding it, Constantine had a rough pilot, but a most engaging season once it found its legs. Instead of being on The CW with the rest of its DC-verse counterparts (Arrow, The Flash), it was short lived on NBC.
Despite its short lifespan, the show ultimately spawned two entirely different web spin-offs. Though not particularly popular with the mainstream audience, die-hard fans of the show kept it’s legacy alive. Matt Ryan’s portrayal lives on, however, beginning with guest appearances on Arrow, and is now a series regular on Legends of Tomorrow.
A groundbreaking instance of success for a racial sketch comedy, Chappelle’s Show had a powerful first two seasons, with many of the skits referenced and revered today. Segments became instant classics; you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t understand the meaning of “I’m Rick James, b*tch!”
From True Hollywood Stories to racial drafts, Chappelle’s Show gave an array of social commentary through comedy gold. Sadly, creator and star Dave Chappelle walked away from the critically acclaimed show after season 2, leaving a $50M deal on the table. But it all worked out; Netflix gave the comedian a $60M deal for two stand-up specials.
Though the tale of Dr. Hannibal Lecter has taken on many incarnations for decades, NBC’s dark horror-thriller Hannibal took the character to new heights, showcasing Hannibal’s (Mads Mikkelsen) relationship with empathetic profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy). A summer series with critical acclaim, the low ratings made this extraordinary show end prematurely. For now.
Show creator Bryan Fuller and leads Dancy and Mikkelsen have expressed the desire for a revival in the future. “There’s an interesting next chapter in the relationship between Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter that would be fascinating to unpack,” Fuller said. “I’ve shared it with the gentlemen [Dancy and Mikkelsen] and they’re both keen on it.”
With what was perhaps the answer to the vacuum created by the end of Buffy, Veronica Mars was about a once popular high school girl (Kristen Bell) who experiences personal growth through life traumas, becoming a snarky detective in the process.
The show wasn’t just a hit with the audience. During the series’ run, it was nominated for two Satellite Awards, four Saturn Awards, five Teen Choice Awards and was featured on AFI’s TV Programs of the Year for 2005. Though ending after three seasons, this cult show will once again see the light of day. Much like Arrested Development, revival strikes again thanks to Hulu, with the cast reuniting for a new season later this year.
The Phoenix began with a TV movie in 1981 and ran for five episodes in 1982. A sci-fi, it was about an ancient alien who wakes up in the 20th century and goes on a search to find his partner. The pilot was 90 minutes, with four-hour episodes broadcast.
The show, like many, didn’t even get a chance to film all of the episodes that were written. In addition to the pilot, eight episodes were made. Only five were aired. Though never filmed, four additional episodes were written, ready to be utilized for what is sure to be an impending reboot or feature film.
With only an eight-episode run, the canceled tv sci-fi series Otherworld left a huge cult following in its wake. Otherworld put a spin on Lost in Space, having the Sterling family thrust into another dimension on Earth. Although not exactly mainstream, the show ultimately became a cult classic. Despite the fact that it ran for only two seasons during the ’80s, it still managed to erect a fan-run Facebook page in order to honor it.
The then-unique concept of inter-dimensional travel kept audiences intrigued, but it was not enough for CBS. The Nielsen ratings for the two-part premiere were low to start, and continued to drop as the remaining episodes aired. Despite mostly positive reviews from critics, the show was canceled before it could end its first season.
Based on a made-for-TV movie, Lucan is about a boy who’s raised by wolves and is integrated into society, all the while fighting his animalistic tendencies. Part of Lucan’s intrigue was due to the fact that it began with a somewhat cryptic declaration: “much of this story is based on fact, though we have also included an element of speculation.”
Lucan had an 11 episode run on ABC and is now recently available for DVD purchase. For fans of the show feeling nostalgic, there’s an active Facebook page of the show. Given the premise and the popularity of Tarzan and Mowgli, there is promise for a revival of this series in some form or fashion.
One of sci-fi’s most iconic canceled TV series, Quantum Leap followed the tale of Sam Beckett, who travels by “leaping” into the bodies of different people. The show aired on NBC for five seasons, and just barely missed the milestone of 100 episodes, coming in with only 97 by the series’ end.
Quantum Leap is considered one of the best cult TV shows of all time. The critic’s agreed, which resulted in the show receiving awards at both the Primetime Emmys and Golden Globes. At the 2017 LA Comic Con, creator Donald Bellisario announced, “I just finished writing a Quantum Leap feature. I don’t know what’s going to happen with it, but I did write it.” Since then, there has been a plethora of speculation and hope of a reboot or film.
Misfits of Science
In 1986, NBC canceled TV show Misfits of Science after only one season. Misfits was about a group of young adults with “human anomalies” (and not to be confused with metas or mutants) who fought crime. Though quirky and intriguing, the ratings for the show were crushed against the juggernaut of Dallas.
One point of contention among die-hard fans is the fact that the show’s final episode was not even aired before it’s demise. Luckily, a DVD box set that included its elusive final episode was released in 2008. As with all cult shows, it lives on today through its ravenous fandom. There’s even an oral history on the series.
A Year at the Top
A Year at the Top was a sitcom about two musicians who make a deal with the Devil’s son to obtain a year of success. Sadly, A Year at the Top did not live up to its namesake. After only five episodes on CBS, the series was canceled due to mixed reviews. Perhaps it would have done better if the producers had also made some kind of deal for solid ratings.
Still, it is highly revered by the fans it enraptured, and thought of fondly, as it details a loophole to the American dream. Series star Paul Shaffer ended up playing as David Letterman‘s musical sidekick, so he probably counts himself lucky that his previous series turned out to be a total flop.
My So-Called Life
Though only allowed a 19-episode run, My So-Called Life left a huge impact on 90s kids and television. A drama that tracked the life of teen Angela Chase (Claire Danes), the series suffered due to established competition in its time slot from Mad About You, Friends, Martin, and Living Single.
Though given a premature ending, the show earned some milestones, including a Golden Globe for Danes. It notably featured the first openly gay teenager on television, Rickie Vasquez, portrayed by Wilson Cruz. “It broke the heart of every 14-year-old girl alive and its cancellation at the height of its popularity was never fully explained,” said writer Rachel Cavanaugh.
A parody of daytime soap operas, the ABC parody ran for four seasons. As you’d expect from a show spoofing such a byzantine and melodramatic genre, Soap covered a wide variety of bizarre plot points humorously, allowing it to be a standout from standard sitcoms. (It also happened to feature a very young Billy Crystal as the family’s closeted gay son.)
Not everyone was a fan. Soap actually sparked outrage among several religious organizations, including the Catholic church. This was mainly due to the show’s storylines that dealt with sex and infidelity. The backlash ultimately resulted in ABC dropping its advertising price point during the shows evening slot.
Yet in 2007, Time magazine listed Soap as one of the best 100 TV Shows in history. Created and written by Susan Harris, the comedy is still beloved by fans today.
Get Christie Love!
Get Christie Love! starred Teresa Graves as an undercover detective for the LAPD, accompanied by the very 70s catchphrase, “You’re under arrest, sugah!” whenever she would apprehend a suspect. For 23 episodes, the crime drama intertwined with Blaxploitation, but was censored due to Graves’ religious beliefs.
That in conjunction with a shoestring budget lead to the show’s eventual cancellation. There have been multiple rumors surrounding the show. In 2017 there were whispers about Vin Diesel being involved in a reboot of the series for ABC. It was later announced, however, that they decided not to move forward with the project.
Best of the West
ABC sitcom followed the story of a wild west Marshal, former shopkeeper and veteran named Sam Best. A spoof on Old West features, it mimicked popular shows such as Bonanza, Gunsmoke and Rawhide. The series was well-received and obtained notable guest stars such as Andy Griffith, Betty White and Christopher Lloyd.
Despite this, the series ran for only one season with 22 episodes. This was actually due to star Joel Higgins signing on for an NBC series, Silver Spoons after ABC dragged its feet in renewing the show for a second season. What a difference a day makes.
Though it lived a five-season run, the dramedy Moonlighting only had 66 episodes. Starring Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis, it has ranked in many lists, including Time magazine’s “100 Best TV Shows of All-Time.” A dramedy, this series often broke the fourth wall and dipped into fantasy elements.
Though it started off strong with critics and audiences alike, the ratings slowly declined, leading to its cancellation in the fifth season. This is in due part to Bruce Willis wanting to focus more on his film career, and Cybill Shepherd growing tired of the grueling work schedule immediately following the birth of her twins.
Created by sci-fi author Isaac Asimov with Michael Wagner, Probe was a cross between a sci-fi and a mystery that put a spin on buddy pairings with a science prodigy and his secretary. A mid-season replacement, it was meant to be a modernization of Tom Swift.
The series was likened to a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, with science utilized to solve crimes. A victim of the 1988 writers strike, the series only ran for 8 episodes on ABC. Thanks to the modern invention that is YouTube, the series is available for free streaming [at the time this article was written].
A sci-fi sitcom, Quark told the adventures of an outer space garbage collector and his crew. The show satirized sci-fi series such as Star Trek (including using this show’s sound effects), Flash Gordon and Lost in Space. Series star Richard Benjamin found out about the series after reading an article about it in Variety.
Curiosity struck, and he asked for an audition. Benjamin actually took a pay cut so that he could work with series creator Buck Henry. The show went on to win an Emmy nomination for costume design. After only 8 episodes, the NBC parody series was canceled.
The Bionic Woman
The Bionic Woman was an action-adventure drama about the first cyborg woman, who becomes a spy. For three seasons and 58 episodes, it jumped around from ABC, to NBC, to CBS, with curtains finally closing on its third year. In the 2004 issue of TV Guide’s list of 25 Greatest Sci-Fi Legends, Jamie Somers came in at number 19.
The series was later rebooted in various incarnations, including three tv-movies, as well as a reimagined remake in 2007 as an hour drama on NBC, running for eight episodes. Its premiere had 14 million viewers, though the numbers declined as it went on, ending with six million (which is fine for cable, but not network television).
A crime drama about a priest roughened by his environment, Hell Town aired in the fall of 1985 on NBC. Series star Robert Blake was considered for the role of David Addison on Moonlighting beforehand but instead fought to get the pilot for this show made, as well as arguing with NBC to go from a six-episode order to twelve. He was able to garner four more.
The show started with a TV-movie as its pilot. Its success against Dynasty, coupled with Blake’s determination for the show to succeed as star and producer, greenlit the series. This success was short lived however as the series only aired 8 episodes. “Hell Town was the best contribution as a human being that I’ve ever made,” Blake said.
TV drama Crime Story ran for two seasons, opening with a two-hour TV movie pilot, and caught the attention of over 30 million viewers. The period show set in 1960s Chicago would later influence arc-driven dramas, as well as the Martin Scorsese film Casino. Adding a layer of grit and realness to this series was co-creator Chuck Adamson and lead actor Dennis Farina, both formerly Chicago cops, and John Santucci (Pauli Taglia) was an actual former thief.
Some of the crimes portrayed in the show, such as burglaries, hijackings and heists were based upon Santucci’s crimes. Despite its extraordinary start, numbers dropped drastically dropped into “failure” numbers. Though cast members made an effort to save the show with a five-city tour that was spearheaded by lead Farina, the show eventually succumbed to cancellation.
Alien Nation intertwined science fiction with police procedural. An LA officer partners up with an alien that bred to be extremely strong and intelligent. This pairing set up the metaphor of dealing with racism and other social issues. This show was included in the “Cancelled Too Soon” list for TV Guide. Since its airing, it was set to be rebooted in 2009, but fell through, with another attempt made in 2015.
Deadline reported in 2016 that Jeff Nichols was set to write and direct a remake of the show for Fox. Things have shuffled around a bit, since Disney bought 20th Century Fox, so the timeline is unclear. However, in the fall of 2018 Nichols expressed optimism about his role in the remake. “It’s epic. I mean, it’s the biggest canvas I’ve ever painted on, but it 100 percent feels like a Jeff Nichols film… I put so much of myself into it, it takes place in Arkansas. There’s so much of me in it.”
War of the Worlds
The drama action-horror War of the Worlds picked up where the 1953 film The War of the Worlds left off. In the show’s pilot, clips were utilized from the film with narration to explain some of the changes. The changes included a bit of shuffling and retconning, so that the aliens weren’t actually dead (as was stated in the film). Decades after their defeat, the extraterrestrials rise yet again to take over the planet.
After two seasons, the show was canceled, though its influence was felt in sci-fi series to follow such as Dark Skies and The X-Files. Initially, the series was meant to be a remake of the film, with George A. Romero set to direct.
Long before American Horror Story, there was Freddy’s Nightmares, a horror anthology spinoff from the Nightmare on Elm Street films with Freddy Krueger. Set in Springwood, Freddy would share tales of death, and of course, nightmares. The show was ultimately canceled due to “controversy,” and badly timed airings.
“You know what happened with us on that was that we were promised a late night show all over the country,” series star Robert Englund told IGN. “It was late night and we could really be nasty, like Tales from the Crypt eventually was. What happened was that they stuck us on at like 6 o’clock in the Bible Belt and we got canceled. We did great the first six months when we were just on at night, we did phenomenal ratings.”
A family sci-fi adventure, Voyagers! Followed the travels of Phineas Bogg (Jon-Erik Hexum) with his young protege Jeffrey Jones (Meeno Peluce) as they traveled back centuries into time, fixing moments in world history. After a successful first season, execs gave the show the axe in favor of replacing it with a news program, hoping to compete with 60 Minutes.
Given its shares, NBC more than likely should have moved the series to a different time slot. The venture failed, proving that Voyagers! should have at least garnered a second season. For those feeling nostalgic, it’s available for streaming on Amazon Prime.