An old cliché sums up the doomed fate that many one-season TV shows share: “Hindsight is 20/20.” When a critic reviews a TV show, the expectation usually isn’t that the show is going to last just one season. The evaluations given to TV shows when the pilot is released are based on the show’s capability to last more than one season. The miniseries excluded, most people don’t think, “That was a great TV show. I hope it only lasts a season.” There have been some arguments made for TV shows ending after their second season, but for the most part people expect their TV shows to have a fairly long narrative. TV’s most acclaimed shows at the present moment are a testament to this: AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad are both have four seasons under their belts, with the former expected to run upwards of seven seasons and the latter expected to conclude with its fifth season. Given the difficulty a new TV show faces in a landscape dominated by standby favorites, the amount of one-season programs in the past few years have been many.
These one-season programs are cancelled for a few key reasons: ratings and critical bludgeonings being two of the most common ones. In some cases, these shows won’t be missed: 2012’s cross-dressing farce Work It isn’t likely to develop a cult following. Many times, however, the shows that were axed by their networks find a devoted fanbase after being kicked off of the air. Shows like Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life are hailed as modern classics, their one-season runtime not holding back adoration from fans and critics. When the one-season show is often bid farewell without much thought, in retrospect it’s easier to give the show a fairer evaluation than the one it was initially given. Many times, especially in the case of NBC’s 2006-2007 TV season, these shows can be seen for the great programs that they actually were. What many see as the one-season “kiss of death” can actually make a program all that more endearing.
In my view, three programs in the NBC 2006-2007 lineup are examples of great programs that weren’t given their fair chance in their initial network run. These programs are Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Kidnapped, and The Black Donnellys. Some of these are better than the others, and each of them is memorable for their own reasons. With this piece, I look at why each of them are great, and how the fact that each only lasted a season is no reason to dismiss the show. If anything, this makes the shows easy to get invested in, as the narrative isn’t too long. These shows deserve a second glance because of their one-season length; instead of determining whether or not the stories in these shows could carry on to multiple seasons, we should evaluate them for the story they tell in the small amount of time they received.
In the season finale of The Black Donnellys, Joey Ice Cream says of eponymous crime family: “That was the Donnellys. They could never make it more than a block outta the neighborhood.” Like the Donnelly family, these shows may not have made it out of the first-season “neighborhood”, but they’re all the more better for it.
Kidnapped’s premise seems simple: the young son of a rich family gets kidnapped, the parents hire a private investigator to find the kid, the cops get involved, tension and intrigue build. Yet the show takes a straightforward plot and layers it with a depth that’s uncommon on a major network like NBC. Over the course the show’s thirteen episodes, it was possible that any one of the major characters (with the exception of Jeremy Sisto’s private investigator Knapp, who is but one of the many reasons why Kidnapped stands out years later) could have been complicit in the kidnapping, yet in the ending the multi-faceted narrative comes to a suspenseful conclusion, one that also leaves plenty of minor mysteries unsolved.
The structure of Kidnapped could have easily been exploited into a multi-season narrative. Originally ordered for thirteen episodes, the show is one of a select few one-season programs that has definite closure. Though the pulled from the air after the fifth episode, Kidnapped had a conclusive ending once all thirteen episodes were released on DVD. Had the show gone on to a second season, they would have had to have the titular kidnapping occur in a different setting; suffice it to say that the show probably wouldn’t have had a good second season if the same kid got abducted again. This gave the show the opportunity to explore different locales, each with its own set of problems. The sole season of Kidnapped involved the lives of the very wealthy in New York City; a second season could have perhaps explored a different socioeconomic class or ethnic group. While it is easy to sympathize with a family whose son was kidnapped (though this is difficult to some extent with the Cain family, since their backstories are anything but squeaky clean), crimes like this don’t just affect white, upper-class Americans. The show could have gone with a Wire-like narrative structure had it gone for more than one season, with each one exploring different aspects of American society and how, as The Wire’s Omar succinctly put it, “all in the game.” The Wire is, without question, leagues better than Kidnapped, but the formula of that legendary HBO program could have been done differently by NBC, which would have allowed that brilliant narrative structure to reach more audiences. That experiment sounds good in theory, but all we have is Kidnapped’s one season, and a hell of a season it is.
The acting is uniformly excellent. The underappreciated Timothy Hutton is appropriately opaque as patriarch Conrad Cain, who for a long while appeared to be involved in his son’s kidnapping. His past involvements with the mob and his shady business dealings make him an enigmatic lead. Dana Delaney is equally great as his wife Ellie, whose past is even more mysterious. Her father, who appears to be just like any father doting on his daughter, is one of the show’s best unsolved mysteries. What exactly does Ellie’s father do? Is she involved? While the police and the FBI, led by Delroy Lindo’s FBI agent Latimer King, are inclined to suspect someone with a vendetta against the family, when the show gives us fleeting hints at the Cain family’s conspicuous dealings the audience is left to balance what the characters in the show think is going on and what they find out about the Cain family. Needless to say, this creates an incredibly tense narrative. Like The Wire, you have to watch this show from the very first episode; the story is in constant escalation, and all of the players in this complex game are related in one way or another.
But the best performance of the show is Jeremy Sisto, who as the brilliant, stoic retrieval specialist Knapp is the most engaging character in an already stellar roster. Knapp is introduced in the first episode through a methodically executed rescue, which he does with all of the skill of a seasoned pro. He is the show’s moral compass; while that role would ideally be given to the family struggling at the absence of their son, instead this enigmatic agent proves that sometimes an outsider is needed to get to the bottom of a situation where a deeply intertwined group of people seem to threaten that situation’s integrity. Even Lindo’s FBI agent, who just wants to retire from his life of crime-fighting, at times is under scrutiny. We never learn much about Knapp or his past, but we don’t need to: he is his work, and from the moment he’s introduced he doesn’t stop in his pursuit of Leopold Cain.
There has been much cynicism about the state of TV in the past many years. The central conceit of Studio 60 was based on the premise that TV viewers were “being lobotomized by a candy-ass broadcast network” bent on cheap reality TV programming and lazy sitcoms. It’s easy to be a cynic (The Bachelor is still on the air, isn’t it?), but in reality it’s programming like Kidnapped that should dispel such cheap complaints. Yes, TV does have a lot of bad programming, but that ignores all of the brilliant programming of seasons past and present. The dense narrative of Kidnapped proves that quality storytelling doesn’t have to be relegated to the pay-per view channels. Shows much better than Kidnapped have dominated the small screen since the show’s cancellation, but that’s no reason to pass over this one-season masterpiece. Kidnapped is a commonly told story told uncommonly, and it’s a shame that NBC cancelled what could have been expanded into a much greater show if it had a second or third season.
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
Studio 60 is a classic case of overhyping. Is Aaron Sorkin a great writer? Yes. Was The West Wing one of network TV’s best dramas? Undoubtedly. Does that mean that every show Sorkin writes must live up to the standard set by that White House drama? No. Yet this is exactly how the show was marketed prior to its release. “It’s Saturday Night Live done like The West Wing!” Expectations were understandably high, but they were high for the wrong reason. Studio 60 was to some extent doomed to be misjudged from its inception; while praise for the show’s brilliant pilot was abound, when the show began to develop its behind-the-scenes story less and less people stuck around. The show’s success can be viewed in retrospect by addressing the claims made by those who weren’t enamored by Sorkin’s take on late-night comedy.
The first claim, which is probably the show’s weakest point, is that the late-night “show within the show” wasn’t very good. On the whole, this is true. The show’s take on SNL’s “Weekend Update” was pretty weak, and the show squandered an excellent opportunity in Alex Dwyer’s hilarious Nic Cage impression. The one sketch where I found myself laughing out loud was in the show’s Christmas episode, where they put a spin on Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator” segment, involving Chris Hansen interviewing Santa Claus. That one sketch, unfortunately, was the only funny one in a season that ran twenty-two episodes. The simple solution for the show would have been to hire writers who had deep experience in late-night comedy, but since Aaron Sorkin wrote all of the season’s episodes (with assistance from several other writers throughout), we instead get Sorkin’s take on late-night comedy sketches, which isn’t anywhere near as good as his famed walk-and-talks.
But to those who bemoaned the lack of quality sketches, I would respond that the emphasis of Studio 60 was not the show’s sketches but the creation of those sketches and the lives of the comedians who made them. The whole appeal of Studio 60 was that it gave an inside look as to how a SNL-like show is created. If one wants to see good sketch comedy, watch a good sketch comedy. If one wants to see an insightful look into what goes on behind the late-night comedy stage, then Studio 60 is the place to go. I didn’t laugh a lot at the sketches, yes, but I did laugh a lot at what went on behind the scenes. Sorkin’s dialogue is as good here as it was on The West Wing; the show’s pilot is a masterclass in writing for television. The banter, especially between the magnetic duo of Bradley Whitford and Matthew Perry, is witty and zip-fast. The direction, by frequent Sorkin collaborator Thomas Schlamme, introduces each group of characters (the actors, the studio execs, and the writers) with special attention to each individual within the group. These characters feel like they’ve been working together for years; the show within the show has the authentic feel of a classic program, despite the fact that we never get a solid snapshot of its best material.
The second claim made by detractors of the show involves Sorkin’s dialogue. While many enjoyed the repartee between the characters when it had Sorkin’s trademark wit, others were bothered by how Sorkin ham-fistedly dealt with social issues through characters in the show. Sarah Paulson, one of the show’s best supporting actors, served as fodder for a lot of this. Her character, Harriet Hayes, was the show within the show’s best performer, but she also drew a lot of flak for her Christian faith. There are a couple debates that she has with Matthew Perry’s character Matt Albie, her ex-flame, that do veer into preachy territory, particularly one involving gay marriage. But consider the nature of late-night sketch comedy shows: most often, the satire they’re doing involves American culture. People still enjoy “Weekend Update” on SNL, even though it has come out and made blatant criticisms of beliefs and government policies. (A memorable segment involved Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers arguing that to not get rid of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell would be gayer than keeping it.) If self-professing Christian was the lead star of a plainly liberal TV program, such debates are likely to ensue. Though the debates did often reduce to straw man or basic talking points, for the most part these debates between the cast members were part of what made Studio 60 a relevant program. The debates on the show were the same debates we were and still are having today: gay marriage, foreign intervention, and the morality of censorship aren’t closed topics. These discussions made the show not just a zeitgeist; they also provided a lens through which we could perceive how we choose to debate the way we do. The reason why many of the debates within the show feel like two ships passing through the night is because that’s exactly how we debate nowadays.
The third claim, one that also has a bit of truth to it, is how heavy-handed the drama became as the season came to its conclusion. The storyline involving Tom Jeter’s (the regrettably overlooked Nate Corddry) brother being taken hostage in Afghanistan did get melodramatic at times, and the pregnancy of Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) felt rushed. The latter can be explained by the show trying to make the season feel like a complete, unified story arc rather than end with a cut-off ending, which explains many of the show’s weaker plot developments as the season went on. The plot the show should have run with the most was the one involving the broadcast corporation that ran Studio 60 being fined by the FCC for an accidental profanity said by a soldier in a live news broadcast. Topics like that are the reasons why a show like Studio 60 should exist.
Based on its credentials alone, most wouldn’t have predicted Studio 60 to fail. With a cast as outstanding as the one it has performing scripts written by the brilliant pen of Aaron Sorkin, the show should have been a success. Instead, due to many factors including the massive hype surrounding the show’s premiere, the show lasted one season. Like Kidnapped, it does offer a complete narrative, though it doesn’t feel neat in some places, as the show was definitely expected to run for one season. But Studio 60’s 22-episode run now gives us a way to get involved with memorable characters (namely the Perry/Whitford duo, who give Emmy-worthy performances) and great writing without a massive time investment. The show feels big and glamorous throughout, but most of all it feels important. Plus, the show gave the 2006-2007 TV season two of its best episodes: the pilot and the Christmas episode, which concludes with one of the best declarations of love Sorkin has written for a character yet when Danny (Whitford) confesses his feelings to Jordan:
I’ve been married twice before, and I’m a recovering cocaine addict. I know that’s no woman’s dream of a man or a father. Nonetheless I believe I’m falling in love with you. If you wanna run I understand. But you better get a good head start, ‘cause I’m coming for you, Jordan.
That confession, which is backed by a memorable performance of New Orleans musicians looking for work after being forced to leave due to the effects of Katrina, is but one thing that made Studio 60 the one-season wonder that it is. The show was hilarious, heartbreaking, and deeply relevant. The character on the show may be famous actors, writers, and directors, but Studio 60 doesn’t portray them as out-of-touch elites. These are real, breathing people with the same problems that we all face. The post-9/11 world has never been portrayed like it was on Studio 60.
The Black Donnellys
The Black Donnellys was best summed up in one sentence, which intended to paint the show in a negative light: “Dawson’s Creek for psychopaths.” The show, which came on the NBC lineup to try to pick up the viewers that Studio 60 was losing, boasted similarly impressive credentials. Written by Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco, who helmed the ‘90’s one-season wonder EZ Streets and the Oscar winning-film Crash, this dark, violent TV show chronicled the lives of the four Donnelly brothers, who control part of the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in New York. Given that the show existed while the much better mob dramas The Sopranos and Brotherhood were still running, it’s easy to see why The Black Donnellys got such negative press. And, to be fair to the Wall Street Journal critic, the show does a weird balance of post-adolescent drama and darkly violent mob warfare. For that reason, the show will be hard to watch; you don’t know whether you’re getting involved in an OC-worthy romantic storyline or a fight scene involving an Irishman with an ax. I can understand why most critics argued that the show couldn’t last more than a season. In retrospect, they’re probably right. But now that the show’s story is limited to one season of thirteen episodes, we can now evaluate the show in its complete form. As it stands, it’s pretty good.
The setup is classic mob drama. The Irish Donnellys feud with the local Italians in their neighborhood. The father of the four brothers was killed in a dirty deal involving both his fellow Irishmen and the Italians. Three out of the four brothers are content to live as kings of the neighborhood, while one brother, Jonathan Tucker in the Michael Corleone archetype, just wants to live a normal life as an art student. Naturally, some of the more rambunctious brothers, namely Tom Guiry’s character Jimmy, get into trouble, forcing Tucker’s character Tommy to get involved with the bloody work of mob warfare. (With this role, Guiry has come a long way from Scotty Smalls.) None of the show’s storylines offer an entirely fresh spin on mob life, but the characters are thoroughly engaging, namely Tommy, who serves as the anchor of the show. This role is especially difficult for Tucker, since this is a pretty bleak show. Unlike Studio 60 and Kidnapped, it’s clear that this show was set not to have a tidily wrapped-up ending, which only adds to the moral grayness of the show’s stories. Much of the time, it’s hard to root for anybody in this mess of characters. Everyone usually does the exact opposite of what they’re supposed to do, even when they know better. Yet Tommy’s constant sacrifices make him a character you want to root for; you want to see him redeemed in the end, and perhaps get the woman of his dreams (Olivia Wilde, in an underutilized role). In addition to “Dawson’s Creek for psychopaths,” the show is also summed up by an epigraph used as the title of one of its episodes: “Too long a sacrifice makes a stone of the heart.” Unrequited sacrifice makes fantastic dramatic tension, and The Black Donnellys does that well.
Part of me wants to classify this show as a guilty pleasure. At times the show is silly, especially in how it uses the unreliable narration of a character named Joey Ice Cream. (Joey is but one of many characters who have stereotypical mob names: “Louie Downtown,” “Dokey,” and “Bob the Mouth” are people who all grace the screen at one point.) The narration could have been fleshed out, but instead it’s used as a gimmick to make the stories flow neatly. In addition, some storylines are just plain absurd; James Badge Dale plays a man who, despite being a grown man, decides to stalk Wilde’s character Jenny after a fleeting one night stand like a teenage boy who doesn’t understand what the word “no” means. I was quite glad when Wilde finally took a tire iron to the guy, despite the fact that the last thing this show needed was another corpse to add to its body count.
Even with those weak elements I still enjoyed The Black Donnellys. I rooted for many of the characters, particularly the conflicted Tommy. The show’s conflicts invariably end up in the bloodiest worst-case scenario, yet my hope remained up until the series finale’s last gunshot. I can’t quite describe what it is that makes The Black Donnellys so appealing, though I can isolate parts of the show that make it worthwhile. The show’s atmosphere, writing, and acting are all done well, which keeps the less-refined aspects from overpowering the show. In truth, it’s precisely because of how odd The Black Donnellys is that I enjoyed it so much. As a mob tale, it doesn’t come close to matching up to the genre’s hallmarks. As an angsty drama, it does go overboard sometimes. But the show is incredibly watchable, and with only thirteen episodes it’s not a big time commitment for a TV show. It may not work in all of the ways that it intends to, but there has never been a TV show like The Black Donnellys, and that’s got to count for something. For better and for worse, the show is worth watching, regardless of how it’s viewed. You can choose to view it as an unintentional comedy, an underrated mob tale, as an unclassifiable hybrid of prime-time drama and bloody violence, or as something else entirely; it’ll be entertaining under any of those descriptions. After the show’s harrowing final minute concludes, the Donnellys are a family you won’t soon forget.