Yes, it’s that time of year again. The network television season is wrapping up, and season finales begin to fly at us almost daily throughout the month of May. Along with the end of the tv season comes the network “upfronts”, when the five broadcast networks reveal their schedules for next Fall and set rates for their advertisers. It’s become tradition in the couple of weeks before the upfronts for tv critics and fans across the U.S. to mount campaigns to save shows that are “on the bubble”. There are always low-to-middlingly-rated shows that are of high quality, and many of these shows develop small but passionate followings. The tv junkies here at PopMatters are no exception. So here are five good shows on the edge of cancellation that could really use the help, but be forewarned, there are some mild spoilers contained within:
Chuck, NBC — Chuck manages to combine action, comedy, and drama with a deftness not often seen on television. In its second season, it has continued to be wildly entertaining on a week-to-week basis. Zachary Levi is great as the titular character, a nerdy employee of the Buy More electronics retailer with a head full of government secrets. This season, the show has moved beyond the bumbling clichés that always come along with the accidental spy premise. Chuck has become more comfortable with his secret identity as Agent Charles Carmichael and he saves the day almost as often as he needs to be saved. The supporting cast is great, too. The hilarious Adam Baldwin is excellent as hard-assed NSA agent John Casey, conveying almost constant irritation and begrudging respect with little more than an angry look or a dismissive grunt. Chuck also manages to balance accessible, episodic television with a handful of overarching plotlines. These plotlines don’t dominate the show, but they’re always there in the background for regular, attentive viewers. Shows this fun are worth keeping around for a long time.
Better Off Ted, ABC — It’s been a long time since ABC has had a great comedy. Paired with the seventh season of NBC castoff Scrubs, Better Off Ted has quickly improved from “pretty funny” to “absolutely hilarious.” This is essentially a workplace comedy, but the workplace is the Research & Development department of Veridian Dynamics, an enormous, faceless corporation that makes a little of everything. The writing on the show is sharp, the pacing is crisp, and the jokes have no trouble sliding between wacky and smart. Despite having a huge environment to play with, the show has wisely kept its cast small and manageable over the first season’s 11 episodes. Ted (Jay Harrington) is the main character, narrator, and head of the department. He answers to Veronica (a severe and hilarious Portia de Rossi), works with new product tester and female foil Linda (Andrea Anders), and manages Phil and Lem (Jonathan Slavin and Malcolm Barrett), the brilliant but touchy scientists from the lab. Combining silly and smart is never easy, and Better Off Ted deserves the chance to go for another season. It’s not like ABC has anything else going for it in the comedy department. The network that inflicted According to Jim on America for eight seasons owes us this one, big-time.
Dollhouse, Fox — Joss Whedon had to know that working with Fox again wouldn’t be easy. After the way the network torpedoed Firefly, it probably was tough for him to go back there. Even with the network’s management team completely different from the beginning of the decade, though, Whedon ran into some of the same problems. The network wasn’t happy with the pilot, leading to a completely new first episode (just like they did with Firefly). Fox also dictated that the first five episodes of the series be stand-alone, the better to attract more of an audience. Then the network found themselves with their typical logjam of shows when American Idol returned, and Dollhouse was moved from a Monday night pairing with 24 to the same Friday at 9pm dead-zone that Firefly tanked in. In fact, Fox hasn’t had a successful show in that timeslot since The X-Files in the early 90’s.
Predictably, the show was sort of a mediocre mess through those first five episodes. The premise, about a secret organization that takes people as blank slates, programs in whatever personalities and skill sets their wealthy clients require, and wipes them clean again at the end of an engagement, is creepy and off-putting. And Whedon’s infatuation with his lead actress, Eliza Dushku, seems unjustified because she doesn’t seem to be quite good enough to pull off the “different personality every week” thing. And yet, once Dollhouse got beyond those first five episodes, the show took off. Overarching plotlines came into focus, the writers started to play around with and slyly undercut their basic premise, and it became clear that the Dollhouse and its creators are not necessarily the protagonists of the show. The show is intriguing on a week-to-week basis now, and if the two-part season finale lives up to the last few episodes, this is a show that definitely deserves a chance to grow and expand in a second season. Maybe the lowered expectations of its timeslot will provide that chance, but it’s not very likely.
Life, NBC — Along with Chuck, Life was the second mild freshman success of the Fall 2007 season that NBC renewed for 2008-09 but didn’t put back on the air post-Writers’ Strike. And, like Chuck, Life returned in Fall 2008 to lower ratings. Creatively, though, Damien Lewis’ offbeat cop show was at the top of its game. Charlie Crews (Lewis) is such a unique, interesting character that he makes the show worth watching. And the writers give Crews unique, left-of-center mysteries to solve while continually goosing the conspiracy that Crews has been tracking down since the show started. Who framed Crews for murder and put him in prison for 12 years, and why did they do it? That puzzle expanded this season and became clearer, but creator Rand Ravich has more up his sleeve. Really, though, the pleasure of Life is in watching Damien Lewis do his thing. Crews is the most unique cop on tv now that Vic Mackey has left the scene, and he deserves to keep solving cases. Unfortunately, NBC’s money-saving decision to cede five primetime hours a week to Jay Leno this fall has put the squeeze on shows like Life and Chuck. Hopefully character and quality will win out over pure budgetary concerns.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Fox — I’m of two minds on this one. When Sarah Connor is on its game, as it was for most of the second season, it’s a crackling good action show with tough-minded heroes making difficult choices. But sometimes, the show slows things down and inevitably it drags during these episodes. It’s clear that quiet and contemplative is not Sarah Connor’s strong suit. The way the show has played with the concepts of the Terminator universe and time travel is very interesting, especially considering that each of James Cameron’s films and the ignored-by-the-show third movie all say slightly different things about how the time travel works. This inconsistency has allowed The Sarah Connor Chronicles to posit some very intriguing ideas about alternate futures and how much our heroes can change them, and whether the time travelers from the future are actually coming from different timelines back to a single, present-day time. It’s heady stuff for an action show, and worthy of further exploration. However, with the way the second season ended, it seems like the writers have put themselves in a corner. I’d actually be pretty okay with the series being left right there, but I’m also curious to see how they’d get themselves out of that corner.
Reaper, The CW — I’ve only watched the first three episodes of season 2 of Reaper so far, and the reason for that is a noticeable drop in quality and overall fun from the first season. So it sits on my DVR, essentially in last place among the shows I like. Hopefully it has been getting better as the season has progressed, but I probably won’t catch up until the end of May or so. Still, I was happy, so very happy, last season when the show got renewed by The CW. And I think the show has a ton of potential that it was finally starting to realize in the last 1/3 of the first season. But Tyler Labine (Sock) has signed on to a pilot for next year and show creators Michelle Fazekas and Tara Butters have a deal in place at Fox to develop a new show. If the series’ stars and creators can’t be bothered to fight for their show, is it really worth the effort for fans to mount a rescue campaign? It sounds like they’ve already moved on, and that’s sad because Reaper often managed to be hilarious and interesting and the show is worth saving.