Fans of one of the most acclaimed TV shows of the 21st century (so far) are finally getting their closure. Tonight, HBO airs Deadwood: The Movie, a two-hour coda to the David Milch Western series that was unceremoniously cancelled back in 2006 after airing a very open-ended third-season finale.
Now, Deadwood might not immediately seem like the type of show that people get super nerdy about, but… they really, really did. The visceral, violent Old West depicted in the show, coupled with a huge and stellar cast plus Milch’s insanely intricate dialogue created a fan base who obsessed over the show until, sadly, it was suddenly gone. That we got a feature film to tie everything together – over a decade after the show was axed! – feels like a minor miracle. This got us to thinking about some of the most famous instances of cancelled shows having a second life, in one form or another. Now there have been so many of these over the years, particularly in the last decade where rebooting old shows on network and streaming TV has become a trend that doesn’t seem to show signs of stopping. But for today’s Friday Five, here are some of our most memorable…
It was a gift from 2003-2006 that a comedy as willfully audacious as Arrested Development lasted for three seasons on a major network, even if that network was the somewhat more risk-taking Fox. With its ongoing saga of Orange County’s perpetually corrupt Bluth family, packed with an insane ratio of jokes, and incredible cast and a seemingly endless stream of quotable lines (“There’s always money in the banana stand”; “I’ve made a huge mistake”; “ANNYONG!”), AD more than earned its deeply dedicated fan base, until the need for network-level ad dollars led to a cancellation after Season 3. In what became a benchmark for the eventual trend of streaming platforms “rescuing” killed broadcast series, Netflix announced in 2011 that they’d struck a deal to license the show and create new episodes with the entire original creative team, including showrunner and creator Mitch Hurwitz. Fans everywhere rejoiced!… and though ultimately, the Netflix seasons (two of them, so far) haven’t been quite as warmly received as the original run, if you need your dose of Bluths it’s more than you might have ever dreamed you’d get 10 years ago.
With The Simpsons being the all-time animated juggernaut – nay, longest running prime time show period – that it is, one would tend to think that another animated series from the mind of Matt Groening would be a sure bet to run for eons. And lo and behold, Futurama did truck along somewhat pleasantly on Fox for four seasons, but it never reached Simpsons-level ratings and got the ax in 2003. What followed was one of the most unusual resurrection trajectories ever for a show; the future-shock ensemble sitcom aired in reruns on Adult Swim for four years before the creators went back into action for four direct-to-video feature films. (Including “Bender’s Big Score”, above) The success of those films and the delight of re-energized fans was so great that Comedy Central suddenly jumped into the fray; the films were chopped up into 16 episodes, creating a fifth broadcast season. And then, CC committed to two more seasons before the show finally went off the air in 2013!
Few will argue that the cancellation of Firefly in 2003 remains one of the sorest spots in geek culture history; the fans of Joss Whedon’s space-pirate-Western-caper saga were and are amongst the most passionate and dedicated of any community, continuing to congregate and dream of more episodes to this day. (Yeah, we see you, Browncoats.) Fox, while having that aforementioned reputation for taking more risks, has also cancelled a lot of beloved shows and Firefly almost always lands on the top of most lists. There was a seismic burst of excitement, then, when Whedon took his property to Universal – the entire original cast and much of the creative team intact – to make Serenity, the feature film that resolved several loose plot lines (Oh, that’s why River Tam is so… wait a minute, she just DID THAT?!) plus, in true Whedon fashion, delivered some seriously emotional gut-punches on top of the soaring action and the hilarious quips. If you want to make a Browncoat cry, just say “I’m a leaf on the wind” to them. (Actually, don’t do that, that’s mean.)
As noted previously, there are a lot of shows we could have included in this list, but it’s kind of impossible to ignore that two of the biggest sci-fi franchises ever totally qualify. First up is Gene Roddenberry’s rollicking, hopeful, inclusive, way-ahead-of-its-time series that ran for just three seasons in the late 60’s on NBC before being cancelled; in that time, Star Trek had earned a modest but dedicated fan base, yet the show was never considered a hit. There was a brief respite when Star Trek: The Animated Series ran for just over a year on Saturday mornings in the early 70’s, and then there was the almost-but-wasn’t resurrection: Star Trek: Phase II. This unproduced reboot was slotted for 1977 but never made it out of development; yet, several characters and concepts were used for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which reunited the original cast on the big screen in 1979. And here is where the real second life begins: Five more TOS feature films and, eventually, the birth of a franchise with Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987 and many more shows to come. (Fun fact!: TNG‘s Riker and Troi were somewhat modeled on the Phase II characters who eventually, with alterations, were realized on film; that’s Deckard and Ilia from The Motion Picture.)
In its original run, one of the crown jewels in the history of British television might have seemed like there was no stopping it; the ingenious conceit of allowing Time Lords to regenerate meant that Doctor Who could endure for a very long time, with a different Doctor inhabiting the role and delivering a different tone and flavor over the years. Fans enjoyed it for decades, declaring their favorite Doctors over and over (Tom Baker had the longest run, of course, at just about seven years), yet… over time, the numbers declined and during Sylvester McCoy’s run, this mighty sci-fi landmark was cancelled in 1989. Fans were treated to the U.S. co-production TV film starring Paul McGann in 1996; intended as a backdoor pilot for a reboot, it didn’t fare well though McGann’s Eighth Doctor has reappeared on TV and in radio serials and is quite popular now. It wasn’t until 2005 that the true second coming of Doctor Who began, with BBC’s full-throated reboot starring Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper and it’s been all things wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey ever since. (By the way, though he’s been eclipsed in popularity by Tennant, Smith, Capaldi and Whittaker, I’m here to tell you that the brief run of Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor is well worth revisiting. He was underrated, that intense yet goofy Doctor.)