Television is a cruel mistress. People bring fresh, original concepts to its glowing altar, where they are ruthlessly sacrificed and their entrails are strewn across Burbank. And yet, somehow, television does get better — smart, interesting shows do get on the air, and they sometimes even become hits.
Sometimes you look back, and realize that some innovative shows that failed in the past might actually become hits if they were on television now. Maybe they helped pave the way for shows that are big now, or maybe they just featured concepts or tropes that hadn't become popular yet.
Either way, here are some science fiction and fantasy TV shows that were just a little too ahead of their time.
Top image: Pushing Daisies.
Dead Like Me (2003-2004)
Summary: One of a few zany fantasy shows created by Bryan Fuller (see Pushing Daisies, below), this features Ellen Muth as Georgia "George" Lass, who gets killed by the toilet that falls out of the Space Station Mir and becomes a Reaper. She discovers that being dead sucks just as much as being alive, and Reaping dead people is kind of a tough job. The cast of "Reapers" includes Callum Blue and Mandy Patinkin (Inigo Montoya!!)
Why It Could Work Now: For one thing, quirky supernatural shows are all the rage nowadays, especially if they have a hint of the dark fairytale about them. For another, cable TV networks (like Showtime) seem a lot more willing to experiment with weird, off-balance genre fare.
Why It Failed Then: Dead Like Me was just a little early for the cable network highs. It preceded Weeds (2005) and Dexter (2006), and was up against Showtime's buzz-generators Queer As Folk (2000-2005) and The L Word (2004-2009) for budget dollars. HBO's The Sopranos (1999-2007) was destroying its cable competition. Show creator Bryan Fuller also left after the first season, and the second season was not as successful as its predecessors.
Death: Dead Like Me got off to a good start. Its series premiere had a Showtime-high of 1.11 million viewers, and network executives would continue to issue complimentary (if contradictory) ratings reports, well into cancellation talks. However, Dead Like Me only lasted for two seasons. It did manage to snag two Emmy nominations in 2004, though-admittedly, these were for musical composition and visual effects.
Dark Angel (2000-2002)
Summary: Dark Angel follows genetically enhanced super soldier/assassin Max Guevara, alias X5-452, as she tries to lead a normal life as a bike courier and avoid government agents in a semi-post-apocalyptic America. Along the way, she looks for other escaped super soldiers from the Manticore program that created her.
Why It Could Work Now: People sure do love their post-apocalyptic dystopias lately. And with The CW already trying to do a Hunger Games TV show, you could totally see something like Dark Angel cashing in on that same wave of popularity.
Why It Failed Then: Dark Angel may have just been too cyberpunk-y and "dark" for TV audiences at the time, or the mythology may have been too intense. In any case, ratings started out sky high, and quickly toppled.
Death: Dark Angel was canceled after just two seasons. It did relatively well in its first season with a Tuesday night slot (following That ‘70s Show), but when Fox moved the show to Fridays for its second season, viewership dropped by about 4 million-leading to almost inevitable cancellation. The second season was also plagued by actor departures, a change in tone, and, like any high-concept show with a fair amount of special effects, budgetary concerns.
Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975)
Summary: The series follows the titular Carl Kolchak, a journalist from Chicago, as he investigates mysterious crimes with supernatural or science-fiction causes. He's often a lone wolf on these cases, as the police decline to pursue such inexplicable crimes.
Why It Could Work Now: Again, it's a police procedural with a supernatural twist, and it made often-clever plays with traditional myths and fables — thus bringing the crucial "dark fairytale" angle. For instance, a headless motorcyclist roamed Chicago, in lieu of the legendary headless horseman. Hollywood's also in the middle of producing a movie version, so at least one studio higher-up agrees with us.
Why It Failed Then: The series had admittedly been preceded by two made-for-TV movies, which may have led to viewer fatigue. It also aired Fridays at 9pm, the traditional burying ground for series in which a network has little faith.
Death: Kolchak was cancelled after only 20 of the 26 episodes that ABC had ordered.
Summary: A small town in Kansas tries to survive after terrorists nuke every major American city, and civilization more or less collapses. Over time, it becomes clear that the terrorists did not act alone, and American democracy is in the process of being subverted, permanently.
Why It Could Work Now: Post-apocalyptic attempts to reclaim society while still surviving? It's Walking Dead, only with rampaging Midwesterners and private security forces instead of zombies.
Why It Failed Then: Among other things, the show's storylines were slow to get off the ground, and it was sometimes a depressing watch.
Death: Jericho, like many shows on this list, lasted only two seasons. That was actually almost capped at one season when CBS initially cancelled it, but a fan campaign that involved sending over 20 tons of nuts to the network headquarters (yes, seriously) resulted in a 7-episode second season. So Jericho holds the unique right of bragging that it was cancelled twice.
Pushing Daisies (2007-2009)
Summary: Another loopy Bryan Fuller show (see also the excellent Wonderfalls), this one was about a pie-maker who can bring people back from the dead with a touch, either temporarily or permanently — but if it's permanent, then someone else has to die. And if he touches a resurrected person a second time, they die for good. He resurrects his childhood sweetheart Chuck (Anna Friel) but now he can never touch her again.
Why It Could Work Now: Oh, poor Pushing Daisies. If only you'd waited for America to discover its love of twee princess Zooey Deschanel. Her vintage-dress-wearing fans would have embraced you with open, enamel-bangle-coated arms. But alas. The other thing Pushing Daisies would have going for it? It was touted as a "forensic fairy tale." And we love making everything a police procedural with a special twist these days.
Why It Failed Then: With character names like Deedee Duffield and Charles Charles, and an aesthetic dominated by "candy-colored, computer-generated bucolic scenery," Pushing Daisies wasn't exactly shooting for mainstream appeal.
Death: The Season 1 Premiere had 14 million viewers, but Pushing Daisies made it through only two seasons. In its second season, it dropped to #95 in the ratings (with a 2.1 to Old Christine's 2.5).
Clone High (2002-2003)
Summary: Another Canadian-U.S. co-production, like Dead Like Me, Clone High is an animated TV show about a high school populated entirely by clones of famous people, for a military experiment. Plus there's a robot butler named Mr. Butlertron.
Why It Could Work Now: Clone High was described by contemporary critics as running off "the highest of high concepts"-aka asking for failure. However, with a current TV season that includes Awake, Touch, and Once Upon A Time, 2012 could be a more receptive year. Plus, you could easily see Mr. Butlertron being HUGE on Cartoon Network, given the rise of shows like Regular Show and Amazing World of Gumball.
Why It Failed Then: It may have just been too weird. There was also quite a controversy in India over the show's depiction of Gandhi, which we're sure didn't help its cause.
Death: Clone High had one of the most dismal runs on this list, dead after only 13 episodes and a single season. It failed to attract an audience, it fell awkwardly in between two periods of ANIMATION BEING AWESOME (following Beavis and Butt-Head, but preceding Family Guy's second, successful run).
Summary: A cop, Ezekeiel "Zeke" Stone, murders his wife's rapist and genuinely enjoys the experience. Because he took such enjoyment from the act, it cannot be considered justice, and so he is sent to Hell when he dies two months later. When a Canaanite priestess masterminds the escape of 113 souls from Hell, the Devil (played by John Glover!) sends Zeke after them. If he can return them all to Hell, he will get a second chance at life on Earth (and thereby, a chance of Heaven).
Why It Could Work Now: It has some of the same tormented fantasy themes as Supernatural, which has become one of The CW's longest running shows at this point. As with many of these shows, it features a policeman in supernatural circumstances, and the Devil character, who hinders Zeke's quest as often as he helps, can be super fun.
Why It Failed Then: Unclear. Fans complained that the series was basically not marketed, that the network commissioned the project without any real faith in it, etc., but in the end, it simply didn't pull in enough viewers. It was also put up in a season where Friends, Frasier, and ER were dominating the ratings.
Death: Fox originally ordered 19 episodes, but aired only 13.
Kindred: The Embraced (1996)
Summary: This series tracked the activities of five vampire clans as they warred for supremacy in the criminal underworld of San Francisco. Don't you worry, though-the vamps weren't just hanging out with each other. There was also a human-vamp love story. Elegant and intelligent Julian, current "prince" of the undead underworld, has to struggle with his feelings for mere mortal girl reporter Caitlin Byrne. The show unfortunately focused much of this action through the viewpoint of investigating cop Frank Kohanek.
Why It Could Work Now: Because we have the CW. But seriously. This is, I will repeat, about vampire clans fighting for control of the San Francisco underworld. It's True Blood meets Sopranos, Vampire Diaries meets Boardwalk Empire, soapy Revenge meets bloody The Godfather. Given our current craze for vampires, crime shows, and shows about the rich behaving badly, Kindred: The Embraced sounds like it's right up 2012's alley.
Why It Failed Then: Despite being produced by magic-maker Aaron Spelling (of 90210 success), Kindred just couldn't get the ratings it needed to survive. It was too early to ride successfully on Buffy's supernatural coattails, and the pilot, with its 5 separate clans to keep track of, confused many viewers and turned them off the show.
Death: Kindred: The Embraced has one of the worst titles and worst runs. At only eight episodes, it ended on a cliffhanger, and negotiations with Showtime to revive the series were cut short when star Mark Frankel died tragically.
Summary: College student/werewolf Eric Cord is on a quest to rid himself of his lycanthropy. To do so, he must track down the founder of his "bloodline," Janos (later revealed to be Nicholas Remy), while avoiding bounty hunter Alamo Joe. This show featured acclaimed transformation effects by the master, Rick Baker.
Why It Could Work Now: It's like Vampire Diaries meets Teen Wolf. The coveted rabid teenage fangirl audience would make this thing bank.
Why It Failed Then: Despite coming from the makers of The A-Team, the show failed to catch on after a strong start in the ratings.
Death: Werewolf ran for only one season, but it was admittedly a 28-episode season.
The Flash (1990-1991)
Summary: Long before Smallville, this show follows Barry Allen aka The Flash, the fastest man alive, as he fights crime and defends the citizens of Central City. It was a fairly comic-booky approach to the subject matter, created by comic book fans, plus actual comics writer Howard Chaykin.
Why It Could Work Now: The Flash initially showed our favorite fast superhero fighting grittier, more real-world villains-mob bosses, gangsters, corrupt government officials-in lieu of costumed opponents. Given the propensity for "gritty" reboots of superhero franchises, this sort of approach could work well today.
Why It Failed Then: An enormously expensive show for its era, The Flash also suffered from a series of network blunders, including moving the show around the schedule and at one point putting an hour-long show on at 8:30 PM Thursdays. It struggled to compete on the toughest night on television, with the Gulf War coverage often stealing its thunder.
Death: After one season, the producers were told to slash the budget or the show would be killed. They chose death.
The 10th Kingdom (2000)
Summary: A New York waitress, named Virginia, and her dad (John Laroquette!) follow a magical dog (which is actually a transformed prince) through a magic mirror into a fairytale land. There, they encounter Snow White and the Evil Queen.
Why It Could Work Now: It's like Once Upon a Time, only more fun. Surprisingly, given that this show was co-produced by Hallmark, it had a lot of semi-risque humor and weirdness, complete with sex jokes and random death. Virginia falls in love with the big bad wolf, and makes fun of his tail-wagging — and then he tries to eat her grandma. The Evil Queen turns out to be Virginia's mom, who tried to drown her as a kid, and in the end, Virginia has a long speech to her mother's corpse about forgiveness. Basically, it's got the same levels of crazy as Once Upon a Time, but with more family weirdness.
Why It Failed Then: Apparently despite being critically acclaimed, this ten-hour miniseries failed in the ratings.
Death: A follow-up miniseries has never materialized.
American Gothic (1995-1996)
Summary: Produced by Shaun Cassidy (yes, of the Hardy Boys and Da Doo Ron Ron), this show was a horror/fantasy show set in a South Carolina town called Trinity where the Sheriff is basically Satan. Sheriff Buck's son, Caleb, is torn between his bio-dad and his cousin Gail. Oh, and Caleb is psychic and can see ghosts and other scary stuff.
Why It Could Work Now: In a nutshell, it's like Vampire Diaries crossed with Deadwood. Though there's not a lot of sex in it, it does have immense spookiness and plenty of mysteries — there are town secrets and weird political intrigue and family stuff going back decades. You could see this being J.J. Abrams' next thriller.
Why It Failed Then: According to this guy, the show got moved around a lot and had long gaps between episodes, with no way to tell when it would air next. In any case, the viewers failed to materialize.
Death: After one season, the show was shelved.
The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (1993-1994)
Summary: This Western/sci-fi show (sound familiar?) followed the Harvard-educated lawyer Brisco County Jr. on his new career as a bounty hunter. Hired by some wealthy robber barons to hunt down the outlaw John Bly, Brisco and his colorful band of buddies gallivanted through a very steampunk Wild West in search of their target and the supernatural Orb.
Why It Could Work Now: The show takes a humorous, "just under over-the-top" approach to its genre mash-up that would probably appeal to our post-Office love of earnest absurdity and our post-Buffy love of ironic genre in-jokes. Its steampunk elements would also make for a visually interesting show. Plus, it represents an interesting take on two old archetypes of American television-the Western and the sci-fi adventure.
Why It Failed Then: The show's humor occasionally offended, and more conservative parents kept their children away from Brisco. Its propensity for absurdist violence, such as four villains accidentally killing one another in a shootout, got it publicly labeled as "the most violent show on television" by Senator Byron Dorgan. Plus, it played at 8pm on Fridays.
Death: Received well by critics and initially attracting a sizeable audience, Brisco steadily declined in the ratings until it was canceled at the end of its 1st season. It was also dumped in the graveyard slot on Friday nights, at 8pm, which certainly didn't help its chances for renewal.
Thanks to Meredith and Annalee for the input!