The upsides of a beloved show getting canceled after one season? It never has a chance to go downhill, and it’s ideal for binge-watching over a few days without feeling like you’re disappearing down a black hole of television. And the Thanksgiving holiday, with its travel delays, tendencies toward lousy weather and built-in need for couch time (you have to let that meal digest!) is a great time for indulging in some serious television watching — with the added bonus of it being a relatively neutral activity to retreat to after you and your uncle get into a fight about Obamacare over the pumpkin pie. While some personal favorite one-season wonders, like “My So-Called Life” and “Wonderfalls,” aren’t streaming (though “Rubicon” is over at Amazon), Netflix has a solid slate of canceled-too-soon treasures to turn to when you need to retreat from parental conversations about what you’re doing with your life. [Note: These titles are good for the U.S. — we can’t speak to other international Netflix territories, unfortunately.]
“Freaks and Geeks”: This 1999-2000 NBC comedy drama is now legendary for the collection of talent involved in its making — from creator Paul Feig to executive producer Judd Apatow to a cast improbably packed with future stars like James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jason Segal. But “Freaks and Geeks” endures because of the quality of its depictions of high school life, warm, funny and sharp whether seen from the side of nerdy Sam Weir (John Francis Daley) and his pals or from that of his sister Lindsay (Linda Cardellini), as she tries to reinvent herself and befriend the school burnouts. Apatow’s gone on to be the king of man-child comedy, but Lindsay’s a wonderfully written female character, her failures even more poignant than her successes, whether she’s befriending the terrifying Kim Kelly (Busy Philipps), getting serenaded by the sweet, constantly stoned Nick (Segal) or getting psychosomatically drunk on near beer.
“Terriers”: Created by Ted Griffin (“Ocean’s Eleven”), with Shawn Ryan as showrunner, “Terriers” was one of the best recent shows you had to practically bribe people to watch. Whether it was due to the name, which suggested it had something to do with pet ownership, or the basic set-up of being about two unlicensed private detectives in Ocean Beach, which hints at USA Network-style disposability, the show had a lot of trouble attracting an audience during its 2010 run on FX, despite much critical acclaim. But despite the cases, both large and entertainingly small, that its two main characters took on, “Terriers” was always more a nuanced, charming drama about former cop Hank (Donal Logue) and former thief Britt (Michael Raymond-James) and their friendship as they navigated the show’s noir-by-way-of-San-Diego-beaches universe, two ragged guys with more tenacity than brains who are constantly wearing out their welcome.
“Firefly”: “Arrested Development” got a second life seven years after it was canceled, so maybe the devout fans of Joss Whedon’s space western aren’t so delusional as they hold out hope for the series coming back in some form even a decade after it was canceled by Fox in 2003. Nathan Fillion leads a likable ensemble as Mal Reynolds, a spaceship captain who’s not afraid of smuggling the occasional good or taking on the occasional fugitive. “Firefly” managed to sketch out a very solid universe and mythology as seen from the perspective of its ragtag crew, a group of oddballs and outcasts with their own reasons for wanting to stay on the rougher edges of the galaxy. While the series only ran for 14 episodes, it did get a big screen adventure in “Serenity,” which is also available to stream on Netflix, and which provides a larger scale look at the “Firefly” world, some traumatic character death and a satisfactory sense of closure.
“Undeclared”: While it doesn’t evoke the same kind of excruciating recognition and empathy as “Freaks and Geeks” frequently manages, Judd Apatow’s equally ill-fated follow-up to the teen series centers itself on college for an amusing, intelligent written look at life in the dorms. Jay Baruchel stars as Steven, a geek whose attempts to redefine himself as he starts his freshman year at the fictional University of Northeastern California manage to allow him to lose his virginity to floor mate Lizzie (Carla Gallo), who he then pines after. A half-hour comedy that ran on Fox from 2001-2002, “Undeclared” captured the rhythms of dorm life and the friendships created by proximately very well, and in addition to bringing back “Freaks and Geeks” alums Seth Rogen, Jason Segel and Busy Philipps in different regular and guest roles provided a great platform for “Sons of Anarchy” star Charlie Hunnam as Steven’s English roommate who’s far more successful with the ladies.
“Caprica”: This 2010 follow-up to Syfy’s hit “Battlestar Galactica” is actually a prequel set before the destruction of most of humanity that sent the earlier show’s survivors off in search of a new home. As such, despite coming from “Battlestar” producer Ronald D. Moore, it was very different, set in a flourishing, futuristic culture unknowingly engineering its own destruction as it approaches the creation of the Cylons with which mankind will eventually war. Engineered to be a more female friendly gateway into the “Battlestar” universe, “Caprica” never caught on and was certainly a more uneven offering, but one packed with fascinating ideas about faith, culture and, particularly, the nature of humanity as channeled through Zoe Graystone (Alessandra Torresani), the wealthy, rebellious teenage daughter of the prominent Graystone family whose virtual avatar lives on after the human who created her dies.
“Awake”: The second ambitious, doomed show to come from Kyle Killen, the 2012 NBC series “Awake” at least got a full season, unlike its predecessor, “Lone Star,” which was canceled after two episodes on Fox. “Awake” centers on LAPD detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs), who’s caught between different worlds — when he goes to sleep in one, he wakes up in the other. In both realities, he’s in mourning, though in one it’s his wife Hannah (Laura Allen) who passed away in a car accident, and in the other it’s his son Rex (Dylan Minnette). Neither reality takes precedent, and in each he sees a shrink who knows about his problem and insists their world is the real one. It’s an intriguing premise, and one that the series juggles well by having the larger questions about Michael’s sanity and one reality being a dream underlie episode cases in which the details between the parallel universe begin overlap. The single season ends with a sense of closure but no definitive explanation for everything the show introduced — fitting for a story that’s as much about grief as about a conspiracy.
“Kolchak: The Night Stalker”: This ABC series only ran for a single 1974–1975 season, but had a lasting influence, most notably on Chris Carter’s “The X-Files.” Darren McGavin plays Carl Kolchak, an irascible Chicago reporter with a tendency to stumble across supernatural or otherwise unexplainable mysteries. Vampires, werewolves, androids, ghosts and more turn up in these episodes, though Kolchak never seems to have much luck in pinning down lasting evidence to prove the world’s a much freakier place than everyone else suspects. Despite the subject matter, the show has a consistent sense of humor, particularly in Kolchak’s battles with his editor Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), that makes it a particular pleasure to watch despite certain dated qualities. A young David Chase, who’d go on to create “The Sopranos,” served as a story editor on the show.
“The Beast”: Another Chicago-set show that makes the city look rougher and chillier but, on the plus side, less supernaturally infested, this A&E series is notable for its lead turn by the late Patrick Swayze as Charles Barker, a veteran FBI agent with a questionable sense of morality. Swayze had already been diagnosed with stage IV cancer when he took on the role — he passed away in the fall of 2009, the same year the show aired — and his devotion to the role is apparent. As Barker, he’s ferocious and haggard at once, an altogether different actor than the one who toplined Hollywood favorites like “Ghost” and “Point Break.” “The Beast,” which was created by Vincent Angell and William Rotko, is a fairly standard shady cop story that’s reminiscent of “The Shield” or USA Network’s “Graceland,” but that’s elevated by the heart and soul Swayze puts into the performance that turned out to be his last.
“The Good Guys”: This 2010 Fox series aimed for a cartoonish action comedy tone more often seen in movies than in TV. Created by Matt Nix (“Burn Notice”), the series never met an over-the-top car chase or classic rock track it didn’t like, and had an immensely endearing sense of fun. Adding to it is the presence of Bradley Whitford playing way against erudite, Aaron Sorkin-dictated type as Dan Stark, a dinosaur of a rule-breaking, hard-partying, mustachioed detective whose long-faded moment of glory involved saving the governor’s son. Dan fully believes in the pursuit of law enforcement as an excuse to shoot his gun and to destroy property, and his zealousness is contrasted with his straight man parter Jack Bailey (Colin Hanks). Silly and good-natured, “The Good Guys” isn’t a show you look to for in-depth characterization or social commentary, but for the easy enjoyment it delivers.
“Lights Out”: Why didn’t this FX boxing drama from Justin Zackham catch on? The series, which aired in 2011, attracted a decent amount of critical praise, especially for what should have been a starmaking performance from Holt McCallany’s as Patrick “Lights” Leary, a retired boxer struggling to support his family after the economic crash wipes out their resources, being pressured to take on a job as a debt collector and, essentially, thug. Maybe it was that, even in our contemporary era of grim dramas, “Lights Out” is both a slow burn and pretty dark — its hero begins the long journey back toward fighting shape having been diagnosed with pugilistic dementia, and the series makes no bones about how brutal the sport can be and how much Lights’ health, mental and otherwise, is at stake. The show had a great supporting cast as well — Catherine McCormack, Stacy Keach, “Orange is the New Black” star Pablo Schreiber and Bill Irwin all help build out the series’ vision of New Jersey McMansions built on shaky foundations of financial insecurity. The final episode ends on a terrifcally mixed note.