Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Tuesday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best show currently on TV?” can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: What is the best one-and-done show, a.k.a. a One-Season Wonder? (This refers to shows that only got one season and tragically did not get renewed, as opposed to limited series that never intended to continue.)
There are so many! But for me the best will always be “Freaks and Geeks.” It’s a show that I watched at an age before I really understood the whole TV renewal/cancellation process, but even then I knew it was unjustly short. The show was such a great blend of smarts, snark, and genuine emotions, in a way that could actually be painful to watch. There are very, very few TV series that have ever allowed teenagers to be that awkwardly real (my runner-up, “My So-Called Life,” may be the only other one), and because of that, it so perfectly captured that confusing time of navigating high school. It also managed to make its 1980s setting both specific and universal, and it has stood the test of time remarkably well. But for me the choice is ultimately personal, as it beautifully and bittersweetly reminds me of my own high school struggles and experiences.
These sorts of questions are always fun because we’re all trying to outsmart each other with obscure picks, while overlooking the more obvious ones. (I’d bet money “Profit” comes up more than “Firefly” in this piece.) I’m also going obscure, and I’m also cheating by mentioning more than one show, but I have an incredible adolescent fondness for the four series which Fox attempted to pair with “The X-Files” in the ’90s, because they were all equally NUTS. “The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.,” “Strange Luck,” “M.A.N.T.I.S.” and “VR.5” weren’t necessarily good shows, but damn did I love them for their genre roots and ridiculous premises (like, “Strange Luck” was about a guy who had really crazy luck) and wild imagination. Friday at 8 p.m. was a problematic time slot for several years, a problem Fox never really solved — but watching them try with failed show after failed show was fascinating. Those shows deserve to be remembered.
I’ve certainly rewatched “My So-Called Life” and “Freaks and Geeks” more, but I’ll be over here waving “The Grinder” flag for the foreseeable future. (I also had a moment of silence for the one-year anniversary of its cancellation last week, so I’m at my most vulnerable right now.) It was too clever, too uncompromisingly self-aware for its own good, which sounds like a bad thing but it’s not. What’s most painful about its demise is that its meta, cheeky sensibility would’ve worked better anywhere but broadcast, but alas, no one saved it. “The Grinder” didn’t have to rest.
It’s not until you begin combing through the list of great series canceled after one season, that you realize a lot of very cool programs somehow didn’t make it to a sophomore year. Of course, top of the list is Judd Apatow and Paul Feig’s “Freaks and Geeks” – a teen dramedy from 1999, back before the style was commonplace. This was a show which became a symbol of network TV cluelessness for the speed with which NBC killed the show and the way its producers and cast went on to meteoric success, like Feig (“Ghostbusters”), Apatow (“40-Year-Old Virgin”), James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Busy Phillipps and Linda Cardinelli.
Likewise, ABC’s 1994 series “My So-Called Life” was a high-quality teen drama from the creators of “thirtysomething” featuring Claire Danes and Jared Leto before they became Carrie Mathison and The Joker. “Avengers” scribe Joss Whedon also lands on this list for his 2002 space western “Firefly” on Fox, which was at least translated into an interesting movie (“Serenity”) and comic books.
But my favorite, is FX’s perpetually overlooked “Terriers,” which featured Donal Logue as a recovering alcoholic ex-cop and Michael Raymond-James as his ex-criminal partner in a private investigation business that suddenly gets swept up in a case way too big for them. This 2010 series, from Shawn Ryan (“The Shield”), Tim Minear (“American Horror Story”) and Ted Griffin (“Ocean’s Eleven”), felt like a modern-day “Rockford Files” in a way; two P.I.s with their own odd moral code fighting against jerks with more money, power and prestige. (In fact, Minear, who also worked on one-season wonders like “Firefly,” the wonderfully quirky dramedy “Wonderfalls” and the cop drama “The Chicago Code,” just might be the patron saint of this form.) Of all the shows I named, “Terriers” is the one I most believe might have succeeded, had it been born just five or six years later, in the current #peakTV environment.
“The New Normal” was just a hair ahead of its time in 2012-13, but it was enough of a chronological mismatch to doom the show to a run of just 22 episodes. Haters, hush, it was hilarious. “The New Normal” had an undeniably great cast — Andrew Rannells and Justin Bartha as yin-yang couple David and Bryan; Georgia King as Goldie, their surrogate; the astonishing Bebe Wood as Goldie’s daughter; and Ellen Barkin as Goldie’s bigoted grandmother, Jane. For once, though, Ryan Murphy didn’t commit to an unlikable character, so the initial premise of David and Jane slowly realizing how much they had in common, despite their obvious differences, was abandoned all too quickly. Still, while it lasted, it was network television’s best TV show with a gay couple at its center; a great satire of the TV business (Rannells’ David was a thinly veiled version of Murphy), and one of TV’s best portraits of creative weirdos — and I wish it had lasted much longer.
I could write several thousand words extolling the virtues of “Freaks and Geeks,” TV’s greatest One-Season Wonder, one of the very best shows ever made about adolescence (though it’s rivaled there by another one-year contender in “My So-Called Life”). I could talk about how NBC had a show created by Paul Feig, produced by Judd Apatow, and starring, among others, James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini, and Busy Philipps, and couldn’t figure out a way to make it successful. I could go on at length about its achingly brilliant mix of mortifying comedy and heartbreaking drama. But A) I assume many of my colleagues will do the same, and B) I think these four clips of Martin Starr as Bill Haverchuck make the case far more than my words could:
Bill does the Rerun dance:
Bill is a latchkey kid:
Bill vs. the chair:
Bill is the Bionic Woman:
I have several but will throw it all to FX’s “Terriers.” I absolutely loved this dysfunctional buddy whodunit with ex-cop and recovering alcoholic Hank Dolworth (Donal Logue) who collaborated with ex-con and best friend Britt Pollack (Michael Raymond-James), in an unlicensed private investigation business.
Add to that Detective Mark Gustafson played by Rockmond Dunbar, Donal Logue’s character’s former partner on in the Ocean Beach Police Department. and you have yourself a modern day masterpiece…except it was kneecapped for one season.
Logue gave a really nuanced and powerful turn to this shaggy PI who was tormented by his life and love lost, his sister and his need to find his way. Michael Raymond-James’ subtle turn as a bad boy turned good. Dunbar’s deeply accessible and resonating role as a man who can see past the negatives of his former colleague…it was a great show! I am a fan of Shawn Ryan and Ted Griffin too,
A lot of shows get whacked too early and c’est la guerre in the land of TV, but this one really left a mark when they announced it.
“Big Little Lies” was wondrous and luscious and delicious. Like a sublimely layered cake with amazing, gauzy frosting. But for my money, you can’t beat “My So-Called Life” for being the perfect one and done. It is so essentially of its time, so soaked in mood and morose teen despair, and so perfectly cast. Of course, Claire Danes was a revelation and has fulfilled her promising start over and over, and Jared Leto is you know, Jared Leto. We know they are great. But the entire ensemble was A-plus. Bess Armstrong and Tom Irwin crushed the unenviable job of playing prickly, often unlikable parents who were just as tortured as their daughter. AJ Langer was tragically broken as booze-dependent Rayanne and Wilson Cruz’s Rickie may have been the first time I recall a scripted drama that included an LGBTQIA characters who was so developed and sympathetic. It was a moment in time, draped in flannel and ennui, and I am so glad it came and went with grace instead of being dragged out over enough seasons for fans to turn against it.
In the handful of weeks after the election, when things seemed topsy-turvy, and it felt like the world might never settle back down, I found myself watching “My So-Called Life,” not a perfect series, and maybe not even my favorite one-season wonder, but a show filled with immense compassion, hopefulness, and depth. It was, I think, the first truly great teen show, anchored by Claire Danes giving one of the all-time great TV performances (she’s magnificent on “Homeland”; she was magnetic here). And it was almost effortless in the way it would turn its focus to every character in turn, while always circling back to Angela in the end. It might feel a little cheesy to modern eyes, and its love triangle is kind of basic, but I love it all the same. It’s somehow comfort food and incredibly enriching, all at once.
It’s been almost a year to the day since Fox cancelled “The Grinder,” Rob Lowe’s freshman courtroom comedy that got the death penalty far too soon, but Lowe himself has kept the fire burning via his Twitter feed, retweeting and posting “Grinder” love more often than love for his kids — one of whom appeared on “The Grinder!” (To be fair, Lowe’s love for his children is well-documented and quite admirable, but he posts about “The Grinder” a lot.)
Since that show is obviously well-covered, I’ll throw a shout-out to “The Chicago Code.” This police corruption drama set in the Windy City is built around its first female superintendent and her quest to take down a long-standing gangster. Sure, the rest of its cast is rounded out by three (top-tier) male actors in Jason Clarke, Delroy Lindo, and Matt Lauria, but this is Beals’ show, and she kicks some serious ass. Clocking in at just 13 episodes in its one-and-done season, you can watch the whole thing on Netflix, and — come to think of it — this, too, was a Fox series. Maybe I’ve got a secret beef with Fox…
Do I wanna pander to the Whedon fans and say “Firefly”? No, I do not. Do I want to go with my heart and say “Wonderfalls,” because “Wonderfalls” is perhaps television’s purest-ever distillation of my personal sensibility? My heart wants to go with my heart, certainly. But since I’m already late to email in my answer, I have to go clean and simple: The one season of “Freaks & Geeks” is verging on perfect. Nearly every episode is a lovely piece of standalone storytelling and the single season is, itself, a nicely contained arc for almost all of its characters. It’s funny. It’s emotionally raw. And every single moment rings true. It’s one of the great TV seasons of all-time and I’m not sure that any other one-and-done show can truly say that.
Q: What is the best show currently on TV?*
Other contenders: “Master of None” and “Sense8” (one vote each)
*In the case of streaming, the show must have premiered in the past month.
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