3. "Homicide: Life on the Street" (NBC)
Premiered: January 1993
Cancelled: August 1999
How seminal was "Homicide: Life of the Street"? It ran for seven seasons and it still was cancelled too soon. Without "Homicide," shows like "C.S.I.," "NYPD Blue" and "The Wire" would have never been the hits that they've become. "Homicide" paved the way for dramatic, realistic cop shows. Based on David Simon's gritty book, the series premiered after the 1993 Super Bowl to rave reviews from critics. Handheld camera work, real Baltimore locations and its focus on drama and relationships instead of car chases and gunplay was unlike anything network TV had given us. Audiences, however, didn't get it. The show never became a hit, and it was only through dedicated support from then-NBC president Warren Littlefield that the show was able to last as long as it did. Looking at the first three seasons now available on DVD, "Homicide" has lost none of its power. Its portrait of cops as coffee-guzzling, chain-smoking, sleep-deprived souls who have seen way too much remains authentic, its razor-sharp scripts mixing brutal truth with sardonic wit. Best of all is the cast: With talent like Jon Polito, Yaphet Kotto, Ned Beatty, Richard Belzer, Daniel Baldwin, Melissa Leo, Clark Johnson and especially Emmy Award-winner Andre Braugher as powerhouse detective Frank Pembleton, "Homicide" had the most mesmerizing ensemble on TV.
Need further proof that there is no justice in television? Meet executive producer Judd Apatow, the man behind three wonderful series, each cancelled after one year, on two networks. Apatow got his first taste of disappointment with "The Ben Stiller Show," but the real kick in the gut came after watching his two teenage-based shows, "Freaks and Geeks" (created by Paul Feig) and "Undeclared," earn rave-reviews and a dedicated cult following, only to have impatient networks mishandle and then dump them. "Freaks and Geeks," the best TV show, period, about teenage life, is finally getting its DVD release in early April because 40,000 people subscribed to a Web list demanding it. Set in suburban Michigan during the early '80s, the show is nonetheless timeless. No series has ever captured the awkwardness of adolescence like "F&G," which excelled at profiling cliques and the stereotyping that takes place during high school. Hilarious, painful and poignant all at once, the series was literally uncomfortable to watch at times. Audiences were apparently uncomfortable with such accuracy, and "Freaks and Geeks" was cancelled after 18 episodes. Its unofficial sequel, "Undeclared" fared even worse as it examined the dorm life of college freshmen in a half-hour comedy format. Once again, network support never materialized and "Undeclared" likewise disappeared. Like "F&G," it featured another natural, no-name cast of talented teens (not counting singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III whose portrayal of the protagonist's divorced dad was as funny and crushing as his music). Unlike "F&G," "Undeclared" hasn't been released on DVD, but if you know someone who taped the show, it's well worth seeking out.
1. "Mr. Show with Bob and David" (HBO)
Premiered: September 1995
Cancelled: December 1998
Britain had "Monty Python." Canada had "SCTV." And America? We had "Mr. Show with Bob and David." Unfortunately, most viewers didn't know it. Created by and starring David Cross ("Arrested Development") and Bob Odenkirk, the sublime "Mr. Show" broke conceptual ground for sketch comedy in America when it hit the late-night air for HBO in 1995. Each half hour episode explored a theme and wrapped it with numerous live and taped skits, plus movies, around it. Sketches meld into one another, never giving audiences a chance to catch their breath. It feels like you are watching stream of conscious humor, yet the design is tight and extremely focused. The writing was smart, blisteringly funny and dark, and no target was off limits. "If you hear about it, it's so weird," observed Odenkirk of their approach. "But if you see it you don't think that for a minute." Try describing their hallucinogenic Sid and Marty Kroft parody "Welcome to Druggachusettes" or "Jeepers Creepers," their homage to "Jesus Christ Superstar," or a tearfully ironic commercial for "the New KKK," and you'll likely get blank stares from the uninitiated. Show them the skits, and you'll be picking them up off the floor. Ironically, normally groundbreaking HBO never understood "Mr. Show"' s sense of humor, and fought with Bob and David during the entire run, finally cancelling the show after four short seasons. Fanatical word of mouth kept interest in the show alive however, and in addition to releasing the DVDs, Bob and David launched a successful live theater tour of the show in 2001.