IF YOU’RE like me, you’ve probably watched the first season of Firefly multiple times. Every time I reach those last shots of the good ship Serenity flying away, I know I have the film and the graphic novels but I still want there to be more episodes. I still want various characters to have survived but that’s another matter. Every year in American Television hundreds of pilots are commissioned. Some of them make it to air and only a lucky few make it past their first season.
Every so often, a show will come along and have one beautiful season but then get cancelled. I am talking about shows like Firefly or Freaks and Geeks or Terriers or, still one of my favourites, the short-lived crime drama Thief (if you’ve been watching Brooklyn Nine Nine and want to fill in the Andre Braugher shaped hole in your life, watch Thief, it’s great). It being the summer and therefore the season of catching up on the TV you’ve missed, I’ve spent a while catching up on some of the one season wonders of this year’s schedule to see if there’s a potential addition to this canon waiting to be discovered. These are some of my top picks:
Family Tree (HBO Television)
It’s quite rare to see an HBO Original series not get a second season. Even though they frequently produce low-rated television, they still seem to develop their business around allowing the big hitters like Game Of Thrones to generate popularity while permitting even oddities like Enlightened to have a second series (and what a second series it was). So when over the 2013/14 period, they cancelled two fledgling comedies, both with big names behind them, I was intrigued. Family Tree is the creation of actor Jim Piddock and Spinal Tap creator/comedy legend Christopher Guest. It followed Chris O’Dowd as a slightly aimless man trying to unravel his bizarre and often hilarious ancestry taking him from pantomime horse races to American Civil War re-enactments. What was brilliant about this show, beyond a flawless comedy cast and some exceptional recreation/parody of bad 70s British sitcoms, was that it never judged its characters. Even the weirder members of the family were funny because they were meant to be; you were never laughing at them, it was very much with. You know you’re seeing something special when after only a few episodes you become emotionally invested in a search for a lot monkey puppet on Venice Beach. You can see why the series was never going to make it; it was very pleasant but it never had any real stakes. It was content in being amiable but, really, it was too nice for its own good.
Hello Ladies (HBO Television)
Hello Ladies was a very different show. Based on his stand-up show of the same name, Stephen Merchant starred as Stuart Pritchard, an L.A landlord and wannabe entrepreneur. Merchant’s character was very similar to a lot of the work done with Ricky Gervais, full of spiky pedantry, awkward outbursts and, for the most part, self-serving narcissism. Yet Merchant managed to find a layer of likeability that Gervais never could. Beneath all the trappings of the way the character wanted to be seen was a desperate yearn for an idealised Hollywood lifestyle. We see him pine for a model he sees on a billboard and it is a realisation that this is a desperately lonely character, one who’s never going to see a good thing in front of him because he’s too busy looking up at the stars. Of all the series on this list, this is the one with the most unrealised potential. Where it may have for a lot of the time fallen back on certain sitcom cliché, it felt like by the last episode of the first series, it was television with a voice and characters and relationships still to be explored. It never quite hit the heights of Extras but, for Merchant completists out there, it’s a satisfying four hours watch. Oh, and the soundtrack’s great.
Trophy Wife (ABC Network)
This is the show I’m going to miss most of those on the list. I know you’re all surprised as it’s called Trophy Wife; even lead actress Malin Akerman has said that she was nervous about the title but it’s the honest truth: this was, for me, the smartest new comedy of the year. Much in the vein of previous year’s victor of the one season wonder competition Ben and Kate, this wasn’t a show that tried to make any grand emotional statement; it was, in fact, often quite content with just being very funny. But when your cast includes The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford, Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden and another alumnus of the one season club, The Middleman’s Natalie Morales, you can get away with often being just funny. The basic premise is that Malin Akerman’s character, Kate, marries a significantly older lawyer played by Whitford but does not count on him having three children (one adopted) and two ex-wives. A wise choice on behalf of the show was to present the first meeting of these two characters and then jump forward a year so that Kate is already introduced to everyone else. It avoids the standard sit-com trapping of having to introduce every character by throwing us straight into the chaos. As with any comedy series of around 22 episodes, there are some that sink but very few pass by without at least a handful of laughs. This is purely because, from day one, the writers seemed to have an understanding of all these characters so even if some of the plots they become involved in seem contrived, the characters’ reactions seldom are. This wasn’t a programme to reinvent the wheel but it was a charming, likeable, frequently laugh-out-loud comedy. That is a lot more than can be said about most current television and, frankly, it was enough for me.
Believe (Fox Television)
This is not necessarily the best show on this list, heck it’s possibly not even a very good show in general but it is fascinating is what it is. The creation of Children Of Men & Gravity director Alfonso Cuarón and Mark Friedman with ever present TV Producer J.J. Abrams, it’s a fantasy series surrounding a young girl with mystical powers, her father who’s on the run after being broken out of Death Row for a crime he didn’t commit and the forces of good and evil that battle on either side for the child. It’s not a subtle programme: the force of good, represented by Delroy Lindo, is a priest who deplores the use of guns, while evil, represented by Kyle MacLachlan as the man who runs a government division weaponising psychic powers. Despite certain script issues, the pilot is certainly a thing of visual beauty. Cuarón, a director nearly incapable of a bad shot, takes an otherwise standard pseudo-philosophical premise and shoots it with extended takes, slight handheld cinematography and earthy colours which lend it an air of visual interest above almost any other pilot this year. Yet I can’t fully recommend this show because, after thirteen episodes, I don’t have a feeling of having learned anything more beyond the fact that Kyle MacLachlan deserves some form of Tarantino–backed return to form because, even with his underwritten material, the guy is fantastic. It’s not a bad show but if you’re looking for something to believe in, look elsewhere.
Other Notable Mentions:
Enlisted (well-made comedy from the former writers of and in the vein of Scrubs on an army base with a plum supporting role for Keith David).
Almost Human (a solid Sci-Fi procedural with strong acting especially from Mackenzie Crook).
Hostages (It wasn’t good but I haven’t laughed at anything unintentionally as much in a long time).
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