Moonlight (2007-08): At the 2008 upfronts, Nina Tassler, head of CBS Entertainment, announced that they were canceling the vampire drama Moonlight after one season, but keeping its star, Alex O'Loughlin, close at hand. They'd find him another role. Her rationale was that folks had taken to the breakout star, and very much wanted to see him on the small screen -- just not in that particular series. Maybe vampire vehicles seemed passé to Tassler (Angel had wound up its run three years earlier), and she figured the audience would soon tire of the premise; how else to explain the network canceling a show that was winning its timeslot in the coveted 18-49 demo, while providing a sturdy bridge from lead-in Ghost Whisperer to lead-out Numb3rs? But enough of this senseless supposition: the award for Worst Timing of Any Cancellation in Network History goes to... Nina Tassler for Moonlight! Six months later, the first Twilight film opened, and vampires became ubiquitous -- and obscenely popular. But aside from the timing issue, the cancellation of Moonlight was painful because -- Tassler's protestations to the contrary -- it was a sensational showcase for O'Loughlin. He was smoldering, dangerous, wry and elusive. (He never again found a role that called for that kind of range; as much as I've enjoyed him in subsequent vehicles, private investigator and vampire Mick St. John let him do it all.) And the show, after a shaky pilot, had started to improve almost immediately, and even the critics who denounced it originally were doing quick reassessments during the fall months. By the time it emerged from the 2008 writers' strike with a new spate of episodes, it felt invigorated and confident: in its expanding mythology; in easy blend of humor, romance and suspense; and in a quartet of actors -- O'Loughlin, Sophia Myles, Jason Dohring and Shannyn Sossamon -- who'd grown so secure in their roles that they already seemed iconic. But CBS soon gave it the heave-ho, and nothing they subsequently tried in that timeslot stuck (the replacement series included such turkeys as The Ex List and Made in Jersey) until they moved O'Loughlin's own Hawaii Five-0 into the timeslot in 2013, where it's remained ever since. If CBS hadn't pulled the plug prematurely on Moonlight, he could have just been there all along.
Mary (1985-86): It's Mary Tyler Moore's return to sitcoms, and it's easy to imagine it as a continuation of her classic '70s series. When we last saw Mary, she was flicking off the lights at WJM; now it's eight years later, she's been married and divorced, and is living in Chicago. She's tougher around the edges, a unemployed fashion writer who begrudgingly takes work at a local tabloid. It puts her back in a newsroom setting, and surrounds her by a crackerjack cast: James Farentino as her editor, John Astin as the theatre critic, Katey Sagal (pre-Married With Children) as a chain-smoking columnist. The premise is solid, but the first episode feels labored, with lame jokes about the blind copy editor and frequent, forced attempts to suggest sexual tension between Moore and Farentino. And her home life is weak, with Carlene Watkins as her frazzled best friend, who announces she's getting married. (Her fiance's name is Lester Mintz, and the implication is that he's a mobster; it feels like a wildly unpromising plot-line.) Nothing about Watkins inspires Moore, who's least interesting seeming charmed by illogical logic. (It's why so many Mary-Georgette scenes are cut from the syndication prints of The Mary Tyler Moore Show: they're the episodes' weakest links.) But Moore and Sagal have fabulous chemistry: a combative ease reminiscent of her first season with Valerie Harper. And Moore is able to balance Sagal's sly swagger by restoring some of her own trademark warmth. The creators, Ken Levine and David Isaacs, know what they have to do: they let go of the homefront and focus on the newsroom, which, with Moore and Sagal's desks front and center, feels welcoming. They tighten the situations, refine the relationships, and although the comedy never quite gels, you keep feeling there's enormous promise. Promise that goes untapped. CBS had looked to Mary as their savior; the previous season, NBC had launched The Cosby Show, which so rejuvenated their line-up that the network, a perennial also-ran, now threatened to steal the ratings crown from CBS. The midseason Mary was CBS's preemptive strike, to shore up their schedule and ensure they stay on top. But ratings were lukewarm, and with Levine & Isaacs uninterested in returning for another season (Levine recalls there was far too much network interference), the network let it go after thirteen episodes. NBC won the season, and viewers lost the chance to have Mary back on their screens.
Awake (2012): Remember that nightmare so vivid you awoke imagining it was real? Or the time you recalled a conversation and couldn't remember if you'd merely dreamed it? Ultimately, of course, we learn to discern dreams from reality; once we wake up, and get our bearings, we know where we are. But what if we didn't? What if our dreams were just as convincing as real life? Awake opens with a car crash involving a man, his wife and his son. We soon learn that the man, LAPD police detective Michael Britten, emerged from the crash navigating two separate realities: one in which his wife died in the accident, the other in which his son died. Each time he falls asleep in one world, he wakes in the other. In each, he carries on with his life and his police work, under the watchful eye of an LAPD-appointed therapist. Each therapist insists, of course, that their world is real, and the other a dream: that the dream is his way of dealing with his loss. But each world feels equally vivid. And more to the point, even if it is a coping mechanism, Michael has secured an existence in which both his wife and son survived the crash; why would he want to give that up? Why would he wish to be "cured"? These are the questions that swirl around Awake, but as otherworldly as the premise is, Awake is not, at heart, a fantasy series: it's a police procedural. As Michael carries out his job with the LAPD, he learns how to use clues from one reality to solve cases in the other. The cases focus the series; they keep the concept taut and clear. Awake was a show without missteps, but as assured as its scripting and direction were, it's hard to imagine it without star Jason Isaacs, who performed a masterful balancing act. Its story of a man coping with survivor's guilt (all while investigating homicides and police corruption) could have turned dark and dour, but Isaacs convinced you that Michael found his double life as much blessing as curse -- that every extra day spent with his wife and son was a gift. And he grounded the concept with an earnestness that kept it from veering into the paranormal. During its thirteen-episode order, Awake wove countless variations, and then the first-season climax exploded into a new normal -- one that, sadly, was never explored. Thursdays at 10 had long been home to NBC's prestige dramas, from Hill Street Blues to L.A. Law to ER. Awake was very much of that caliber, and its potential was enormous -- but NBC laid it to rest after one season.
Ellery Queen (1975-76): Let's get this out of the way up front: the first episode is awful. AW-FUL. It appears the episodes were aired largely out of order, so why the network chose to lead off with one where the titular character doesn't arrive at the crime scene till ten minutes to episode's end is anyone's guess. (He gets stuck in traffic, he stops to buy orchids for his girlfriend, he stops to give them to his girlfriend -- all while you're left praying this isn't going to be the weekly format: Murder, He Avoided.) But thank goodness, the solution to the first-episode mystery is superb, and subsequent episodes are far superior. Creators Richard Levinson and William Link, producer Peter S. Fischer, story editor Robert Van Skoyk and writer Robert Swanson all went on to Murder, She Wrote; here they're twice as clever, but undercut by the source material. They conceive the series, fittingly, as a period piece, but the mid-'70s evocation of the mid-'40s is rarely striking or even attractive. The guest cast seems unsure whether to play it straight or in a heightened style suggestive of post-war screen acting. And Jim Hutton, in the title role, doesn't evoke an earlier era at all; he seems pretty much the same likable lug who'd go on to woo Julie Cooper the following year on One Day at a Time. (It's tough to blame him, as Ellery is snobbish and slick in the early novels and short stories, qualities that wouldn't have played well on TV, then later something of a cipher.) Hutton opts for absent-minded charm, but it takes him a while to figure out how to mix in a little urgency. But you're quite willing to overlook the decor and the uneven performances, because the best episodes are beautifully clued, and the solutions -- as in the books -- seem surprising yet spot-on. And they mirror the literary conceit by having Ellery break the fourth wall, shortly before the end, and let you know he's solved the case; have you? And in case you haven't, he directs your attention to key clues. (If he tells you, "There's a reason the body was moved," you can bet you'll be smacking your forehead a few minutes later at how obvious the solution seems in retrospect, yet how cleverly the clue was concealed.) Murder, She Wrote's success rested largely on Angela Lansbury's talents and Jessica Fletcher's appeal; the mysteries were secondary, and by the final half of the series' run, it seemed like every solution involved a character letting slip a piece of information "only the killer could know," and Jessica pointing it out just prior to the wrap-up. But Ellery Queen tried to create a stimulating mystery week after week, and encouraged the audience to play along. The period setting kept it from being bracing, but it was nearly always engaging.
Constantine (2014-15): In the fall of 2012, when DC Comics rebooted its line-up, I got back into comic-book reading, after a 25-year absence. I picked up Constantine after reading some rave online reviews; it was my introduction to the trench-coated master of the occult, but I took to him at once. Two years later, Matt Ryan was announced as Constantine in the 2014 TV series, in what turned out to be perfect casting: he so embodied the cunning conman (who hid his compassion under a cloud of chain-smoking cynicism), it seemed at times that the comic book had been based on his performance, and not the other way around. You felt like you'd be happy to watch Ryan even if the show had nothing else to offer -- which occasionally proved the case. Mistakes were made from the start. The network decided to replace the lead actress after the pilot was shot, but instead of reshooting, they simply had the showrunners (Robert S. Goyer and Daniel Cerone) tack on a scene where we learn that she's elected, after one adventure, not to join Constantine's crew. It ultimately engaged a newcomer in Constantine's preternatural world, then implied it wasn't interesting enough for her to stick around -- not something you tell the audience at the end of a pilot. And the showrunners decided early on that Constantine would be the only constant; the featured players would appear only as needed. It set the show nicely apart from its comic-book counterparts (it seemed a bit like an anthology series) and felt true to its source (as Constantine was ultimately a loner), but without a couple lines of exposition to justify the premise, it felt like the writers didn't know how to use their own supporting cast. And all along it seemed like NBC was rooting for the series to fail. (I hear folks all the time argue, "A network would never sabotage its own show," but tell that to the producers of Don't Trust the B in Apartment 23.) The network started airing episodes out of order, even though the show was semi-serialized, then bumped it to an ill-suited 8 PM timeslot (Constantine was not kiddie fare), almost defying viewers to engage. Constantine was undeniably uneven, but when it worked, it was both facile and frightening -- so much so that you were willing to overlook the growing pains. As often happens when networks are too gutless to announce they're pulling the plug on a cult favorite, NBC never actually canceled Constantine. They simply let it run through its initial order and then, in the feat of magic Constantine himself would've appreciated, it was gone.
Enjoy reading about TV's best? Check out two similarly-styled posts: The Five Best TV Shows You Might Not Be Watching and Five Foreign TV Dramas You Shouldn't Miss. Or if you enjoy detailed looks at hit shows, check out my write-ups of Cold Case Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent Netflix miniseries), Judging Amy Season 6, and countless essays devoted to seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries -- not (necessarily) my top episodes, but the best whodunnits. Or if you have a preference for sitcoms, I delve into Rhoda Season 3 and WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4, pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly, and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons.