Wednesday, June 1, 2016

My Top-Ten One-Season Wonders

CBS cancelled Limitless last week; there goes another great TV series, jettisoned after one season. The network seemed to lose interest early on; they never tried a new timeslot to see if a more compatible lead-in might boost its ratings. (Mondays at 10 PM, after Scorpion, seemed a good option.) And ironically, the serialized elements that the network itself had encouraged made it less valuable to them in syndication than their more static procedurals, Code Black and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, both of which got second-season pick-ups. Limitless's cancellation got me thinking of other worthy shows that disappeared after one season: shows with unexplored potential that seemed, well, limitless. Ten instantly came to mind; here are the first five. If you've read any of my blog entries, you know this list probably won't match anyone else's; my tastes remain emphatically, occasionally erratically, my own. (You also won't find Limitless on this list -- but only because I discussed it, and its brain-twisty brilliance, last November. It's a post entitled "Welcome Home, CBS," written at a time when I thought the network was finally reinventing itself with novel programming; now that it's prematurely cancelled both Mike & Molly and Limitless in the same season, I find myself watching less on CBS than at any point since the late '60s.)

Now and Again (1999-2000): It was "National Superhero Day" a few weeks ago, and I wondered, "Do I have a favorite TV superhero?" And I immediately thought of Now and Again, which seemed remarkable, given that it's been off the air for 15+ years and ran only one season. But for those who watched and adored the series (as I did), it's unforgettable: a family drama turned rom-com, masquerading as a sci-fi spy caper. The brain of a (recently deceased) middle-aged man is implanted into a young, bio-engineered body, cultivated by the government for use in espionage. Except the man wants nothing more than to be reunited with his wife and daughter: the one thing his superiors won't allow. That tug-of-war between duty and desire infused the proceedings with a wistfulness and a longing that made it far more emotionally involving than the pre-season network promos led you to believe. Now and Again boasted an astounding cast: Eric Close (as the bio-engineered "Mr. Newman") just before Without a Trace, Dennis Haysbert (as his handler) just before 24, Heather Matarazzo (the daughter) just after Welcome to the Dollhouse. And anchoring it all was Margaret Colin (the wife) at the peak of her powers: never sexier than when frazzled, never fierier than when frustrated -- embodying in her own way the "ideal women" just as Close, with his sculpted torso, embodied the "ideal man." Now and Again was expertly done, but it suffered from one miscalculation. The opening three-parter -- Mr. Newman's fight to save New York City from the elderly Eggman, who engaged in bioterrorism (he kept his poison in an egg) -- promised a fun action-adventure series, one that featured our hero weekly fighting off novel baddies. But Glenn Gordon Caron, who had masterminded Moonlighting and would go on to Medium, intended something less conventional: a series that mixed and matched genres, while keeping the fractured family dynamics front and center. He just didn't let us in on the plan until weeks after the show began -- and the unexpected shifts in tone were initially disconcerting. It took a while to adjust to his approach, and in the process, Now and Again shed enough viewers that CBS couldn't justify its renewal. But it was pure pleasure while it lasted.

Forever (2014-15): Oh, for the days that networks stuck with shows for a few seasons, while they built their audience. I'm not even talking about shows still working out the kinks; I'm taking about shows that come out of the gate fully formed -- impeccably cast, written, directed and performed -- but don't attract enough viewers after six months to demand renewal. ABC gave up on Forever much too quickly, and a season later, after all its new series disappointed or died (including everything they tried out in Forever's timeslot), you couldn't help but feel vindicated. The premise of Forever wasn't novel -- a man cursed with immortality -- but nothing this charming had come along in a decade, and the cast instantly clicked. I've been a Ioan Gruffudd fan since Horatio Hornblower, but no role ever showed him off to better advantage. Henry Morgan, the doctor turned medical examiner, who uses the knowledge and observational skills that his 200 years have afforded him to assist the New York Police Department, called for the kind of intelligence and grace that Gruffudd naturally exuded. You sensed that he and his fellow actors -- Alana de la Garza, Judd Hirsch, Lorraine Toussaint, Donnie Keshawarz and Joel David Moore -- relished every moment they were together: they were in a show with meaty roles, in which adults were given permission to behave like adults. Like Grantchester, another winning series that emerged in the fall of 2014, Forever struck a novel balance between the procedural and the personal, as the cases Henry worked on with the NYPD triggered memories from his past. (The season-long flashbacks sketched in his 200-year timeline, including marriage to the radiant MacKenzie Mauzy, as a nurse he'd met during World War II.) It could have come off as frantic or unfocused, but Gruffudd grounded it all; the show proved as winning as Gruffudd's old-school manner, as warm as Henry's trademark scarfs. Its only flaw: in their haste to move the cases along, the writers too often fell back on having Henry make all the deductions, rather than letting the detectives exercise their own skills -- but it's something that no doubt would have been better handled in Season 2. The passion that viewers felt for Forever was palpable; with its recent release on DVD, that passion seems unlikely to fade.

Secrets of Midland Heights (1980-81): CBS launched Dallas in the spring of 1978, and once it made a ripple in the ratings, the network greenlighted creator David Jacobs' Knots Landing. And when Dallas, late in 1979, surged into a mega-hit, the network ordered up a third Jacobs soap from the Lorimar production company, this one the sudsiest yet. Dallas had served up the greed and grit of oil-rich Texas cowboys; Knots plumbed the fears and foibles of the Southern California middle class. Secrets of Midland Heights, set in a midwestern college town, took its cue from its younger characters, most in that awkward stage between adolescence and adulthood, when teens feel most invisible, yet every decision seems consequential. The adults had it just as bad: the unhappy wife preparing to leave her husband; the lonely widow fighting to make ends meet. Everyone seemed perched between despair and deliverance: clear what they wanted their lives to be, but clueless how to get there. The cast was uniformly strong, with Lorenzo Lamas and Linda Hamilton heading up the high-school set, and veterans that included the great Robert Hogan (twenty years into a career that continues to this day), plus Bibi Besch, Mark Pinter and Jenny O'Hara. And top-billed: venerable stage and film star Martha Scott as town matriarch Margaret Millington. (Her conniving son Guy was determined to get his hands on her inheritance, and all that stood in his way was his niece Ann. Ann's mother had gone insane, and Guy -- in the series' most delectable plotline -- was happy to drive Ann down the same path.) Secrets of Midland Heights debuted in December of 1980 on Saturday night, a death zone for CBS for several seasons. With a lousy lead-in, little fanfare and a late-season start, it didn't stand a chance, and only eight episodes aired. A year later, Margaret Millington was resuscitated (with less warmth but greater cunning) as Angela Channing on Lorimar's next soap, Falcon Crest. Lamas went straight from Secrets to Falcon Crest, and Besch did a six-episode stint there as well. And four of Secrets' younger actors, including Hamilton, showed up the following season on ABC's King's Crossing (also a Lorimar production), with new character names, but essentially playing the same roles. The folks at Lorimar were good to their own.

High Society (1995-96): Absolutely Fabulous concluded its initial run in the spring of 1995, and that fall, along came High Society to fill the void. It took Jean Smart, so sweetly suggestible as Charlene in Designing Women, and reinvented her as Ellie Walker, an author of trashy romantic novels, a boozy broad who gleefully spoke her mind, however inappropriate the thoughts. (With her leopard-print coats and purple suits and toucan-colored turbans, she was both fashion icon and eyesore.) It paired her with Mary McDonnell as her publisher and best friend Dott Emerson: Ethel to her Lucy, Mame to her Vera, Costello to her Abbott. Dott was ostensibly the sane one, but McDonnell approached her lines with a sense of wonder, then delivered them in a deliciously wry manner. (Smart could say something outrageous and incoherent, and when McDonnell translated -- "Let me see if I've got this straight" -- she'd nail just as many laughs.) High Society was hampered by one initial lapse in judgment; perhaps fearing Ellie and Dott were too far removed from most viewers' experiences, creators Robert Horn and Daniel Margolis saddled them in the pilot with an old college chum (the great Faith Prince, in a thankless role), a sad divorcee who turned up out of nowhere and moved in with Dott. (It reminded you of when Irving Thalberg decided to make the Marx Brothers "palatable" by inserting young lovers Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle into A Night at the Opera, so that people would have someone to relate to.) Prince's wet-blanket character kept intruding in story-lines, dismantling the dynamics, when all you wanted to see was Ellie and Dott unleashed; Horn and Margolis wisely wrote her off after six episodes. High Society showed only patchy brilliance during its thirteen-episode run, but there were marvelous moments throughout, and one bit (Ellie's recounting of a chance meeting with Francesco Scavullo in Ibiza, waiting for a plane from Barcelona, who sees provocative pictures she shot in Massapequa) that's a skitcom classic, its rewatchability akin to "Let's Go to the Mall" from How I Met Your Mother. What a shame CBS didn't give the series half a chance -- or at least a full season.

Swingtown (2008): Swingtown was a promising series that, in a mere thirteen episodes, became an irresistible one. It was initially crucified by critics, who presumed it was going to be all open relationships and key parties. It wasn't. It was a period piece that eschewed both melodrama and titillation: an exploration of married life in the Chicago suburbs in the summer of 1976, as three couples wrestled not only with the fallout from the sexual revolution, but with issues of class and social status that defined the era. At the heart of the story was an upwardly mobile couple (the tremulous Molly Parker and a lovably Neanderthal Jack Davenport, sporting a spot-on American accent) relocating to a more affluent neighborhood, not so much out of aspiration as desperation. In the pilot, they moved into their new home and fell in for one night with the swingers across the street (a mustachioed Grant Show, never more convincing or charismatic, and the astounding Lana Parrilla, equal parts sex kitten and earth mother). In the episodes that followed, they kept returning to them -- but not for gratification: for their advice, kindness and concern. (In the show's cleverest conceit, the swingers were the most grounded and centered of the lot.) And the friends they'd left behind in the old neighborhood (the equally splendid Miriam Shor and Josh Hopkins), already wrestling with feelings of jealousy and abandonment, struggled to break free from their own middle-class malaise. Every episode of Swingtown centered around an event -- a fundraiser, a housewarming, a night of clubbing, a pool-party; the tone was unmistakably celebratory. But it also mined the quiet complexities of everyday life. It was a drama that understood that our best friends are often the ones who push our worst buttons, that it's possible to wish you were closer to your parents or children and still dread every family gathering. Over its thirteen episodes, Swingtown proved invigorating, addictive and, on occasion, unexpectedly profound.

Next up: five more one-season wonders. A vampire romance, a '70s whodunnit, an '80s sitcom, and more.