Below, #11-#15 in My Top-Ten One-Season Wonders: five more shows that I adore, that it's been a delight to revisit recently, as they've reemerged from the celluloid void.
Longstreet (1971-72): Longstreet began as an ABC Movie of the Week, with James Franciscus as an insurance investigator forced to rebuild when an explosion kills his wife and leaves him blind. It was well-received by critics and audiences, and ABC ordered it to series. In the first month of the season, it finished as high as #5 in the weekly ratings. Then NBC moved its long-running hit Ironside to the same time slot, and viewers defected, preferring to stick with the old rather than try something new. And indeed, Longstreet, created and developed by the formidable Stirling Silliphant (best-remembered for his Oscar-winning screenplay to In the Heat of the Night), offered something unusual for its era. At time when the decibel level was getting louder on network television -- when sitcoms were turning more frequently to insult humor, and larger-than-life lawyers and detectives were crowding the courtrooms -- Longstreet dared to rely on subtlety and civility, as it took on the challenges of facing disability with a measure of grit and grace. It was a stylish series: the New Orleans setting, the jazz-infused soundtrack -- even Longstreet's wardrobe, chosen carefully to highlight the actor's complexion and build. (In any given episode, Franciscus might sport a half-dozen looks, from houndstooth sport coats to safari suits to pastel polo shirts; you came to anticipate his wardrobe changes much as you would Lucy Liu's four decades later on Elementary.) Most weeks, there were cases to solve, but whenever the series threatened to grow too procedural and conventional, Silliphant -- as in his earlier Route 66 and Naked City -- ensured that the pay-offs were character-driven, reminding us that Longstreet himself was very much a work in progress, honing his skills even as he remained haunted by loss. Early in the season, a prison doctor wondered if he ever fell prey to despair. "No despair, doctor," Longstreet assured him: "Anger sometimes -- and a whole lot of frustration." But we at home knew what lay beneath that unflappable facade; we were privy to too many moments of self-pity and self-doubt. In the series' most devastating episode, his assistant Nikki is the victim of a hit-and-run, and Longstreet -- obsessing that the "old" him would have seen the car coming -- sinks into a depression, threatening to decimate the hopefulness at the very heart of the series. His boss assures him that we all wrestle with a sort of darkness, characterizing it as something that "roosts on your ceiling, like a bat." But Longstreet lashes out: "I'm tired -- I mean, I'm really tired trying to impress you with my keen sense of hearing. Smelling the bacon cooking, listening to Mrs. Kingston set out a couple of plates on a table. Look at the blind man doing his magic bit -- all his senses clicking. What does he have to see for? He's more tuned in than the rest of us poor sighted people, stumbling around looking at everything but seeing nothing, while he... he looks at nothing but sees everything. Like hell!" And finally, crumbling under the weight of expectations: "Wake up and see a bat on my ceiling, I'd love to... Great big black beautiful bat. My God, just to see it." Unavailable for decades, Longstreet was released on DVD in late 2017. Franciscus's performance is a marvel; pick up a copy -- just to see it.
The McCarthys (2014-15): Over the past decade, comedy development at CBS has been nothing short of a nightmare, as the network has staked its fortune on in-house productions (regardless of quality) and bankable stars (however feeble their vehicles). By 2014, CBS's pickups and scheduling moves had come to seem both absurd and pitiful, and by the time it gave a second-season renewal to the woefully bland The Millers, then pulled it after just two low-rated airings, the setting was not ripe for another family comedy. But barely a month later came The McCarthys, and with a pilot that was not auspicious. Set among an Italian family in Boston, most of the characterizations seemed thin and broad, with only Tyler Ritter distinguishing himself as the youngest (and gay) son Ronny. Affable yet dry-witted, he was about the only element that critics singled out for approval, but you could hardly blame them. His older brothers -- twins Gerard and Sean (Joey McIntyre and Jimmy Dunn) -- seemed, in turn, a loudmouth and a simpleton. His sister Jackie (Kelen Coleman), who found herself pregnant in the first episode, was bland and forgettable. And as the mother, the reliable Laurie Metcalf, as if desperate to whip the show into shape, pushed too hard, reducing her onscreen husband Jack McGee to little more than a cipher. But here's the thing about The McCarthys: it got steadily funnier as the season went along, and by the time they were a half-dozen episodes in, both the characters and the family unit started clicking. The loudmouth son proved himself savvy; the simpleton gained a cockeyed sweetness. The daughter's very blandness proved the tastiest of running gags -- that her parents and siblings kept inadvertently omitting her from conversations and gatherings (as someone in a large family is always relegated to the role of "forgotten child"); it gave her edge and empathy. And Metcalf and McGee found a rhythm that suited them both. The characters turned out to have dimensions, not merely quirks, and within a few months, the writers figured out how to take a simple premise (an engagement party, a therapy session, a health scare) and -- in the best Everybody Loves Raymond fashion -- let the plot unfold with seeming inevitability, as it worked its way through the dysfunctional family dynamics. And remarkably, audiences took notice. The series had shed 20% of its premiere rating over its first five weeks; in the five weeks that followed, it gained it all back. By week 10, it was retaining 98% of its initial sampling -- unusual for any series, and pretty much unheard of at that time for CBS's floundering sitcom slate. But CBS didn't seem to notice. They had an in-house Odd Couple remake starring Matthew Perry that was clamoring for a time-slot, so they juggled around their schedule to make room for it, and The McCarthys was left out in the cold. And what's come since? Kevin Can Wait, Man With a Plan, 9JKL, The Great Indoors -- all varying degrees of horrid. The McCarthys could easily have been paired with CBS stalwart Mike & Molly, helping it build an audience and ensuring it a lengthy run. But as with their only other distinguished multi-camera comedy to premiere over the last four years (Friends With Better Lives), CBS paid no mind to the improving story-lines and steady ratings: they were too busy trying to chase down their next star vehicle or in-house hit.
Decoy (1957-58): The first police drama with a woman in the lead, and the first TV series shot on location in New York City, Decoy broke so much new ground, no wonder it was unable to secure a sponsor. Eventually, its producers brokered a deal with Westinghouse TV that allowed it to be released in syndication, reaching just over 40% of the TV audience. Unfortunately, the number of viewers who actually tuned in wasn't sufficient to snare it a second season, and it disappeared after its initial 39-episode order. But it was stunning. Beverly Garland is mostly remembered for B-movies and bits of fluff like My Three Sons and Scarecrow and Mrs. King, so seeing her sink her teeth into a meaty role like this one -- and carry the series almost single-handedly -- is startling. In a conceit that seems odd at first, but ultimately proves savvy in keeping the story-lines varied, Garland's character, policewoman Casey Jones, is the only series regular: each episode finds her in a different New York precinct, surrounded by a different set of supporting players. There are guest performances that go awry (actors who push too hard, or seem too green for the material they're handed) and the occasional plot that feels undernourished or far-fetched, but Garland -- shuttled each week from station to station, from assignment to assignment -- never hits a false note. From a historical perspective, perhaps the most remarkable thing about Decoy is that Casey doesn't face any of the sexism that plagued policewomen at the time -- and that continues to this day. No one questions her competence, or her very right to be there. This isn't a series about the inner workings of a police station -- it's the story of how effectively the women there do their jobs. (Each week, the title card announces that it's "Presented as a tribute to the Bureau of Policewomen, Police Department, City of New York.") Casey is treated as one of the boys, and her opinions and pronouncements are respected. There isn't even a sense that she has to work harder at her job because she's a woman; she's just a whirlwind of competence, insight and compassion. And that said, the subtleties of sexism are still present, even when the (mostly male) writers don't intend it. When she gets the idea to flush out a killer by leaking a false story to the press, and her chief OK's it, it's Casey who sits down at her desk to type it up; she's expected to be all things: undercover cop, profiler, homicide detective and, when needed, office secretary. But Casey can do it all, and most of the time without breaking a sweat. She's a quick study and -- with the proper wardrobe and a good cheat sheet -- can pull off any undercover disguise: a lounge singer down on her luck, a transplanted socialite with an expensive gambling habit. And retelling familiar stories through the eyes of a woman gives them a fresh slant; it's clear that Casey has a measure of empathy that her male coworkers lack. It's part of what makes her effective as a cop, and what makes the crimes feel unusually complex -- that she's able to see both sides to a case. Decoy takes on a host of hot-button issues -- sexual assault, racial profiling, the plights of the terminally ill and developmentally disabled -- and Casey is there as our moral compass. As she narrates her way through each episode, and breaks the fourth wall at the end, she doesn't pull any punches. In the story of a Puerto Rican man wrongfully accused when a victim profiles him, she announces, "Somebody steals an apple from a fruit cart, and they're ready to lynch anybody by the name of Jose or Pablo." Casey lets you know what you too would make of the case, were you as perceptive, sensitive and alert as she is.
The Golden Hour (2005): One of four series commissioned by ITV's then-head of drama, Nick Elliot, in order to woo younger audiences – and then, although ratings held firm through its (short) run, discarded after just four episodes. The series -- starring the formidable quartet of Richard Armitage (fresh off his star-making turn in BBC's adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's North & South), Navin Chowdhry, Zoe Telford and Ciarán McMenamin -- centered around the activities of a specialist medical unit, the Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS), operated by the London Ambulance Service. (The lead actors trained with a real HEMS team from the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel -- one of whom, Dr. Gareth Davies, served as a consultant on the series.) In each episode, the team was summoned to the site of an incident with multiple victims: a collision or explosion. (The title referred to the first hour after traumatic injury, deemed most critical for patients.) As the doctors treated the wounded on site, we'd flash back to key moments in the lives of the victims and the doctors themselves. The flashbacks, of course, were a "hook" -- not merely a way of getting to know the victims (and catching up on what the doctors -- all of them dealing with personal issues, some of them interpersonal -- had been doing since the last episode), but a way of infusing the proceedings with an air of mystery: what happened to get these people to this specific spot at this precise point in time. As the victims were first being treated, we'd flash back minutes, to check in on them just prior to the incident; as the episode progressed, once they'd become more than mere statistics, we'd journey further into their pasts, and linger there for longer, uncovering aspects of their personalities and backstories we hadn't imagined, putting a fresh spin on everything we'd seen to that point. The flashbacks kept rebooting and redirecting the narrative, but for all the twists and turns that they provided, they never felt manipulative; creator Andrew Rattenbury's formula was too well-considered, and his approach too even-handed. His variations were clever and plentiful, and Rattenbury seemed in no danger of running through them anytime soon. And the subplots for the four doctors -- Armitage and Telford's characters coping with a new relationship, Chowdhry's stressing over a messy separation -- were given sufficient airtime without overwhelming the procedural premise, and were presented sanely, without the excesses of soap opera. The tale has been passed down that ITV -- although impressed with the format -- was disappointed with the quality of the story-telling itself. Now that someone's been kind enough to post the four episodes to YouTube, and they're there to review, let's dispense with that myth: the story-telling is superb (there isn't even a decline in quality in the one episode Rattenbury chooses not to write), so whatever prompted ITV to lose interest, it wasn't about the writing. Savor the short-lived Golden Hour while those YouTube episodes are still there for the viewing.
Threshold (2005): An alien vessel has briefly appeared on Earth, leaving behind a calling card that's infecting humans and mutating their DNA. "Do you think you can stop them?" guest star Viola Davis asks in the fifth episode. "It's okay," star Carla Gugino assures her: "We have a plan." That plan is called Threshold, designed to be activated when Earth has its first encounter with extraterrestrials. Gugino is Dr. Molly Caffrey, a high-level government consultant charged with crisis management in emergencies ranging from natural disasters to nuclear war. Part of the Threshold plan calls for recruiting top talent from various disciplines, and part of the series' strength lay in using that premise to put together its own crackerjack team: Brent Spiner as Dr. Nigel Fenway, a prickly and independent-minded microbiologist; Rob Benedict as Lucas Pegg, an affable but apprehensive aerospace engineer (in the final stages of planning his wedding), and Peter Dinklage as Arthur Ramsey, a mathematician and linguistics expert with a fondness for alcohol and a weakness for women. Charles S. Dutton served as Molly's government liaison, and Brian Van Holt -- as paramilitary officer Sean Cavennaugh -- was the "muscle" of the group. The Threshold team was charged with answering the most basic, yet seemingly impenetrable of questions -- who are these aliens? what do they want? why are they mutating human DNA to a genetic code presumably closer to their own? -- and complicating matters is that Caffrey, Cavennaugh and Pegg were themselves exposed to the alien signal: not enough to transform their cellular make-up, but sufficient to alter their brainwaves, causing them to have linked dreams and hallucinations. They're forced to combat an alien threat, unclear if they themselves are becoming "one of them." This mutation ignited by the alien craft is the most compelling part of Threshold, but the series suffered from a seeming split personality in terms of the show that creator Bragi F. Schut envisioned and the one that showrunner Brannon Braga apparently favored (or perhaps the rift came from CBS itself, then riding a ratings crest with a glut of CSI-inspired procedurals). As the Threshold team struggled to decipher the alien plan, they were charged with hunting down the crew of a U.S. navy vessel, nearly a dozen of whom had been infected and then disappeared. The hunt for these missing crewmen, one per episode, gave the series a case-of-the-week format that felt far more traditional than what Schut's pilot had led you to expect, and episodes 3 though 8 suffered from a certain structural sameness. Whenever the show let go of its procedural aspect, and focused on the interpersonal dynamics, the ethical issues raised, and the dangers inherent in the Threshold protocol -- capped by one dazzling episode (by Schut) in which the alien infection itself yields an unreliable narrator -- Threshold became a much stronger show. Sadly, it barely had a chance to gain a ratings foothold. Scheduled Friday nights after the feel-good Ghost Whisperer, it struggled to find an audience; CBS shipped it off to Tuesday with little fanfare, where it died after one low-rated episode. Four episodes were left unaired, but fortuitously, the creative team got word of the cancellation just as they were wrapping filming, and were able to activate their own contingency plan, adding a brief scene that brought the series to a hopeful conclusion. Happily, all thirteen filmed episodes are available on DVD.
Next up: #16-#20. A bad TV pilot quickly righted, a sitcom done in by its own network’s demise, and a taste of honey.
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 a dozen essays devoted to seasons of the great primetime 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, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2, 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.