Everyone knows about the one-season wonders: sci-fi series that gained a loyal following only to have the network axe them before they'd even finished out their first year, never getting that second chance to really flesh out their premise and connect with viewers. Firefly is the prototypical example.
But the recent cancellation of Dollhouse only a few episodes into season 2 was just the latest in a series of recent second-year stumbles. Are these terminations more justified, since they came in the midst of (oftentimes fan-demanded) second seasons—or are they somehow even more tragic?
The conceit behind The Invisible Man, that the invisible agent Darien Fawkes (Vincent Ventresca) was created by an underfunded government agency currently under the purview of Fish and Game, was a coy comment on the budget restrictions facing science fiction in general and the basic-cable, then-low-profile Sci Fi Channel in particular. The creators used the simplicity of the premise to stretch the show in interesting ways: an assignment to become a child's invisible friend was used to explore Darien's issues, and the madness caused by the invisibility gland later became Darien's means of rebellion. The show did well and earned a full second season, getting axed in the end because even its streamlined invisibility was too costly for Sci Fi.
This innovative post-apocalyptic series on Showtime from J. Michael Straczynski starred Luke Perry and Malcolm Jamal-Warner as survivors of a viral calamity that had killed off anyone past puberty; the children, now growing up, faced rebuilding instead of just surviving. (Very) loosely based on a graphic novel, and reverberating with plight of bleak loners against the epic struggles of "Valhalla" and "Thunder Mountain," Jeremiah built a small but dedicated fan base and might have continued into a third season, had Straczynski not fallen out badly with MGM over the production and future of the series halfway through season 2. The last 8 episodes were aired 10 months later. (Note: only season 1 is on DVD; only season 2 is on iTunes.)
Showtime's Dead Like Me, like Pushing Daisies the creation of offbeat writer Bryan Fuller, starred Mandy Patinkin, Callum Blue, and Jasmine Guy as post-death civil servants for the cosmos, helping to release the souls of people facing their traumatic last moments. The appeal of season 1 lay in the origin story for Georgia (Ellen Muth), a sardonic teenager flattened by space debris and inducted in an afterlife of soul collecting, only to find adjusting to being undead among the living, and seeing her family deal with her death, extremely trying. Quality stayed strong despite Fuller's acrimonious departure, but by season 2 the novelty had worn off, ratings (reportedly) declined, and Showtime blithely dropped the show and moved on.
Dollhouse wasn't even the first sci-fi series starring Eliza Dushku canceled by Fox before its second season had finished airing. Tru Calling had Dushku as a coroner's assistant and would-be med student who finds herself rewinding in time to prevent the death of a corpse brought to her in the morgue. Up against strong programming on Thursdays at 8 p.m., Tru Calling did well enough to get its "back nine" picked up (cut to seven because of baseball), but the order for season 2 was short (only six episodes) and then shunted from Fall 2004 into late spring 2005. As a result, the finale, a Christmas episode, would have looked silly and was cast into limbo when the show was axed. It didn't air until a marathon on Sci Fi in January 2008.
The urgent struggle for survival that drove the first season of Jericho was compulsive viewing, playing nicely against the slow adaptation of Jake Green (Skeet Ulrich) and the other townsfolk, not always for the good. The increasing tension culminated in a pitched battle against the aggressive neighboring town of New Bern, with the screen going black to the ratta-tat-tat of Jericho's desperate last stand. Fans deluged CBS with nuts, playing off a key line of dialog in the finale, and the network undid their cancellation. But now the town was no longer isolated, the season 1 anchor of Gerald McRaney's mayor was dead, and the show shifted emphasis to its nuke-conspiracy subplot. Fans shook their heads, and the show was axed again for good.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles made sense on paper: tell the story of John Connor's teenage years, through the eyes of his hardened mother, Sarah. But it didn't quite fall together. Part of the problem was casting: Lena Headey seemed not at all in the same league as Linda Hamilton; and Summer Glau as a Terminator, stiffly delivering the compulsory line "Come with me if you want to live," took a lot of getting used to. The real problem was the series form undermined the mythology, making both time travel from the future and stopping the Terminators too easy. Even the shot in the arm provided by Brian Austin Green was squandered, and Fox chose to axe it in place of Dollhouse precisely because its fan base wasn't that devoted.
There was never anything like Pushing Daisies, Bryan Fuller's ultra-stylized fantasy about a pie-maker who could bring the dead to life for 60 seconds. Amazing casting and a surreal, candy-coated visual palette made each episode totally unlike the surrounding TV doldrums--perhaps, in the end, too unlike. The 2007 writer's strike took a blackjack to Fuller's plans for the first season after only 9 episodes, causing a deadly 42-week lacuna before the show returned in October 2008. Fans tried valiantly to support the show, despite a baffling babies-in-a-nunnery subplot and other uneven attempts to flesh out the characters, but finally long-rumored cancellation became a reality, with three final episodes burned off six months after the chop.
Reaper was not the only 2007 show to feature underachievers, but it was the only one with the devil as a regular character. Initially it got a tremendous amount of buzz, partly because of the tangential involvement of Kevin Smith, but the CW had trouble finding an audience for it on Tuesday nights. To its credit the network tried to promote the show as best it could, even displacing reruns of Supernatural to get the lead-in audience from Thursday stalwart Smallville, but to little avail; Reaper got a tepid 13-episode midseason renewal. In this rump of a second season, producers tried to gain sizzle with sexy girlfriends and a satanic brother, but in the end the show, like its slacker hero, just wasn't quite smart enough.
The first season of Eli Stone had a certain charm. Eli, played by Jonny Lee Miller, was intriguingly bewildered by his visions, and he was buffeted against a supporting cast of skeptics. The random musical numbers, while gratuitous, at least had the through-line of being George Michael songs. Ratings on ABC were just good enough for a cautious renewal. But in the second season everything went south. Eli started to believe in his calling from God, bringing on an edge of sanctimoniousness; his previously interesting boss converted into a true believer, leading to a vile good lawyers vs. bad lawyers arc; and the now-unrelated music numbers became both extraneous and intrusive. Ratings sank further, and ABC pulled the plug.