Brilliant But Canceled: Mourning TERRIERS and UNNATURAL HISTORY (2010)

The “brilliant but canceled” moniker hangs heavy on our hearts, as we mourn a few special TV shows cut-down prematurely this Fall

Looking back over the 2010 Fall season, it was a tough year for many shows trying to secure the attention of the increasingly fickle television audience. Some arrived as if they were but a blip on the radar, some lasted for a handful of episodes, and some were able to complete their first season episode orders. But there were a distinct few that lingered a bit longer in our hearts and minds as we wondered why they did not attract an audience – or worse yet, a big enough audience.

Two special stand-outs are FX’s “Terriers” and Cartoon Network’s “Unnatural History.” One came as a complete shock when it was not picked up for a second season; while the other cancellation was expected, but still painful when the news broke solidifying its dark fate.

They were only days apart. One day Cartoon Network quietly announced that it would not be picking up “Unnatural History” for a second season, and a few days later, FX made a splash in the news when it boldly declared that “Terriers” would not be renewed as well. Across the TV-writing realm an immediate outcry was heard, as viewers expressed anger and hurt over FX’s refusal to consider that a 250,000 increase in viewers was significant enough to warrant “Terriers” a second season and allow it to continue building its audience.

However, when Cartoon Network announced its decision to not pick up “Unnatural History,” virtually not a sound was heard – that is unless you were listening. Hearts broke quietly as fans lamented the loss of their beloved new series “Unnatural History.” Perhaps family viewers are not as ready to take to the public posting boards to scream in agony and frustration, but the pain was just as real. Instead quiet emails were sent to the show’s creator to express condolences on the loss of a fine television show.

No matter how painful it was hearing the news, it is quickly followed by the question: why? How is it that such critically-acclaimed shows are being cast aside as if they were unwanted and undesirable? In fact, these shows were no such thing; instead, they were cherished by the fans who had discovered these delightful gems. No matter whether you preferred a family adventure or the shenanigans of two good-hearted private investigators, both shows attracted loyal fan-bases.

In “Terrier’s” case, it was building from its solid 500,000 viewers to an increasing number of viewers each week. Alas, it had the misfortune to be launched just at a time when another new television show, “The Walking Dead,” managed to pull in over 5 million viewers for each episode of its first season (on AMC, a rival network of FX). When compared to that spectacular launch, 500,000 viewers increasing to 750,000 viewers does appear to be negligible in comparison. But “Terriers” did something rather remarkable – it overcame a crippling mis-naming and fought-off considerable competition in its timeslot. Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. is much more brutal to compete in than Sunday nights at 10 p.m. The fact that “Terriers” ferociously fought to attain and sustain its audience is laudable. It was a true under-dog (all puns intended).

The same was true of “Unnatural History.” It was up against some of the steepest competition on television as it had the misfortune to be scheduled Tuesday nights at 8 p.m. up against such shows as “NCIS,” “Glee” and “No Ordinary Family.” When competing with the most popular shows on television it is a wonder that “Unnatural History” was holding onto a solid 1 million viewers each week.

But instead of rewarding these shows for their tenacity, competing in some of the toughest timeslots on television, their networks chose to pull the plug, ending these amazing shows before their time.

One season is never enough. That is barely enough time to lay the groundwork and foundation of the various characters, their back-stories and the complex relationships amongst the characters. In “Unnatural History’s” case, we saw Kevin, Jasper and Maggie face a wide-array of mysterious historical challenges, but we barely scratched the surface of the deliciously unfolding relationships amongst the three friends as they were on the cusp of adulthood. In “Terriers’” case, we had but seen glimpses of the bond that was forged between a washed-up cop and a reformed thief and how they were determined to bring justice to those who could not fend for themselves in a corrupt world.

So many untold stories. So many amazing journeys not taken. Friends whose friendships would only deepen and become rich as tested by the trials and tribulations of time.

It should not feel so painful to say good-bye to fictional characters on a television show. Yet the magic of television is how real it made them feel. We invited these characters into our lives once a week for 13 weeks and in that short amount of time, they became part of our family. Some of us live alone and our television friends are dear to us as we see them perhaps more frequently than our own friends and family. Then, for others, we have rich family lives, but we enjoyed sharing the viewing experience together with them once a week to watch these remarkably fun shows.

That is television. It is an invitation into a world where the characters feel real and which are created so that we care about them – cheering when they are happy and torn when they are sad. Thus, the abrupt cancellation of a TV series that captured our imaginations and found a place in our hearts feels akin to the loss of someone close to us. It is a virtual-death. No one actually died, but we still grieve for the loss. We may be able to record the shows for multiple viewings or buy DVD sets, but we will never see how these wonderful characters lives continued. What further stories and adventures did they embark upon? To not know how they went on to live their lives feels wrong.

The fact that the stories just ended without a proper good-bye makes it feel even more disorientating. Network executives rarely consider how difficult it is for attached-viewers to let go. We need an end to the story. We want to see a “happily ever after” moment. No one would buy books if they ended so abruptly. How dare television networks treat us (and those who make the shows) so shabbily?

But instead of ranting about the unfairness of television network decisions, let us remember the moments of joy and wonder that both “Terriers” and “Unnatural History” brought into our lives. They may not have had proper good-byes, but they did accomplish something much more valuable: they will be remembered. They will join the hallowed halls of television history as “brilliant but canceled.” They will be the shows that everyone talks about for years and decades to come. Their legacy will be that they were once great and will always be remembered as wonderful TV shows who died too soon.

R.I.P. “Terriers” and “Unnatural History.”

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