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Explainer: 11 shows that were canceled too soon

  • One of the biggest surprises in TV recently wasn't who got booted off of "American Idol," but that the star of the most popular sitcom on television got pink-slipped.

    Traditionally, if a show is — in the words of Charlie Sheen — "duh, winning," producers, the network and the studio will do just about anything to keep those ratings and dollar signs rolling in. Still, having all the right actors, the right scripts, the right fans — and sometimes even the right ratings numbers — are no guarantee a show will stay on the air.

    Here is a look at 11 shows — great, mediocre and just overlooked — that met their endings far too early ... not that I'm making any predictions on the future for the one-and-a-half men left over at CBS' "Two and a Half Men."

  • 'Sports Night' (ABC, 1998-2000)

    Ratings when canceled: 11.1 million viewers

    ABC

    Axed! Featuring the future stars of "Desperate Housewives" (Felicity Huffman), "Parenthood" (Peter Krause) and "The Good Wife" (Josh Charles) and written by future Oscar winner ("The Social Network") and "The West Wing" creator Aaron Sorkin, "Sports Night" was a natural hit.

    It was funny, talky and intelligent with a dusting of actual sports-insider humor for those who might otherwise be turned off by funny, talky and intelligent shows. But while Sorkin's signature styles — the walk-and-talk, the hyper-verbal, morally centered characters — caught on with "West Wing," they missed on "Night."

    Soggy ratings and Sorkin's greater interest in flying with "West Wing" meant it was quickly game over for "Sports Night."

  • 'Deadwood' (HBO, 2004-2006)

    Ratings when canceled: 1.2 million viewers

    Image: Deadwood
    Kevork Djansezian  /  AP file

    Axed! "Deadwood," a show that will most likely never see the light of day in non-premium cable reruns, was full of foul-mouthed Western cowboys and settlers. And it was almost universally adored by critics, with eight Emmy award wins.

    But HBO liked creator/writer David Milch so much, they convinced him to try a second show that would become the deservedly short-lived "John From Cincinnati" (2007). Milch couldn't do both, and with the rising costs on "Deadwood," the network gave him a choice: Pick one and go with it. He chose "John," and though the network asserted that "Deadwood" would wrap up with two final movies, they never happened. "Deadwood" rode into the sunset unfinished and much lamented.

  • 'My So-Called Life' (ABC, 1994-1995)

    ABC

    Ratings when canceled: 12.1 million viewers

    Axed! The death of "Life" — a sweet, insightful, almost painfully honest look at being a suburban teenager — had at least one major benefit: It freed a teenage Claire Danes to develop her feature-film career. (Co-star Jared Leto would follow.) But Danes was the core of the series, and with her passions pulled elsewhere, even a rabid fan campaign couldn't save the show.

    Conflicting reports point to low ratings as a culprit for the series' end (in addition to Danes' departure). Creator Winnie Holzman has said that ABC used the ratings as an excuse to pull the plug, and the network claimed it would have continued on sans Danes. Whatever the reason, school was out — yet the series remains a classic teen angst tale.

  • 'Firefly' (FOX, 2002-2003)

    Image: Firefly
    Fox Home Entertainment

    Ratings when canceled: 4.7 million viewers

    Axed! Ratings don't always illustrate true fan enthusiasm, and "Firefly" was a classic example of a show that caught on bigger posthumously than anyone could have planned.

    Fox fumbled the ball — a Joss Whedon series about cowboys in space — from day one, pre-empting and airing episodes out of order, which confused casual viewers. In the end, just 11 of the 14 episodes aired. But then the juggernaut began: DVDs sold much better than expected, prompting a feature film to wrap up the loose ends. ("Serenity" earned $37 million at the box office.)

    Recently, star Nathan Fillion and fans banded together to raise funds to buy the rights to the series, but Whedon's office tweeted in March that they would not revive the show, no matter what.

  • 'Police Squad!' (ABC, 1982)

    Image: Police Squad
    ABC

    Ratings when canceled: Not available

    Axed! The success of 1980's "Airplane!" and 1982's sequel, "Airplane II: The Sequel," should have primed TV audiences for "Police Squad," a series that featured the same rapid-fire, sight-gag-heavy humor.

    The two-time Emmy-nominated cop show parody gave Leslie Nielsen's career a new boost as the bumbling Det. Frank Drebin. But after six episodes, the network axed it … with the then-network president saying that it took too much concentration to get the jokes. Shows what ABC knew: The creators took Drebin and spun him off into three "Naked Gun" films between 1988 and 1994, raking in more than $216 million in total box office.

  • 'Arrested Development' (FOX, 2003-2006) and 'Freaks and Geeks' (NBC, 1999-2000)

    Image: Arrested Development
    Fox
    "Arrested Development."

    Ratings when canceled: 3.4 million viewers for 'Arrested,' 4.1 million for 'Freaks'

    Axed! "Arrested" and "Freaks" are two brilliantly written and acted comedies that routinely appear on just about everyone's list of shows that died before their time. The two are notable in just about every way possible: "Arrested" for reviving Jason Bateman's career, making an alternative star of David Cross, and giving the public a young Michael Cera; "Freaks" for offering James Franco, Seth Rogen and a nascent Judd Apatow.

    "Arrested" got three seasons to make a go of it, and despite some Emmy love, failed to draw an audience. Meanwhile, "Freaks" just failed to draw an audience.

    Fans convinced the networks to keep both series after their sell-by dates: "Freaks" had three more of its 18 total episodes aired after a fan campaign, "Arrested" arguably earned itself a whole extra season.

    Video: 'Freaks and Geeks' unite

    At least "Arrested" fans can take heart: There's a movie based on the show planned for 2012.

  • 'Columbo' (NBC, 1971-1978)

    Image: Peter Falk as "Columbo"
    Ric Francis  /  AP file

    Ratings when canceled: Not available

    Axed! Frank Columbo, one of mystery's most vaunted and oft-reworked (and imitated) detectives, was first introduced in the 1960s and appeared irregularly as part of the "NBC Mystery Movie" rotation later in that decade.

    When the network put Peter Falk and his character into regular rotation, the fumbling, mumbling, but ultimately successful detective in the trench coat became one of the network's biggest hits. But Falk (who won an Emmy for the role) reportedly tired of the character and opted to walk away after seven seasons.

    The show technically was canceled then, but in 1989 ABC brought it — and Falk — back for "seasons" of anywhere from three to six episodes, with the last one airing in 2003.

  • 'Star Trek' (NBC, 1966-1969)

    Image: Star Trek
    Paramount Television

    Ratings when canceled: Not available

    Axed! Three seasons ought to be enough to figure out whether a series is going to fly, yet in 1969, mere weeks before the first actual moon landing, NBC decided that the low-rated "Star Trek" had reached its final frontier.

    But as "Firefly" proved decades later, never ignore your demographics: "Trek" was hugely popular with the network's much-desired young male viewers. An animated series ran from 1973-1975, but it wasn't until "Star Wars" rewrote Hollywood — and sci-fi entertainment — history in 1977 that anyone decided to give "Star Trek" a second chance with a series of films.

    "Star Trek" films have been released with regularity since 1980, and new versions of "Trek" series have been on- and off-air since 1987. "Trek" has proved to be the one franchise no Vulcan nerve pinch — or network — will ever be able to silence for long.

  • 'Wonderfalls' (FOX, 2004)

    Image: Wonderfalls
    FOX

    Ratings when canceled: 2.9 million viewers

    Axed! The most ardent "Wonderfalls" fans may still not have seen all the episodes. The quirky series about a sales clerk who talks to objects in her store aired only four episodes of the 13 that were created before Fox yanked it from the schedule.

    DVD availability is limited, but for those who do have access to all the episodes, the truth is this: Fans just didn't want it to end. "Wonderfalls" was a funny, strange little show that never got a chance to ramp up before it toppled over, and repeated network time-slot shifting didn't help, either.

    Creators tried shopping it to other networks, but in the end "Wonderfalls" went over the edge, along with all the other coulda-beens.

  • 'Baywatch' (NBC, 1989-1990; to 2001 in syndication)

    Image: Baywatch
    NBC

    Ratings when canceled: Not available

    Axed! It's hard to imagine that what became the most-watched TV show ever in the world (there were more than 1 billion viewers in 142 countries served at one point, according to the "Guinness Book of World Records") nearly drowned after just one season.

    NBC failed to reel in ratings despite what should have been an easy draw — good-looking men and women in tight swimsuits on beautiful beaches and … David Hasselhoff.

    But sinking ratings and the show's studio going under spelled doom until The Hoff rescued the series with fresh financing and a syndication deal that led to 242 episodes, 11 seasons, a spin-off ("Baywatch Hawaii"), two made-for-TV movies ("Forbidden Paradise" and "Hawaiian Wedding"), an apparent feature comedy version for 2012 ... and, of course, Pamela Anderson.

    Randee Dawn is a freelance writer based in New York, and was born with a remote control in her hand. She is the co-author of “The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion.”

    Want to get the latest television and reality TV news? Follow The Clicker blog @TODAY_Clicker.

Discuss: Which shows do you think should have gone on longer?

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