Last week IFC cancelled the sketch comedy show The Birthday Boys after two seasons. Earlier this season CBS cancelled The Millers only two months into its second year. Both moves were surprising, despite disappointing ratings. Unless they’re British, TV shows aren’t supposed to last two seasons. They run for one season or less, or until they’ve made enough episodes to hit syndication. If a network and studio put the money into developing and then renewing a show, they’ll do everything they can to hit that 100 episode mark (which now is more like 88 episodes).
Still, there’s precedent. It’s happened before. Lots of hilarious shows were canned during or after their second season, and many British shows ended by choice after two runs because that’s what Fawlty Towers did. And in America cable doesn’t always have the tantalizing allure of syndication hanging over their heads, especially with sketch comedy shows. Still, it’s rare to see even a cable show only last two years in America. Here are 22 shows that bucked those odds and came back for a second year that wound up being their last. (And yes, we realize some of these BBC shows had Christmas specials and other one-offs that technically extend the show past two seasons, but those really don’t count here.)
1. F Troop
Traditionally a sitcom needs about 100 episodes to get sold into syndication, and yet F Troop, which lasted for only two seasons, was still being rerun constantly when I was a kid, 20 years after its short life ended. Of course sitcoms had longer seasons in the ‘60s, and ABC burned through 65 episodes of this thing in just under 19 months. F Troop is almost unwatchable if you’re an adult who didn’t develop nostalgia for it when you were a kid, but I still have a soft spot for the antics of Fort Courage. And nobody can take anything away from Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch as Sergeant O’Rourke and Corporal Agarn, two corrupt officers who are just as good at bumbling slapstick as the Skipper and Gilligan.
2. Fawlty Towers
BBC Two, 1975-1979
You’re going to see a lot of British sitcoms on this list. Blame Fawlty Towers. John Cleese and Connie Booth’s classic might be the most perfect sitcom ever made, an impression helped by the fact that they only made 12 episodes. That’s barely half of a regular American season. Cleese’s portrayal of Basil Fawlty inspired countless sitcom buffoons to come, and the scripts were immaculately constructed comedic masterpieces. The pressure of maintaining that high level of quality ended the show after two seasons and twelve episodes, and numerous British comedians since have pointed to Fawlty Towers as proof that no comedy should run longer than two seasons.
3. The Young Ones
BBC Two, 1982-1984
There are times when I think The Young Ones is the best TV show ever made. It infused a sitcom set-up with the spirit and freedom of sketch comedy, skewering British youth culture while remaining very much a part of it, and also finding time for performances from Motorhead, Madness and other great British bands of the day. It’s absurd and anarchic and often threatens to collapse in on itself, but that haphazardness is carefully structured and a huge part of its charm. Watching the reruns on MTV when I was in elementary school might have caused some kind of permanent damage to my sense of humor.
4. Sledge Hammer!
A parody of high-octane action films, Reagan era conservatism and Dirty Harry-style rogue cop movies, Sledge Hammer is a perfect artifact of the 1980s. It elevates tough guy posturing and police sadism to absurd heights, with Inspector Hammer using oversized weapons and preferring violence to arresting suspects. Its first season infamously ended with Hammer accidentally nuking San Francisco. This show was huge with my friends at school at the time, but it was up against Miami Vice and Dallas and, later, The Cosby Show, so it didn’t stand a chance in the ratings. The fact that we even got two seasons was good enough for us, and now it’ll live on forever on DVD, thankfully with the laugh track removed.
Grand is a great example of how network intervention can destroy a show. In its first season Grand felt like nothing else on TV at the time. It was a serialized parody of soap operas that made a point of addressing serious class issues and income disparity during a recession with grace and empathy and in a way that was rarely didactic. Despite good reviews, a great cast (including Pamela Reed, Michael McKean and Joel Murray) and a plum Thursday night time slot right after Cheers, it didn’t immediately set the ratings on fire. It was solid enough to bring back, but for the second season the network changed almost everything that made it stand out. It became a standard sitcom focused on a single family, and whatever audience it had quickly bolted.
6. Get a Life
Every comedian I’ve interviewed for Paste so far has mentioned Chris Elliott and Get a Life as an influence. It’s not a surprise—if you were the right age, the Fox sitcom was mind-blowing stuff. It was one of the first shows to bring what would become known as “alternative” comedy to primetime, an extremely dark and absurd anti-sitcom that mocked and broke every rule of the genre. Fox, probably emboldened by the success of the similarly brilliant The Simpsons, gave it a prime slot on Sunday nights in 1990, and gave it a second season after its ratings surprisingly weren’t terrible. The slightly retooled season two was just as surreal as the first, but lower rated, and the show was inevitably cancelled when that season wrapped in 1992.
7. I’m Alan Partridge
BBC Two, 1997-2002
It feels like a cheat putting I’m Alan Partridge on here. Steve Coogan’s most enduring character has appeared on shows both before and after this particular series, and even starred in a movie last year. I’m Alan Partridge was the first show to place the character in a traditional sitcom, though, and it had a distinct setting and cast of characters that haven’t returned in Partridge’s subsequent outings. By focusing on Partridge outside the context of hosting a TV show it allowed Coogan to deepen the character, somehow making him both more sympathetic and more pathetic at the same time. Coogan’s cringe comedy can be as cruel as Ricky Gervais or Peter David, but often has a bit more heart; don’t expect that from I’m Alan Partridge, though.
8. Sports Night
Before West Wing let him soapbox all hour long, Aaron Sorkin first brought his particular voice to network TV with Sports Night. The half-hour dramedy set at a fictionalized version of Sportscenter was full of strong willed men who quickly spouted strident opinions in-between occasional jokes and banter, and provided a great showcase for actors like Peter Krause, Felicity Huffman and Robert Guillaume. Hampered by a network-imposed laugh track and the sort of viewer confusion that seems to plague every half-hour dramedy, Sports Night ended early and is still hailed as one of the best shows to be cancelled too soon.
Channel 4, 1999-2001
Simon Pegg, Jessica Stevenson and Edgar Wright gave us perhaps the definitive sitcom about mid-twentysomething bewilderment. Spaced is a brilliant and touching look at a generation trying to both accept and postpone adulthood as long as possible, indulging in the freedoms of being an untethered adult while trying to avoid the responsibilities of being a grown member of society. Yet again this is a show that could’ve ran for years but settled for two seven-episode seasons.
10. The Office (UK)
BBC Two, 2001-2002
popularized the Fawlty Towers rule with the original Office, regularly saying it wouldn’t go past two seasons because Towers didn’t and so no other sitcom should. As good as the American Office became, it never eclipsed the original, which was more honest, more realistic, and thus more hilarious in its satire. I wouldn’t call myself a big fan of cringe comedy in general, but The Office is one of the most cringe-worthy shows of all time, and as painful as that awkwardness can get, it rarely feels gratuitous or too mean-spirited. David Brent is a buffoon, and acts cartoonishly much of the time, but never crosses over into a full cartoon like so many US sitcom characters do. The fact that he remains recognizable as a real person (sometimes too recognizable) keeps the show grounded and makes it as poignant as it is hilarious.
11. Andy Richter Controls the Universe
Victor Fresco makes this list twice with two of the best sitcoms of the ‘00s. Andy Richter Controls the Universe is the first and more obscure of the two, and although it’s set around a workplace it owes more to Seinfeld than the classic MTM model. Despite good writing and a great cast Richter limped through two lowly rated half-seasons. It’s one of the earlier network sitcoms to eschew laugh tracks and use the single-camera model, which gave it a unique identity, but perhaps it was too alienating to fans of That ‘70s Show or whatever else aired on Fox that night.