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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
BBC Two, 2001-2002
Ricky Gervais 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.
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.
Most of the shows on this list are either critically acclaimed cult classics or British shows that intentionally ended after two seasons. Joey is something else entirely. One of the most notorious flops in TV history actually lasted two seasons, pulling respectable ratings for NBC during its first season. The Friends spin-off was steamrolled by American Idol in its second season, though, and pulled from the schedule halfway through the year. Despite producing a full second season, NBC never aired half the episodes. It’s rare to see a show do well enough its first season to get renewed, only to quickly get pulled in its second season, but it happened again just a few months ago with The Millers, the CBS sitcom that starred Will Arnett, Beau Bridges and Margo Martindale.
BBC Two, 2005-2006
Gervais and Stephen Merchant followed up The Office with the showbiz parody Extras. The setting’s different, but the cringe comedy and two season rule return. Gervais’s Andy Millman isn’t as pathetic as David Brent, but he’s still casually cruel and endlessly self-defeating, and although the verisimilitude of the universally familiar office setting is missing, Extras is an impressive companion to Gervais’s previous show.
Wonder Showzen was so dark that it was a surprise it made it on TV, even on a channel as desperate and low-profile as MTV2. The fake children’s show was unflinching in its satire, finding surprising depth in the tired conceit of children saying offensive or mature things by using them to make legitimate statements about society and the media. Unlike a lot of shock humor Wonder Showzen often had a deeper purpose.
Adult Swim, 2006-2008
The end of Frisky Dingo is still confusing and unsettling almost seven years later. The animated superhero parody from Adult Swim originals 70/30 Productions was as smart and funny as their first show, Sealab 2021, but more ambitious, with a serialized narrative and much better animation. The lack of a third season pickup forced 70/30 to shut down, although the founders Matt Thompson and Adam Reed rebounded with a new company and the most successful show of their careers, a little nugget called Archer.
BBC Two, 2006-2007
Steve Coogan’s Saxondale is a specific take on a general type of parody, mocking the Baby Boomers (or their British equivalent) who won’t let their youth go quietly by focusing on a greying old rocker who still thinks he’s cool despite moving to the suburbs and listening to Yes on CD. The old rock’n’roll roadie-turned-exterminator Saxondale isn’t as cringe-worthy as Alan Partridge because Coogan seems to care a little bit more about his character—sure, he’s self-involved and embarrassing, but despite his flaws Saxondale is actually kind of likable. And Coogan doesn’t treat him as mercilessly as he does Partridge, contrasting Saxondale with old friends who are much bigger burnouts. Still, it’s an extremely awkward show that can be hard to watch at times. Plus it’s full of the kind of Mojo-baiting classic rock humor you’d hear on The Best Show.
Fresco’s second show on this list is a sharp parody of corporate culture driven by a fantastic performance from Portia de Rossi. It’s a more pointed show than Andy Richter, with brilliant fake commercials that are frighteningly believable as the tone-deaf messaging of a multibillion dollar company, and great performances from a game cast. It’s been gone for five years and its satire of technology companies and big business is still prescient.
Party Down, a dark comedy about show business washouts and wannabes working for a catering company in Hollywood, maybe didn’t need to run any longer. I mean, it was a brilliant show, one of the funniest and saddest things TV has ever given us, and I’d watch it for years and years if they brought it back. It’s absolutely perfect as it is right now, though, one of the strongest shows ever made, and that average could easily decrease if it had a prolonged lifespan. Party Down is in the same boat as a lot of the British sitcoms on this list—it did its job as well as it possibly could have during its two seasons, and although I’d love to see more, I don’t need to.
The Onion News Network launched as the more hyped half of a comedy block alongside Portlandia, but quickly faded from view. Even with The Onion’s typically smart, bone dry tone, this show couldn’t make any headway in the crowded world of news satire. That’s a shame—although it wasn’t as casually brilliant as the website, it was an often hilarious show with fine work from a variety of familiar faces (seriously, Brian Huskey is in everything). Although it only lasted two years on television, the name has been used for video content on The Onion’s site dating back to 2006.
Network intervention reared its head again with Up All Night, a pleasant if aimless sitcom that coasted by on the charm of its top-notch cast. Will Arnett, Christina Applegate, Maya Rudolph and a variety of guests made the show watchable during its first season, but it never drew much of an audience. NBC slightly retooled it for its second season, where ratings fell even more as fans of the first year gradually tuned out. NBC didn’t want the show to die, though, and tried to turn it from a single-camera sitcom into a multi-camera show with a laugh track. While the show was on hiatus for that conversion both Applegate and the creator Emily Spivey quit, and yet NBC was still supposedly committed to bringing it back. Cooler heads prevailed, though, and NBC quietly cancelled the show in 2013.
This might be the most mystifying cancellation on this list. Few recent shows have been as critically praised as Enlightened, which beautifully examined mental health, middle age and corporate America in the 21st century. Laura Dern even won a Golden Globe for Best Actress . Ratings aren’t as important for HBO as they are for almost any other network, but Enlightened’s ratings were too awful for even HBO to keep it around.
FX didn’t have its fill of bad people with It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. For two years they ran Legit, which starred Australian comedian Jim Jefferies as an asshole trying to be a better person, and had much more heart than Sunny. It had a couple of nice turns from Dan Bakkedahl (one of those comic actors who pop up everywhere) and DJ Qualls, and showed promise on FX, but a move to the weirdly conceived FXX spin-off channel killed its ratings and ended the show after two seasons.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He is on Twitter @grmartin.