1. Cop Rock (Fox, 1990)
Between executive-producing L.A. Law, Hill Street Blues, and NYPD Blue, Steven Bochco tried a radically different twist on his usual cop programs: a show that worked like a Broadway musical, with cops, criminals, victims, and bystanders alike suddenly breaking into emotional, stylized song-and-dance routines. Critics used to Bochco's grim-and-gritty style derided Cop Rock as the worst show in history; ratings were abysmal, and the series was cancelled 11 episodes in. Cop Rock doesn't work terribly well as a police drama: It's overwrought and campy, and often reads as a program-length adaptation of Glenn Frey's "Smuggler's Blues" video. But even the cheesiest musicals are often rousing and fun, and it's easy to admire the show's daring. Sure, it's a little ridiculous when a black-market baby-seller sidles up to a childless couple, singing about his wares ("It ain't a question of morality / I'm not concerned with any trumped-up illegality / We're just one big happy family / It's a pleasure doing business the American way"), but no more so than any other rock-musical moment.
2. Harsh Realm (Fox, 1999)
Only three episodes of Chris Carter's flopped follow-up to The X-Files and Millennium ever aired, though nine were produced, and they all made it into the DVD box set. Unfortunately, they don't offer any kind of plot resolution, so it's impossible to tell whether Carter was actually going somewhere with the show's intriguing story. Set inside a virtual-reality world created by the military to let soldiers experience the "simulated crisis scenario" of a terrorist attack on New York City, the show followed a sort of Apocalypse Now line, with callow young soldier Scott Bairstow sent into the simulation to find and kill military vet Terry O'Quinn (Lost's John Locke), now a dictator in the virtual realm. Mysteries abounded, and the show pulled a slow reveal, alternating between Bairstow's adventures in a world largely indistinguishable from a post-apocalyptic America, and his fiancée's real-world attempts to find where the military is hiding him. In some ways, Harsh Realm was ahead of its time—it might have actually been a success with Lost fans prepared to deal with long plot arcs and unfolding weirdness.
3. The Dana Carvey Show (ABC, 1996)
Today's Saturday Night Live cast members play their parts like crappy party tricks, but Dana Carvey delivered characters like the Church Lady and the Grumpy Old Man with just the right balance of silliness and conviction. Carvey's own show tried to hold onto what was good about SNL, but it also had the cheap-and-hyper feel that gradually made SNL more and more boring. The Dana Carvey Show's seven episodes were dotted with the occasional clunker skit or cheesy visual gag, but the already-strong duo of Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell (who got almost as much screen time as Carvey himself) was usually enough to prop things up. The series' very first skit—Bill Clinton breastfeeding puppies and a baby—probably made things harder on the show than they had to be. But the fickle sponsors would've gladly returned if they could have foreseen the success of equally offensive shows like The Office and The Colbert Report. Also, it's hard to imagine a writing staff that included Colbert, Carell, Robert Smigel, Bob Odenkirk, Charlie Kaufman, Louis C.K., and Dino Stamatopoulos assembled under one roof ever again.
4. Now And Again (CBS, 1999)
John Goodman, mild-mannered businessman, gets hit by a subway train and has his brain transplanted into Eric Close, test-tube-baby super-spy. Close has to tackle the U.N.C.L.E.-esque tasks set by mysterious, omnipresent handler Dennis Haysbert, while trying to evade the government's surveillance and help his cash-strapped wife and daughter. This Glenn Gordon Caron production was difficult to market due to its oddball mix of drama and wisecracking science-fiction elements, but the charismatic stars and imaginative plots hooked some fans. Citing the show's expense, CBS declined to renew it after a season-ending cliffhanger in which Close and his family made a break for freedom while the army surrounded their house.
5. Cupid (ABC, 1998)
Talk about a wacky premise: Psychiatrist Paula Marshall has a patient who thinks he's Cupid, barred by Zeus from Mount Olympus until he unites 100 couples with no help from divine powers or magic arrows. This dramedy was an early showcase for the crackerjack television sensibilities of Rob Thomas, creator of Veronica Mars, and it starred Jeremy Piven as the desperate, flustered, but smooth-talking love god. It was a treat to watch him herding romantic cats every week under Marshall's skeptical but flattered eye, without knowing whether his story was true or a massive mental delusion. Fourteen episodes aired before ABC pulled the plug, but Thomas clearly has a soft spot for his first creation—he's cast its stars in guest roles and hidden the names of its characters in the background scenery on Veronica Mars.
6. Nothing Sacred (ABC, 1997)
ABC got hit with sponsor pullouts and boycott threats over this nuanced, liberal-leaning show about a Roman Catholic priest dealing with conflicts both worldly and holy. The show got mentioned recently during the Book Of Daniel flap, but Sacred was really a workplace drama like ER that happened to take place in a church. Hunky, soft-spoken, idealistic Kevin Anderson led his staff through an unusually realistic depiction of post-Vatican II Catholicism, facing weekly crises about budget, social ministries, gender roles, liturgy, and occasionally doctrine. Hammered by conservative Catholics opposed to the show's emphasis on the Catholic Church's human face, the network sacrificed Nothing Sacred to the all-powerful NBC Thursday-night lineup. Inevitably, poor ratings forced its cancellation after 15 episodes, leaving four installments (including the controversial "HIV Priest") unaired.
7. Profit (Fox, 1996)
Imagine American Psycho reconceived as a weekly TV show, and you're close to Profit, a groundbreaking series that featured perhaps the darkest anti-hero in the medium's history, predating the likes of James Gandolfini in The Sopranos or Michael Chiklis in The Shield. And on a major network, no less! Fox only stuck with the show for four episodes, but the few that watched will remember picking their jaws up from the floor as Adrian Pasdar, brilliant as a bloodless corporate raider, executes one devious act of blackmail and sabotage after another. It's hard to decide which image is more disturbing: the scene in which he greets his whorish "mother" with a passionate kiss, or the first time he comes home to his sleek apartment, strips naked, and curls up to sleep inside a filthy cardboard box. Either way, the ratings dropped so precipitously over the course of its two-hour pilot that co-creator John McNamara joked that only his relatives were still watching by the end.
8. Freaks & Geeks (NBC, 1999)
Created by Paul Feig and executive-produced by Judd Apatow, this teen drama set in 1980 got all the details right, from the period stickers stuck on notebooks to what it feels like when there's no logical place to sit in the lunchroom. It was poignant and funny, but the jokes never came at the expense of the misfit characters, all of whom were treated with the empathy of lived experience. The mass audience wasn't there, but it's one of those shows where it's a shame that anyone's even counting the ratings.
9. Undeclared (Fox, 2001)
It seems amazing that Judd Apatow's wonderful follow-up to Freaks & Geeks got 16 episodes off before cancellation, because Fox shifted, pre-empted, and generally abused the show as soon as it was launched. Blessed with F&G's humor and sweetness, as well as its obsessive attention to comic detail, Undeclared captures the camaraderie and shenanigans that take place in an average co-ed dormitory hall, but it also deals with the problems of young people living on their own for the first time. As the show struggled to find an audience, Apatow called in some favors and got memorable guest appearances by Will Ferrell (as a hopped-up townie who writes terms papers for cash) and Adam Sandler (as himself, hanging out with his awkward fans), but to no avail. Had Apatow directed The 40-Year-Old Virgin before making the show, perhaps the network would have shown a little more patience.
10. Stella (Comedy Central, 2005)
As with many one-season wonders, it's remarkable that a show as unabashedly strange and singular as Stella made it onto the air in the first place, let alone lasted a full season. Building on the wry absurdism of videos and live performances by State veterans Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain, Stella found the perfect combination of regressive stupidity and boho sophistication in its screwball misadventures.
11. Firefly (Fox, 2002)
Fox clearly didn't know what it had in Firefly, Joss Whedon's epic-in-scale-but-human-in-focus series that transposed the elements of classic Westerns to the far reaches of space. Whedon was forced to rework the pilot, and only a few episodes aired—scheduled out of order. But with their carefully crafted characters and rich universe—of course people curse in Chinese in the future!—they were enough to stir interest that led to a full-on cult once the full series reached DVD. Fans even saw their wishes for revival come partially true with the 2005 film sequel Serenity.
12. Police Squad! (ABC, 1982)
Leslie Nielsen has been synonymous with bottom-feeding spoofs for so long that it can be hard to remember how restrained and understated he was in Police Squad!, David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abraham's parody of cop shows. Of course, Nielsen was taking his cues from the show itself, which affected a straight-faced deadpan tone worthy of Dragnet and Buster Keaton.
13. Action (Fox, 1999)
The world wasn't exactly crying out for yet another show-biz satire spoofing disreputable producers, narcissistic actors, or insecure writers when Action was released to critical acclaim and anemic ratings in 1999. But Action more than justified its existence with an eviscerating nastiness that fell somewhere between Entourage's affectionate show-biz satire and Power's ice-cold, dark-night-of-the-soul bleakness. Action! took its uncompromisingly dark take on Hollywood to its logical conclusion by killing off Jay Mohr's strangely ingratiating (albeit utterly amoral) super-producer in its final episode.
14. TV Funhouse (Comedy Central, 2000)
Robert Smigel's gleefully perverse TV Funhouse cartoons have long been favorites on Saturday Night Live. But the brief lifespan of Smigel's Comedy Central's spin-off proved audiences only had a limited appetite for the wildly transgressive misadventures of sex- and drug-crazed puppets. The combination of animal puppets and real animals proved disturbing on an almost primal level, while host Doug Dale all-too-convincingly captured the whitebread creepiness of kid-show performers.
15. That's My Bush! (Comedy Central, 2001)
For their first live-action show, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone decided to focus on the inhabitants of the White House, a tricky gamble that became even trickier in light of the 2000 election debacle. Thankfully, history conspired to give Parker and Stone the perfect hapless sitcom boob in the person of George W. Bush, as eerily channeled by Timothy Bottoms. Who knows whether Parker and Stone could have sustained their satire of mind-numbingly banal sitcoms as seen through the prism of Presidential politics, but like all the one-season wonders here, it was great fun while it lasted.