Not ready for prime time: 18 animated series that didn’t make it a full season

Illustration for article titled Not ready for prime time: 18 animated series that didn’t make it a full season
Screenshot: Napoleon Dynamite, Fish Police, Clerks: The Animated Series

For the majority of prime-time network television’s history, animated series rarely made an appearance. With the exception of Hanna-Barbera’s brief ’60s output (The Flintstones, The Jetsons) and the routine holiday specials, prime-time TV was hostile territory for animated programming.

Until The Simpsons. When Fox’s gamble on Matt Groening’s creations became a massive hit in 1989, it didn’t just establish arguably the most successful TV show of all time. It also brought about a new era of openness to animation—and a new era of closing down many of those same programs with the usual cold-blooded cancelation strategy the networks applied to their live-action series. Below, we pay tribute to the 18 animated programs that have appeared on network TV post-Simpsons that failed to make it through an entire season. These are the wannabes that never were, cut down before they had a chance to make a lasting impression—unless you count failure. With each one, we take stock and determine whether it was jettisoned too soon, or agree that a swift death was probably for the best.


1. Fish Police (CBS, 1992)

One of the first failed attempts by a rival network to replicate the success The Simpsons was enjoying on Fox, this underwater Hanna-Barbera spoof of hardboiled detective yarns didn’t lack for pedigree: The source material was an acclaimed cult comic (the book featured inking from Sam Kieth, whose own series, The Maxx, got the adult-oriented-animation treatment on MTV), and the voice cast included John Ritter, Ed Asner, Buddy Hackett, and Tim Curry. But viewers weren’t, uh, hooked by the investigations of a gilled gumshoe; three ratings-challenged episodes into the six-episode season, CBS flushed Fish Police.

Did it deserve to stick around? “The less said about the animated series the better,” the comic’s creator, Steve Moncuse, once remarked in an interview. Given that calling the show’s mysteries and va-va-voom innuendo “watered down” would count as better wordplay than most of its numerous fish-related puns, we’re inclined to agree. [A.A. Dowd]


2. Capitol Critters (ABC, 1992)

It’s easy to joke about the White House being infested with vermin. The challenge lies in making that crack entertaining and enlightening week in and week out. So it was with Capitol Critters, the furry political satire that marked ABC’s entry into the early ’90s prime-time-animation sweepstakes. When country mouse Max (Neil Patrick Harris) is orphaned by exterminators, he moves to Washington, DC, to live with his hippie cousin Berkeley (Jennifer Darling) in a bustling underground community that includes street-smart Jammet (Charlie Adler) and former lab rat Muggle (Bobcat Goldthwait). Like An American Tale with a subscription to The Nation, the show—co-created by Steven Bochco during the blank check period between L.A. Law and NYPD Blue when he also produced Harris’ teenage-doctor breakthrough and Cop Rock—was a curious clash of Hanna-Barbera funny animals, instantly dated riffs on the George H.W. Bush administration, and heavy-handed topical commentary. It was also bizarrely frank about its characters’ mortality, gruesomely bumping off Max’s family in the first five minutes of the pilot, before doing the same to a lovable, one-off scamp in an episode about gun control.

Did it deserve to stick around? It took several years for South Park to figure out how to effectively tackle timely material in such a time-intensive medium, and that show had early ’00s technology and a solid comedic foundation at its disposal. Capitol Critters had a strong behind-the-scenes pedigree, but its animated op-eds had the life span of, well, any one of the Capitol Critters. At least the name of Goldthwait’s character had some staying power. [Erik Adams]


3. Family Dog (CBS, 1993)

Family Dog must have looked foolproof. Unlike Fish Police, CBS’s other animal-centric, early-’90s bid for Simpsons-sized ratings, the show was based on something viewers already loved: a particularly popular episode of Steven Spielberg’s anthology series Amazing Stories. The behind-the-scenes talent was there, too, with both Spielberg and Tim Burton serving as producers. Family Dog, alas, was plagued by multiple production delays, hitting television screens some two years after it was supposed to premiere. And though one could easily describe the show as an unofficial Santa’s Little Helper spinoff—it was, after all, about a misbehaving pooch causing trouble for his suburban owners—America could smell the difference. After an expensive advertising campaign, all 10 episodes were aired in just a month, before CBS sent the show to a big farm upstate.

Did it deserve to stick around? Family Dog’s most lasting legacy is launching the career of Pixar superstar (and Simpsons alum) Brad Bird, who wrote and directed the original Amazing Stories episode. Although he’s credited as creator, Bird wasn’t much involved with the series; he knew that the misadventures of a dimwitted canine wasn’t the most sustainable premise for a prime-time animated sitcom. Anyway, the episodes themselves were much more narratively and visually primitive than the short that spawned them—which it to say, the show was as much a cheap knockoff of itself as a wannabe Simpsons. This is one dog, in other words, that definitely deserved to be put down. [A.A. Dowd]


4. Mission Hill (The WB, 1999; Adult Swim 2002)

Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein were fresh out of the Simpsons writers room when they sold Mission Hill to Warner Bros. and its fledgling broadcast venture, The WB. Their time in Springfield had helped shape the way the 1990s looked on TV; their follow-up was an instantly transportive time capsule that captured the decade just as it was closing. Set in the bohemian melting pot of an unnamed metropolis, Mission Hill centers on Andy (Wallace Langham) and Kevin French (Scott Menville)—the former a loft-dwelling waterbed sales dude/aspiring cartoonist, the latter the dweeby kid sibling who disrupts Andy’s hipster Shangri-La when their parents’ relocation forces the brothers to move in together. The setting and premise gave the creators’ stories that The Simpsons simply couldn’t—“Besides Otto, there are no teenagers or young adults,” Weinstein told Polygon in 2017—but Mission Hill had a visual flair all its own, too. The eponymous neighborhood is an alt-comics Colorforms set, a bricolage of midcentury kitsch and weathered urban architecture that would fall out of fashion and/or be gentrified out of existence shortly after the turn of the century. The same was sadly true of Mission Hill, though its final seven episodes saw the light of day thanks to Adult Swim.

Did it deserve to stick around? Mission Hill could’ve gotten by on its character dynamics and smartass punchlines alone, but Oakley and Weinstein also had a long-term plan in mind, one that would’ve incrementally advanced Andy’s creative dreams, until he became a reflection of a prominent figure from their past (and Disenchanted future): Matt Groening. [Erik Adams]


5. Baby Blues (The WB, 2000)

In retrospect, the quick death of Baby Blues looks like a foregone conclusion. The gently sardonic humor of the syndicated comic strip by Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott was adapted into a TV series in 2000, right during the time when the foul-mouthed humor of South Park was transforming the animation landscape. Casually whimsical humor about the relatable foibles of raising a child wasn’t exactly a recipe for capturing the zeitgeist (despite the network’s clumsy efforts to inject some edgier content into the show), and employing an outdated Barenaked Ladies track as the theme song didn’t help matters. Baby Blues was canceled after airing eight episodes, with the five remaining installments broadcast a couple years later on Adult Swim. Weirdly, an entire second season of episodes was subsequently produced but never aired.

Did it deserve to stick around? Despite some decent wit, the pacing was slack and characters were as flat as their 2D surroundings. These Blues were off-key. [Alex McLevy]


6. Clerks: The Animated Series (ABC, 2000)

A legendarily rocky marriage between a Disney-owned network and a vulgar, independent-minded creator, Kevin Smith’s animated adaptation of his own breakout hit only managed to get a meager two of its initial six episodes on the air. Even then, the network ran them out of order, ruining one of the better gags that Smith and co-writer David Mandel (currently a showrunner for Veep) constructed for their show: pitching the series’ second episode as a flashback-heavy clip show, focused almost entirely on the events of its first. But that was the beauty of Clerks, which never forgot that it was a cartoon first and foremost, filling the film’s dour world with Alec Baldwin-voiced corporate supervillains, elaborate film parodies, and jokes about the medium itself—including the infamous moment where a bear is driving. (How can that be?) Happily, the series got a second life on DVD (and Comedy Central), allowing fans to view the full breadth of Smith’s imagination in a format uniquely suited to his anarchic tastes.
Did it deserve to stick around? Absolutely. Smith tried for years to get an animated film version off the ground, but we would have settled for another handful or two of similar six-episode runs. [William Hughes]


7. God, The Devil, And Bob (NBC, 2000)

A testament to the fact that a great voice cast can’t move mountains, this theological oddity sports a couple of absolute ringers in its starring roles: a drawling James Garner as the laid-back, hippie-esque Almighty, and Alan Cumming (brought on after Robert Downey Jr.’s early-2000s legal troubles forced producers to fire him) as his estranged son/eternal frenemy, Lucifer. French Stewart rounds out the leads as the titular Bob, a beer-loving, porn-addicted everyman who wouldn’t feel out of place on creator Matthew Carlson’s earlier Men Behaving Badly—and who’s probably the last guy you’d want to see as the deciding factor in a bet for the entire fate of the world. Cowed by religious boycotts (and rapidly falling ratings), NBC pulled the plug on the grand wager after just four episodes, though the merciful souls at Adult Swim eventually allowed it to live out its on-air afterlife in full.

Did it deserve to stick around? We hate giving a win to the religious wingnuts—especially since Carlson’s scripts are full of clever little touches about his off-kilter cosmology—but we can’t imagine the Creator suffering something quite so eye-gougingly ugly as G, TD, AB’s hideous giant-headed animation style to live. [William Hughes]

Illustration for article titled Not ready for prime time: 18 animated series that didn’t make it a full season
Screenshot: YouTube

8. Sammy (NBC, 2000)

Here’s something you almost never see anymore: A cartoon so unloved that it never even made its way onto the internet. Good luck finding the only two episodes ever to air of NBC’s Sammy, an animated series that made the mistake of thinking people wanted to see a sitcom based loosely on the life of David Spade. Spade created and starred in the show as James, a comedian who starts to experience success, only to have his ne’er-do-well father (also voiced by Spade) return after years away to sponge off his son’s success while trying to piece his family back together. The bizarre cast lineup included Bob Odenkirk, Andy Dick, Maura Tierney, Jeffrey Tambor, Julia Sweeney, and Harland Williams, all of whom got to enjoy being part of one of NBC’s lowest-scored shows in the history of its audience testing. The remaining 11 episodes have never seen the light of day.

Did it deserve to stick around? Tough to say, since it is unavailable for viewing. (If you own a VHS tape of Sammy, please post it on YouTube so we may evaluate accordingly.) We’re gonna guess none of this bodes well for its quality, however. [Alex McLevy]


9. Gary & Mike (UPN, 2001)

Gary & Mike was really over before it started. Initially made for Fox, the stop-animated show was picked up by the floundering UPN, which aired the 13 episodes out of order and canceled it before the first season was through. The show somehow netted an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement In Animation over Futurama and Invader Zim, two shows to which time has been much kinder. (Animator Will Vinton’s studio also picked up Emmys for its stop-motion show The PJs, starring Eddie Murphy.) Gary & Mike followed the titular characters on a road trip along the Lewis and Clark route, getting into trouble, destroying lives, and generally causing mayhem wherever they stopped. Gary (Christopher Moynihan) is the anxious nerd, Mike (Harland Williams) a smooth-talking guy who has sex a lot.

Did it deserve to stick around? Both in animation style and substance, Gary & Mike screams 2001, with “edgy” comedy about shocking elderly nursing-home residents and bedding ladies without bothering to learn their names first. Financial problems far above the show led to Gary & Mike’s cancelation, but maybe it was for the best. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]


10. The Oblongs (The WB, 2001; Adult Swim, 2002)

A down-on-its-luck family of weirdos tries to maintain a happy façade while segregated from the happy, shiny people who are the direct cause of their miserable circumstances. Is this the premise of The Oblongs, or the situation The Oblongs found itself in when it debuted among the fresh-faced teen dramas that were The WB’s bread and butter? Either way, there weren’t many positive outcomes in sight for the eponymous family, whose exposure to the toxic runoff produced by the rich folks living uphill left Bob Oblong (Will Ferrell) limbless, Pickles Oblong (Jean Smart) bald, and youngest daughter Beth (Jeannie Elias) with an unfortunately phallic cranial protuberance. In its school hallways and on its factory floors, The Oblongs was an ideally warped venue for conflict between the haves and have nots—a turbulent subject viewers have traditionally tolerated when the characters look a little more Dawson’s Creek and a little less Oblong.

Did it deserve to stick around? Playing out its unaired episodes on Adult Swim makes The Oblongs look like a “wrong place, wrong time” prospect, but the cast and writers probably couldn’t have afforded more time in the valley: Old School made Ferrell a movie star a few months after The Oblongs’ cable run wrapped, Pamela Adlon was already busy with King Of The Hill, and Jill Soloway and Scott Buck went over to Six Feet Under. [Erik Adams]


11. Father Of The Pride (NBC, 2004)

Much of the pre-release hubbub about Father Of The Pride, an early attempt at sub-Pixar CGI animation at NBC, revolved around how damn expensive the thing was. At somewhere between $2 and $2.5 million per episode, it’s one of the most expensive half-hour shows in history, all for some then-cutting-edge computer graphics, which look predictably dated and clunky now. Following a group of white lions living in a house backstage at Siegfried and Roy’s Las Vegas casino show (no, it doesn’t really make sense), the overqualified voice cast (led by John Goodman) and advance hype delivered big initial ratings, but the audience soon disappeared. The network pulled it from its lineup and eventually burned off most (but not all) of the remaining produced episodes late in the year.

Did it deserve to stick around? It’s hokey and clumsily paced, and the show never really figured out if it was going for family-friendly fun or adult-centric stories. (The plot of the first episode largely revolves around Goodman’s patriarch trying to fuck his wife.) It’s good that NBC put these animals down. [Alex McLevy]


12. Game Over (UPN, 2004)

In many ways, Game Over anticipates Wreck-It Ralph, essentially imagining that video game characters are all just actors who lead their own in-character lives after clocking out. And so Raquel Smashenburn, voiced first by Marisa Tomei and then by Lucy Liu, is a Lara Croft-like badass who is also a housewife; Rip Smashenburn, a racecar driver voiced by Patrick Warburton (a.k.a. Puddy), is her husband; and so on. Rachel Dratch and Artie Lange round out the family as the woke teen daughter and resident failson, respectively. They were trying to set up a Simpsons for the PlayStation 2 era, but failed: Only six episodes of the UPN project were produced, and only five made it to air.
Did it deserve to stick around? Oh, lord no. The jokes are tired gamer bait, with references that were dated even in 2004, and Warburton’s distinctive voice turns the leaden computer-generated pacing into molasses. Pretty much every joke based around Lange’s rap-obsessed teenage boy—he won’t pull up his pants!—should be fired into the sun. [Clayton Purdom]


13. The Goode Family (ABC, 2009)

Sometimes Mike Judge is able to capture the pop cultural zeitgeist. Other times he’s ahead of it. Neither of those really apply to Judge’s least successful TV creation, The Goode Family, which ran for a little more than two months on ABC in the summer of 2009. Anticipating a new wave of tie dye-clad hippies in the wake of Barack Obama’s election in November 2008, the show is basically King Of The Hill in reverse, concentrating on the adventures of a clan of neurotic, progressive vegans rather than flag-waving, meat-eating Texans. But the show failed to give the Goodes the nuance and heart that made Hank Hill and his family beloved by viewers all across the political spectrum, as well as misreading the moment with characters that, as The A.V. Club’s Nathan Rabin put it, “[felt] like a period piece from the early days of Bill Clinton’s presidency” rather than the first Obama administration.
Did it deserve to stick around? Sorry, Mike, but when it comes to parodying Prius-driving, Whole Foods-shopping liberals, we’ve got to give this one to South Park. All that being said, maybe Judge was once again ahead of his time: It’s easy to see jokes about vegan dogs and organic produce going over like gangbusters with the “owning the libs” crowd. [Katie Rife]


14. Sit Down, Shut Up (Fox, 2009)

After Fox lopped the critically beloved, cult-classic-in-the-making Arrested Development off after three seasons, Mitchell Hurwitz was looking for work. He’s made no bones about the fact that Sit Down, Shut Up, a remake of an Australian show of the same name, came about because he needed the cash. The script predated Arrested Development, but it was definitely the same writer at work, with rapid-fire jokes based on ever-escalating wordplay and fourth-wall-breaking meta-humor. And, hey, look at that voice cast: AD’s Will Arnett, Jason Bateman, and Henry Winkler return, along with (deep breath) Kristin Chenoweth, Will Forte, Tom Kenny, Nick Kroll, Cheri Oteri, and Kenan Thompson. Fox added it to their Sunday-night animation schedule, because, seriously, how could this be bad?

Did it deserve to stick around? No. It found a way to be bad. The most generous of critics believed it had the potential to gradually flesh out the characters, but realistically, the humor was all dick jokes and misfired provocations. Fox aired four episodes and jettisoned the remaining nine into Saturday night hell. [Clayton Purdom]


15. Allen Gregory (Fox, 2011)

It looked to have real potential: a new addition to Fox’s Sunday night animation lineup, created by Jarrad Paul (who also created Fox’s beloved but short-lived The Grinder) and Jonah Hill, with the Oscar-nominated actor (just recognized earlier that year for Moneyball) voicing the main character as well. The series followed the adventures of 7-year-old Allen Gregory De Longpre, a snooty and pretentious kid who is suddenly forced to begin attending public school after his wealthy dads are hit by the financial recession. Unfortunately for Allen, viewers were repelled by him just as much as his fellow students were, and it was canceled after airing seven episodes.

Did it deserve to stick around? Given that our own reviewer couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to spend time with such an “aggressively unlikable” lead character, it’s probably for the best it faded quickly from view. [Alex McLevy]


16. Napoleon Dynamite (Fox, 2012)

Napoleon Dynamite the film is full of colorful characters and quirky, loosely related events, all connected by the eponymous oddball teen (Jon Heder), which lent themselves well to an animated adaptation. Too bad creator Jared Hess didn’t share Napoleon’s unwavering confidence: The writer-director reportedly held off on the series, which he co-produced with Jerusha Hess and Mike Scully, for eight years because he was worried audiences would get “tired” of the characters. The setting of the Napoleon Dynamite cartoon was sandwiched in between the film’s events, but though the original cast members all reprised their roles, the show was a retread that went nowhere.

Did it deserve to stick around? Hess’ hesitation and other projects—including 2006’s Nacho Libre—aside, the real issue was waiting so long after his comedy had first entered the zeitgeist. Jokes about ligers and odes about technology didn’t age well, and neither did the source material’s “quirk for the sake of quirk” ethos. There’s no reason to mourn Fox’s decision to pull the plug, less than two months after Napoleon premiered. [Danette Chavez]


17. Bordertown (Fox, 2016)

Family Guy writer Mark Hentemann combined the “offend everyone” mandate of that Seth MacFarlane series with the lumpy illustrations of his own animated project, 3 South, to create Bordertown, the rare topical cartoon. Set at the U.S.-Mexico border, Bordertown followed two families: the Buckwalds, led by the racist Bud (Hank Azaria), and the Gonzalezes, whose patriarch, Ernesto (Nicholas Gonzalez), was a small-business owner. There was no lack of targets for satirization—liberals, immigrants, poor whites who vote against their own interests because of bigotry—but Bordertown’s eagerness to take them all down a peg led to a lack of focus.

Did it deserve to stick around? Dealing in stereotypes is a fairly delicate business, one that Bordertown approached with cudgel in hand. The show regularly harvested the lowest-hanging fruit, featuring jokes about white progressives yearning for abortions and a recurring gag about a Wile E. Coyote-like border crosser. Bordertown didn’t appear to like any of its characters very much, which ultimately made it a slog. [Danette Chavez]


18. Click & Clack’s As The Wrench Turns (PBS, 2008)

It’s a scenario straight out of a conservative lawmaker’s worst nightmare: PBS and NPR member station WBUR combining forces to present an animated series featuring the voices of Garrison Keillor, Jim Lehrer, Carl Kasell, and last but certainly least (as they’d probably say), Click and Clack the Tappet brothers. The avuncular on-air alter egos of brothers Tom and Ray Magliozzi were the main characters of Click & Clack’s As The Wrench Turns, a 10-episode realization of the goofy world the Magliozzis had built out of bad advice, worse puns, and 30-odd years of their flagship radio program, Car Talk. (It was the second such attempt to do so, following the similarly short-lived George Wendt Show from 1995.) The final product was even more unencumbered by the thought process than its inspiration: Whereas the audio Tappets might lead unlucky callers into blind diagnostic alleys and screeds against the various Donnas in their lives, the added visual dimensions indulged their zany streak with plots about pasta-fueled engines and the uncanny mechanic skills of canine Dewey, Cheatem & Howe mascot Zuzu.

Did it deserve to stick around? As The Wrench Turns boasted the Magliozzis’ signature Bostonian honks, with none of the improvisational verve of Car Talk. The brothers would just have to content themselves with a long-running radio show that stayed in circulation five years after Tom’s death. [Erik Adams]