Entertainment

The 30 Best One-Season TV Shows of the Past 20 Years

one season tv shows
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Sometimes, a TV show that seems like it should be canceled immediately ends up running for a decade. But more often, a show that obviously deserves infinite renewals doesn't make it past season one. We've rounded up our absolute favorite examples of the latter from the last 20 years -- the one-season wonders whose quick cancellations felt like a personal attack.

Awake (2012)

Imagine suddenly living in two timelines following a car accident. In one reality, your wife died, your son lived, your therapist is played by BD Wong, and your cop partner is Wilmer Valderrama. In the other, it's your son who died, your wife lived, and you're being diagnosed by Cherry Jones. Which reality is real? And what's happening to you? Such was the premise of this fantastically high concept drama from showrunner Kyle Killen and starring Jason Isaacs. In each rain-soaked episode, Isaacs' addled detective solved cases using clues he discovered in the other timeline -- a clever conceit that allows him to solve the bigger mystery of who tried to kill him just in time for the series finale. -- John Sellers

Brad Neely's Harg Nallin' Sclopio Peepio (2016)

Brad Neely -- creator of YouTube deep cuts such as "George Washington" and TV shows such as China, IL -- is a weirdo. He let it all hang out in Brad Neely's Harg Nallin' Sclopio Peepio, the purposefully nonsensical title for his one-and-done animated sketch show intended for the late night bloc on Adult Swim with episodes clocking in at a brisk 11 minutes. What BNHNSP (don't make me type it again) is about is… well, I'm not exactly sure. It's both nothing, with extremely short, unconnected, absurd sketches or songs about, like, living in the woods featuring familiar characters, if you've seen any of Neely's other projects, and also… something, with each episode title addressed to some female pop culture icon, ie. "For Aretha," "For Knowles," "For the Jenners," etc. It's like Robot Chicken, but also not at all. It's easy to see why it wasn't renewed -- it was truly so, so weird -- but TV became a duller place without it. -- Leanne Butkovic

The Break With Michelle Wolf (2018)

After a string of failed Netflix late-night talk shows, The Break with Michelle Wolf seemed like it'd be the one that stuck for more than a season. But even premiering on the coattails of Wolf's White House Correspondent Dinner speech that went viral, and staffed with writers from Clickhole and The Onion could not save The Break. Still, while it lasted it was wonderfully weird, injecting legitimately funny sketches that spoke to our modern condition in between proudly leftist monologues and screeds. We miss its strong point of view and irreverent sense of humor. Shoutout to DJ Jer-Z. -- LB

Bunheads (2012–13)

With Gilmore Girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino created a generational touchstone. With The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, she got a heaping of awards. But in between those juggernauts she gave us an underappreciated gem. Bunheads took some of the formula of Gilmore Girls and added dance numbers. A fast-talking gal (Sutton Foster) moves to a small town (this time in California) full of quirky characters and a domineering broad played by Kelly Bishop (a.k.a. Emily Gilmore). This time she's not a single mom, but a former showgirl who leaves Vegas to be with a man who promptly dies. She's left teaching dance to a gaggle of eager ballerinas, becoming a big sister/cool mom type figure to the lot. The greatest joy of Bunheads is how it uses dancing, sometimes letting a big number serve as an explanation of a character's emotional state. The best example of this, indisputably, is the angry "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" trio. -- Esther Zuckerman

Caprica (2010)

Prequels and prequel series almost unequivocally kind of suck. We don't really need to know what happened in the past that got us to whatever point the main story started off at, and though many creators may find it fun to play around with backstories and new angles, it's more often than not a waste of time. The Battlestar Galactica reboot found itself in this kind of situation: we know humans used to live in the Twelve Colonies and built a race of androids that became sentient religious zealots and overthrew their creators in a surprise coup that left little more than a single spaceship alive with the remains of humanity. We don't need to know the stuff before that. Except, Syfy's prequel series Caprica, which aired after Battlestar ended but was in the works long before, is actually really good. The show begins 58 years before the Cylons enacted their final revenge, and chronicles the blood feud between two families, the Graystones and the Adamas (sound familiar??), as they live unknowingly in the last decades of humanity's empire, in a time of wild prosperity where virtual AI avatars and cyborg technology run amok. The vibe is completely different from Battlestar, the claustrophobic space opera politics and human-vs-robot dogfights replaced by a Gattaca aesthetic and grounded Shakespearean intrigue, and was meant as an entry point into the saga for an entirely new group of fans. -- Emma Stefansky

The Class (2006–07)

The Class is sort of a who's who of actors whose careers are about to explode. The sitcom was a clear attempt to be the "next Friends" from Friends creator David Crane, and follows a bunch of third grade classmates who reunite when they are all 27 and in different stages of disillusionment. It features Lizzy Caplan post-Mean Girls but pre-Party Down, Jon Bernthal pre-The Walking Dead, Jesse Tyler Ferguson pre-Modern Family, and Jason Ritter pre-Parenthood. The jokes don't all hold up, but the cast is so good it's easy to forget that. -- EZ

Clone High (2003)

Before The LEGO Movie was even the tiniest 1x1 brick in the minds of its creators, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, along with screenwriter and director Bill Lawrence, created Clone High, a Canadian-American adult animation show about a high school whose student body is made up of the newly cloned bodies of famous historical figures. The protagonists of the series are clones of Abraham Lincoln, Joan of Arc, and Mahatma Gandhi, with appearances by Cleopatra and John F. Kennedy, and the plot loosely centers around the fact that the high school was created by the US military to study and utilize the abilities of the world's most famous people. The show acts as a parody of high school-set teen shows, with every episode introduced as a "very special episode." MTV pulled the show after one season because its depiction of its Gandhi character caused hundreds of outraged Indians to mount a hunger strike against it, but since then it's developed a strong cult following. -- ES

The Event (2010–11)

Hyped repeatedly as, well, a big event, the premiere episode of this sci-fi corker starring Jason Ritter, Blair Underwood, and Željko Ivanek drew a respectable audience of nearly 11 million. That number quickly dwindled by more than half and those of us who watched to the actually good cliffhanger finale were met with the grim news that NBC had canceled the series. We'll never find out what happened to the always good Ritter's charismatic everyman Sean and his perpetually imperiled girlfriend Leila (Sarah Roemer), who had just revealed that she was pregnant while also suffering mightily from an alien pathogen designed to eliminate the human race. We'll never again see that girl who, in the show's most memorable moment, turned around to reveal... old face! And we'll never find out how the hell mankind would ever survive the devious aliens, now that their entire home planet had arrived in Earth's orbit, AKA the titular Event. Calling all Hulus and Netflixes: Please revive this amazing show! -- JS

Everything Sucks! (2018)

Netflix's version of Freaks and Geeks won't scratch quite the same ensemble dramedy itch, but it was solid enough for a single Netflix season (R.I.P.). Set in the '90s, the show tells the coming-of-age stories of one Oregon high school's A/V and Drama club members, embellishing the proceedings with plenty of pop culture and slang from the era. Though Everything Sucks! occasionally feels like it's trying too hard -- beating you over the head with on-the-nose music cues, references, and borderline absurd dialogue -- it makes up for its shortcomings by tackling admirable territory and populating its world with sympathetic characters. There's Peyton Kennedy (Kate Messner), a sophomore who's coming to terms with her sexuality, and Luke O'Neil (Jahi Di'Allo Winston), a freshman who's trying to fit in and woo Peyton; and the good news is the co-stars are a thrill to watch. If you can see past the mostly superficial period toppings, Everything Sucks! makes for a nice, nostalgic trip back to the '90s -- one with positive messages, and one that's bingeable in a day or two. -- LB

Firefly (2002–2003)

A genre series created by a beloved showrunner and canceled before its first season had even finished airing is more or less destined for cult status, and that's exactly what happened to Firefly, which was created by Joss Whedon hot off his Buffy days. It follows the crew of the Serenity, a Firefly-class spaceship crewed by a found family of nice pirates and captained by Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a freedom-obsessed space cowboy and former soldier on the losing side of a civil war. He pilots his crew around the solar system, pilfering, smuggling, and getting into all kinds of trouble. The only season of the show is set in the far future after humans have colonized another star system, and blends a number of recognizable Earth cultures together (many of the characters speak occasionally in Chinese throughout the show). Since there are only 14 episodes (and, later, the 2005 follow-up movie Serenity) available, it's the perfect cult show: short, fun, and gone too soon. -- ES

FlashForward (2009–10)

Simultaneously, everyone on Earth loses consciousness for 137 seconds and has a vision of their life six months into the future. It's up to a few FBI agents, one of whom is played by Jon Cho, to figure out what happened. Star Trek: The Next Generation scribe co-created the ABC series with Batman Begins screenwriter David S. Goyer and it's as bonkers as network TV shows can possibly be. The flashforwards guide character development, like a reverse Lost, but it's also propulsive and outlandish like 24. You will not be surprised to learn that a secret organization is behind the blackout. Sadly, the series' own flashforward showed only darkness: Its unwitting series finale ended on a cliffhanger that involves a new round of blackouts that flash ahead much farther in the future. We'll never know what happens in 2030 now! -- JS

Garth Marenghi's Darkplace (2004)

Before there was Documentary Now!, there was Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, a parody of a TV special centered around a fake '80s TV show that was never aired, based on the works by a fake author who never wrote any books. Got that? The show contains "present day" talking head segments from the "original cast," broken up with footage from the episodes, who explain various on-set politics, story writing gossip, and cast relationships. The story of the show within the show takes place in Darkplace Hospital, watched over by the heroic Rick Dagless, M.D. (played by horror author Garth Marenghi, played by Matthew Holness), who saves his coworkers and his patients from various supernatural threats. The six episodes were broadcast in America on the Sci-Fi Channel and on Adult Swim in 2004, and have since become a cult curiosity. The fake show is styled like a cheaply-produced '80s procedural, with deliberately bad production, acting, and special effects, and terrible (hilarious) storylines about psychic nurses and bloated eyechildren. The cast is a who's who of absurdist British comedy actors, from Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd) to guest stars Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt (The Mighty Boosh). -- ES

Grosse Pointe (2000–01)

If you were a fan of Beverly Hills, 90210 or Melrose Place, this comedy, from 90210 and MP creator Darren Star, was must-see for anyone who grew up watching those addictively schlocky melodramas and their trend-setting actors. A parody of the behind-the-scenes drama and clashing personalities, Grosse Pointe spills blind-item-style goss by setting the action at a fictional night-time soap that seemed a little familiar. Appearances by Jason Priestley and others associated with Aaron Spelling-produced series made it even more meta. -- JS

John From Cincinnati (2007)

An odd David Milch surfing drama featuring Luke Perry, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, and a bunch of people from Deadwood debuting immediately following The Sopranos series finale? Yes, please. But too many people said no, so after a single season of beachy, quasi-supernatural shenanigans, HBO pushed it out to sea, proving my old theory that Milch should have called it Driftwood.-- JS

Jon Benjamin Has a Van (2011)

In the years since the delightfully strange Jon Benjamin Has a Van went off the air after one season, the cult of H. Jon Benjamin has only grown. Through his work on Archer, Bob's Burgers, and Wet Hot American Summer as a talking can of vegetables, the gravelly-voiced actor has become an oddball comedy icon. The series, which also featured future Comedy Central MVP Nathan Fielder in a supporting role, was possibly too weird to catch on with the mainstream, but it feels like the type of show that could've found an audience on Netflix if it premiered now. At least we'll always have the "Little Little Italy" episode. -- Dan Jackson

Karen Sisco (2003)

In this stylish series based on the Elmore Leonard character played by Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight, Carla Gugino took over as Sisco, a U.S. marshal who gets guidance from her retired cop dad (the always good Robert Forster -- R.I.P.). Who wouldn't watch Carla Gugino as a bad-ass, tank-top-wearing U.S. Marshal? Fans of Law & Order, apparently -- Karen Sisco got crushed by its formulaic time-slot competitor after just seven episodes. No one ever got to see the show's unaired final episode, which was directed by, oh, Kathryn Bigelow. -- JS

Kings (2009)

Let's be real: Kings, the drama series about a fictional royal family loosely based on the Bible stories about King David set in an alternate version of America where the government is ruled by a divinely appointed monarchy, is pretty high-concept. So high-concept that maybe it was doomed from the beginning, but that might also have something to do with NBC moving it around in its schedule and finally delaying the second half of the season to the summer of 2009. Unfortunately, it was great, not least because Ian McShane, playing the ruthless King Silas Benjamin, got to deliver the kind of wild monologues we hadn't seen him do since Deadwood. The show chronicled the tense intrigues within the royal family, and stealthily commented on real-world politics around absolute governments, nations engaging in perpetual war for profit, and sex and gender politics. (If you thought Sebastian Stan looked familiar when he popped up in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, that's because you might have seen him on Kings as Crown Prince Jonathan, whose gay storyline was one of the cruxes of the show.) -- ES

Pasadena (2001)

When NBC canceled the greatest one-season series of all time, Freaks and Geeks, a feeding frenzy for the cult show's writing staff ensued, or at least it seemed that way to anyone dying for more Freaks and Geeks. Go figure that Pasadena, a well-wrought and -received primetime soap opera from Mike White, was the first notable project to hit TV, as it couldn't have been less like that show if it tried. Alison Lohman played a woman whose wealthy family is hiding many secrets. Like much of White's TV work (which includes HBO's two-season darling, Enlightened, it was destined to be overlooked by large swaths of the population, and it also debuted two weeks after 9/11, ensuring its swift cancellation after just four episodes (the remaining nine only aired internationally). -- JS

Rubicon (2010)

A decade after Rubicon aired on AMC, critics have hailed the conspiratorial code cracking spy drama to be ahead of its time, and they're not wrong. Under-appreciated back in 2010, Rubicon was marketed as the network's Next Big Show, promising another prestige TV winner just as shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad hit their stride. Maybe it was too weird to catch on -- we weren't as irony addled to find characters like the cereal-eating Truxton Spangler and his boss Kale Ingram, who has a resting heartbeat of 46bpm, extremely funny -- or too deep in the weeds with its mystery box and methodically paced premise about dudes who work for the American Policy Institute handling loads of sensitive data. Either way, we were robbed of more Rubicon -- a national tragedy! -- LB

Running Wilde (2010–11)

In retrospect, we should not have done that to Running Wilde. We should have embraced the show, Mitch Hurwitz's first live-action TV foray after the original run of Arrested Development, despite how inferior it was to Arrested Development. A quirky, galaxy-braining rom-com starring Will Arnett in full GOB mode as a charming, super-rich, self-centered imbecile and Keri Russell as his childhood crush all grown up? The series suffered mightily from the expectations and hopes that it'd be as perfectly crafted and hilarious as Arrested Development (narrator voice: it wasn't), but the show had elements that were every bit as memorably moronic, like Peter Serafinowicz's pompous neighbor who rides a miniature pony, or David Cross's recurring bit as Russell's eco-terrorist boyfriend. Then again, if Running Wilde had gotten renewed, Keri Russell might not have been able to take on The Americans, so maybe we dodged a bullet. -- JS

Selfie (2014)

The millennial-targeting name scared enough people away from Emily Kapnek's rom-com show that it lasted only seven episodes on ABC before getting yanked. (The remaining six episodes aired on Hulu.) The 13 half hours we're left with are well worth a look. A modern take on Pygmalion (itself the basis for the better known My Fair Lady), Selfie followed Instagram starlet Eliza Dooley (Karen Gillan, post-Doctor Who and just after the release of Guardians of the Galaxy) on a path to redemption. FlashForward's Jon Cho, as an image guru, played her Henry Higgins, and the chemistry -- comedic and romantic -- was off the charts. A few weeks after its debut, so was the show. -- DJ

Stella (2005)

The comedy trio Stella, made up of Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and David Wain playing caricatures of themselves as adult man-children who've shared an apartment for an unclear but indefinite amount of time, started as an outcrop of The State, MTV's quirky alt-comedy sketch show starring many of comedy's current big players, including Ken Marino, Thomas Lennon, and Joe Lo Truglio. It took nearly 10 years for Stella to go from popular stage show to sudden cult favorites, after releasing a series of shorts online, to a Comedy Central TV show that very few people watched but was (and still is!) criminally underrated. Playing out sketch-inspired scenarios over the course of a 22 minute show maybe didn't scan for people and the jokes were likely too high concept to land, but while it had its brief run during the summer of 2005, Stella was one of the funniest shows on TV. -- LB

Swamp Thing (2019)

In recent memory, there's been few show cancellations as cruel or as perplexing as DC Universe pulling the plug on James Wan's incredible Swamp Thing series due to nebulous funding concerns (to be fair, it was a remarkably expensive show) not even a week after the first episode debuted on the streaming platform. More True Blood than Doom Patrol,Swamp Thing, which is based on the mossy green comic book character, delighted in its own murky, clammy Deep South aesthetic, telling a story of good and evil and environmental preservation through a disgraced scientist whose body is resurrected by a sentient, all-powerful cypress marsh to fight a creeping disease menacing a small Bayou town. More than the plot, it was the show's commitment to practical effects, including scenes of near-excessive gore complemented by lots of green goo and a fully decked-out 7-foot-tall comic-accurate Swamp Thing suit, that made the show worth watching. -- ES

Sweet/Vicious (2016–17)

Before Jennifer Kaytin Robinson waded into Netflix rom com territory with Someone Great, she earned herself devoted fans among those who were clued into her savvy MTV show Sweet/Vicious. The dark comedy put a refreshing spin on the superhero/vigilante narrative, focusing on two college women (played by Eliza Bennett and Taylor Dearden, aka Bryan Cranston's daughter) who team up to take revenge on the sexual predators on their campus. -- EZ

That's My Bush! (2001)

Hear me out! In the wake of the contentious 2000 election and just ahead of 9/11, a low-stakes spoof of the First Family by the creators of South Park was exactly what no one asked for or needed. But the eight episodes of this goofy satire of '70s and '80s sitcoms that also happened to feature the wacky misadventures of characters from the nascent George W. Bush presidency, and ended with Bush getting impeached, albeit with Dick Cheney taking over the show (retitled That's My Dick!), were oddly cathartic. -- JS

10 Things I Hate About You (2009–10)

The '00s on ABC Family were a strange time. Before hits like Pretty Little Liars and The Fosters, there was The Secret Life of the American Teenager, about a pregnant teenaged Shailene Woodley, and Kyle XY, which featured a boy without a bellybutton because he was made in a test-tube. But out of that rut came 10 Things I Hate About You, a series inspired by the 1999 rom-com about the polar opposite Stratford sisters' and their pursuits of love, despite their father not letting them date… a la The Taming of the Shrew. Making one of the greatest teen movies of all time into a show might sound like a plan destined to fail, but the series captured its heart and was able to flesh out the Stratford sisters and their relationships even more. Plus, weirdly enough, Larry Miller reprised his role as the girls' father again. And best of all? It starred a young Nicholas Braun -- AKA Succession's Cousin Greg -- as Cameron, the gawky boy pining for Bianca. So the Nic Braun obsession is nothing new for tweens who watched this ABC Family deep cut. If only we had gotten to see him and TV-version Patrick (Ethan Peck) finally get to take the Stratfords to prom. -- Sadie Bell

The Tick (2001)

Before it was rebooted for rebooted for the streaming era, where it ran for two seasons on Amazon, Ben Edlund's blue superhero made his live-action debut on FOX in this wickedly deadpan sitcom. (The character was also the star of a charming animated series that aired in the FOX Kids cartoon block in the '90s.) With Men in Black filmmaker Barry Sonnefield directing the pilot and Seinfeld veteran Larry Charles on board as a writer, the show arrived with absurd style to spare, plenty of droll jokes, and a very funny deadpan lead performance from Patrick Warburton as the goofy, bulbous crimefighter. Unfortunately, it aired on Thursdays opposite a little show called Survivor, which promptly squashed it like a bug after nine episodes. -- DJ

Trophy Wife (2011–12)

Trophy Wife was a smart show cursed with a stupid title. Trophy Wife sounds like it should be a crass, sub-Kevin Can Wait sitcom with jokes about "women being so demanding" or whatever. Instead, it was a sweet ABC series about a family figuring out its own weird dynamic where no one, including the titular "trophy wife," played by Malin Akerman, is demonized. Akerman stars as Kate, the third wife of Bradley Whitford's Pete Harrison. His exes (Marcia Gay Harden and Michaela Watkins) are very much in his life, as are the children he had with them (Ryan Lee, Bailee Madison, and standout Albert Tsai). Creators Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins wrote well-defined characters that got into truly delightful high jinks. Alas. -- EZ

Tuca & Bertie (2019)

Tuca & Bertie, which fell victim to Netflix's cutthroat algorithm after only one season, was one of the best new shows of 2019. The series kicks off when Tuca (Tiffany Haddish) is moving out of the apartment she shared with Bertie (Ali Wong) so that Bertie's boyfriend Speckle (Steven Yeun) can move in. It's the first major change in their relationship, and one that culminates in the major growing pains that plague friendships as people transition to adulthood. While the series handles concepts like sexual harassment, trauma, and sexuality in a way that feels authentic, it's also delightfully surreal and funny: Bertie fights for a promotion at her workplace, Condé Nest; Tuca tries to befriend her cool neighbor, who is actually an anthropomorphic plant; one of Bertie's boobs decides to take a day off after getting fed up with being sexually harassed at work. With a bright color palette and beautifully expressive character designs, it's a visual standout as well. While there's no shortage of adult animated comedies (whose humor frequently comes at the expense of women and their bodies), Tuca & Bertie was a rare gem that was not only surreal, and stupid, and hilarious -- it was made by and for women, and it's a treat for all. -- Palmer Haasch

Undeclared (2001-02) 

Judd Apatow followed up his short-lived high school cult comedy, Freaks and Geeks, with an equally short-lived college comedy, Undeclared. Despite the fact that it's set in the present day, Undeclared works almost as a sequel to Freaks and Geeks, starring several members of the latter's cast and focusing on similarly awkward, torturous, and funny moments most people who have grown up in America can relate to. Like all of Apatow's projects, Undeclared bounces effortlessly between dick jokes and profound moments of humanity, and in a single season it makes you feel like you're in your freshman hall again, wondering why that one kid's divorced dad keeps hanging around. -- Anthony Schneck

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