Brilliant but cancelled: the great TV shows killed too soon

Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult in The Great
Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult in The Great - Hulu

In John Milton’s 1637 poem Lycidas, the poet mourns his dead friend “For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,” he writes. It is more likely than not that Elle Fanning’s Catherine the Great would have read Lycidas, and would have remembered these lines when she was informed that the show in which she stars, The Great, has been cancelled after its third season. It would definitely not have been an occasion for her to shout the show’s catchphrase, “Huzzah!” Yet Tony McNamara’s excellent programme has the dubious distinction of joining a vast number of other shows that have been cancelled long before their natural end.

In some cases, as in Joss Whedon’s Firefly or David Milch’s Deadwood, they have been granted the distinction of a feature-length spin-off that wraps the story up in a satisfactory fashion. And, occasionally, fan outcry has led to a show that has been dropped by one broadcaster or studio being picked up by another. But more often than not, loyal audiences are left frustrated and disappointed when a series that they have invested time and interest in is simply left hanging, with plot threads unresolved and character arcs abandoned midway. Here are 13 shows that were dead before their prime, some of which we’d kill to see return – and at least one that did come back, and really shouldn’t have bothered.

The Nevers (2021-2023)

Now that the once-almighty writer and director Joss Whedon has been well and truly cancelled, the last show to have his name on it, the Victorian cyberpunk extravaganza The Nevers, was in existential trouble anyway. Yet the decision to split its first (and only) season in half, and then to bring in a new showrunner in the form of Philippa Goslett to deal with the subsequent six episodes, proved catastrophic; it has proved all but impossible for audiences to watch the remaining instalments, thanks to their only being available on the obscure American streaming network Tubi, and no sign of their appearing in the UK.

Laura Donnelly in The Nevers
Laura Donnelly in The Nevers - HBO/Warner Brothers

Which is a tremendous shame as the first half of the show was over-ambitious but fascinating, a clever blend of Whedon’s signature empowered heroines and sarcastic wit, and with a brilliant supporting cast including James Norton, Olivia Williams and Ben Chaplin. And Laura Donnelly’s brilliantly charismatic performance as the protagonist Amalia True, a dynamic but believably flawed heroine, deserved to be lauded far more than it was.

The Great (2020-2023)

Nicholas Hoult is acquiring a reputation as Hollywood’s unluckiest man, losing out on roles from everything as Superman to the villain in the Mission: Impossible films, much to his open chagrin. Yet he can reassure himself with the knowledge that his performance as the dilettante-ish, limited but strangely likeable Peter the Great, one-time emperor of Russia, remained a comic marvel for all the three seasons of The Great. Opposite an equally brilliant Elle Fanning, whose slightly askew English accent works perfectly in the context of the surreal, knowingly anachronistic show, Hoult leads an impressive cast, all of whom vie to steal scenes from one another as they gorge themselves on showrunner Tony McNamara’s epigrammatic, endlessly quotable dialogue.

Cancelled after its third season, due to the rumoured high costs of mounting an expensive period drama that always appealed to a discerning rather than wide audience, it should nevertheless be savoured as a sumptuously nasty exercise in power and one-upmanship. Who knows, its cancellation might even offer Hoult the freedom to get the comic roles that he deserves, too.

Babylon (2014)

It’s hard to think of a series in the past decade that assembled a more impressive roster of talent than the police comedy-drama Babylon. Created by Danny Boyle, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, it had a star-studded cast that included everyone from The OA’s Brit Marling and James Nesbitt to Bertie Carvel and a pre-Get Out Daniel Kaluuya. And after a hugely watchable, dynamic Boyle-directed pilot episode, greatness beckoned. Unfortunately, the ensuing series didn’t quite live up to expectations, despite typically sharp scripting by Armstrong and Bain (amongst others); there was an awkward lurching between comedy and straight drama, and the sprawling cast meant that the characters sometimes felt short-changed.

James Nesbitt and Britt Marling in Babylon
James Nesbitt and Britt Marling in Babylon - Dean Rogers

Yet it had enormous potential, and perhaps if Armstrong had not gone on to take over the world with Succession, it may have continued. However, he confirmed in 2015 that there would not be any more, saying “getting everyone back together seemed like it would be extraordinarily complicated, so we haven’t pursued it.”

This Life (1996 – 2007)

There are a few things synonymous with the mid-to-late Nineties; New Labour, Britpop and Cool Britannia, and Amy Jenkins’s iconic drama This Life, revolving around the intertwined affairs (in both senses) of a group of young lawyers, was unmissable cult viewing for its devoted audience. (Coincidentally, it also featured the behind-the-scenes talents of Ricky Gervais, who put together its soundtrack and was credited as “music advisor”.) The exploits of Jack Davenport’s arrogant Miles, Daniela Nardini’s sharp-tongued but vulnerable Anna and Andrew Lincoln’s good-natured Egg were essential water-cooler conversation, and its second series ended on an intriguing cliffhanger.

However, initial plans to continue the show for a third instalment, with a new cast, were eventually discontinued, with the BBC saying that they wished to end This Life “on a high”. Unfortunately, nostalgia and curiosity led to a one-off special being commissioned in 2007, and the ensuing show felt as flat and predictable as a sub-par episode of Cold Feet, ending one of Britain’s most iconic dramas with a whimper rather than a bang.

Hannibal (2013-2015)

Mads Mikkelsen has now established himself as Hollywood’s Euro-baddie of choice, and it’s his magnificently rich and nuanced performance as the cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter in Bryan Fuller’s dark and violent series Hannibal that has surely shown such credentials. Over the course of three seasons, Mikkelsen’s Lecter and Hugh Dancy’s FBI agent Will Graham led one another in a dance macabre, even as Fuller’s show eventually turned into an adaptation of Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon, featuring a terrifying Richard Armitage as the serial killer known as “the Tooth Fairy”.

Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal
Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal - NBC

It was widely anticipated that the fourth series of Hannibal would move into the territory of The Silence of the Lambs, offering a fascinating opportunity to compare Fuller’s interpretation of the material with Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning film, but it was not to be. NBC cancelled the show after the third season, citing low viewing figures, and despite persistent rumours that it will be revived by another broadcaster, whether for a fourth series or as a one-off film, no such development has come to pass, although Mikkelsen and Dancy remain keen to return.

Mindhunter (2017-2019)

There may be no filmmaker today so closely associated with the serial killer genre as David Fincher, whether it’s the edge-of-seat thrills of Se7en or the police procedural of Zodiac. His Netflix series Mindhunter, developed with the British playwright Joe Penhall, cleaved far closer to the latter in its exploration of the mindsets of men who decided to kill, and then kill again. Eschewing big action set-pieces in favour of intricate, often disturbing dialogue scenes that revolve around the deep psychological exploration of unsettled minds, it was cerebral, demanding television, but not one that connected with a wide audience.

Jonathan Groff in Mindhunter
Jonathan Groff in Mindhunter - Netflix

As Fincher said: “It had a very passionate audience, but we never got the numbers that justified the cost.” Initial plans for a third season were postponed for the director to take on his Herman Mankiewicz biopic Mank, then his upcoming assassin thriller The Killer. It was no great surprise when, in February this year, Fincher confirmed that its expense meant that it would not be renewed for a new instalment.

Ultraviolet (1998)

Long before The Wire and Luther made him a star, Idris Elba showed off his magnetic charisma as a hard-bitten security operative in this fascinating, hugely overlooked vampire drama, created by Joe Ahearne and starring Jack Davenport as a sceptical policeman who comes to realise that the undead – known as ‘leeches’ – not only walk the earth, but have a grand plan that will result in the destruction of humanity as we know it. The show has deservedly attracted a cult following since its original broadcast, and remains a terrifying, utterly straight-faced account of what life would be like if vampires really did exist.

However, despite the presence of Davenport, then coming off the success of This Life, it was never commissioned for a second series, and an ill-attempted US remake was ditched after its pilot. Had it been more popular, it’s not too fanciful to believe that it would now be regarded as one of the great British thriller series, but as it is, the one, fascinating season exists as a “what might have been”.

The Kominsky Method (2018-2021)

The recent death of the great Alan Arkin reminded many of his peerless comic gifts that were on display throughout an illustrious career that spanned everything from Catch-22 and his Oscar-winning performance in Little Miss Sunshine to his most recent scene-stealing role in Chuck Lorre’s comedy-drama The Kominsky Method as Norman Newlander, a gruff but decent agent who has a warm rapport with his dearest friend, Michael Douglas’s actor-turned-acting coach Sandy Kominsky. Arkin chose not to return for the third season of the show, which missed his peerless comic timing, but it remained a joy to see Douglas in such warm and twinkly form, a mile away from the dead-eyed sex obsessives who he made his name playing in the Eighties and Nineties.

Alan Arkin and Michael Douglas in The Kominsky Method
Alan Arkin and Michael Douglas in The Kominsky Method - Mike Yarish/Netflix

Unfortunately, there will not be a fourth season, although this was a rather gentler conclusion than some of the more abrupt cancellations of some of the other shows. Lorre commented that it was a mutual decision by him and Netflix: “This third season feels like the right way to go. We feel we can bring it to a very satisfying ending.” Many would agree that it did, but it’s still hard not to wish that the adventures of Sandy Kominsky might have continued for a while longer.

Rome (2005 – 2007)

Long before Game of Thrones, there was another historical show that combined intricate scenes of political powerplay and skulduggery with envelope-pushing scenes of sex and violence, in the form of HBO’s epic series Rome. Dealing with the assassination of Caesar and subsequent civil war as seen through the eyes of two fictitious soldiers, it was epic television on the grandest of scales, with a magnificent cast, vast budgets and cheerfully profane, witty dialogue.

Originally conceived as a five-series show, it was cancelled after two because of what one industry insider referred to as its “notoriously expensive” costs, which meant that much of what was planned for seasons three and four was hurriedly compacted into the second series, and the intriguingly provocative concept for its final season – the rise of the Messiah in Palestine, told from the perspective of the Romans – was ditched, thereby avoiding what would inevitably have been enormous controversy.

Lovesick (2014-2018)

Tom Edge’s charming and witty romantic comedy Lovesick – set in a Glasgow where nobody appears to speak with a Scottish accent – is a rare example of a show that was initially ditched by one broadcaster (Channel 4) and then picked up by another, in the form of Netflix; part of the reason may have been that its storyline, revolving around Johnny Flynn’s sensitive Dylan attempting to track down all his exes to tell them of a diagnosis of an STD, was at odds with its original, off-putting title of Scrotal Recall.

Appropriately renamed, it was a hit for the streaming service, but it looks unlikely that it will ever be returning for a fourth series, although this was down to the availability of its cast as much as corporate tastes; according to its star Antonia Thomas in 2019, “I’d love to do more Lovesick, but I just don’t know. Everyone is so busy, and just all over the place. Getting us all back together could be tricky. But you never know.” Who knows, a reunion special or series might yet be on the cards for this most charming of shows.

Profit (1996)

The birth of the modern-day TV antihero usually traced back to Tony Soprano, but there’s a strong case to be made for Jim Profit, a ruthless corporate sociopath with abusive childhood and Oedipal complex to boot. Each episode saw Profit, Richard III in suit and tie, weaving his web of lies and manoeuvring his way to the top.

Lisa Zane, Adrian Pasdar and Sherman Augustus in Profit
Lisa Zane, Adrian Pasdar and Sherman Augustus in Profit - alamy

Too outrageous for most audiences, the show and its amoral lead received numerous complaints and some Fox affiliates threatened to pull the show. Profit was cancelled after only four episodes, with four more left unaired. How differently might it have fared in a television landscape now presided over by the likes of Succession’s Logan Roy? (Chris Taylor)

Rubicon (2010)

Focusing on analysts at an intelligence think tank who favoured rifling through files and spotting patterns over bursting into rooms and shooting people, Rubicon thrived on Kafka-esque claustrophobia and a conspiracy theory that was slowly unravelled through hard work rather than blind luck. Even its villain had a name that was both puzzling and brilliant: Truxton Spangler.

Yet, despite being one of the most intelligent and smartly written dramas of 2010, its glacial pace marked it out for cancellation from an early stage. AMC already had zombies (The Walking Dead), a meth-dealing science teacher (Breaking Bad, finally picking up momentum) and the all-conquering Mad Men, so there simply wasn’t room for a show that was difficult to advertise and struggled to find an audience. (CT)

Terriers (2010)

The perfect antidote to the polished, high-tech crime dramas of the time, Terriers followed Donal Logue’s alcoholic ex-cop Hank Dolworth as he set up an illegal private investigation business with reformed criminal and best friend Britt (Michael Raymond-James). Opting for a scruffier, darker comic tone to fit its Raymond Chandler-esque lead, it made for addictive viewing. Creator Ted Griffin’s reputation for witty yet troubling dialogue was established with his screenplays for Ocean’s 11 and Matchstick Men, yet despite the diehard support of a number of critics and fans, it became FX’s lowest-rated show ever. (CT)