Every now and again a television show comes along that is different from anything that has been on before. The Twilight Zone and Star Trek are examples of such shows from the past. Lost is a current example. Often such shows are critically acclaimed. Often such shows also develop cult followings. And, unfortunately, often such shows are cancelled in a season or less.
To me the perfect example of one such show is Profit. Profit aired for all of four weeks on Fox in April 1996. Even rave reviews from critics did not save the show from cancellation. What set Profit apart from every other series before it is that its protagonist was also the villain. The series centred on Jim Profit (Adrian Pasdar), born Jimmy Stokowski, who was a Vice President of Acquisitions at Gracen and Gracen, a large multinational corporation. Profit was hardly what one would call a sympathetic character. In fact, he might well have been the vilest character ever seen on television. He would literally do anything to get ahead at Gracen and Gracen. In the debut episode alone, Profit framed co-worker Walters for the "murder" of Wayne Gresham, who actually died of natural causes! What made Profit such a remarkable series was that its characters were very well developed for a TV series. Jim Profit himself was hardly a cardboard cutout, as the reasons behind his evil rest in his past. The child of an older father and a younger woman, Profit's father took very little interest in him. In fact, he even made little Jimmy sleep in a cardboard packing box! That Profit still sleeps in a box even as an adult perhaps says that he, quite simply, never grew up. Profit was one of the shows aired as part of Trio's Brilliant But Cancelled, allowing more people to discover the series. Perhaps for that reason, it makes its debut on DVD this summer--all ten episodes, even those not aired in the United States!
Another series which was decidedly different but lasted all too briefly was Nowhere Man. Nowhere Man was one of the first shows to air on UPN. Unfortunately, it only lasted 25 episodes, exactly one season (the 1995-1996 season to be exact). Nowhere Man is a hard series to sum up in a sound byte. Perhaps the best way to describe it briefly and concisely is as a cross between The Prisoner and The Fugitive. Nowhere Man centred on Thomas Veil, a documentary photographer who suddenly finds his entire life wiped out. His friends and family refuse to acknowledge him. His ATM cards and credit cards no longer work. Even the keys to his home and his studio work no more. Veil has little idea why this happened, but he suspects that it might have to do with photographs of an execution from a Third World country which went missing from his studio. Regardless of the reasons, some vast Conspiracy with a Hidden Agenda has erased all record of his existence. Worse yet, they are pursuing him, forcing Veil on a cross country journey to both escape them and uncover the truth about them. Nowhere Man featured starkly original plots that tended towards the cerebral side. Like The Prisoner, Nowhere Man was a thinking man's action series.
A more recent, short lived series that was decidedly different was Firefly. Created by Joss Whedon (the man behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel), Firefly centred on the spaceship Serenity, whose crew were largely outcasts. There was Capt. Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his first mate Zoe Warren (Gina Torres), who made the mistake of fighting on the wrong side in the Unification Wars. There was Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), a preacher well off the beaten track. And there was Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), who was a Companion (sort of a high scale prostitute). On the surface, Firefly might sound a lot like Farscape or Blake's Seven, but the show's execution set it apart from other sci-fi shows. There were no strange aliens to be found on Firefly; only human beings appeared on the series. And the show had a definite Old West feel. Firefly treated outer space literally as a new frontier, where lawlessness often prevailed. The series boasted some very original, very well written episodes and received good reviews from critics. It also developed a loyal following. Unfortunately, Fox gave the show little chance. It was placed on Friday night, where very few genre shows have ever survived. And rather than move the show to a better time slot, Fox simply cancelled the series. Fortunately, this was not the end of Firefly. A feature film based on the series, Serenity, hits theatres later this year.
There are many other shows that were decidely different (and were actually good as well), that I could probably discuss here. It seems to me that when a show is actually different from any other series that has aired before, it often shortens the lifespan of that show a good deal. Such shows seem to take time to develop followings. And, unfortuately, from what I know of television history, it does not seem that network executives are a patient lot. They want fairly good ratings from the beginning and, if they don't get them, the series is generally cancelled. If Lost had not performed well in the ratings, it would probably be off the air by now. It can only be hoped that in the future, network excecutives will give shows that are different more of a chance. Looking back at such shows that have been given a chance (The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Hill Street Blues), they could well have a hit on their hands.