If our current era of so-called peak TV has one perk it’s that us genre lovers have a higher chance of finding something spooky to watch on the old idiot box. From Supernatural and The Walking Dead, all the way up to American Horror Story and Channel Zero, there’s a plethora of scary shows with healthy lifespans. This wasn’t always the case, however. Not that long ago it was more the norm to see horror television bite and scratch for any chance at staying on the airwaves, with even some of the very best series being tossed aside in favor of more traditional programming. Today let’s take a moment to honor some outstanding series that worked to bring the scares every week only to be canceled by short-sighted network executives.
In the early 70s, horror television was largely confined to TV movies or anthology formats that would change out the setting every week. The notion of a recurring character hunting down ghouls and ghosts was largely unheard of until a pair of popular TV movies changed all that.
In 1972, The Night Stalker introduced America to Carl Kolchak, a blue-collar news reporter who stumbles onto a string of murders committed by a vampire. An overnight success, the film was granted a sequel the following year. 1973’s The Night Strangler chronicled a new adventure in Seattle, once again airing to strong ratings. Plans were in motion for a third installment when ABC decided it wanted to turn the concept into a weekly series.
For the new format, Carl Kolchak finds himself working in the windy city of Chicago. Much to his editor’s dismay, Carl continues his bad habit of finding the unexplained and supernatural around every corner. What may look like accidents or murders to officials are found to be linked with all manner of otherworldly threats, be they aliens, a vengeful native American spirit, or even a headless motorcyclist. No idea was too outlandish, a writing strategy which helped to keep the show feeling fresh week after week.
Unfortunately the series premiered in the dreaded Friday night at ten spot, leaving it with poor ratings from the start and little room to grow. A push to an earlier time slot did little to boost viewership. Ordinarily this would have been enough to bring any series to a close, but there was trouble behind the scenes, as well.
Star Darren McGavin wasn’t just the face of the series, he was the backbone and soul of the entire production. More and more he found himself contributing to the writing and production of each episode with nowhere near enough credit or pay to make up for the additional stress. The man began to look for a way out of his contract and with those low ratings, he got his wish.
Despite its single season status, Kolchak: The Night Stalker would forever alter the television landscape. From that point on, the idea of characters solving supernatural mysteries became a viable concept. We would see the idea carried on by the likes of Friday the 13th: The Series, The X-Files, which honored McGavin with a guest role, and of course Supernatural which is currently in its 13th season of blue-collar monster busting.
Beyond that, Kolchak has a legacy of books and comics, a lasting legacy of reruns on other channels, home video releases, and even a 21st century reboot. Sadly, the series reboot also built a small, but loyal cult of followers before being yanked from the air. Maybe the character really is cursed.
After the massive success of The Blair Witch Project, production company Haxan was approached by the FOX network to put together a new spooky show. Not unlike their previous effort, the group created an elaborate backstory to lend the notion that this series was in some way based on reality, and it all revolved around a website called Freakylinks. The site was loaded with unbelievable tales of monsters, spirits, dinosaurs that survived extinction, etc., all of it made to look as real as possible.
The idea for the series itself was something of an X-Files for the Internet generation. The always delightful Ethan Embry played Derek Barnes, the head honcho of this paranormal research website. While Derek was more than happy to face off with monsters-of-the-week, his biggest concern was solving the mysterious death of his identical twin, Adam. With the help of his friends, Adam’s former lady love, and a strange man named Vince who knew more than he ever told, the crew would boldly set out to confront the unknown.
Right off the bat the show had a style that set it apart from other horror shows. Instead of focusing on professional adults, our core group of characters were largely slackers in their early twenties. Combined with occasional bits of found footage there was more of a playful vibe as the characters enjoyed road trips and junk food all while hunting monsters.
The fate of Freakylinks was common for far too many Fox shows. It was placed in an already weak Friday night time slot, and the network got cranky the instant ratings were anything other than stellar. Soon enough the axe was readied and the show placed on the chopping block. Luckily there was enough warning that producers were able to wrap the main plot, albeit in a rather rushed fashion. To their credit, they were able to put together an outstanding final episode that spoofed their major competition at the time, Dateline, essentially flipping the middle finger to popular programming.
In its brief time on the air, Freakylinks formed a decent cult of fans which helped it air repeats on channels like Chiller. Unfortunately there has never been any form of home release, meaning those curious to see the show must track it down, somewhat fittingly, in the back alleys of the Internet.
Executive produced by genre veterans Sam Raimi & Rob Tapert, and created by former Hardy Boys star Shaun Cassidy, American Gothic was one of those classic 90s town series along the lines of Northern Exposure, Picket Fences, or Twin Peaks. Not unlike Twin Peaks, this series added a supernatural element to all the small town drama, tough it would opt for more classic biblical evil.
Thanks to its focus on the town as a whole, the series had a good deal of freedom to shift from serialized plots to more episodic fare. The main story concerned Caleb Temple, a boy orphaned after local Sheriff Lucas Buck killed his family. The truth is soon made clear that the Sheriff is the boy’s real father and something of a devil…I don’t mean that in a cute way, either. Luckily the kid’s dead sister is now his guardian spirit helping to guide him down a better path than his father would like. Intertwined with the family chaos were the lives of a doctor with a dark past, a reporter whose family died under mysterious circumstances, a perverted school teacher, and a host of other sorry souls.
Right out of the gate CBS seemed intent on doing as much as possible to get this show taken off the air. First they premiered it in the dreaded Friday at ten slot, then they neglected to air certain episodes, along with changing the order of other episodes. Pile that on top of the show’s own flaws like some very lackluster special effects and an unnecessary character swap, and it just couldn’t hold on to enough viewership. Even so, the show gained a healthy following of fans and managed to work out a sort of rushed conclusion. Over the years it has seen reruns on other channels and there was even talk of reviving it in some form or another but the best we ever got was a complete DVD release with the episodes still out-of-order.
The Secret Circle
The new kid on the broadcast block, the CW had some rough early years. Initially their biggest series were all leftovers from the WB until The Vampire Diaries changed all that. Executives quickly saw the potential for more spooky teenage soaps, so they had the same producers tackle another book series from author L. J. Smith, this time with the witchcraft-themed The Secret Circle.
The story begins with a girl named Cassie who, after the tragic loss of her mother, must move in with her estranged grandmother. Living in her mothers childhood home, she meets a group of fellow teenagers all linked together by witchcraft and the secrets of their parents.
While a little rocky at first the series grew immensely over its first season, killing and introducing new characters and crafting deeper storylines. Beyond that, the writers were able to further develop the tone of the show into a fine mix of drama, horror, romance, and a little comedy. The series seemed destined for success, becoming the third highest rated series on the network. Which raises the question, why is it on this list?
First off, the series had a higher budget than the average supernatural teen romance. The production value was very high with lots of on-location shooting, and a large cast of characters who all had magical abilities. Outside of that, the show was developed and put on air at a point when network leadership was changing, and the new head wanted something less risky, but hopefully with the same pull on audiences. And so the decision was made to cancel Secret Circle and replace it with a new version of Beauty and the Beast.
Fans of the series were livid and did everything within their power to save their new favorite show. Letter writing and social media campaigns were used to either force CW to bring it back or for another channel like MTV to pick it up. No company would risk such an expensive series and it fell into cable reruns and streaming services, never even getting a home video release. The only satisfaction fan would receive was watching as Beauty and the Best turned into a forgotten summer series.
By far the most prestigious production on our list, Carnival came from a time when HBO was the end-all-be-all of premium cable television. With series like The Sopranos and The Wire, the network was changing the very nature of what television could be. The company had previously made an impact on the horror genre with Tales From the Crypt, but Carnivale provided an opportunity for them to apply their new high-class approach.
Based during the Great Depression, the series followed dual plot threads; one about a young man named Ben Hawkins joining a very strange traveling circus, the other about a small town preacher with dark powers. Over time both men learn they are part of a greater conflict between good and evil and their battlefield is rural America. Caught in the crossfire of this mystical conflict were a wide array of misfits like Jonesy, the crippled baseball player, and Sofie, the tarot-card reader. Each of these personalities brought further depth to this twisted tale and fans lapped it up.
The show would become part of an ugly trend for HBO. Over the span of a few years, the network would cancel more and more fan favorites like Deadwood and Rome. Each was written off with the same excuse: they were simply too expensive to produce. One might point out the faulty reasoning in complaining about the costs of sets and props after you’ve already made and utilized them within multiple seasons of television. Still, the executives had made up their minds.
As if losing such a good show wasn’t bad enough, fans had to endure further insult. Some wondered if they might get lucky enough to see the series move to another station or get wrapped up through a different medium such as novels. Sadly HBO had complete ownership of the property and would not allow it to be sold off to a competitor or reworked into a new format. The closest fans ever got to answers were documents from the creators outlining plans for future seasons.
These have been but a few examples from the graveyard of great TV. Yes there are plenty more excellent horror shows shot down in their prime. At least we can take comfort in living in a time when such entertainment can be brought back into the light and cherished. We may return to this subject yet again, but for now, what about you all out there? Which prematurely ended tales left you infuriated? Sound off in the comments.