Great writing is often rewarded. Whether it’s The Wire or Breaking Bad’s enduring standing among the greatest shows of all time, or Seinfeld remaining a cultural touchstone for (it seems like) all comedy. Generations of writers look back to shining examples of great writing, so they can learn from the best. This is natural and right. But there are exceptions, unfortunate moments where great writing doesn’t garner renown. Shows get cancelled too soon, regardless of the writing skill on display. This makes it far too easy to miss out on stellar examples of television writing.
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Luckily, this article’s compiled a handy list of five shows with outstanding writing, cancelled before their time.
Created and mostly written by David Milch, Deadwood was a Western. But Deadwood is to Westerns what The Wire is to cop shows. In a frontier town caught between delightful lawlessness and a desire for peace and order, cowboys, “Indians”, crooks and entrepreneurs try and make their mark. Deadwood’s stylized dialogue manages to do that rare thing – tell higher truths of life while talking about blood, and piss, and mud. Concrete acts and abstract ideas go together like shootouts and soliloquies. Characters in Deadwood are as likely to monologue alone in iambic pentameter as they are to stab someone in the back. Loosely based on real events, the show puts mythic Western heroes into violent context. The Sherriff wants to defend the town and help it secure a future in the soon-to-be United States. The evil businessman wants to warp the town toward his own ends. Fairly standard Western stuff. Except the Sheriff is married to a woman he barely knows, desperately hoping he doesn’t have to be in charge of a town of murderers and racists. And the businessman believes the Earth talks to him, telling him where to mine for precious metals.
As an example of Deadwood’s lyrical complexity, turn your ear on this exchange between Hearst, the aforementioned businessman, and Wolcott, his fixer, played with civil cruelty by Garrett Dillahunt. Wolcott has started giving in to his violent urges and wants to explain his need for blood to Hearst.
Wolcott: When the earth talks to you particularly, you never ask its reasons.
Hearst: I don’t need to know why I’m lucky!
Wolcott: What if the earth talks to us to get us to arrange its amusements?
Hearst: That sounds like goddamned nonsense to me.
Wolcott: Suppose to you it whispers, “You are king over me. I exist to flesh your will.”
Wolcott: And to me… “There is no sin.” It happened in Mexico and now it’s happened here.
Before Homeland, Damian Lewis played another character grappling with the two sides of his personality. Life is about Charlie Crews, a detective wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of his partner, hell-bent on discovering who really killed him. So far this sounds like a generic cop show. The real joy of the series revolves around how Charlie survived 12 years in prison. The answer is equal measures of violence and Zen philosophy. Charlie tries to solve murders without giving in to his darker urges, his need to survive and his desire to punish the wicked. He tries to disconnect from material things and stay centered. It doesn’t always work out.
Years before Making A Murderer, Life posited the idea of a documentary crew examining a cold case by interviewing all of the people involved. Charlie’s ex-wife, his friends, and others are interviewed by a documentary crew throughout the series. They confess their thoughts on Charlie, thinking for years that he murdered those closest to him. All the while Charlie tries to move past the person prison made him. Perhaps this is best summed up in the following quote from Season 2. Charlie is talking to a friend he made in prison, Ted Earley.
Ted Earley: Charlie. What are you thinking?
Charlie Crews: I’m thinking about what I want and what I need.
Ted Earley: What do you want?
Charlie Crews: I want a peaceful soul
Ted Earley: And what do you need?
Charlie Crews: I need a bigger gun.
Freaks and Geeks
A show about high school kids trying to find their place in the world isn’t a revolutionary concept. But Freaks and Geeks managed to perfectly capture a series of defining moments for an entire generation of American teens. Not to mention, this is the show that launched approximately sixteen superstar Hollywood careers. James Franco, Martin Starr, Judd Apatow, John Francis Daley, Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, the list keeps going. Beyond the humor, the cringe inducing teen “romance”, and the general discomfort of being a person in the world, Freaks And Geeks tackled real-world issues with a mix of comedy and drama that would become commonplace soon after, but at the time was reserved for special cases like its spiritual predecessor The Wonder Years.
Freaks And Geeks genius can’t be summed up in any one quote. Between the hyperbolic fear parents have that their children will become addicted to drugs if they hang out with the wrong crowd and the crushing need for the protagonists to be seen, there’s no one thing Freaks And Geeks does well. It takes simple things like math class and makes them complicated. It takes complicated things like gender and tries to make it simple. In 1999, this TV show used its eighteen episodes to the fullest to delve into the complicated period of transition where kids stop being kids but aren’t adults yet. It was a moment in time. The closest to a quote that encapsulates the show is this one, from the series’ lead character Lindsay Weir:
Lindsay: All my new friends think I’m some goody-two-shoes and all my old friends think I’m throwing my life away. What the hell am I supposed to do?
I know, I know. Given the enduring fury of fans over the show being cancelled after eleven of the fourteen episodes aired, you may be sick of hearing about this show. But that doesn’t change the fact that the fresh concept, the endearing cast, and yes, the writing, are top quality. A tale of rogues trying to pull heists at the edges of the galaxy, Firefly was ostensibly a space western. A family of misfits and outsiders on the run from the Alliance, the super government exerting its control over the known galaxy. This show had romance, friendship, action, comedy, adventure, and horror. This show had Nathan Fillion in very tight pants.
From the same people that launched the Buffy phenomenon came quick-witted and layered dialogue. The distinct character voices of a priest, a pilot, an addled teen psychic and an uptight doctor combined into a unique mélange, a cavalcade of oral dexterity spanning two languages and a heavy dose of sarcasm. Firefly captured people’s imaginations by juxtaposing thrilling adventure and fantasy against the backdrop of a lost war. Emotional highs and lows followed each other at breakneck speed. And we followed with them. Firefly is eminently quotable, whether you’re looking for top quality banter or dense meditations on the nature of objects versus what people do with them. The latter is embodied in the episode Objects in Space where we finally see the world the way River the psychic does. She walks through the ship they call home, taking impressions of people’s secret thoughts, before picking up a stick. But it’s not a stick, it’s a loaded gun. The following is an exchange between River, Captain Mal, and Inara, a member of the crew that’s planning on leaving the ship.
Mal: Have you decided when you’re gonna tell the others?
Inara: I… No. I appreciate your not saying anything.
Mal: Well, I don’t. So make up your mind.
Inara (in River’s head): I’m a big girl, just tell me.
Mal (in River’s head): None of it means a damn thing.
[River bends down to look at a bent branch on the leaf-strewn cargo bay floor and picks it up]
River: It’s just an object. It doesn’t mean what you think.
[River comes out of a vision to find herself holding a gun, which Mal takes from her.]
Mal: Fully loaded, safety off. This here is a recipe for unpleasantness. Does she understand that?
River: She understands. She doesn’t comprehend.
Mal: Well, I’m glad we’ve made that distinction.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
If you’re familiar with Terminator, you might think this is a show about Sarah Connor and her son John on the run from futuristic killing machines. And you’d be right. But if you haven’t watched the show, you’ll be surprised to learn that this sci-fi action drama investigates themes of fate versus self-determination as deeply as any modern show. The Leftovers approach to this topic comes in the form of mystery, conspiracy, and loss. Terminator: TSCC uses time travel. Thrown into the future (our present) Sarah and John must rely on Cameron, a Terminator sent to protect John, to safeguard them from various factions that want them dead. It’s a story of a mother and her son, both trying to ensure that there is no fate but what they make for themselves.
Like many sci-fi shows featuring robots, this series explores the nature of life itself. Can robots have free will and feelings outside their programming? And if you, like John Connor, are destined to save humanity, isn’t that a kind of programming? A string of commands you have to implement to achieve the desired outcome? The burden of parenthood is ensuring the safety of your child, ensuring their future. This burden gets a lot heavier when your child is responsible for everyone’s future. Sarah’s chronicles take the form of her narrating parables of other myths, legends, and stories. Typically closed off and hardened by trauma, Sarah’s narration is a needed window into her soul.
Sarah Connor: My father slept with a gun under his pillow. There was no pill for his sickness, no medicine to ease his mind. He left blood and sweat and part of his soul in a foreign land. My father never talked to me about the war he fought. He never talked to anyone. Ever vigilant, ever silent. I never thought I’d follow in his footsteps… In 1678 doctors diagnosed a mental affliction soldiers suffered from as ‘nostalgia’ – homesickness, a longing to return to the past. The cruel reality of war is that there is no return home. No return to innocence. What is lost, is lost forever. Like my father, war’s wounds have bled me dry. No words of comfort; no words of forgiveness. No words at all.
One article can’t capture what made the writing of these shows so captivating. Do yourself a favor and watch them for yourself. Whether you’re looking for inspiration, for examples of great writing to draw from, or just looking for a good time, you could do a lot worse than the five series above. Besides, to really get a sense of their writing, you shouldn’t read the words. You should hear them spoken. Just because these five shows are gone, doesn’t mean they can’t live on in your living room.
Shaun Leonard is an experienced writer, editor, and assistant. He is available for story consultation and script editing. Follow Shaun on Twitter @shaun_leonard