Streaming services and network television (that still exists, right?) are chock-full of mediocre shows that keep going thanks to high ratings (The Big Bang Theory) or excellent sitcoms that ended up jumping the shark (The Office). Entertainment executives tend not to care about quality shows that fly under the radar, accruing a small but passionate fan base, and instead go for those which have universal, if uninspired, appeal. Consider the cases of Modern Family and Community, both of which premiered in the fall of 2009. The former stuck to a mockumentary format, already proven successful with The Office, and ran successfully for 11 seasons, garnering 22 Emmys in that time. The latter, on the other hand, frequently veered into meta territory with parodies of beloved films and takes on different tropes, but faced cancellation multiple times during its six season run.
Community’s cult following brought it back from the brink of death more than once, but not all sitcoms are so lucky. Listed below are 12 of the best shows that lasted for only three seasons or fewer and ended before their time. That is, these shows aren’t short by design; if we included those, then we’d have to list nearly every British comedy ever made. All of these sitcoms, whether hidden gems or well-known entities, deserved much more time on air.—Clare Martin
12. The Grinder (2015—2016)
What happens to a big star when they leave the small screen? In the case of Dean (Rob Lowe), star of the hit fictional law drama Grinder, he moves back to his hometown of Boise, Idaho to see if he can be a real-life lawyer just like his mousy brother Stewart (Fred Savage). Dean’s unrealistic expectations of the courtroom are grounded by Stewart, but the latter also finds himself pushed to be bolder thanks to his brother’s gumption. Lowe and Savage’s dynamic works incredibly well, and Parks and Recreation fans will be pleased to see Natalie Morales appear as Dean’s potential love interest. In the era of peak TV, The Grinder may have gotten lost in the shuffle, but its meta commentary on entertainment and delightful cast warranted a larger audience.—Clare Martin
11. Grand (1990)
Grand is a great example of how network intervention can destroy a show. In its first season Grand felt like nothing else on TV at the time. It was a serialized parody of soap operas that made a point of addressing serious class issues and income disparity during a recession with grace and empathy and in a way that was rarely preachy. Despite good reviews, a great cast (including Pamela Reed, Michael McKean and Joel Murray) and a plum Thursday night time slot right after Cheers, it didn’t immediately set the ratings on fire. It was solid enough to bring back, but for the second season the network changed almost everything that made it stand out. It became a standard sitcom focused on a single family, and whatever audience it had quickly bolted.—Garrett Martin
10. Better Off Ted (2009—2010)
Can a person follow their conscience while working for an unethical corporation? Better Off Ted explores this existential question with unhinged surrealness through the antics of the titular Ted (Jay Harrington), the Don Draper of research and development at Veridian Dynamics. He often finds himself at odds with his own morals on the job, since Veridian is just about as soulless as any sprawling company that dabbles in everything from food to weaponry (his love interest Linda even steals creamer from the corporation in a quiet act of rebellion). A must-see episode is the first season’s “Racial Sensitivity,” in which motion-sensing technology at the office fails to recognize Black employees, so caucasian people are hired to follow them in “Operation White Shadow.” Its skewering of racist technology and empty corporate responses to discrimination remain incredibly relevant.—Clare Martin
9. Andy Richter Controls the Universe (2002-2003)
Victor Fresco makes this list twice with two of the best sitcoms of the ‘00s. Andy Richter Controls the Universe is the first and more obscure of the two (the other being Better Off Ted, of course), and although it’s set around a workplace it owes more to Seinfeld than the classic MTM model. Despite good writing and a great cast Richter limped through two lowly rated half-seasons. It’s one of the earlier network sitcoms to eschew laugh tracks and use the single-camera model, which gave it a unique identity, but perhaps it was too alienating to fans of That ‘70s Show or whatever else aired on Fox that night.—Garrett Martin
8. Ben and Kate (2012—2013)
Before she became a part of one of the most notoriously horrible/boring film franchises of the last decade or thankfully took Ellen Degeneres down a peg, Dakota Johnson starred in Ben and Kate. Johnson played the young single mom Kate, living with her wild card brother Ben (Nat Faxon). She juggles getting back into the dating world while caring for her daughter, Maddie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones, one of those rare enjoyable child actors), and Ben, who’s essentially just a giant kid. The family dynamic provides a lot of heart, but the stellar comedic performances from Johnson, Faxon and series regulars Lucy Punch and Echo Kellum are what make us miss this show so very much.—Clare Martin
7. Sports Night (1998-2000)
Before West Wing let him soapbox all hour long, Aaron Sorkin first brought his particular voice to network TV with Sports Night. The half-hour dramedy set at a fictionalized version of Sportscenter was full of strong willed men who quickly spouted strident opinions in-between occasional jokes and banter, and provided a great showcase for actors like Peter Krause, Felicity Huffman and Robert Guillaume. Hampered by a network-imposed laugh track and the sort of viewer confusion that seems to plague every half-hour dramedy, Sports Night ended early and is still hailed as one of the best shows to be cancelled too soon.—Garrett Martin
6. Sledge Hammer! (1986-1988)
A parody of high-octane action films, Reagan era conservatism and Dirty Harry-style rogue cop movies, Sledge Hammer is a perfect artifact of the 1980s. It elevates tough guy posturing and police sadism to absurd heights, with Inspector Hammer using oversized weapons and preferring violence to arresting suspects. Its first season infamously ended with Hammer accidentally nuking San Francisco. This show was huge with my friends at school at the time, but it was up against Miami Vice and Dallas and, later, The Cosby Show, so it didn’t stand a chance in the ratings. The fact that we even got two seasons was good enough for us, and now it’ll live on forever on DVD, thankfully with the laugh track removed.—Garrett Martin
5. Happy Endings (2011—2013)
Never has an insufferable group of friends been more enjoyable to watch than the one at the heart of Happy Endings. Casey Wilson, Adam Pally, Daymon Wayans Jr., Eliza Coupe and Zachary Knighton make up the hilarious and often incestuous friend group that gather around their favorite booth in their favorite Chicago bar (the fictional Rosalita’s). The gang go on zany adventures, fall in and out of love and say the word “uh-MAH-zing” far too much. Though the premise of the show may sound as generic as its title, the cast’s chemistry was lightning in a bottle.—Clare Martin
4. Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 (2012—2013)
The ridiculous title may have thrown off potential fans, but Don’t Trust the B was one of the most immediately charming sitcoms of the 2010s. What at first seemed like just another Odd Couple-type pairing of roommates between naive June (Dreama Walker, who hasn’t been in enough since) and unscrupulous Chloe (Krysten Ritter) quickly evolved into something completely off-the-wall. The cast was rounded out by James Van Der Beek (playing himself), Liza Lapira (Crazy, Stupid, Love.) and Eric Andre, in a role that could not be further from his surreal self-named talk show.—Clare Martin
3. Get a Life (1990-1992)
Fox often toyed with sitcom deconstructions in its early years, from the pitch-black satire of Married… with Children to the meta commentary of It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. In a way those shows were a prelude to Get a Life, which, 30 years later, is still one of the weirdest and most subversive sitcoms to ever air on a network. Starring Chris Elliott and created by Elliott, Adam Resnick and David Mirkin, Get a Life was a half-hour distillation of the smart, ironic comedy Elliott performed on Late Night with David Letterman in the ‘80s, irreverently mocking well-worn sitcom and TV clichés and introducing the kind of absurdity that would come to define “alternative comedy” into American prime time. It wasn’t a hit (although it did stay on for two seasons) but it’s still beloved today by fans of Elliott and weird comedy.—Garrett Martin
2. The Carmichael Show (2015-2017)
The death of The Carmichael Show was a hard blow for anybody who likes sitcoms that actually have a point of view and try to say something about the world we live in. The heavily topical show was the closest thing TV had to a classic Norman Lear sitcom in years, with every episode finding comedy in a hot button issue. It was able to delve into today’s problems without ever feeling exploitative or insincere, and it remained perhaps the funniest show on TV the whole time due in part to its amazing cast. It’s unbelievable that NBC didn’t even attempt to capitalize on the higher profiles of cast members Tiffany Haddish and Lil Rel Howery, who, between Girls Trip and Get Out, were breakout stars of two of the biggest movies of the year during the show’s final season.—Garrett Martin
1. Party Down (2009—2010)
No show is a more appropriate number one on a list of squandered potential than Party Down, which followed the titular catering company full of Hollywood hopefuls. Adam Scott starred as Henry, a down-and-out actor known for one big beer commercial. He returns to his old catering job after giving up on his red carpet dreams, and Scott proved himself was far funnier and more believable as the cynical asshole Henry than he ever was as Ben in Parks and Rec. His schtick was offset by a killer cast, including Lizzie Caplan, Martin Starr, Ken Marino, Ryan Hansen and Jane Lynch. The set up itself boasted oodles of potential, with each episode centering on a different event catered by Party Down, ranging from a spoiled kid’s bat mitzvah to a porn awards after party. Raise a glass to Party Down and keep your fingers crossed for a reunion.—Clare Martin
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast, hibernophile and contributing writer for Paste’s music and comedy sections. She also exercises her love for reality TV at HelloGiggles every now and then. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.
No, they aren’t related.