There are few things worse for a TV fan than investing loads of time into a show, only for some studio suit to pull the plug before it’s reached its conclusion. Getting axed doesn’t have to mean the end, however, as numerous cancelled TV shows have come back from the dead to fight another day – some have even gone on to become bigger than they were before the plug was pulled.
There are loads of ways an abandoned series can make a comeback. Some cancelled TV shows are picked up by a new network that sees untapped potential in a series –top space drama The Expanse was deemed surplus to requirements by Syfy, yet Amazon Prime picked it up again. Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Lucifer also found new homes after the axe fell.
Others cancelled TV shows, like Doctor Who and Arrested Development, make a comeback years later, because the holders of the purse strings decide that absence has made audiences yearn for more. Some, like Family Guy, have been saved because they’ve done amazing business as box sets. And others, like Sense8, are simply given a chance to deliver the final episode that will wrap up their remaining plot threads.
So we’ve looked back through TV history to pick out some of the best (and worst) cancelled TV shows for whom the end wasn’t actually the end, everything from Doctor Who to Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Veronica Mars to Community…
Arguably the most famous – and successful – regeneration of a cancelled TV show in history. Despite Doctor Who being the most popular sci-fi show to ever come out of the UK, nightmarish scheduling, declining viewing figures and the general contempt for the series from BBC high-ups meant that Doctor Who came to an end in 1989 – some 26 years after it began. There was a false dawn in 1996 when the Paul McGann-starring TV movie failed to power a hoped-for reboot. It was instead left to Russell T. Davies to mastermind an ingenious return to the TARDIS in 2005.
Not only was the new-look show faithful to Who’s labyrinthine mythology, it was accessible to newbies and made sure the series was part of Britain’s watercooler conversation. It’s still going strong, with Jodie Whittaker as the most recent Doctor.
The spiritual successor to the 21st century Battlestar Galactica reboot, The Expanse brought Game of Thrones-style political shenanigans to the Solar System. And yet as brilliant as the show always was, it never drew in big enough numbers to keep its network, Syfy, happy, leading to its cancellation in 2018.
It turns out, though, that it’s good to have friends in multibillion-dollar corporations with seemingly bottomless pockets, as Amazon stepped in to pick up the show for future seasons. CEO Jeff Bezos (reportedly the richest person in the world) made the announcement, somewhat appropriately, at the International Space Development Conference in 2018.
It’s interesting to contrast the fortunes of The Simpsons and Matt Groening’s other long-running animated sitcom. While the Springfield opus has made it to a record-breaking 31 seasons – despite almost everyone agreeing its best days are long behind it – the consistently brilliant Futurama spent much of its lifetime avoiding a studio executive’s axe.
With Fox having initially decided to call it a day after season 4 in 2003, Futurama was resuscitated as a quartet of direct-to-DVD movies in 2008. They were also aired as a 16-part season by the show’s new home, Comedy Central, who subsequently went back to the 31st century for a further two seasons, before switching off the lights of Planet Express for the (we think) final time in 2013.
DVDs – remember those? In those dark, distant days before streaming, shiny discs had the power to turn a show that had been cancelled after three seasons into a long-running behemoth of animation. Having initially looked like a poor imitator of The Simpsons, Seth MacFarlane’s potty-mouthed family comedy discovered its audience as viewers binged DVD boxsets, selling enough to prompt network Fox to bring the show back from the dead in 2005. It became such a big deal that we’re still making regular visits to Quahog, Rhode Island, to this day.
Few cancelled TV shows have burned as brightly over their short lifetime as Joss Whedon’s Firefly. With episodes shown out of order, the series’ ratings disappointed so much Fox grounded the show before its first season had even finished airing. But Whedon’s fanbase is a passionate one, and their love for the show convinced movie studio Universal it wasn’t just worth taking a punt on bringing it back to TV, they might as well go the whole hog and put it in cinemas.
The resulting Serenity was everything the fans could have wanted, as Whedon wrapped up his series in style – and left us yearning for all the great episodes of TV we never got to see. The much-missed Deadwood had a similar revival in 2019, with a straight-to-TV movie reuniting many of the original cast 13 years after cancellation.
The original Battlestar Galactica was a disco-infused attempt to cash in on the success of Star Wars. Unfortunately, big-screen production values weren’t enough to stop US network ABC from pulling the plug after just one season, as declining ratings and spiralling costs proved an even bigger threat than the Cylons.
The story resumed less than a year later, however, in the form of Galactica 1980, a sequel/spin-off that saw the Colonial fleet discovering Earth, yet featured few of the original cast. The resulting low-budget show was much duller than any show featuring flying motorbikes has any right to be – and lasted even fewer episodes than the original.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine always felt like it should be an NBC show, seeing as the network had already had big successes with other workplace sitcoms like The Office and Parks and Recreation – both of which boasted the Nine-Nine’s co-creator (and future The Good Place mastermind) Michael Schur on the payroll. But the show’s first five seasons actually aired on Fox, until the network closed the doors on the precinct at the end of season five in 2018.
The cancellation was mercifully short-lived, as NBC stepped in to rescue the show within days. “Ever since we sold this show to Fox I’ve regretted letting it get away, and it’s high time it came back to its rightful home,” said NBC chairman Robert Greenblatt at the time.
As if the Devil himself would ever be held back by a little thing like cancellation… Inspired by DC Comics’ take on Lucifer, this show about the Devil relocating from Hell to Los Angeles – to run a nightclub and consult for the police – had a massive cult following when Fox did the unspeakable after season 3 ended in 2018.
“We created a season finale with a huge cliffhanger so that there was no way Fox could cancel us,” admitted admirably devious showrunner Joe Henderson, and it wasn’t long before #SaveLucifer was trending on Twitter. Netflix answered the call of the Dark Lord soon after, with season 4 debuting in May 2019.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars
With plenty of action and even more geeky lore, The Clone Wars kept Star Wars’ fire burning after the Sith had their Revenge. Then, within months of Disney’s Lucasfilm buyout in 2012, the show was frozen in carbonite, as the company turned its attention to new animated show Star Wars Rebels. As it turned out, however, this wasn’t the end… Unaired episodes eventually found their way to screen as The Lost Missions in 2014, while fans learned why the Jedi always said patience was a virtue, when Lucasfilm confirmed that a final season was heading to Disney Plus. The Force is strong with this one.
Sometimes being supersmart and critically adored isn’t enough to keep you safe, so student PI Veronica Mars had seemingly solved her last case when season three wrapped in 2007. Creator Rob Thomas and star Kristen Bell never gave up on the show, however, and in 2013 took matters into their own hands with a Kickstarter campaign for a movie. That film continued Veronica’s investigations in 2014, and wasn’t the end of the story either, as Hulu brought the show back for a long-awaited season 4 in July 2019.
Okay, future Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon’s uber-referential college sitcom never quite made it to the “six seasons and a movie” referenced in the show, but the fact it only fell at the final hurdle was an epic case of defying the odds. After a turbulent five-season run that saw the acrimonious departure of star Chevy Chase, and Harmon leaving (and subsequently returning to) the production team, NBC called it quits in 2014. But with the lead cast’s contracts on the verge of expiring, Yahoo! Screen stepped in with an 11th hour deal for a sixth – and, as it stands, final – season.
Thanks to its peerless ensemble cast, intricate plotting and gags that paid off whole episodes – and sometimes entire seasons – later, Arrested Development was the smartest sitcom on TV. It was the show you just had to tell your friends about – but sadly, that phenomenal word-of-mouth wasn’t matched by its viewing figures on Fox, so the story of the dysfunctional Bluth family was, er, arrested after just three seasons in 2006.
Arrested Development’s reputation grew in its absence, however, and in 2013 Netflix brought it back for a belated season 4 – a strange outing that introduced a weird timeline-hopping structure, that creator Mitch Hurwitz would later fix with a new “remix” version. A more conventional season 5 followed in 2018, though by then most of the old magic had gone.
With Doctor Who having made sci-fi part of the ’00s Saturday evening TV menu, BBC rivals ITV tried for their own piece of the pie with time-travelling dinosaur adventure series Primeval. Their keenness was relatively short-lived, as the dino hunters were trapped in a seemingly infinite cliffhanger at the end of 2009’s season 3.
The show was unexpectedly saved from extinction two years later thanks to an unexpected co-production deal with digital broadcaster UKTV, that produced two new seasons, and ultimately delivered plenty of answers to the show’s ongoing mysteries. Even that wasn’t the end, as a quasi-revival came in 2012 via Canadian spin-off series Primeval: New World – though that only lasted one year.
Few remember this short-lived, post-apocalyptic drama for anything that happened on screen, but it’s worth talking about for the way it survived cancellation – and as a celebration of fan power. Apparently taking inspiration from fans of Roswell (who’d bombarded network execs with bottles of tabasco sauce to show how much they cared about the struggling show) the Jericho faithful protested the series’ 2007 cancellation in similar fashion. CBS received over 20 tons of nuts in the post from angry viewers – a nod to a line about nuts in the show – and it was enough to save the show for a second year. Alas, their efforts ultimately proved futile, as Jericho was axed once and for all a mere seven episodes later.
What do you get if you unite the brains behind The Matrix with the creator of Babylon 5, and give them a Netflix-sized budget? We’re still not entirely convinced we know the answer, but their ambitious Sense8 attracted a big enough following that fans were up in arms when the streaming giant decided it wasn’t attracting enough viewers to warrant a third season. While fans’ extensive petitions and protests weren’t enough to win another year, Netflix did eventually give them a feature-length finale to wrap up the cancelled TV show’s story. Time travel drama Timeless got a similar chance for closure after the axe fell back in 2018.
There’s a strong argument that Heroes should have stopped after its first wonderful season. Still, NBC persisted with Tim Kring’s superhero drama, letting it limp on for another three years before calling it quits in 2010. Possibly based on an assumption that absence makes the heart grow fonder, however, the show was resurrected in 2015 as the unnecessary Heroes Reborn. A few of the original stars made it back as supporting players, but a show focused on Noah Bennet (aka Horn-Rimmed Glasses guy) was always unlikely to set pulses racing in a world where the MCU had shown what superheroes could really do on screen. The rebooted show lasted a mere season.
For more, check out our piece on cancelled TV shows we want to see Netflix bring back.