From Brimstone to Justified - brilliant TV series' that never found an audience (and the worst shows ever made)
It's hard to tell why some TV shows enjoy massive success while others, equally as watchable, fail - but even though many well-liked series still get ruthlessly cancelled, thanks to the evolution of online streaming, plenty more are being given the opportunity to breathe and grow, writes Pat Stacey
In the autumn of 1998, America’s Fox channel launched an ambitious new supernatural thriller series called Brimstone. It was shown here on, if I’m not mistaken, Network 2, as RTE2 was then still called.
Brimstone was terrific. Peter Horton — the long-haired one from late-Eighties baby-boomer ensemble drama thirtysomething — played Ezekiel ‘Zeke’ Stone, New York City’s most decorated detective, who’s happily married to Rosalyn (Stacy Haiduk).
Rosalyn is raped by a man called Gilbert Jax, who Zeke tracks down and arrests. After Jax walks free on a technicality, an enraged Zeke takes the law into his own hands. He murders Jax, makes it look like a suicide and gets away with it. So far, so cop-thriller formulaic. Just two months later, however, Zeke is himself shot dead in the line of duty... and wakes up to find he’s in hell!
All this happens in 1983. Fifteen years later, there’s a rebellion in hell during which 113 damned souls escape and return to earth. The Devil, mischievously played by the brilliant John Glover (he’d later play Lex Luthor’s dad Lionel in Smallville), offers Zeke a deal: if he can track down and return every one of them to where they belong, a process that involves destroying their eyes — which, after all, are the windows to the soul — he’ll give him a second shot at life.
It’s not going to be easy, though; some of the escapees were in hell for centuries and have powers way beyond anything Zeke possesses. On top of this, the Devil is a bit of a trickster who delights in turning up out of the blue and misdirecting Zeke, just for kicks.
Zeke wakes up every morning wearing exactly the same clothes and carrying exactly the same possessions — his police pistol and $36.27 in cash — he had on him when he died. Agonisingly, while he can see his wife, who has been getting on with life in the 15 years since his death, he can’t make any contact with her.
Brimstone had a solid-gold premise, brilliantly executed, and huge potential to move in any number of interesting directions. It was simply too good to fail. But, somehow, it failed anyway.
Fox cancelled it about seven or eight episodes into its 13-episode first season, leaving those of us who’d avidly tuned in every week swinging in the wind, destined never to find out if Zeke completed his assignment and got a fresh start in life.
In this country, we didn’t even get to see the season’s remaining episodes. Brimstone just disappeared from the screen without warning.
It’s difficult a lot of the time to say exactly why one series fails and another succeeds. Looking back from a distance of 19 years, though, Brimstone was probably way ahead of its time. Viewers back then weren’t conditioned to drama series that blended the natural and the supernatural, the real and the surreal, the way they are now.
This, remember, was long before series like Supernatural, American Horror Story, True Blood, Game of Thrones or American Gods made pushing the boundaries of belief the norm.
If Brimstone were made today, the likelihood is it would be a big hit. With 113 souls to be despatched and the existential dilemma facing a man who finds himself back in the world of the living after 15 years of damnation to be explored, there’s easily five or six seasons’ worth of material to work with. Who knows where the story might have travelled?
In the very same year, Channel 4 launched a supernatural thriller series of its own, the excellent Ultraviolet. Jack Davenport, hot after the success of This Life, which also gave future Walking Dead star Andrew Lincoln his big break, played a London copper who’s recruited to a secret government group dedicated to tracking down and destroying the vampires who have invisibly infiltrated every level of society.
Unlike the vampire hunters of old, this modern-day variety didn’t use garlic or wooden stakes; they employed ultraviolet light to detect the creatures, who where called Code Fives (the V-word is never actually used), and despatched them with special bullets.
Ultraviolet, which also gave the world its first taste of a rising young actor called Idris Elba, was slick, dark, intelligent and gripping. The reviews and the ratings were excellent. It’s never been properly explained why it didn’t get a second season.
Unlike Brimstone — which never received a DVD release and probably never will — Ultraviolet is still easily available. The sole season, running to just six episodes, is on Channel 4’s free streaming site All 4, along with countless other archive gems.
The television world of today is radically different to the one of two decades ago. Plenty of well-liked series still get ruthlessly cancelled, especially on the four mainstream US networks, if not enough viewers are watching.
But thanks to the explosion in streaming services and the sheer number of channels we now have at our fingertips, plenty more are being given the opportunity to breathe and grow. They survive and thrive, sustained by a solid, dedicated following, without ever hitting blockbuster viewing figures.
Spy drama The Americans, which runs on RTE2 in this country and ITV Encore in the UK, and is the series Homeland desperately wants to be, is a prime example.
Its ratings have never been sky high in America or anywhere else it’s aired, yet it’s lasted five seasons, with a sixth and final one to come next year.
It’s the same story with two other series, both unlikely spin-offs from famous, phenomenally successful movies: The Exorcist, which is on SyFy (very much a minority channel beloved of geeks like me) and has just been commissioned for a second season; and Bates Motel, the acclaimed prequel-of-sorts to Hitchcock’s Psycho that recently came to the end of its fifth and final season on Universal.
They may not be on everyone’s radar, and for the most part, they don’t get anything like the same kind of media coverage-cum-adoration that’s lavished on, say, Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black or House of Cards. Even Netflix’s The OA received more media attention — until people actually watched it (or more accurately, tried to watch it), quickly realised it was a load of pretentious cobblers and then ran a mile from it.
But they have a loyal, albeit relatively small, following, who would kick up a rather large stink if they were abruptly cancelled.
Luckily, broadcasters who used to whip out the axe at the first sign of a dip in ratings, have gradually come around to the idea that viewing figures aren’t the be all and end all of everything anymore.
A series might not pick up big numbers when it’s first shown, but it can frequently enjoy an afterlife on DVD and streaming sites. The excellent Justified, for instance, which was based on the stories of the late, great Elmore Leonard, barely made any impact in this part of the world.
The only place you could find it on Irish television was TG4, whose audience is tiny at the best of times, and it was barely shown at all on British television (neither, for that matter, were The Wire or Breaking Bad, two of the most revered TV series of all time). But anyone who’s seen Justified knows it’s top TV.
There are plenty of other series out there that more of us should be watching: The Leftovers, Master of None, Gotham, Black-ish, The Goldbergs, Dear White People, Inside No. 9, Fleabag. The list goes on.
Come July 17, when Game of Thrones returns, you won’t be able to pick up a newspaper or log on to an entertainment website without reading about it. It’ll be Game of Thrones this, that and the other. On and on.
Great. People love it, even if I’m one of the few agnostics. But all I’m saying is there are choices. Lots of them. And many of them are great. Now: any chance of a remake of Brimstone?