Cancelled Too Soon: Cliffhangers (1979)

By | February 19, 2015

Our ongoing look back at sci fi / fantasy TV shows that were cancelled way too soon or pilots that never made it to series.

nbc_cliffhangersHitting the small screen way back in 1979, this contemporary updating of the old movie serials aired three ongoing segments during its hour: the action/adventure Stop Susan Williams that was a new take of sorts on The Perils of Pauline, the sci fi / western The Secret Empire that paid homage to 1935’s The Phantom Empire, and The Curse of Dracula which found the Count alive and well (err . . . undead and well?) in the 1970’s.  The original idea for the show was to have a rotating set of serials that would change each season.  Of course if one or more of the segments proved popular, they could always keep it running while changing out the other titles.  Kenneth Johnson (The Incredible Hulk TV series) created the show and it was part of NBC’s desperation attempt to climb out of the ratings cellar it found itself in during the late 70’s.  And several TV critics at the time praised it for its fresh, new concept, though they weren’t necessarily as impressed with its execution.  NBC went for broke, though as they poured a significant amount of money into Cliffhangers (allegedly around $1 million per episode) and programmed it against ABC’s sitcom juggernauts Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley on Thursdays at 8 PM EST. The idea was to shoot directly for the younger audience that watched those shows thinking that they would have grown bored with the aging sitcoms by that point.  That probably sounded good in the network boardroom, but it worked about as well as you would have expected when put into practice.  The series debuted to poor ratings and dropped even further over subsequent weeks.  It was axed at the end of the season (as were most of NBC’s new entries including the much lambasted Supertrain) and has since been mostly forgotten.  But despite its 70’s cheese factor and tendency at times toward bad camp, the show had a definite charm.  And it was definitely a series ahead of its time as the rotating, serialized story was just not something that audiences were willing to accept back in the late 70’s.  I believe it could fly today, though, with shows like American Horror Story and True Detective having proved a variation of the concept of season long anthologies.  I for one would love to see a revival of this show, and with all the reboot fever in the air, maybe it could happen at some point.  Unfortunately, the show has never been released on DVD, but maybe if a collection did come out at some point it could re-spark and interest in the concept. (For more reading, be sure to check out the more in-depth profile of the show over at Television Obscurities.)

Aired: NBC, 1979, 1 Season Totaling 11 Episodes

Starring:  Susan Anton, Geoffrey Scott, Michael Nouri

Created By: Kenneth Johnson

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