Top Cult TV Shows
by Emily on March 9th 2011 at 4:21 pm
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The guys over at onlinedegree.net have put together their list of top cult television series. Has your top show made the list? Read on...
Let's be clear up front: there are cult-like TV shows, and then there are genuine cult series. It's easy to confuse the two, because anything that feels vaguely cult-inspiring -- usually a series about or involving aliens, mysteries, or surreal comedy -- is usually labeled as such by media and viewers. But real cult series never attract a broad audience, and they're almost always doomed to swift cancellation and low ratings. So while it might feel right to call Twin Peaks a cult show, it held such sway in pop culture when it debuted that it was impossible to ignore, thus destroying its cult status. Cults are also entirely dependent on geography: something can be a smash hit in Britain but (as you'll see) never really rise above the level of minor culthood in the United States. It's weird, but true. If the series below are familiar, congrats, you know your stuff. If not, get thee to Netflix.
1. Doctor Who
The prime example of how fame is tied to location. Doctor Who is a primetime show in the U.K. and first aired in the early 1960s. The sci-fi series revolves around the Doctor, a Time Lord who can regenerate into a new body when he dies, a story gimmick that allows new actors to cycle into the title role and keep the show running forever. After debuting in 1963, the show ran until 1987, then spun off into TV-movies in 1996 and 2005 that allowed the series to start back up again and run through today. We're now on the 11th Doctor. If you spend any amount of time online, you will run into Doctor Who jokes that probably don't make sense (the Internet is made up almost entirely of sci-fi references, porn, and cat pictures). The show is a titan in geek culture, but it doesn't register as much more than a fringe show in the States, where viewers don't want to search their cable registers for BBC America or SyFy.
If as many people watched Firefly when it aired as complain about its loss now, it wouldn't have been canceled. Creator Joss Whedon had already scored pop culture hits with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff Angel, which aired on The WB (though Buffy would eventually move to UPN). When Firefly made its way to the air on Fox in the fall of 2002, it could have been Whedon's third concurrent on-air success. Unfortunately, it was doomed to an early death. Fox execs rejected the original two-hour pilot episode and requested another, a switch that was only the first of many that would lead to a show that came off as confusing to viewers. It also had the misfortune to air on Friday nights, which haven't yielded TV hits since the 1980s. It was axed with only 11 of the 14 produced episodes having aired, and cult outcry soon followed. Fans were so devoted that Universal eventually took a chance with a big-screen version, but that peaked at $25 million at the domestic box office. The series is a cult rallying cry for genre fans and Whedonites, but it remains little-seen by others.
Looking back, Freaks and Geeks is a Murderer's Row of writers and actors who would breakout in the 2000s: producer-writer Judd Apatow, stars Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, James Franco, and more. But the series was bounced around the schedule and interrupted for weeks at a time by sporting events or other series. As a result, the only audience it gained was a small one, if devoted. The series ended after one season, and three of the 18 episodes didn't even air until the show was picked up for syndication by Fox Family (later ABC Family). It took another four years for the DVD set to come out, by which time word of mouth had built the show up enough to be a legit cult smash, albeit one many people still hadn't seen. In a bittersweet twist, many actors showed up on Apatow's Undeclared, a similarly short-lived sitcom that aired on Fox for, yes, one short season.
Stephen Colbert's a household name now, but he was just a supporting player on the short-lived Strangers With Candy, which aired on Comedy Central for about 18 months beginning in summer 1999. The brainchild of Amy Sedaris, Colbert, and a few others, the show was a merciless skewering of teen dramas and public-service films that took the approach of a "scared straight" story in which Sedaris's Jerri Blank had to go back to high school as a middle-aged woman recovering from substance abuse. The series was definitely an acquired taste, even for Comedy Central standards, and over its three short seasons of 10 episodes a piece, it remained at best a cult show. A movie version garnered equally low viewers a few years later.
The 1994 film Stargate was, well, kind of terrible. Yet it had plenty of fans, enough so that Showtime would eventually create Stargate SG-1, based on the same characters. The series even starred perennial genre favorite Richard Dean Anderson, who will probably live the rest of his life with people shouting "MacGyver!" at him on the streets. The trouble with sci-fi properties like Stargate SG-1 is that they come with a built-in fanbase (those who loved the film and/or those primed to like slightly cheesy sci-fi) that's really hard to expand once it sets. Showtime ran the series for five years, after which SyFy aired it for another five, but despite a 1o-season run and TV-movies, the show never remotely caught on with the larger viewing public or press. It didn't have the higher cult profile of SyFy's reimagined Battlestar Galactica.
Futurama is the little sitcom that could. Its death and return parallel that of Family Guy, though it has only a fraction of that show's audience and none of its broader mainstream appeal. Created by The Simpsons guru Matt Groening, Futurama is a science-fueled comedy that's peppered with math jokes that equal the puns and sight gags. In other words, it was basically designed to be a cult show. The show aired from 1999 to 2003 on Fox before drifting off to syndicated reruns on Cartoon Network. A series of direct-to-DVD movies kept the show going until Comedy Central jumped in and revived it with new episodes in summer 2010. Despite all that, though, the series remains a niche offering, with none of the crossover success of Simpsons. The fans are devoted, but they're outnumbered.
Even for low-rated networks like UPN and The CW, Veronica Mars had a small viewership. The series lived on the knife edge for three seasons beginning in 2004 until it was finally put out to pasture in 2007. The mystery series, which revolved around high schooler Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) solving crimes and piecing together puzzles about her sordid small town, was beloved by critics and a small band of followers, but no one else. It averaged around #140 in terms of TV series, meaning that most people opted to watch 139 other shows before this one (for a while the show had the misfortune of airing against Lost in that show's early heyday, which might as well have been a bullet to the head). Fan campaigns were launched as the series closed in on its inevitable end, and creator Rob Thomas pitched a reboot of the show that would jump forward a few years, as well as a feature film version. None of that panned out, though, and Veronica Mars walked off into the sunset a cult classic.
Before Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and director Edgar Wright made geek waves with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, they were involved in the cult legend Spaced, a British sitcom that ran for just 14 episodes across two seasons. The show was jam-packed with pop culture and geek-flavored references, mixing light romantic tension between Pegg and Jessica Stevenson with easy camaraderie between Pegg and Frost. It was a sharp show, but like many British outings, structured to be in and out in a blink. It's safe to say that more people have now heard of it thanks to DVD than ever saw it when it aired, though both those numbers are still tiny. If you want to boost your cult cred, this is the show to watch.
Another cult show that more people adore for its ideas than actually tuned in during its touch-and-go three-season run. Premiering in 2003 to high hopes and stellar reviews, Arrested Development quickly developed into a cult comedy that Fox couldn't market and most people didn't want to explore (their loss, really). The show ended with a dump of four episodes run in a block against the opening ceremonies of the 2006 Olympics; hardly a call for viewers or fans. Much of the cast received a career boost from the show -- most notably Michael Cera, who ran with his sensitive nerd character all the way to the bank -- but the series remains a small success and cult legend.
10. The Prisoner
The cult status of The Prisoner was enhanced not only by the fact that it was a British show in an era of few imports, but that it aired so long before the home video age. The series ran for 17 episodes in 1967-68, and though star and co-creator Patrick McGoohan was praised for coming up with something that blended science-fiction, psychological thrillers, and philosophy, the show itself remained below the radar of many viewers, especially in the United States. Interest picked up in the 1980s with home video and again in 2005 when AMC remade it as a miniseries starring Jim Caviezel, but the original remains one of the greatest and most enduring cult shows of all time.