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Cult of Shows Past

Romeo & Juliet pic
My So-Called Future: Having abandoned ship on her cult-TV show to make "William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet," Claire Danes sleeps with the better angels of our memories of what might have been if anxious Angela had ever managed to graduate from high school.

Many years after being canceled, favorite shows inhabit a virtual universe of their fans' deep desires

By Zack Stentz

AMPUTATE A LIMB, and the patient, it's said, will still feel phantom twinges of pain from the severed appendage. Cancel a beloved TV show, and fans often carry a torch for their favorite characters for years afterward. Dedicated viewers of the 1994­95 acclaimed teen-angst series My So-Called Life were left hanging by the season finale in which geek-mensch Brian finally confessed his romantic feelings for central character Angela, only to have her leave with beautiful loser Jordan Catalono instead.

How did this neo-Cyrano scenario turn out? We'll never know. Despite an intense lobbying effort by fans and "quality television" proponents, ABC declined to renew the series, reportedly because lead Claire Danes had opted to pursue her burgeoning film career instead. Needless to say, don't expect many My So-Called Life devotees to wait in line for William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet.

Of course, they could always take the fate of the story into their own hands, in the way that Star Trek fans kept their show's memory alive during the fallow years of the '70s via novels and speculative, often pornographic "fan fiction." (The subgenre of stories that imagine Kirk and Spock as sadomasochistic lovers is particularly rich, even inspiring actor/weirdo Crispin Glover to devote a documentary to the subject, appropriately titled The Captain's Log.)

The history of literature, too, is rich in ill-advised efforts to continue stories dropped in mid-sentence, like the various attempts to finish The Mystery of Edwin Drood, August Derleth's posthumous "collaborations" with mentor H.P. Lovecraft, the infamous sequel to Gone With the Wind and "prequels" to both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Even as you read these words, some idiot is probably imbibing absinthe or laudanum and trying to finish Coleridge's "Xanadu."

As awful as the results invariably are, I can certainly understand the instinct. Nearly three years later, I'm still bitter at Fox's cancellation of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. Starring the affably quirky Bruce Campbell from the Evil Dead movies, Brisco County deftly mixed a Wild West setting with liberal doses of comedy, science fiction and even protofeminism to make a delightfully light soufflé of a program. But alas, despite a cult audience, the network pulled the plug after one season, leaving Brisco County followers dangling in midadventure.

In the last year, especially, I always found it galling to hear Fox executives complain of their inability to find an adequate 8pm Friday show (before they found the worst possible solution and dumped the show onto Sunday's schedule) to lead into the X-Files, when they had in their 1993 combo of Brisco and X-Files at 8 and 9pm what was surely the most perfect night of television since Love Boat and Fantasy Island made Saturday nights so ineffable back in the early 1980s.

THANKFULLY, some of the specialty cable channels still replay the limited runs of a select few canceled series. MTV regularly airs My So-Called Life, and I'll even forgive Ted Turner the Goodwill Games, the Tomahawk Chop and colorizing The Maltese Falcon because his TNT channel does humanity the favor of rebroadcasting Brisco County on Saturday mornings--and on very special occasions, the entire run of Elvis: The Early Years.

One of the highest-concept shows in the history of television, Elvis: The Early Years (1990), as its title implies, gave viewers an only slightly fictionalized look at the rise of America's own once and future King. A great primer on some of the more fascinating incidents in Elvis' incipient career (Elvis' first Cadillac, Elvis quits his day job) for everyone who can't be bothered to read Last Train to Memphis, Elvis: The Early Years also offers the twin pleasures of star Michael St. Gerard's uncanny resemblance to the young Presley and the improbable spectacle of a Greek mythology­quoting Elvis muttering backwoods profundities like "There's a storm a-comin', momma."

At least when Elvis was canceled (the show, not the man), we knew how the rest of the story turned out, but what of all the purely fictional shows that get prematurely buried? One of television's greatest strengths is its capacity to make us suspend disbelief and half-think we're actually watching the joys and sufferings of real people, people who are like us (only better-looking) and continue to have lives even after the channel gets switched to CNN.

Of course, that isn't the case at all, and perhaps that's really what's most galling about the demise of a good program--it shatters the illusion that what we're watching transcends something more than cannily created entertainment.

It's somehow comforting to imagine that Angela, Brian and Jordan or Brisco and his bounty hunter pal Lord Bowler still inhabit a virtual narrative universe, continuing to live and love and have adventures, or even showing up at some network executive's doorstep demanding to get renewed in a Pirandello-ish Six Characters in Search of a Prime-time Slot scenario. But in reality, the writers, directors and actors have long since gone on to other gigs, while the characters they so vividly brought to life have faded into oblivion, as if they never existed at all.

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From the November 14-20, 1996 issue of Metro

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