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The Shortest-Lived Hits in TV History

April 1, 2019

The rule of thumb for a successful TV series is that it gets to stay on the air for years. Not so for these shows.

Twin Peaks (1990-1991)

In 1990, millions of American wanted to know “Who killed Laura Palmer?” That was the central mystery of Twin Peaks, an ABC mystery series co-created by cult filmmaker David Lynch, set in a small, atmospheric town in the Pacific Northwest full of bizarre characters like Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan), Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) and the Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson). The mystery intensified as the secrets of the town were exposed to viewers…but it also evolved into one of the weirdest shows in TV history, with surreal dream sequences, evil-possessed characters, to name just a couple of things that made Twin Peaks very clearly the creation of Lynch, the man who gave the world Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. Tens of millions of viewers tuned in for the first season of Twin Peaks in the spring of 1990…but steadily tuned out as the show got odd. After it was revealed who killed Laura Palmer in the middle of the second season, ratings dropped off precipitously and it was canceled. (The show became a cult classic over the years, so much so that Showtime aired a revival miniseries in 2017.)

Joe Millionaire (2003)

A reality show with a novel premise can absolutely enchant an audience. But when the novelty wears off, the audience can flee in droves. Such was the case with Joe Millionaire. When it debuted in 2003, the dating show format was already well-entrenched, thanks to shows like The Bachelor. Joe Millionaire offered a cynical twist: a group of women each try to win the heart of a bachelor — a guy named Evan Marriott — whom they’ve been told is a fabulously wealthy guy looking to settle down and get married. It’s revealed to viewers right away — but not to the female contestants — that Marriott was actually a construction worker without a vast fortune. (If the “winner” opted to stay with Marriott, knowing he wasn’t rich — implying that it was “true love” — the show would give her a million bucks.) This uncomfortable and sort of mean show proved extremely popular. It averaged 13 million viewers per episode and finished the TV season as the #3 show on TV, trailing just CSI and Friends. The success, however, could not be repeated. Having seen so many people get tricked on TV already, more than half of the season 1 audience returned for season 2, in October 2003. There would be no more fake, lovelorn millionaires on TV.

Weakest Link (2001)

From 1999 to 2001, ABC had a huge hit with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The first hit primetime game show in decades, the Regis Philbin-hosted quiz show aired as often as five nights a week, with as many as many hitting the ratings top 10. The other networks wanted their own big game show, and for NBC, that meant importing a British series called Weakest Link. Contestants correctly answered trivia questions consecutively to build up “chains” worth more money. After each round, the players would vote out the worst player or “weakest link.” The show’s real hook: host Anne Robinson, a stone-faced British TV personality who delighted in dismissing voted-off contestants with the catchphrase “You are the Weakest Link, goodbye!” The show was a top 30 hit upon its debut in April 2001…but ratings slipped by summer, so NBC changed the show to feature primarily celebrity contestants. That didn’t reverse ratings, and by 2002, Weakest Link was gone.

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