Two by Two

The fall season is well under way, and some shows are no longer with us. ABC's "That Was Then," canceled after just two episodes, was witty, subversive, and complicated, with a cast of appealing young unknowns. Fox's "Girls club," canceled after just two episodes, was formulaic, conventional, and stale, with a woefully miscast trio of attractive women who have all, without exception, done better work elsewhere.

Watching "That Was Then" was like witnessing the birth of what could be one of television's great shows, a cross between "The Fugitive" and "Back to the Future." "Girls club" was just uncomfortable. (Why not immediately give up on it? Two things. Giancarlo Esposito is always good to watch, even - and maybe especially - when he's better than the material he's in. The second is that David E. Kelley, with "Ally McBeal," "The Practice," and "Boston Public," among other shows, has built up enough credibility to earn some extra viewing time. )

But then the networks wielded their axes, and the shows went to the graveyards. Was this the right decision? I'll say it twice, once for each episode that aired: Two episodes are not enough for viewers, executives, or critics to make a considered judgment. Again? Two episodes are not enough for viewers, executives, or critics, to make a considered judgment.

A lot of time, energy, money, and heart went into these shows. Even David Kelley, who seems to write episodes of network television with the same frequency that you or I would order a pizza, probably sweated a bit over those early episodes. And who knows? The show might have won me over. And though I was crazy about "That Was Then" from the get-go, its subtle pleasures needed to find an audience. By the time I told friends and family about the show, it wasn't anywhere for them to find.

Some shows just need a little time. Watch early episodes of "The Simpsons," which focus, primarily, on Bart. How many laughs would we have lost had the writers and producers not realized the untapped potential in Homer's bald and empty head?

There are shows - good shows - that never manage to find the audience they deserve, and one can't expect the networks to take losses forever. ABC, the network I'm castigating for "That Was Then," carried "Once and Again" for longer than they needed to (though not as long as I'd have liked) in the hope that people would wake up to the fact it was one of the best-written shows on television. People didn't, and so after a couple of seasons, Sela Ward and Billy Campbell had to move on.

But two episodes? It just seems a bit rash.

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