America may love an underdog story, but we may be even fonder of the phoenix arc. We love it when someone who reaches fantastic heights, flames out dramatically, and then we love it even better when they're able to rise from the ashes again. As anticipation grows for a certain fiery-haired talk show host's imminent return to late night, it brings to mind other superstars whose careers followed a similar path: success followed by failure followed by huge success. So, on the eve of a Conan O'Brien's hopeful cable comeback, please enjoy our list of television's best redemption arcs.
Success: Few people received more attention in 1997 than Ellen DeGeneres, whose flagging ABC sitcom Ellen got a huge ratings boost when she and her character both came out of the closet.
Failure: Unfortunately, the ratings boost wasn't enough to sustain the show, and it was canceled shortly after. She followed it up with an even shorter-lived sitcom, The Ellen Show, as well as a few bit parts and hosting gigs. For a while it was feared that Ellen's open sexuality may have relegated her career to strictly niche territory.
SUCCESS: The Ellen DeGeneres Show premiered in 2003 alongside a number of other celebrity-fronted daytime talk programs. However, Ellen's quickly broke away from the pack and remains one of the highest-rated, Emmy Award-winningest, and water cooler-worthiest daytime talkers on the air.
Success: Martha Stewart's legendary ability to mix good taste with business savvy contributed to her ascent as the face of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and its entire slate of magazines, television shows, books, and interior decor lines.
Failure: Prison! In 2003 Stewart was indicted for insider trading after apparently acting on a tip that would save her, at best, $45,000. By that time she'd resigned from her leadership position at Omnimedia and made efforts to distance herself from the public eye as she served her 4-month prison term.
SUCCESS: Upon her release, Martha Stewart conceived of and starred in several new television shows, and renewed her commitment to self-publicity by presenting herself both humbly and as a bit of a badass. Most fans believed she'd received a raw deal, and now Martha Stewart has more than regained her tasteful position in America's pop consciousness.
Success: Family Guy premiered on Fox in 1999 to a fair amount of critical praise and a lot of attention. Perceived as a vulgar, whipsmart companion piece to The Simpsons, this Seth MacFarlane brainchild seemed destined for success.
Failure: Cancellation! At first strongly rated, the show's ratings began to wane as Fox kept moving it around their schedule and toyed with cancellation. Finally, during Season 3, Fox decided to pull the plug entirely.
SUCCESS: After a successful syndication stint on Cartoon Network and, more importantly, huge DVD sales, Fox caved to popular demand in 2005 and revived Family Guy for its primetime lineup. After a three-year hiatus, MacFarlane and his team reassembled, refreshed for another for another go, and now have achieved the monster success that eluded them the first time. Not to mention the fact that Seth MacFarlane now oversees like a thousand other animated shows on Fox.
Success: In one of VH1's early forays into non-music programming, they tapped a young alt-comedian named Zach Galifianakis to host their nightly talk show.
Failure: Although in retrospect it was a prescient and tasteful choice to give Galifianakis his own show, the world just wasn't ready for his brand of offbeat, piano-tinkling comedy. After the show's cancellation, he played dozens of various bit parts, none of which, according to the documentary "The Comedians of Comedy," he thought were any good.
SUCCESS: After last year's bro classic The Hangover became a worldwide smash, Galifianakis was suddenly the big get for every late night talk show. Seriously, if you need to waste a few hours today, just look up his appearances on YouTube. Sure, Galifianakis' redemption happened in cinema, but it's safe to say his television performances (including his SNL hosting gig and his role on Bored to Death) have been nothing but a victory for THE VIEWERS.
Success: The American remake of legendary British miniseries The Office premiered on NBC as a mid-season replacement in March 2005 and received lots of attention, both good and bad. Basically, it was a big deal among critics and fans of the original.
Failure: …And ranked 102nd in the ratings. Yikes. The Steve Carrell-fronted version of The Office started off as dicey as Michael Scott's hair plugs. Not only was it much-loathed by purists, the American public didn't seem to care for it too much, either.
SUCCESS: But sometime during Season 2, things began to turn around. Several creative choices improved the viewing experience (goodbye, hairplugs!), and the stories became stronger and the jokes incredible. Currently in Season 7 and receiving some of its best-ever ratings, it's becoming clear that The Office is going to be around awhile, even outliving Steve Carrell's departure later this year.
Success: In the early '90s, young comedian Jon Stewart became a bit of a fixture at MTV, hosting several comedy shows including Short Attention Span Theater, You Wrote It, You Watch It (featuring The State!), and most notably, The Jon Stewart Show. The latter was an instant success, second only to Beavis and Butt-head in MTV viewership.
Failure: After The Arsenio Hall Show was canceled in 1994, Viacom tried to syndicate The Jon Stewart Show at many of the same affiliates. It was a disaster. Stewart's show was canceled in 1995.
Success: After many bit parts in movies, intensely redheaded method actor David Caruso finally landed a lead role on the 1993 ABC detective drama NYPD Blue, where he wowed America with his gritty style and frequent nudity.
Failure: Believing himself to be wasting his time on a primetime hit, David Caruso parted ways with the show early in Season 2, only to appear in bomb after bomb at the cineplex.
SUCCESS: In 2002 CBS unveiled its first spin-off of the magical detectives series CSI with the creatively titled CSI: Miami. David Caruso continues to star as the much-beloved shade-tippin' Lt. Horatio Caine and has more than made up for his past career choices by spouting one-liners all the way back into America's collective heart.
Failure: Unfortunately, much like Family Guy, Fox moved it around the schedule willy-nilly and the show never quite found the audience it deserved. Fox decided to pull the plug on it after consistent under-performance.
SUCCESS: Luckily, people began to discover Futurama and its absurd, frequently brilliant sensibility, and it finally received proper recognition after rerunning on Cartoon Network and Comedy Central. The massive positive attention (and presumably DVD sales), paved the way for several direct-to-DVD movies and the production of new episodes.
Success: Ugh, but still. This guy began as a likeable underdog and eventually went on to consistently beat Letterman in the ratings. Say what you will about his comedy, Jay Leno is definitely one of television's greatest success stories.
Failure: The Jay Leno Show, a train wreck anyone could have predicted. Fun fact: If this season is any indication, Leno's prime time experiment may have damaged NBC's 10pm slot permanently!
SUCCESS: He regained his iteration of the Tonight Show (at Conan's expense) and his ratings are lower than they were before the shakeup. But the REAL success is that those of us who have loathed Jay Leno for years, now have very public, very verifiable proof that he is awful. Hooray! TEAM COCO, y'all!!