LOS ANGELES -- There are three stages of afterlife for a dead TV show, and a program's fate can be decided by its unaired episodes. Heaven is a DVD release -- a kind of immortality for a series like Fox's "Firefly" or "The Tick," which had devoted viewerships that were too small for network advertisers but large enough to justify selling a boxed-set of discs.
Then there are the fallow summer months, a bitter purgatory where many as-yet-unseen installments of canceled shows are dumped in a last-ditch effort to fill the schedule with anything but reruns. Look for the remains of ABC's recently axed "L.A. Dragnet" to turn up there.
Hell, in this scenario, is never to be seen again. Among the damned -- deserving or not -- are Fox's porn-themed drama "Skin," ABC's supernatural thriller "Miracles," and the NBC version of the British sitcom "Coupling."
"Firefly," a sci-fi Western fusion series from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" creator Joss Whedon, is one show whose unfinished season led to a happy ending.
The program, about a hardscrabble space crew 500 years in the future, lost its bid for survival on Fox's fall 2002 schedule after 11 episodes, with three more finished but unaired. Whedon resisted the idea of burning off those installments as summer filler, and negotiated the DVD release. "Fox still owned the property and could maybe fill a summer slot or something," Whedon said. "But then it became an advantage. If they never aired these, then we could put them on the DVD as something that made it more exciting." There were three unaired episodes -- one about a bordello besieged by a ruthless warlord, another about a dead body that returns to life, and a third involving the crew's heist of an antique laser-gun. The four-disc set including all 14 episodes was released in stores last month.
Whedon currently is writing the script for Universal Pictures to turn the "Firefly" story line into a feature film. Successful sales of the DVD could help spur that project.
But summer exposure is better than nothing. In some cases, it can even rejuvenate a program teetering on cancellation.
"Seinfeld" -- originally titled "The Seinfeld Chronicles" -- was a low-rated pilot in summer 1989. NBC held onto the remaining four installments for another year before dumping them in the summer. But -- surprise! -- they became hits and the series evolved into one of the most successful sitcoms in history.
ABC is hoping that's the case with "Karen Sisco," its comedic-thriller starring Carla Gugino as a sexy federal marshal. The show was placed on hiatus recently with three episodes still unaired.
The network plans to air those shows in March in a new time slot, and its producers supported the idea of banking the unseen installments until then; it was better than letting the show continue to languish.
Even when a show is canceled outright, the unaired episodes are rarely destroyed. In some rare cases, that dead TV show can become valuable again years later. The Trio cable channel has had success showcasing these kinds of shows on its "Brilliant but Canceled" series, which highlights well-regarded programs that never found a major audience, like the recent "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" and the 1970s series "Kolchak: The Night Stalker."
But cult-fan demand isn't always enough to loosen a network or studio's grip.
ABC's "Miracles" starred Skeet Ulrich as a priest who investigates supernatural mysteries that may be messages from God . . . or from the devil.
The show was canceled last spring. Only six of the 13 episodes made it to air, and a fervent group of angry "Miracles" junkies lobbied unsuccessfully for the DVD release of the other seven.
The show's creator, Richard Hatem, said he doesn't expect any miracles. The touchy subject matter of the series -- a blend of horror and religious iconography -- made executives nervous at ABC's parent, the Walt Disney Co.
But the more a network buries such unaired shows, the more some fans want to see them.
"For them to simply not air the episodes came across to us as malicious," said Angela Mitchell, a publicist in Hollywood, Fla., who helped organize the "Save `Miracles' " campaign. "I felt like someone wanted to kill the show."
Many fans have taken to bootlegging the lost installments, making copies from foreign-market broadcasts.
And for once, piracy has the support of a producer.
"Since there aren't aggressive efforts to make a profit from the show, the loss is pretty minor," Hatem said. "I'm never going to see another dime off `Miracles,' but if people are watching and enjoying it, I'm more than happy."