Friday, June 6, 2014

Live and Let Die, or: Why Cancelled Shows Should Remain So

The most recent television season ended with most networks looking into an uncertain future, complete with the shocking revelation that NBC - a complete and total disaster - actually finished #1 in the key 18-49 demographic. But for a network that had held on to anything that could be considered successful by any metric, it celebrated its newfound rank by canceling Community after five positively-reviewed but low-rated seasons. Shortly thereafter, the show's passionate fan base flooded the Internet with #savegreendale and begging streaming services like Netflix and Hulu to step in and revive it (Netflix passed, but Hulu does have a deal with Sony, which produced Community, for exclusive streaming rights).

It's become a familiar rallying cry in the Internet age: when a show that's inspired a thousand Tumblrs goes off the air, the small-but-vocal fan base urges another network to pick it up. Thanks to Netflix bringing back Arrested Development last year after FOX had cancelled it in 2006, then picked up The Killing from AMC for a fourth season, it seems possible for shows to find life elsewhere.

This is great for fans, ostensibly. The show they love lives on, with new episodes always at their disposal.

I think it's time we put a moratorium on this: stop reviving cancelled shows.

More after the jump.

I want to clarify two things before I get to the meat of this issue. First, I was never a fan of Community. It was one of those things that everyone said I would love - "it's so you, Jason!" - and every time I tried, I just couldn't get into it. In the few episodes I watched, the show was almost too pleased with how clever it was being, like that kid in school who always wanted everyone else to know how much smarter they were than you. The cast is fantastic, but I never believe in the characters they're playing because everything feels so much like a performance. Which, maybe that's the point, but that's never really clear to me. It was fine, as far as I could tell, but just not my cup of tea. So, in not being a fan of the show, obviously it's pretty easy for me to say that it should remain cancelled.

Which brings me to my second point: I completely understand fan passion, and I don't mean to discredit it or seem condescending. There are some shows - Lost, Pushing Daisies, Breaking Bad - that I was absolutely obsessed with. I anticipated every new episode, spent copious amounts of time thinking about their worlds and ruminating the thematic points each was making, and wishing that I could spend more time with the characters. Watching each of these shows go was painful, but Pushing Daisies was unique because, like Community and the vast majority of television shows, it was cancelled before it could finish its narrative. It was crushing to know that I would never know if Ned (Lee Pace) and Chuck (Anna Friel) would ever be able to physically be together (Ned had the magic power of being able to bring dead things back to life with one touch, but a second touch would kill it forever; he had already touched Chuck to bring her back to life). So the fan in me, full of passion, wanted to see more episodes beyond the 22 that were actually made.

And yet, I'm glad it hasn't been revived or revisited. Even if I think it could be continued, I would rather keep the episodes that I have now. I have four reasons for why cancelled shows should remain cancelled.

1. To paraphrase Harvey Dent, you can die a success or live long enough to see yourself become a failure.

This is where Arrested Development rears its head again. The first three seasons of the show - the ones that originally aired on FOX - are worthy of being hailed as one of the greatest American sitcoms of our time. The saga of the Bluth family was a comedic high-wire act, balancing dense jokes and frequent callbacks with cutting satire, goofy slapstick, and gratuitous wordplay. It's no wonder the show only became a success through DVD sales and Netflix streaming: it's a show that essentially demands repeat viewing just to get all the jokes. The fourth season, on the other hand, managed to get the Bluths back together, but not actually together, as in "in the same room at once." As a result, the season felt like it was always missing the chemistry that was so essential to the first three, and this re-iteration of the show felt like a replica of the original rather than a continuation. It wasn't the "New Coke" version, per se, but it was definitely Diet Arrested Development rather than original formula (or, at it's worst, the generic brand).

A similar problem struck Buffy the Vampire Slayer during its original run. The first five seasons of the show aired on The WB from 1997 to 2001, and the show's fifth (and best) season ended with (SPOILER ALERT) Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) sacrificing herself in order to defeat the god Glorificus. It was a perfect series finale…until the show was brought back the following year for a sixth season on UPN. Unsurprisingly, the sixth season is easily the show's worst, complete with an awful trio of would-be villains and a sense of listless wandering. The show would complete its run after the seventh season, which improved by making finality a strong plot point, but it couldn't go out on the high note season five provided. And though the final two seasons did produce some terrific episodes (including season six's musical episode, "Once More, With Feeling"), as a whole they seemed like tacked-on extensions to a story that had played itself out naturally.

There are key differences between Buffy and AD; for one, Buffy lost the day-to-day involvement of creator Joss Whedon after season five, while AD's fourth season has overseen by creator Mitchell Hurwitz. But both had the same outcome: by being revived on another network, the legacy of each show was marred by additional episodes that weren't exactly necessary. There's a power to having a legacy preserved that few shows are afforded. By becoming a "cancelled before its time" cult object, a show's influence can spread throughout television, with the creators that loved it molding the landscape into its image. Hell, The A.V. Club has a whole feature about one-season shows that left an impact on the television landscape in their short runs.

Moreover, sometimes a show that seems like it was cancelled too soon at the time, in retrospect, is realized to have ended at the right time. Whedon's Firefly is a great example of this. The first season only made it to 14 episodes (of which only 11 made it to air) before FOX issued a cancellation, and many Browncoats, as fans call themselves, crave more episodes. And though I don't doubt Whedon's ability to craft a terrific narrative for the series, the show hadn't yet demonstrated it was capable of that kind of long-term storytelling. Outside of a few very minor subplots, each episode was a standalone adventure. As a result, Firefly fans (myself included) have 14 great episodes plus the film Serenity to make up the adventures of Captain Mal (Nathan Fillon) and his crew of misfits, and for me at least, that's enough.

By preserving a show's legacy, two things are accomplished. First, the show is preserved for old fans, the memories and quality remaining fond and terrific without any intrusion. Secondly, the show's reputation will attract new fans in the future, and the show's stature will only grow. It's a win-win, artistically speaking, that also has the potential to be financially lucrative down the line. Though that shouldn't be an invitation for sequels, remakes, "re-imaginings," or whatever other nonsense.

2. Cancellation allows the creative team to go forth to other projects.

One of the key problems with the fourth season of Arrested Development was logistics: it was impossible to get all of the actors' schedules coordinated for everyone to appear together, which necessitated the season's structure. But look at what the cast has gone on to since the show's first cancellation in 2006. Jason Bateman became a sort-of movie star, Michael Cera became a legitimate and unlikely movie star, Portia De Rossi appeared on the similarly cultishly-beloved Better Off Ted, Tony Hale landed an Emmy-winning role on Veep, Jessica Walter does a voice on Archer and has a role on TV Land's Retired at 35, Jeffrey Tambor did bit roles in several different projects, Will Arnett took starring roles in Running Wilde, Up All Night, and The Millers, David Cross continued his stand-up career, and Alia Shawkat had a major role in Whip It. For the most part, everyone in the cast turned their success on AD into something new, with careers that likely wouldn't have been possible without the show. But it was also the result of the show's cancellation.

In the case of Community, think of what the cast and crew can now go on to do without being tethered to that show. Though not everyone has signed up for new projects just yet, creator Dan Harmon has the surreal animated show Rick and Morty on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, while Donald Glover (who played Troy) was already taking a reduced role in the show in order to focus on his burgeoning rap career as Childish Gambino. Anthony Russo and Joe Russo - who directed a number of Arrested Development episodes as well as Community - recently had a monster blockbuster in directing Captain America: The Winter Soldier. There will be new opportunities for everyone involved in the show, and having them dispersed to the wind will allow them to possibly turn in something even greater. Even if they don't, they won't have outstayed their welcome as the characters you loved.

(This same argument can be made for How I Met Your Dad, the How I Met Your Mother spinoff starring Greta Gerwig that CBS passed on. Though it would have been interesting to see what she would have done with the format, I think it's better that she's able to focus on movies now, given how incredible she was in Frances Ha.)

In addition, it's important to remember that history can change the status of a show. What's currently defined as a "classic" may not hold up over the years, when there's more distance between the show's original airing and its reappraisal. This is especially true if the creators/actors/etc. are involved in something even better. Remember that at one point, Tina Fey's legacy seemed like it would be tied to Saturday Night Live and Mean Girls until 30 Rock came along. And even then, that could change in the future. Anything can happen.

3. With more television channels than ever, we should be allowed more shows than ever too.

It's no secret that Hollywood is all about digging up recognizable brands, turning them into franchises, and then running them into the ground until they've extracted every last dollar they can before rebooting them all over again a few years later. The same is true in television lately as well. Hell, NBC's strategy the past few years has apparently been to pretend like it's still the heyday of network television. If a familiar brand has already been established as a hit, then why not continue it for the enjoyment of the fans?

This can be toxic because in giving fans only what "they want," it stymies the creative process and prevents the show and the network from ever taking any risk. By reviving Community, a network would be filling airtime with a show that may or may not be equal to its original self instead of a new show with the potential to grow into something special. There are now more ways than ever to watch television, and the networks are fully aware of this. By having all of these different channels, we shouldn't just be filling them up with shows that we already know have worked in the past. Why not allow something fresh to take its place, something that fans of the cancelled show may even enjoy equally? Besides…

4. No matter what, a show cancelled for low-ratings isn't going to be given a second chance if ratings don't improve.

Times have changed. It's nearly impossible for any show to earn the numbers that Friends and ER did in the 1990s, and even the shows that do manage that today - NCIS and The Big Bang Theory - are still only pulling a fraction of those other shows' numbers. As much as network heads are now starting to tout DVR views and video streams, declaring that they loved the fans of low-rated show and respect their loyalty, "loyalty" and "passion" don't translate into advertising dollars. If Community were to land on, say, Showtime, it wouldn't have to worry about that, since the network is funded by subscriptions and has a lower ratings threshold. But if it wasn't a consistent performer, it would still end up cancelled again (well, maybe not on Showtime, where nothing ever ends until it's too late, but you get the idea).

Back when shows like Roswell, Jericho, and Firefly were cancelled, fan passion couldn't completely save the shows. Though the current state of network television means that low-rated shows can survive longer than they would have even five years ago, it doesn't mean that they can't be cancelled. Low numbers will result, eventually, in cancellation, especially since most shows get more expensive the longer they remain on the air. It's an inevitable fact of life, and being picked up by another network doesn't always reduce costs, which is why most cancelled shows don't find second lives elsewhere.

Ultimately, if a show is cancelled, it should be left that way. Fan passion can be tough, especially when it comes to a network breaking your heart with a cancellation, but what did make it to air will always be around. For Community fans: you may not have made it to six seasons and a movie, but there are five seasons worth of the show to watch and fall in love with all over again. New fans will discover it, and come to enjoy it. Community itself may not see its episode count grow, but the community of fans will never stop growing.

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