Don't leave me this way: Tears in TV's cancellation graveyard
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The lost worlds of scrapped shows often leave not only audiences bitter, but also the TV companies who 'chickened out' too early, only to see cult status and roaring DVD sales reveal their often irreversible mistake...
In this golden age of television we live in, it’s all too common a tragedy for TV shows to be consigned to the cancellation scrap heap before their time, often without any kind of cathartic finale - leaving fans wondering what might’ve been.
Over the last five years, there’ve been a number of particularly harsh show cancellation casualties; Deadwood, Rome, Veronica Mars, Jericho, FlashForward, John From Cincinnati, even the once almighty Heroes has fallen under the network guillotine. It has many fanboys crying to the heavens, why God why? Simply put, it’s a question of ratings.
More than any other show, Deadwood in particular feels like an absolute robbery. Series creator and mastermind David Milch had always envisioned the series as being told across four seasons; that we were robbed so mercilessly of a final season is testament to the callousness TV execs are capable of – and their short-sightedness.
It’s no great secret how the story of Deadwood ends – any cursory search on Wikipedia will tell you that much – Al and Dan having a severe falling out that severs their partnership forever, Bullock befriending future President Teddy Roosevelt, and the untimely destruction of the town begun by a fire that got out of control.
Yet countless questions remain; who actually set this fire? Was it, as many suspect, Al Swearengen himself? Could it even be a simple accident, in all likelihood by a shit-faced drunk Calamity Jane? The whole concept of a fire in Deadwood is beautifully foreshadowed throughout the series, both by Cy Tolliver’s prophecy “Come to cases though, he would set a fire” and even dullard Harry Manning’s insistence upon establishing a fire brigade while everyone around him calls him a fool.
Or was it someone else entirely? Was there a point to Brian Cox’s entrance as Jack Langrishe and his theatre troupe in season 3? As pleasing to the ears as his character was, the vast majority of Deadwood fans were scratching their heads as to his intended purpose and seemingly directionless storyline. Would Joannie ever stop wanting to end her own life and find some kind of a peace with Jane? Would Sol ever get round to publishing that book of his father’s deathbed sayings?
More than anything else, the burning question of what happens next between boy-the-earth-talks-to George Hearst’s proxy Tolliver (who was not so slowly and quite assuredly losing his mind) and unofficial mayor and town guardian, Al? The stage seemed set for an all-out climactic struggle that would have seen at least one side decimated and almost certainly set the precedent for the fire. I’d always envisioned the very last scene of Deadwood being of Al standing upon the Gem Saloon’s balcony, looking out over what remains of the town after the fire with his goons Johnny and Silas beside him, while Johnny asks stupidly “What now boss?” to which Al would undoubtedly reply “We fucking rebuild it”.
All the actors split, going their separate ways; Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) now has his own hit show as Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens on FX’s awesome Justified, Trixie (Paula Malcolmson) had a short stint on Ron Moore’s doomed Galactica prequel, Caprica (cancelled!) and more recently the third season of Sons of Anarchy, where Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) now also resides. Titus Welliver (who played Silas Adams) seems to be sticking his fingers into as many TV pies as possible, having appeared on The Good Wife, Sons of Anarchy, Lost and both of Ben Affleck’s directorial movies. Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), meanwhile, gave TV another chance with Kings (cancelled!), but now looks set to return to the big screen opposite Johnny Depp in the forthcoming Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
At the time of the cancellation, HBO promised the fans closure by the way of two two-hour, made-for-TV movies that would wrap up all the storylines and give us the catharsis we so badly wanted. After almost two years of promising it would happen, it became pretty clear it was never going to come into fruition.
"HBO had swiftly cut off two of their most successful shows, and lived to bitterly regret both decisions"
Instead, we got John From Cincinnati, a show that was pure Milch, but undeniably elitist, and ultimately a show in which very little happened. It had a Twin Peaks vibe about it, and it certainly hinted that somewhere down the road, everything would make sense, but unfortunately it was simply too little too late – after just one season HBO pulled the plug. Amazingly, Milch is still on good enough terms with them to be bringing a new drama to the network later next year with Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte as its leads. Titled Luck, this drama is reportedly about the world of horse-racing and gambling. On paper, it sounds about as exciting as housework, but Milch certainly has a way of making great television with premises that sound utterly uninspired – if you looked at Deadwood on paper, you’d more than likely dismiss it as a Western hourlong, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Yet Deadwood is just one of many examples. Another notable example is Rome, again from HBO. Somewhat ironically, word around the campfire was that Deadwood had been axed due to its gargantuan costs, and that part of that money would be funnelled to Rome instead. Even more ironic was the decision to then axe Rome after only two excellent seasons – HBO had swiftly cut off two of their most successful shows, and lived to bitterly regret both decisions. While the ratings were lagging for both Rome and Deadwood, the DVD sales were staggering and only drove home the fact that HBO had made a serious blunder in giving up on two flagship shows.
"HBO's dedication to such a high standard in period drama has in some ways been their downfall, and it remains a double-edged sword"
With Rome especially, even more so in the second season, you begin to see the potential of what they were making. Luckily for Rome, the producers and writers knew that HBO were pulling the plug, and were granted the rare gift of being able to wrap everything up in the time they had. The last four episodes are largely set in Egypt with Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, and it’s some of the best television out there. It’s pretty clear that, had the show not been cancelled, seasons 3 and 4 would have taken place almost entirely in Egypt – reports from series creator Bruno Heller confirm as much across the internet. HBO and the BBC had a chance to build an epic that would have remained a legend in the TV industry for years, instead they blew their chance, prematurely cancelling a show that would have yielded vast sums had it been allowed to continue. Given how well they ended the show (it really was a fantastic finale), it’s somewhat surprising to hear about the forthcoming Rome movie that HBO is working on. One suspects that this is riding on the coattails of the success of the Sex and The City movie, but if it gives me more Pullo and Vorenus, all to the good.
Yet another HBO show that went unfinished was Carnivale. Slow-paced and without much action, it’s easier to understand why Carnivale failed to garner either the ratings or the sales necessary to keep it afloat – set in 1920’s western America with a colourful band of freaks travelling from town to town, it was never going to be an easy sell. But the joy of Carnivale was in its mythology , and this was something that was beginning to develop very nicely at the climax of season 2, right when HBO decided to can it. Of the proposed 6 seasons, only two had been told, and the remaining four’s content is as good as lost forever. So many questions remain; was Jonesy really killed? Was Lodz going to return? Did Sophie really inherit her father’s ‘gift’ of darkness, or would we have seen both her and Brother Justin return in season 3 with the much rumoured son of incest between them? Unfortunately, we’ll just never know. The one good thing that came out of Carnivale ending was Ron Moore being freed up to bring Battlestar Galactica back to us in glorious style.
"Given HBO’s track record with shows of this kind, the future is already looking tenuous for A Game Of Thrones"
There is one noticeable pattern among these shows: they’re all period dramas. Whether it be post civil war America, a few years before the Great Depression or in Ancient Rome, the production costs of bringing these shows TV are undoubtedly huge and this is because of HBO’s dedication to quality and detail. However, that dedication to such a high standard has in some ways been their downfall, and it remains a double-edged sword. It certainly doesn’t bode well for their forthcoming adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s superb fantasy series A Song of Ice And Fire, coming to HBO in January as A Game Of Thrones, which, aside from The Walking Dead, has generated possibly the most amount of hype surrounding a TV show before it's even aired. Martin’s world is one of huge palaces, abandoned fortresses, giant walls made of ice, dragons and epic battles – given HBO’s track record with shows of this kind, the future is already looking tenuous for A Game Of Thrones.
Beyond the HBO follies
From this it might appear to be the case that HBO are the only network that consistently cancel their best shows, but it certainly isn’t the case. Jericho famously made TV history when it was cancelled, inspiring such protestation within the fan base that they literally bombarded CBS’ offices with peanuts to express their outrage. After a long and persistent campaign, CBS agreed to renew the series for just seven episodes on a trial basis, but neglected to extend the season beyond that. Nonetheless it was an impressive victory, if only a short one. Now, Jericho lives on through comic books, and while I’ve not watched that particular series (because it was cancelled!), I would imagine that the comic doesn’t live up to the visual joy of TV.
"Heroes was huge, possibly the biggest TV hit since Lost; yet only three seasons later it would be cancelled despite a vastly improved final season"
While perhaps not surprising given the quality plummet in seasons 2 and 3, it is still a little hard to believe that NBC has actually cancelled Heroes. Remember in season 1 when it was pretty much taking over the world and had its eyes on galactic dominance? It was huge, possibly the biggest TV hit since Lost, yet only three seasons later it would be cancelled despite a vastly improved final season. Unfortunately for Heroes, it was just too little too late, and season 4 actually did a good job of redeeming the series from the cesspool it had become, but it became apparent all too quickly how the show would descend into mediocrity again once season 5 had been commissioned – but that never happened. The cliff-hanger of Claire exposing her ability to the mass media and therefore the world would have had certain repercussions, but really, would it have lead to anything we hadn’t seen before? It seems doubtful.
FlashForward, meanwhile, was a show that lost me around mid-season with its endless list of characters and boring protagonists. Seriously, did anyone actually like Joseph Fiennes in that show? A classic example of bad casting – if they’d got the right man for the job, I might have just stuck around, but between his shouting and general douche-bag behaviour, I just couldn’t stomach it anymore. From what I’ve heard from others who persevered, things did improve and were given a huge boost by the guest appearance of James Callis as a Rainman-esque brainbox. Ultimately though, neither this nor anything else could stop ABC from cancelling the show they so desperately wanted to make the next Lost.
And let us not forget Veronica Mars, the star-making vehicle for Kristen Bell. To this day, Bell asserts that if she had the funds to do it, she would fund a Veronica Mars movie herself. That’s some devotion.
Amid this graveyard of cancelled TV shows past, present and future, is there a common thread to be found? As far as I can tell, the answer is decidedly no. Different problems plague different productions. For Deadwood and Rome, it was the cost of producing the show balanced against the ratings and the sales figures. For Heroes, it was a decline in ratings due to shockingly poor writing at a crucial point in the show’s history. For Veronica Mars, it was simply that the show appealed to a select, dedicated audience, but with its extensive geek in-jokes and winks, it would have been extremely difficult for it to break into the mainstream. FlashForward, plain and simply, suffered from ludicrous expectations, but the bottom line is ABC have no-one to blame but themselves. Pitching a show as the next big thing before it even airs is a hell of a standard to set yourself and it was therefore inevitable that FlashForward collapsed under its own weight.
"It almost feels as if the Fringe writers are telling the final season’s story now in an attempt to boost ratings and finish before Fox can cancel the show"
As for the present, things are, as ever, perilous. Recently consigned to the Friday night death slot, Fringe is a show that has built and built upon its mythology and truly came into its own towards the end of season 2. Season 3, however, while definitely a bold step, has been a little divisive. Splitting the episodes week by week between Over Here and Over There was a very brave step taken by the writers and it really sets the precedent for the coming war between the worlds, but there is feeling that the show has become wrapped up in its own mythology too much, and this can be a little excluding for potential newcomers to the show. Indeed, as Shadowlocked’s own Roman Kowal commented recently, it almost feels that it’s time for a reboot – with the two worlds colliding in its third season, it begs the question – where do we go from here? If Walternate is the big bad of the show, are we really going to hop between the two worlds for the rest of the series? It almost feels as if the writers are telling the final season’s story now in an attempt to boost ratings and finish before Fox can cancel the show.
As a big Fringe fan, I certainly hope that’s not the case, but given the sheer number of shows that have been casualties of the Friday Night Death Slot in the past, it seems almost inevitable at this point – here’s a roster of the dearly departed: Firefly, Dark Angel, Prison Break, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Dollhouse, Past Life... and those are just the shows from Fox! At this point, things really aren’t looking too good for Olivia, Peter and Walter, and if they were cancelled it would be one of the biggest mistakes of TV history since HBO scrapped Deadwood and Rome.
"After such an investment in a show that, as many said, wasn’t really paying off, the finale of Rubicon was a huge let down"
AMC’s short-lived spy drama Rubicon was beginning to really go places towards the end of the season, but just wasn’t making it in the ratings department. It was unashamedly a slow-burner, but things did begin to come together towards the end of the season. The finale, however, was a massive disappointment – after months of jumping at shadows, reading by candlelight and investigating the history behind Fisher’s Island and the meaning of the mysterious four-leaf clovers, Protagonist Will (James Badge Dale) finally uncovered the evidence he needed to incriminate API’s head honcho Truxton Spangler. And what does he do? Has a chat on a rooftop with the dastardly cornflakes-muncher who orchestrated at least one terrorist attack on American soil, threatens to expose him, but ultimately ends up doing nothing. The season (and now the series) ends with Spangler not jumping off the building as many anticipated, but simply returning to his office while Will gapes him blankly. After such an investment in a show that, as many said, wasn’t really paying off, it was a huge let down – usually when a small but dedicated fan base attach themselves to a show that struggles to bring in the ratings, they’re rewarded with some kind of fanservice or at the very least a decent catharsis. From Rubicon, this was simply not present, and finished on such an undramatic cliff-hanger that DVD sales of the series deserve to be shockingly low.
Meanwhile, Chuck is still struggling to bring in the ratings and despite having earned itself a full order for the fourth season, has recently hit its all-time Nielsen low just this week. Having not watched Chuck, but planning on doing so one day, I can’t comment or speculate as to why it’s flagging, but the general consensus among fans seems to indicate that things have improved since season 3 and that season 4’s new direction is much welcome and widely recognised as necessary.
Fortunately, it isn’t all hard-luck stories. Both Southland and Damages were saved at the eleventh hour after being abandoned by their original networks, NBC and FX respectively. Having only watched one episode of Southland, I can’t make much of a judgement on whether its cancellation would have been a great loss or not, but the forty-five minutes I have seen were vaguely reminiscent of The Shield, and that can only be a good sign. Now that TNT has stepped in and agreed to renew the series into its third season, Southland has a good chance of staying on the air for at least a while longer.
"Now that DirectTV have stepped in to help keep Damages going, I’m curious to see what direction they’ll take it in – because something definitely needs to change, and drastically"
Having watched Damages for all three seasons, it’s an undeniable truth that it has got progressively less interesting each season. Season 3 in particular felt like a real nose-dive in quality – it’s time the producers recognised that season-long plotlines with different characters aren’t working for the show, and several times throughout season 3 I found myself asking 'where is this going'? All the side-plot and backstory with Patty and Keith Carradine’s interior designer ended up being nothing but a trippy internal monologue that ended up revealing very little and certainly nothing we hadn’t already pieced together ourselves. By the end of the season, I naturally felt that the show had come to its own conclusion. Now that DirectTV have stepped in to help keep the show going, I’m curious to see what direction they’ll take it in – because something definitely needs to change, and drastically.
"It’s ludicrous that we live in an age of advanced technology, yet TV shows are renewed or picked up based on the short-term ratings of a deeply flawed system"
When shows like The Real Housewives of Atlanta, American Idol, CSI and its dozen incarnations manage to stay on the air without ever having to bat an eyelid, it can certainly be more than a little depressing to see how difficult it is for creative, well-written, superbly-acted shows to stay on our screens. You may ask yourself, what can I do to stop these cancellations from happening? Simply put: tune in. It’s ludicrous that we live in an age of advanced technology, yet TV shows are renewed or picked up based on the short-term ratings of a deeply flawed system; but them's the rules, and we have to adhere to them. If you want Chuck, Fringe and countless others to stay on the air, the best thing you can do is sit down, watch them (don’t just DVR them) then go and buy the DVDs, lend them to your friends and get them on board too. Spread the word. Keep the dream alive. Find the shows on Facebook and click Like. Write about them. Read about them. The bottom line is this: whatever you do, don’t give up on them.
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