TV Cancellation: A Merciful Death- a Ryan Hutton Opinion Piece
By Ryan Hutton
Every year TV renewal season comes around, and every year I think I can hear the king of cancelled TV Shows, Joss Whedon, sobbing. With three out of four of his TV shows cancelled, we are left to wonder if The Avengers (2012) and Toy Story (1995) writer will ever bother trying to return to writing for TV ever again. I mean, why would he? Whedon is a writer who sets out with a general plan of the story that he wants to tell and, if we are to base an opinion off of his only complete TV Show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), knows when to call it quits. What is the point in starting a story if you cannot finish it?
From the angle of a writer (or any kind of content creator, for that matter), I understand the frustration. You have just started creating a new mockumentary, a la The Muppets (2015-2016), and you have some great ideas to install into the already fantastic workings of some of media’s most beloved characters. You have split Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy up to add some spicy drama, as well as celebrity cameos from the likes of Nick Offerman and Laurence Fishburne swinging in left, right and centre. You are really getting into the groove… and then your show is cancelled. All that effort for nothing. Seems like an awful waste, right? Well, not really. The Muppets starring in a mockumentary style TV show that explored the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of the Muppet Show sounds like an idea worth exploring, and you have explored it. Sure, the result was absolutely terrible and should probably only be reserved for torturing captured enemy soldiers into providing secret information, but you gave it a try. Time to learn and move on.
In the case of Bob Kushnell and Bill Prady’s The Muppets TV show, cancellation was a blessing in disguise. The show was unfunny and almost an insult to the beloved characters, who were providing grown-up jokes. It felt unsettlingly uncharacteristic of the Muppets. Who knows, maybe the TV show is where Brian Henson got the idea for The Happytime Murders (2018) (which would make sense, because the film was critically hated). The focus The Muppets can now take them back to a family-friendly setting with a new film. AV Club even suggested that they should move to YouTube. Whatever the future of The Muppets, it came at the expense of something terrible being cancelled. The next time that you hear Joss Whedon sobbing over cancellation, just remember the cancellation of The Muppets. It is not always bad.
Yet, The Muppets should be thankful of its merciful cancellation. Community’s (2009-2015) was anything except merciful, but only because it was dragged by its hair from under the ground by Yahoo! Screen (remember those guys? Yeah, me neither). For context, Community was a sitcom that had a pretty standard first season. The audience were introduced to a zany cast of characters attending a community college, between which friendships and romances ensued. There was a central white male protagonist who played the straight, no-nonsense type against the weirdos, as well as about five different sets, and a senior cast member playing a royal dick on and off screen (it was Chevy Chase, if you were wondering). You know, standard sitcom stuff. But that all changed when Season 1 Episode 23, Modern Warfare, came along and turned the entire college into a paintball arena for the entire 22 minute runtime. Show Creator (and resident narcissist), Dan Harmon, went absolutely wild with it. And it stands as one of the best episodes of any sitcom ever created. From then on, the show became a sitcom that often approached an episode with a unique style or premise. In later seasons the paintballing made a return, and there was an episode that explored six different outcomes of a dice throw, and even an episode where the floor became lava (unfortunately, only in the minds of the characters). It was very good TV.
And then network NBC fired Harmon when Season 4 rolled around. Even when rehired for Season 5, Harmon could not recapture the magic that the show held in its first three seasons. With viewer figures falling, the show was cancelled after five seasons. By this point, three of the seven original core cast had left the show and it had had a five-year run. Seasons 4 and 5 were not great, but they had their moments. It made sense to bury Community and move on, right? Well, there always was that gag of “six seasons and a movie” in the show… so did it make sense to make a sixth season? Not really, given the declining quality of the show. But Yahoo! Screen picked up the show anyway for a sixth season, and it was even worse than the season that Harmon did not oversee. While some episodes were interesting, it was largely forgettable and painfully unfunny most of the time. The show truly fell from grace instead of having a dignified death. Still waiting on that movie though, Community.
Of course, there are those shows that are of very high quality that are killed off a little too early. Or, at least, some people believe that they are killed off a little too early. Galavant (2015-2016) was an incredible cheesy musical that followed the adventures of Sir Galavant (Joshua Sasse) and a cast of (Shock! Horror!) zany characters. Yet, despite its incredibly cheesy nature, it was a lot of fun and the musical numbers were quite consistent in their above-average quality. It lasted two seasons before cancellation, with even the cast being surprised that it lasted that long, opening the second season with a song about surviving cancellation. The impending doom of cancellation throughout the second season kept the humour regarding the possible cancellation of the show sharp and forced the quality to stay high. This is to say, the fear of cancellation had positive effects in Galavant. Season 2 ends with the possibility of bigger and better things to come, but wraps up somewhat neatly. Of course, fans will want to know what happens next, but let me propose this: what if the show had continued and only grown terrible? Would that not bitter the taste of two great seasons? The most interesting part of the show was initial antagonist, King Richard (Timothy Omundson), and the second season gave him a redemption arc. By the end of season 2, the character had somewhat lost his initial appeal which came from how delightfully evil yet helpless he was. Carrying forward, the character may have been ruined. Cancellation may have saved Richard.
Speaking of shows of a high quality that were cancelled, let us talk about Firefly (bet you saw this one coming from a mile off, not least because it is the article header image used to attract those delicious clicks). Returning to the topic of the King of Cancellation, Joss Whedon, Firefly (2003) was one of his ill-fated shows, aired by Fox at terrible hours and in the incorrect order. Before its first episode had even aired Firefly may well have just strangled itself using its own umbilical cord. After the production of 14 episodes the show was cancelled, with many of its intriguing plot threads left dangling. It has since been stated what Whedon planned for the following seasons of Firefly in various interviews, and it all sounded very interesting. So, you may be asking, where is the blessing in Firefly’s cancellation? The episodes were only improving in quality, and the cast chemistry should be envied by the likes of the Arrow cast (talking of shows that need cancelling). Yet, I cannot help but feel that Firefly’s consistent level of quality and the fanbase’s love for the show originates from the fact that there are only 14 episodes. There is not much room to go wrong. Firefly is near-perfect, and that is because of its cancellation. Does that mean that it deserved to be cancelled? Probably not. But those plotlines that Whedon had planned out could have gone very wrong. Ironically, cancellation may have been the key to Firefly’s immense popularity, which was powerful enough to spawn a concluding film, Serenity (2005). A few graphic novels have also been produced in order to explore events and characters of the ‘verse in a little more depth, acting as a healthy dose of guacamole to the Serenity burrito.
So is cancellation all bad? No. Would every TV show benefit from cancellation? No. Next year’s season of Game of Thrones (2011-2019) will be its last, with the show aiming to conclude its epic run in a (hopefully) satisfying final season. Its story has been told, so why keep everybody involved tied to it for the sake of milking the popularity of the show for cash? Take Supernatural (2005-hopefully soon), for example. Eric Kripke created the show with the intention of telling the story over five seasons. He did, and it finished very neatly… until the final shot. Boom! New showrunner, and so many more seasons with no end goal in sight, which means very little structure. Imagine if the show was cancelled and the funding went to a fresh new premise? Supernatural continues to stain its popularity, whilst it is possible that Firefly built its popularity on cancellation. To cancel Supernatural at this point would be a mercy to us all as opposed to the show, but the story is a little different for Firefly. The fans’ love for those incredible 14 episodes may live on for an eternity, while The Muppets may fade into obscurity, both as a result of the mercy of cancellation.
Who knows? The Muppets may soon gain a cult following with its appeal only enhanced by its cancelled status. The Muppets may be the next Firefly. I will be sure to morph into my true worm form and bury myself underground for the rest of time if so.