Cancellation Scorecard: Five TV Lessons We’ve Learned This Fall
Old Tom Eliot had it wrong: April isn’t the cruelest month, it’s October. As the final blasts of the shofar fade into memory, television’s brightest hopes find themselves adrift in an unfamiliar landscape, dotted with returning giants and buffeted by the cruel winds of fate, audience indifference, and the dreaded over-run of NFL games. And after a sleepy start, this month the 2011 TV season has finally started to stack bodies like Chris and Snoop let loose in an abandoned tenement. First fell The Playboy Club, the victim of a brutal, boring high-heel to the throat. Then Free Agents was sacked and How to Be a Gentleman lost its duel at ten paces (and two episodes). At the end of the day on Friday, Charlie’s Angels was mercifully dispatched to the afterlife. It’s unclear what’s more damning to the networks: that all four of these heavily hyped newcomers were knocked off before Halloween or that there most likely won’t be a single soul who misses them. (I’m beset by visions of NBC boss Bob Greenblatt trapped in his office, drowning in an avalanche of mailed-in bunny tails like so many low-rent, porny tribbles. I’d make a joke about similar save-our-show campaigns for the other recently deceased but I honestly can’t think of a single memorable moment from any of them.)
Luckily for savvy Cancellation League members, the cruelty of October can also be kind: Owners of the above-mentioned goners scored big on the backs of their flameouts. Shorting DOA duds like Playboy allows us regular joes the same illicitly exciting frisson du failure usually only experienced by Cleveland sports fans and the guys who just wrecked the global economy. (A note on scoring: Our original rulebook was Andy Reid-ian in its mistake-riddled density. Going forward, we’ve simplified the play-calling: If a show is given a full season order in October, it’s -50. In November/December, it’s -40. If the order comes anytime in the new year, it’s -25. Got it? Good. Time’s yours.) Of course there’s also a case to be made for drafting hardier stock: While The Playboy Club will never again merit even a single dismissive adjective on Deadline.com, stubborn tweeners like Prime Suspect can spend months milking ratings purgatory for points. While the scoring gulf in most leagues — including ours — has ballooned to Mike & Molly proportions, there is still hope on the horizon for those lagging behind. Below, I’ve compiled a few lessons learned from the first six weeks of the season — and how they might help those currently riding a TV losing streak longer than Christian Slater’s.
1. Comedy Is King.
I felt bad for league member Lane Brown when Suburgatory, his pick at the top of the second round, wasn’t just an out-of-the-box hit, it inspired an article about the rebirth of an entire genre. Luckily for Lane, we weren’t clever enough to invent a category for such outrageous, terrible success. Still, the results are clear: Suburgatory got a full-season order despite its title, The New Girl got one despite its cast shake-up, and 2 Broke Girls and Whitney were equally blessed despite being terrible. This was not the year to bet against retrograde gender riffing, which bodes well for any team not saddled with the late-starting, risible-looking Man Up or I Hate My Teenage Daughter. (Lane’s got the latter. Better luck next fall, boss!)
2. NBC Is Still NBC.
When you have as many gaping potholes in your schedule as the Peacock, you’re occasionally going to cut corners with cheap grout. That’s the only plausible explanation for the quick hook given to unpromising newcomers Playboy and Free Agents, all in the network’s quixotic pursuit of establishing a new comedy beachhead on Wednesday nights. And so, while overall no. 1 pick Grimm still looks good — meaning “bad” — in the graveyard of Friday nights, NBC’s low standards and desperate need for programming, any programming, means presumed-dead series like Prime Suspect might just stick around long enough for Maria Bello to find a new hat. The tepid support shown by an additional order of a half-dozen scripts coupled with the slow realization that the show might actually, y’know, be good is a sign of the long rope afforded to those stuck on a fourth-place network.
3. The CW Is Still the CW.
Last week this very website ran a wonderful profile of Anthony Calvillo, the unheralded quarterback who just became the most prolific passer ever. Of course, the naysayers were quick to point out that Calvillo plays in the Canadian Football League: The rules are different there. The same could be said of the CW, a niche netlet that averages the sort of ratings that would ordinarily get you cancelled on basic cable. Yet the CW programs brilliantly for the hardy, Manic-Panicked few who do tune in: Their brand consistency is probably the best in the business. Which is why savvy drafters avoided all three of their new scripted shows this fall, all of which targeted their demo sweet spot: speed-snarking pretty people doing ridiculous things (Ringer, Hart of Dixie) and Wiccans (The Secret Circle). Despite garnering the same number of average viewers as a decent sunset in your local park, all three shows were given full-season orders quicker that you can say “netlet” — but not faster than Rachel Bilson can say anything.
4. CBS Doesn’t Make Mistakes.
How to Be a Gentleman was a rare misfire for the Tiffany network, a sloppy collection of bro-hard humor that whiffed even in this current era of mass-market misogyny. Still, CBS — always the most stable of the big four — exhibited a remarkably Rumsfeld-ian attitude in the way it handled the problem: The show was pulled after two airings and moved to the Negative Zone (a.k.a. Saturday nights), production was shut down, but the “c” word was never uttered. Apparently, CBS doesn’t do anything as gauche as cancel shows — it merely buries them. Since we at Grantland are proud members of the reality-based community, we’ve decided to award all Gentleman-holders full cancellation points. The obvious fate of a sitcom that lousy is what even the former Secretary of Defense would term a “known unknown.”
5. ABC Has an Itchy Trigger Finger.
Just a few weeks ago the alphabet was crowing about its two big drama debuts: Revenge and Pan Am. Now only the former is making the press releases, as the flyboy fantasy has quickly sunk to “dangerously low” levels. Of course, any other network would keep Christina Ricci & Co. aloft — it’s an expensive show with big brand recognition; it’s easier to keep a plane in the air after takeoff than to build an entirely new 747 in the development season. But ABC apparently has a deep bench with high-profile programs like the hour-long Good Christian Belles, née Bitches, waiting in the wings. GCB has good early buzz and would be a perfect catfighting counterpoint to the fading Desperate Housewives. So good news could be en route for Pan Am owners — but not for those us still hoping to find out what radical, Hegelian acts Christina’s ratty-haired kept (straw) man is capable of.
Bundle up, hate-watchers! The cold, Sweeps-ing winds of November are just around the corner. We’ll see if the once-promising Pan Am can survive the turbulence. As for Grimm? Let’s just say this turkey will probably expire well before the bird destined for your Thanksgiving plate.
Here’s this week’s scorecard:
Andy: 1965 points
Playboy Club (CANCELLED!): 700
Free Agents: (“doomed,” CANCELLED!, Hank Azaria and Enbom begged on Twitter) 665
Charlie’s Angels: (“took a dive,” “facing cancellation,” “march to cancellation,” “abysmal,” CANCELLED!): 600
Person of Interest: 0
Dan: 50 points
Allen Gregory: 0
Prime Suspect: (“encouraging,” network “rallying behind it,” six more scripts ordered): 50 points for false show of support
Terra Nova: (“series of encouraging news”): 0
Chris: 625 points
Whitney (full season): -50
Up All Night (full season): -50
Ringer (full season): -50
How to Be a Gentleman (“not looking good,” CANCELLED!, moved to Saturdays): 775
Jacoby: 0 points
Man Up: 0
Once Upon a Time: 0
A Gifted Man: (“fading,” “modest”): 50
Hart of Dixie: (full season) -50
Molly: -75 points
Unforgettable (“continue[s] to slide”): 25
Last Man Standing (“excellent”): 0
The Secret Circle (picked up): -50
2 Broke Girls (picked up): -50
Lane: -75 points
I Hate My Teenage Daughter: 0
Suburgatory (“opens well,” “signals genre comeback,” full season!): -50
Revenge (full season): -50
Pan Am (“tumbled dangerously”): 25
Andy Greenwald (Homeboys In Outer Space): 2190 points
It’s hard to say it without sounding immodest, but I can’t help it. Like DJ Khaled, Flex Alexander, and that annoying dude you went to college with who rode to class on a unicycle, I’m definitely on one. A tear that is. If our Cancellation League were a video game, I’d be engulfed in cartoon flames as my avatar (I’m picturing Scott Skiles? But with hair?) relentlessly dunks failed show after failed show through a ruptured and smoking Nielsen box. Look, I knew I had a strong team — the poster for Charlie’s Angels made it look like an ad for a new feminine-hygiene product, not an action-packed TV series — but never in a thousand Wonder Years did I expect to see 75 percent of my roster be euthanized before United Nations Day.
With a comfortable four-digit lead over my closest competitor (Chris Ryan’s Remember the Terriers, which, thanks to the putrid How to Be a Gentleman, is a one-man band like our beloved 2000-01 76ers or that annoying guy you went to college with), it’s time for me to sit in my castle made entirely of recycled back issues of TV Guide and ponder the one outlier on my otherwise perfectly putrid squad: Person of Interest. It’s not as if the CBS procedural is overperforming (which in our league is kind of like underperforming). It’s just that it’s doing that typical CBS thing of being just good enough to exist and just bad enough to keep you guessing. So, in lieu of any serious competition, I’ve been attempting to use “The Secret” to get Jonah Nolan to consider new directions for the show like having Jim Caviezel attempt water-skiing stunts with aquatic life or perhaps revealing that Michael Emerson is actually the caretaker of a mysterious island full of polar bears and that he has some important ideas to share with the audience about soul mates, the afterlife, and nondenominational churches. Otherwise I’m feeling as unbeatable as Chuck Lorre’s accountant or the staff writer on 2 Broke Girls who keeps a copy of Racial Stereotypes for Dummies stashed underneath the conference table. Unbeatable, that is, until Molly snaps up Work It in the midseason draft and straight LeBrons the rest of the year.
Dan Fierman (The Heat Vision and Jacks): 125 points
Tick. Tick. Tick. Still waiting on my first- and fourth-round picks to debut. I talked a lot about the thinking behind drafting Grimm in my last post, so let me just say this about Fox’s Allen Gregory, which I nabbed with the last pick in the draft. It debuts on October 30 and if there is a Just and Righteous Divine Creator it will end up alongside Sit Down, Shut Up in the dustbin of discarded hipster animated comedies.
Since I don’t have a lot to say about my other two picks — Terra Nova and Prime Suspect, both looking satisfyingly shaky — I’d like to take this moment to laugh deeply and heartily at my good friend Chris Ryan, who made an understandable but grave rookie mistake when he drafted a bunch of undeniably awful-looking shows. Terrible, Chris, does not mean “cancellable.” Just look at the landscape of network TV! Whitney is as unkillable as a cockroach.
Which brings me to you, Andy Greenwald. I think I speak for everyone when I say, We hate you and your almost spotless record thus far. As a punishment, I’m going to make you recap Whitney AND 2 Broke Girls. I want a deep analysis of the difference-between-women-and-men jokes. I want a loving appreciation of the “Brooklyn” that the two girls that are broke live in. I want an essay on the brilliant comedic potential of having a “horse pet” as a character.
In short, I want you to claw out your own eyes.
I can make this happen. Don’t forget it.
Chris Ryan (Remember the Terriers): 625 points
I feel like Jim Leyland. Here I am, undead, 341 years old, chain smoking, looking over the limping, gimpy remains of what I thought was a solid lineup. There’s Whitney (Delmon Young), so full of promise and now launching into a full-season order (a torn oblique). There’s Up All Night (Magglio Ordonez) defying all the chatter that it was two shows in one to become NBC’s first comedy hit for as long as I can remember (broken ankle). And Ringer? I can’t even think about Ringer. All I have left is How To Be A Gentleman (Miggy Cabrera, obviously). You, my sweet sinking ship. You are my only hope. You make me want to give up smoking.
But how could I possibly think of moving out of flavor country when times are as tense as they are? I know things may look good for me, sitting in second place, but don’t plan a parade in the Canyon of Heroes just yet. By passing on Free Agents, I made a fatal mistake. Like leaving my starter in for just too long. And now, my entire season rests on the slim-to-none possibility that Sarah Michelle Gellar might wake up one day and realize she’s playing twins (TWINS), walking off the Ringer set and back into my starting rotation. A boy can dream. Until then, smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.
Molly Lambert (The Magic Hours): -75 points
Full admission: I watched Home Improvement. I liked the animated credit sequence. I retained nothing from any episode. I have no beef with Tim Allen, but Last Man Standing sucks. I don’t know how show creator/30 Rock writer Jack Burditt feels about the finished product pilot and I imagine he can’t comment either way. I will say that there is a huge (and hugely important) difference between jokes that are sexist and homophobic and jokes about sexism and homophobia, much like the difference between racist jokes and jokes about race. And that there was no sign on Last Man Standing of any nuanced funny jokes about sexism like this one from Burditt’s Twitter: “20 years ago today Anita Hill testified before the Senate, successfully eradicating sexual harassment in the USA.” Anyway, it premiered huge and will probably run until the end of televised time-space because it’s the audiovisual equivalent of beef stew in a can. The CW also gave a pickup to teen witch squad The Secret Circle and CBS ordered a full season of 2 Broke Girls. Gimmicky procedural Unforgettable‘s producer says “this is not another gimmicky procedural” and viewers tune in to see what Poppy Montgomery looks like as a tough-talking ginger with an infallible memory bank. The Magic Hours’ chances at cancellation league victory collapse like a cheap house.
Lane Brown (The Viva Laughlins): -75 points
With Revenge and Suburgatory likely to be sold into syndication any minute, and the Viva Laughlins tied for last place with the Magic Hours (whose hit-filled roster I cruelly selected myself to punish Molly for deliberating for too long and holding up our draft), it’s time to face bitter facts: I’m no better at forecasting the deaths of TV shows than Summer Glau’s agents (also, I am so, so sorry for this, Ben Silverman). My score is a full 2,265 points below Andy’s, but I still have a rooting interest in Pan Am‘s upcoming cancellation — mostly as a website editor who’s excited to honor the show with history’s worst pun-based headline. When the time comes, I’m going to go with either “Pan Am: Boeing, Boeing, Gone!” or “Pan Am: Just Plane Cancelled!”
Andy Greenwald is an author and screenwriter in New York. He covers pop culture for Grantland.