By and large, a TV show goes off the air for a few specific reasons.
The biggest culprit is low ratings and/or not enough network support to allow the show to tough out said ratings. This is what happens to 90% of American programs, accordingly to a statistic I just pulled out of my ass. No timeslot change, no ad campaign, no wacky neighbor or surprise death can save you from your fate. You’re going away and you’re never coming back.
Arrested Development, one of the greatest Sitcoms of all-time, suffered a particularly embarrassing fate. After being pulled from the air for nearly six weeks, FOX burned off the final four episodes of Season 3 opposite the Olympic Winter Games Opening Ceremony. An absurd, paltry-at-best way for a show of that caliber to flatline.
However, Arrested at least had the opportunity to (somewhat) wrap things up before they hit the road. They didn’t go out on their own terms (more on those shows in a little bit), but they saw the writing on the wall and came up with something that would satisfy most storylines in the event they were canceled, which they were. Some shows are blindsinded, canceled at the end (or worse, the middle) of a season where a cliffhanger looms, leaving fans to forever ponder what was going to happen.
The HBO series Carnivale, for example, was unceremoniously yanked after just two of an intended six-seasons, resulting in several abandoned storylines and outraged fans. Unlike Arrested, all the petitioning and letter-writing in the world could not revive it.
In 1987, a low-rated sitcom called I Married Dora was canceled halfway into their first season. Instead of quietly bowing out or burning off the material they had, Dora went out in one of the most peculiar and fourth-wall-breaking moments in TV history. Check it out:
Some shows remain popular (or profitable enough) to overstay their welcome. Off the top of my head, Roseanne, Dexter and House MD were all shows that started huge and ended with more of a wimper than a bang. In fact, you can usually find Roseanne and Dexter on lists of the Worst Series Finales Ever, and I wouldn’t dispute it in the least.
Also, it’s 2016 and Grey’s Anatomy and Supernatural are still on the air. Can you believe that shit? Good for them; go get it and so forth.
Friday Night Lights was a show that, despite low ratings, was able to tell the story they wanted to tell thanks to internal support and a rabid fanbase, myself included. Despite being loved by NBC, something had to give by Season 3. Instead of pitching FNL into the dirt, NBC worked with DirecTV’s 101 Network to produce and air three additional seasons, with NBC rebroadcasts during the summer to alleviate costs. Instead of being a two-season wonder, FNL was given five years and 76 episodes to make history. This is an extremely, extremely rare example of a network moving heaven and Earth in order to allow someone to tell a story.
When AMC took a chance on Breaking Bad, it wasn’t really all that big of a chance. It was a 7-episode first season on a network not yet renowned for their original programming. However, their patience to let Vince Gilligan breathe and tell the story he wanted to tell allowed for what became perhaps the greatest Drama in TV History.
That brings me to the next reason why a TV show goes off the air: Because they’re done. This is obviously the best-case scenario for the show and fans, and when done correctly, turns out to be something very special. In recent years alone, Breaking Bad, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock and The Office all had the chance to stick the landing and succeeded. Even if you agree that The Office should have ended with the departure of Steve Carell, which I wouldn’t necessarily dispute.
(This may be the funniest scene in The Office
Another rare example of a show being jerked around in perpetuity is Futurama; a franchise that aired four different episodes designed to act at Series Finales in the event that they didn’t come back.
South of Sunset, a 1993 CBS drama starring Glenn Frey of The Eagles, was canceled after a single episode. Frey played a private detective, and I’m not kidding. There was also a 1997 FOX drama called Lawless that was canceled after one episode, starring NFL player Brian Bosworth as a private detective. Not sure what to tell you, there.
In 2008, NBC drama Quarterlife was pulled after a single episode that I watched and enjoyed. However, the ratings were historically abysmal; NBC claims the viewership was even lower than the XFL. Oof.
In 2010, the NBC sci-fi drama Day One was all set to fill the Heroes timeslot following the Olympics.They had high hopes and clearly put a lot of money into the pilot (see below). However, the network had an abrupt change of heart, and the show was pulled before even airing an episode. If you think you watched Day One in 2010, you didn’t, or you’ve been poofed over from an alternate universe where it was a huge hit. Bring me back a Berenstein Bears book next time.
Before we wrap it up, I wanted to talk about something I haven’t mentioned in over six years: The Series Finale of Lost.
Lost was part of many quirks of TV History. Just from a story standpoint, they utilized the Internet and Easter Eggs in a way that most shows hadn’t attempted on such a grand scale. But they also got caught in a Writer’s Strike that shortened one of their seasons, changing the way they had to tell their Season 4 story. They had to deal with major characters leaving the show, minor characters becoming fan favorites, and child actors hitting puberty at the absolute worst time.
(Remember when Walt sang the song of the Summer? So dope.)
In Season 3, the fans got restless due to a lack of answers and an abundance of unlikable characters and stand-alone stories. On the surface, it looked like Lost was losing steam and didn’t know where to go. In reality, ABC wasn’t clear about how long they expected Lost to stay on the air (it was immensely profitable), forcing the writers to tread water while they figured out how long they had to tell their tale.
At some point between Seasons 3 and 4, it was announced that Lost would end at the conclusion of their 6th Season, for better or for worse. ABC decided to compromise and determine a set end date for Lost, and from that point until the Finale, the writers knew exactly how to plan their arcs and hit the road running. It was a total win/win.
And I liked the Finale. I liked it a lot.
I never felt cheated. I never thought it was a cop-out. I never thought it was an ass-pull. I never thought it was a dishonest tactic used to avoid wrapping up illogical storylines. I didn’t have a problem with any of it. I really didn’t. It was a bit vague, it was a bit supernatural, and it was a bit more Faith-based than Science-based. But you know what? The entire series was that way.
Damon Lindelof got more shit for that finale than any showrunner I’ve ever heard of in my life, and considering some of the creative decisions we had to tolerate from certain shows since then, I feel more now than ever that it was woefully undeserved. Lost was a great show that changed the game in this current Golden Era of Television. Also, the only way this Golden Era ends is if the fans start to think that their opinion should matter.
And let me be clear; your opinion should not matter. Not enough to alter the material, at least. The all-consuming, nerd-ball gobble-monsters of Media are a real insufferable bunch at times. Here’s a group of people who want the following:
1. A perfectly thought-out story with no plotholes or deviation in source material.
2. Their opinion to be taken seriously, and the material to evolve as a result.
You can never have it both ways. You’re going to be upset one way or another. If you take umbrage to the entertainment that’s out there, go make your own, stand on the front lines and defend it from the jerks. It’s really quite simple. Live together or die alone.
TV Month 2016 has been fun, but it all comes to an end tomorrow. Links to the entire series are below. Sound off in the comments section and enjoy your day.
Channel 0 – The Series Primer
Channel 1 – The Series Premiere
Channel 2 – The Big Ugly Dish
Channel 3 – The Premium
Channel 4 – The UHF Dial
Channel 5 – The Programming Block
Channel 6 – The Skeptic
Channel 7 – The Obscurity
Channel 8 – The Commercials
Channel 9 – The Doomsday
Channel 10 – The Unsolved
Channel 11 – The 100 Greatest (100-76)
Channel 12 – The 100 Greatest (75-51)
Channel 13 – The 100 Greatest (50-31)
Channel 14 – The 100 Greatest (30-11)
Channel 15 – The 100 Greatest (10-1)
Channel 16 – The Nuclear Nielsen Family (Part 1)
Channel 17 – The Nuclear Nielsen Family (Part 2)
Channel 18 – The Nuclear Nielsen Family (Part 3)
Channel 19 – The Nuclear Nielsen Family (Part 4)
Channel 20 – The Nuclear Nielsen Family (Part 5)
TOMORROW: THE SIGN OFF.