TV & Film

Why good shows get canned

Joss Whedon's space-western "Firefly" was cancelled in 2003 after just one season on air. Photo courtesy of
Joss Whedon’s space-western “Firefly” was cancelled in 2003 after just one season on air. Photo courtesy of

As much as I love the thrill of going to the movie theater, the smell of burning popcorn, and listening to the crisp rip of my overpriced ticket, I must begrudgingly admit that TV is where it’s at right now. The equation is simple—more entertainment for less money. And the medium has really begun to hit its peak. TV is still an unabashedly money-driven biz. Networks skulk around killing bad shows as they see fit, and usually we can see those bad shows from a mile away.

Story by Alain Stephens

However once in a while, a sad thing happens: a good, little innocent show gets caught in the cross- hairs—and poof—they are zapped into the static abyss. But why? Why kill a show that we know has big name actors, an enthralling premise, a solid fan-base, or Shakespearean-level writing? Well maybe it’s because of:

1. Bad marketing

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? What if that tree has explosions or dragons in it? Well if that tree doesn’t hit high on its Neilsen ratings—it’s going to the paper mill. Marketing for television shows is a tricky business. Networks have to reel in a viewer’s curiosity, strap them into a seat for a time-slot (or at the very least convince them to set a DVR), and then leave them for more. Yet for so many networks, they just miss the mark. A big example of this would have to be space-western “Firefly.” The show frequents almost every “Shouldn’t have been canceled” article across the web. While the show sat on talented writer and director Joss Whedon, it could never fight its way out of the Friday night death slot. A slot so bad that it actually has a Wikipedia page dedicated the phenomenon.

Now, let’s talk about “Kings,” a modern retelling of the biblical turmoil of King David. For some reason, NBC wanted to market it as a sci-fi show. The move was akin to selling asparagus as oranges, and the show died like a fish out of water. It wasn’t like the show was all too bad – it currently has an 8.2 rating on IMDB, and is listed as one of Hulu’s all-time top shows.

The perfect martyr: While “Firefly”‘s death was bitter-sweet, as it did eventually receive a movie capping the series, poor little “Freaks and Geeks“‘ battered corpse is still examined as the martyr for when a network just doesn’t know what to do with a pocket full of success. Besides being shoved into a terrible time-slot, the promotions were stiff and uninformative, the show’s regular schedule being interrupted by the World Series, then abruptly pushed into a Monday slot. In a final example dated 1999 logic, NBC execs purposely withheld online promotions because they were worried it would promote internet surfing over TV-watching. Which brings me to my next reason…

Bradley Cooper and Nicholas Brendon starred in "Kitchen Confidential," a New York "foodie" show that got cancelled in 2006 after just one season on air. Photo courtesy of
Bradley Cooper and Nicholas Brendon starred in “Kitchen Confidential,” a New York “foodie” show that got cancelled in 2006 after just one season on air. Photo courtesy of

2. The show was ahead of its time

In storytelling, there are some timeless gems that will forever be told and retold for countless generations. Those stories are great, but today they are exceedingly rare. There are only so many times you can watch and re-watch the Jesus metaphor on screen. So for many shows it all about the “now.” There is no coincidence that shows in the ‘80s revolved around cocaine and pastel colors, that the ‘90s was littered with stories about non-traditional families, and the 2000s were wrought with counter-terrorism dramas. Yet some shows give you a picture that is almost inconceivably ahead of its time. We didn’t know what we had until we watched the box set years later and we said “Ohh. Now I get it!”

“Star Trek,” a show that broke racial barriers and made us re-think the cold war, only lasted three seasons. It would take another 18 years before the show would re-launch with another television show. Or what about in 2005 when a show based on Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” aired, starring a young guy named Bradley Cooper before anyone ever coined the term “foodie.” The show lasted four episodes.

The perfect martyr: “The Wire,” a show often regarded as the greatest show of all time, is a dark-gray crime drama that follows morally ambiguous characters as they navigate a city filled with racial and class stratification, economic depression, political ineptitude, and the after effects of waging war. The problem is—it did this back in 2002, before the economy had tanked, when the President had an 82% approval rating, and our biggest concern was hunting terrorists abroad. We were just too dumb to realize show creators David Simon were writing an allegory to pretty much every social issue we’d face for the next decade. “The Wire” never found mass appeal until it was too late, the showed had already wrapped up before it could introduce its next arc—on immigration.

Emilia Clarke stars as Daenerys Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons, in HBO's hit "Game of Thrones." The show will continue into its fifth season next year. Photo courtesy of
Emilia Clarke stars as Daenerys Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons, in HBO’s hit “Game of Thrones.” The show will continue into its fifth season next year. Photo courtesy of

3. Production costs exceed the budget

If you’ve haven’t watched “Game of Thrones,” leave. Go watch it now. If you have, then you will know part of the appeal is the sweeping landscapes, the epic battles, and the dragons flying around making crispy critters of all that stand in their way. It’s truly a beautiful show, and you’d think that investing all of the money and time into polishing your product would reap heavy dividends, ensuring a secure future for time to come. But that’s hardly ever the case. You see, it all comes down to profit. If it costs $3 dollars to make a show that earns $4, my profit is minimal, compared to the cheap show down the street that earns $2 but films for a 25 cents.

That’s why shows like “Law and Order” stand the test of time: they are cheap to film and the return is grand. Likewise those expensive shows lose a lot of wiggle room. If the cheap show down the street takes a ratings slump, they can still be in the green and coast for a couple of seasons. However the big expensive shows, if they missed their mark just once, they find themselves in the danger zone. For example, “Deadwood,” the gritty western, spent about $4.5 million average on each episode. While the critics loved it, the niche appeal coupled with the big bucks caused HBO to pull the plug.

The perfect martyr: “Rome,” the epic show followed the exploits of Julius Caesar and Emperor Augustus as they trounced around warring and sexing through ancient times. The show just couldn’t justify its 1$2.5 million an episode expenditure. With 12 episodes per season, and small dip in ratings, HBO couldn’t justify the $100 million-plus price tag the series was using. And just like Caesar, the show was assassinated.

Dave Chappelle left his show after realizing it was getting too much for him to handle. Photo courtesy of
Dave Chappelle left his show after realizing it was getting too much for him to handle. Photo courtesy of

4. It was just too good to last

Sometimes it’s the brightest stars that burn the quickest. Every so often a show comes along and it’s so good, it just can’t withstand the pressures of the world around it. Audiences and executives soon realize that they are standing on gold mine that the small screen can’t contain. For actors it can mean leaving to greener pastures on the other side of the studio lot (because those pastures are made of hundred dollar bills), or for writers and directors, it means creative freedom to direct that superhero movie. This is the revolving plight of “Saturday Night Live” which, albeit it never was canceled, has always struggled to keep its most talented stars and writers on the show.

In fact, comedies seem to be the most frequent victim of the unknown-to-annoyingly-everywhere syndrome. “That 70’s Show” slumped away after losing Ashton Kutcher and Topher Grace (both of whom might have been better off staying on television). “The Office” did the same when Steve Carrell bolted out the back door. The two season sketch comedy show “Human Giant” simply couldn’t work around Aziz Ansari’s schedule once he started making that Parks and Recreation money. However none of them are sadder than…

The perfect martyr: “The Chappelle Show.” It wasn’t like Dave Chappelle left his extremely popular sketch comedy show to start an illustrious comedy career churning out products for our hearts delight. Instead his rocket-propelled rise to fame after three seasons was too much for him to even handle. Chappelle realized that the show had turned into a proverbial monster, one in which the responsibility to maintain was too much. Chappelle threw in the towel, mysteriously vanished, and then popped up somewhere in Africa–just to get away from the fans constantly yelling “I’m Rick James Bitch” at him.

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