I. When Puppets Grab the Strings
When “Arrested Development” ended in 2006, it did so quietly. Although the comedy had always struggled in the ratings, Fox had let it live for three seasons in hopes that the cult and critical appeal would translate into bigger audiences. Despite a promising start — it won five Emmys for its first season, including the award for Outstanding Comedy Series — the show failed to catch on with mainstream viewers, and its final four episodes were dumped in a two-hour block on a Friday night in February against the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympic Games in Torino. The series had long since transformed into a meta-narrative about its own impending doom, with characters talking about whether their “company” would be saved by organizations called HBO or Showtime. But it’s the closing moments of the final episode, “Development Arrested,” that are really worth noting. When one of the characters pitches her family’s bizarre stories to Ron Howard (who had also, in another reality-blurring twist, narrated every episode of the show), he says the idea is too outlandish to work as a TV series, but that it might make sense as a movie. The show cut to black for the last time on a note of sheer desperation, a cry in the night, a Hail Mary pass meant to keep the story going just a little bit longer. It was heroic and defiant, and it was the worst moment of the series.
Rumors began circulating immediately that creator Mitchell Hurwitz would be bringing the show back as a feature film, and I do mean immediately: In March 2006, just weeks after the series ended, Hurwitz told Entertainment Weekly, “It’s the determination of the fans and the determination of the critics that has kept this thing alive. It’s truly an audience-driven experience. And for me, anyway, if there’s a way to continue this in a form that’s not weekly episodic series television, I’d be up for it.” Hurwitz didn’t sound totally sold on the idea that the show should have gone on, saying in the same interview, “In truth, I had taken it as far as I felt I could as a series. I told the story I wanted to tell, and we were getting to a point where I think a lot of the actors were ready to move on.” But he seemed to feel he owed it to the series’ small but vocal fan base to continue with the property. He would later talk about just how demanding the series was to produce, and anyone who’s had the pleasure of spending time with the Bluth family will appreciate the stunning amount of work that went into the writing and editing of the dozens of jokes and backstories that played off each other over the course of 53 hilarious, frenetic episodes. Yet Hurwitz comes across as a man of two minds: With one, he talks about the difficulties of making the show and the way he was pleased that he got to tell his story as well as he did; with the other, he acts as if the show is some unfinished part of a larger narrative whose final chapter will make its way to theaters as a show of gratitude to the fans, who are apparently controlling this whole thing anyway. Hurwitz is both puppet and puppeteer, caught in his own strings.
I can’t say I blame him for acting so conflicted. Cult hits and truncated runs are nothing new in television (the defunct cable network Trio aired short-lived classics under their “Brilliant But Cancelled” umbrella, a term that’s now used by Television Without Pity as well as its parent company, NBC Universal, on select Universal DVD releases; the adoption of this term for stark commercial purposes is not an accident), but the Internet has finally allowed groups of disparate fans to share their passion for series and hatred of the networks that cancelled them. Twenty years ago, outcry over a cancelled cult hit was limited to TV columns and, possibly, a few scattered letter-writing campaigns. Now there are entire industries devoted to stoking the dying fires of fandom and never letting those cancelled shows get too far from your daily thoughts. Our consumer culture has shifted from one built on celebrating disposable content to one wholly dedicated to never throwing anything away. When “Arrested Development” ended, people didn’t (just) tell Hurwitz he did a good job; they told him to get back to work and make more. When Hurwitz announced that he and his cast were actually in preparations to make a feature film (as well as an abbreviated season of TV to flesh out the story), the news wasn’t met with surprise but with howls of relief, as if we were finally getting something we’d been so long denied.
This is an understandable but dangerous component in loving something imaginary: the procession from enjoyment to entitlement, from feeling wrapped up in a story to believing we can will it back into existence when it’s gone. Left unchecked, we can let our passion become obsession. In a 2011 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Nathan Fillion, star of Joss Whedon’s space Western “Firefly,” mused: “If I got $300 million from the California Lottery, the first thing I would do is buy the rights to ‘Firefly,’ make it on my own, and distribute it on the Internet.” On one level, this is a perfectly nice thing to say in terms of honoring the cult show that helped keep him on the map long enough to finally land on ABC’s “Castle” for more than a handful of episodes. But on another, it’s just wrong-headed, the kind of utterance destined to keep a few desperate fans running on acrid fumes. Not long after the interview ran, “Firefly” fans started assembling online petitions and trying to raise money to actually help Fillion buy the rights to the show, at which point Fillion had to step in and try and unring the bell. He’d just wanted to say something nice about the fans that helped get him where he is, but he inadvertently tapped into something far more active and confrontational.
II. The Numbers Game
I’ve been thinking about “Arrested Development” and “Firefly,” about “Freaks and Geeks” and “My So-Called Life.” About all the shows that find small but devoted audiences who get their hearts broken when those shows end. And about the way “Community” was missing from NBC’s midseason schedule before finally cleared for a return to the airwaves on March 15, 2012, 13 weeks after its previous episode. We talk about these shows like fallen soldiers, brave lives lost in a fight against the enemy of bad art, and it can feel wonderful to embrace them that way. But so often, our pain sours to bitterness. Why do we turn some shows into symbols of our resentment? Why do we turn them into weapons against those with whom we disagree? I think because it’s the easiest way to give ourselves an identity. There’s a degree to which we hold onto these shows out of anger, using their cancellations or spotty scheduling as ammunition in our battle against what we feel are bigger, dumber, less deserving forms of entertainment. Sometimes, it’s as if we want to feel wronged as much as we want to be entertained. We want to be the smart kid and the underdog at once. Our passion turns into possession, but here’s the truth: We aren’t owed anything. We don’t have a single moment of television coming to us beyond what happens to get made.
Television is a business about art, but we often forget the art of the business. When a brilliant series is canceled or placed on hiatus because of its low ratings, it can be easy to react as if the network in question made a moral or aesthetic judgment about the show, and in turn, about us and our tastes. But they didn’t. They need money, plain and simple, and that comes with viewers, advertising rates, and a strengthened bottom line. “Veronica Mars” didn’t get canceled because someone at The CW wanted you to have a bad day. It was because nobody watched it. The ratings for “Community” will continue to ebb and flow within certain parameters, but its viewing audience is pretty well established by now. The first season pulled in about 5 million people an episode; the second season dropped into 4 million, then 3 million; this season started just under 4 million and has dropped pretty much ever since. Consider that the first season’s “Modern Warfare” scored 4.35 million viewers, while last year’s “A Fistful of Paintballs” and “For a Few Paintballs More” brought in 3.49 million and 3.32 million viewers, respectively. In terms of style, the show’s as strong as ever; in terms of audience, it would be kind to say it has reached a plateau.
After years of getting angry and upset and heartbroken when great shows leave sooner than I’d like, I’ve come to accept something: They can’t last forever. I loved them all, and I watched many of what we consider modern classics as they aired, so I remember well the bitter shock of their death. But coming to peace with the fact that they’ve ended doesn’t mean I love them less. It doesn’t mean I’m not sorry to see them go. It means I understand that they have to. It means that all we can do is believe that great art will continue to be made, and that we’ll cherish it when it arrives. I’m not talking about caring less; I’m talking about seeing the whole picture. I’m worried that we might be on the verge of letting our anger and resentment ruin the memories we have of these people and places and stories that meant so much to us, and that will continue to mean even more as we revisit them later on. These shows shouldn’t be our weapon against the world, but our shield from it. That’s the shift I want to see in culture, in criticism, in fandom. These are the great stories that will always be with us. It hurts when they leave, but that pain is always and forever dwarfed by the joy they brought us.
III. Holding On
So how do we go forward? What do we change? I’m not sure, and everything.
I’ll be the first to acknowledge that it’s always hard to see something you love go away. It’s doubly hard when the cancellation is ascribed to increasingly faulty numbers. The ratings I cited for “Community” above are accurate, but the Nielsens only sample a tiny fraction of the American viewing audience, so there’s no real way to know how many people watched a given show on a given night. If box office receipts were tallied this way — if, say, only one of every 100,000 theatergoers was asked to buy a ticket and officially record his or her film choice — we’d laugh whenever a studio used viewer metrics as justification for producing or scrapping a movie. Yet that’s the way it is with television. In other words, when a show you love dies from low ratings, all you can ever know is that it tanked with a random sampling of the country’s viewership. Nothing more.
I think what I’m coming to understand is that accepting the fickle nature of the TV business does not mean I love a certain program any less. I had a theology professor in college who talked about “living in the tension,” which basically meant making peace with ideas that seemed superficially contradictory but which turned out to have a kind of pleasing dovetail. Am I happy when a show I love goes away? No. Do I wish it could stick around? Yes, usually, though there’s something to be said for going out while you’re still at your creative peak. But am I going to let the possibility of some future unhappiness distract me from loving something? Will I resign myself to using my favorite programs as a cudgel to wield against those who disagree with me? No.
Here’s a good example: I am now in passionate and fulfilling love with “Cougar Town,” Bill Lawrence’s brilliant little comedy about a community of adults who kill time, hang out together, and have the kind of pleasing and unironic adventures you don’t see much on TV. I discovered the show via DVD and now watch it weekly. I’m an advocate for the show, and speaking out on behalf of good art is what this job’s all about. But the show’s not exactly dominating the ratings, and its future remains slightly less certain than fans might like it to be. I have no idea how long it will last. I do know two things: I am going to watch every episode that airs, and I will not turn the show into a symbol of some kind of intellectual victory I will tell myself I have won over non-viewers. I will not let this show do that to me, and I will not let myself do that to this show. I want to, like the man said, hold on tightly and let go lightly. I want my fandom to be a positive thing, a hill from which I look out, not a trench in which I hide. I want to celebrate the art we’ve been given in the time we’ve been given it, and, if things do not work out, to take heart that we had those days in the first place.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.