Is it worth watching a cancelled TV show?

Feature Louisa Mellor 16 May 2014 - 07:00

Should an early cancellation put you off watching a TV show in the first place?

Floating in on the yearly tide of TV renewals is the yearly disappointment of cancellation. However many fingers are crossed or hashtagged prayers are sent, network television’s quest to conquer ever more viewers and awards inevitably has its casualties. Too expensive to make? Not enough viewers? Lukewarm reception from critics? Then sayonara, promising new sci-fi. We hardly knew you.

Almost Human is one such show. A future-set sci-fi take on the buddy cop genre, it received a thirteen-episode season one order from Fox in 2013 and a shed load of pricy promotion for its November the 4th premiere. And then? At the eleventh hour, the premiere was pushed back a fortnight, co-showrunner Naren Shankar left citing “creative differences”, and only four of its thirteen episodes were aired in the intended running order.

Despite some great world-building, two talented leads in Karl Urban and Michael Ealy, and a strong supporting cast, Almost Human started on the back foot and stayed there. Though it attracted what seemed like decent viewing figures (starting strong with over 12 million in the US, then dropping to an average of roughly 9 million), last month Fox broke the bad news: its newest sci-fi series would not be coming back for season two.

The blow was all the worse for being unexpected. The largely procedural show had introduced an overarching mystery in its pilot episode that was unresolved by episode thirteen and will now remain so. Painfully ironic for fans was also the season one finale plot thread (no spoilers here) that mirrored the ‘has it made the cut?’ evaluation process going on outside the show. Almost Human’s creators evidently hoped to tie an in-episode ‘yes’ to an out-of-episode one from the network. It wasn’t to be.

The cancellation announcement was made the week before Almost Human’s UK premiere, prompting some over here to walk away before it even began. You can understand their position – why invest time in something the network has given up on? Why start something you won’t be able to finish? We geeks have been hurt before. Specifically, by Fox.

The Murdoch network’s track record with promising US genre shows explains why the news of Almost Human’s cancellation was met with such a fuming, hands-on-hips-head-shaking “Typical!” around these parts. Fox hadn’t just snatched away this year’s fun new toy; they’d been doing it for years. Firefly, Alcatraz, Terra Nova, Tru Calling, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles… all the way back to Alien Nation (to which Almost Human can, incidentally, be favourably compared), Fox has been slashing and burning its way through its expensive sci-fi and fantasy shows. The X-Files and Fringe apart - neither an insignificant contribution of course - the network has sometimes been stony ground for geek seeds.

That question though - why start something you won’t be able to finish? - deserves pondering. Just as you wouldn’t choose to start a book that’d had the last 100 pages torn out, or see a film you knew was going to stop three quarters of the way through (unless said film was A Good Day To Die Hard), why watch a TV series that you know won’t be able to finish its story?

Perhaps because a TV series isn’t a book, nor is it a film. Excluding the present trend for ‘one-off event’ TV series (that, the minute execs smell a ratings hit, suddenly spawn second and third ‘one-off event’ seasons), TV shows don’t tell one big story but lots of little ones.

It depends on the genre of course. A crime mystery that doesn’t ultimately reveal the identity of the killer is no good to anyone. The same goes for a conspiracy thriller. Sci-fi series Alphas is just one show to have ended on a frustrating cliff-hanger (so frustrating in fact, it inspired an entire episode of The Big Bang Theory as Sheldon doggedly pursued writer Bruce Miller to resolve the plot point).

Procedurals made up of case-of-the-week episodes though, are designed to be dipped into, not to be watched slavishly. If one of those is cancelled prematurely, there’s still entertainment to be had by watching it. Because as frustrating as it is to know that a series has met a premature end, the existing episodes still have something to offer.

Take Firefly, the poster child of early cancellation geek complaints. While I’d prefer to see a fat five-season box-set rather than a solitary one sat in its space on my DVD shelf, better that than nothing at all. Not having caught its initial run, I knew that fourteen episodes was my lot of Firefly before I started to watch, and frustrating though that was, it made it all the more precious, a rarer commodity, if you like.

The same goes for Almost Human. I’d much rather have just thirteen episodes of Karl Urban’s sardonic cop and Michael Ealy singing Elton John in falsetto than none at all. Not watching something you’re going to love because there isn’t enough of it is feels too much like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Of course, geeks are a proud people. We want a decent seat at the table, not to be sat underneath it and told to be grateful for scraps. Taking what we can though, and making the best of a bad job is something of a geek speciality.

Necessity being the mother of invention and all that, there’s nothing like a premature end to spark fan activity. I don’t just mean campaigns and petitions (which we’ll come to in a bit), but genuine acts of creativity - fiction, artwork, music, comics, trailers, films - all fan-made and inspired by the injustice of an early cancellation. As Steven Moffat is fond of reminding us, the fandom was where he and Mark Gatiss started out, so why wouldn’t the Doctor Who and Sherlock fans creating work now be the showrunners and writers of the future? Inspiration-wise, there’s something to be said for a series making an impression and then leaving a hole behind. If you stop yourself from watching it in the first place, then you can’t participate.

There’s another argument too (one that applies less to Almost Human or Firefly as both series were stopped in their tracks without the chance to explain their overarching mysteries) that smaller is better. In some cases at least.

Freaks And Geeks and My So-Called Life are both coming-of-age shows about a particular time in the lives of two teenage girls: Angela Chase (Claire Danes) and Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini). Nineteen episodes were made of the former, and eighteen of the latter. Deservedly loved as both shows are, multiple seasons might have bloated them. Had they been kept on the schedule treadmill for years, their casts would have aged (Cardellini was already in her mid-twenties playing high school junior Lindsay), and splintered (how many Hollywood careers have both shows launched? It was only a matter of time before Jared Leto or James Franco left for the movies). Did we really want to see Angela Chase at college? We’ve already seen what happened when Judd Apatow took his gang to college in 2001’s Undeclared, a comedy that paled in comparison to its predecessor. Had Angela emerged from her awkward, plaid-shirted teen chrysalis a butterfly, chances are we might not remember her, or the series, quite as fondly.

Then comes the question of how long is long enough? Jericho, Terriers, The Fades, Pushing Daisies, Wonderfalls… They, and the shows already mentioned, ended before their time, but would fans ever have been happy to call it a day? As seen with this year’s Being Human US, Warehouse 13, and Psych endings, viewers are still capable of complaining about a show finishing after four, five, even eight seasons. When Supernatural, about to start its tenth run, is finally brought to an end, you can bet that at least some people won’t be happy about it.

Ultimately, though it’s an understandable position, waiting until a show we want to watch has already received a second season renewal before we tune in makes us part of the problem. New shows need our ratings support from day one if they’re to survive the annual network cull. And even if they don’t survive it, our support is still useful.

Here’s the call to arms bit, so look away now if you’re easily embarrassed by those pre-battle rallying speeches men on horseback with long hair and cloaks are always making in films: when a beloved show is cancelled, fans need to make a fuss. If you've avoided becoming a fan for fear of future frustration, you can't be part of the process. Be vocal, spread the word, sign petitions, all that jazz. Because, as we discovered in the case of the BBC’s Ripper Street, even if fan support for a cancelled show doesn’t necessarily change the network’s mind, it can keep the creators motivated to continue the fight. And, like Joss Whedon’s Serenity, or the Veronica Mars movie, keep them motivated to find new ways of bringing it back.

Now more than ever, cancelled shows have a shot at a second life. Streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video have already revived Arrested Development, The Killing US and Ripper Street. Kickstarter recently brought us the return of Kristen Bell as Veronica Mars. What else might we be able to bring back if we watch it, love it, and refuse to shut up about it?

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