Monday, October 10, 2011

Cancellation Corner, Vol. 1

As a kind of counterpoint to my TV pilot reviews, I've decided to tackle the other end of the TV lifespan and do quick postmortems on some of this fall's stillborn endeavors, analyzing why they failed and whether or not anyone should care. This was actually something I considered doing in the spring for The Event and, more importantly, The Chicago Code, but I never got around to it. As with my pilot reviews, I'm only interested in scripted series, so don't expect any verbage on H8R, and I'm only going to bother discussing series that I've actually watched a meaningful percentage of. Now let's pay our respects to the departed.

NBC's The Playboy Club (Born 9/19/11 - Died 10/3/11)

Episodes watched: 3 out of 3

Why didn't it catch on? With any dead on arrival TV series, it comes down to a question of whether people didn't tune in because of the show's premise or because of its poor quality, but that doesn't mean the two causes are mutually exclusive. The Playboy Club was a creatively troubled series, which I'll get more into in a second, but I don't think that's why it premiered to pathetic numbers and fell from there.

The reason The Playboy Club failed is because sex is built into the premise and very fabric of the show, and sex still makes huge swaths of America feel nervous and uncomfortable. Characters in a show can have sex and they can enjoy sex, but a broadcast network show cannot be built around sex. Premium cable series are a slightly different story – see Hung, Californication, and of course Sex and the City – but if I were an NBC (or ABC, or Fox, or CBS) executive, I would take The Playboy Club as a lesson that greenlighting a sex-centric series is just flushing money down the toilet.

Its cancellation: tragedy or blessing? Somewhere in the middle, I'd say. I'm not going to mourn the show, I doubt I'll remember its existence a few years from now, and the stench of desperation from how hard it was trying to be Mad Men was nauseating, but at the same time it wasn't as bad as some critics tried to make it out to be. It's kind of this season's Outsourced in that sense, a mediocre show that some hyperbolically described as awful.

None of the three episodes aired had particularly compelling hooks or gripping human drama, but I did like the lavish production design, the 1960s vibe, and especially the performances of Amber Heard as the newest Bunny and Laura Benanti as the senior Bunny. But I don't ever need to see Eddie Cibrian again, whose character Nick Dalton was the black hole of boringness that devoured The Playboy Club from within, and the biggest thing holding the show back creatively.

NBC's Free Agents (Born 9/14/11 - Died 10/5/11)

Episodes watched: 4 out of 4

Why didn't it catch on? At risk of giving too much credit to the American people, I'm going to say that it didn't catch on because it wasn't funny. Granted, you could point at any number of popular, terrible sitcoms that have been running for years in response, but they're all multi-cam shows. Lots of people will always tune into single camera comedies, go "Why no laugh track? Me no know when laugh! ARGH" and never tune in again, but there's often enough enthusiasm behind the legitimately funny ones – The Office, 30 Rock, and so on – to get them to second seasons and beyond. Bad multi-cams can thrive; bad single cams, with a microscopic handful of exceptions, tend to die. Trial by fire.

Its cancellation: tragedy or blessing? Free Agents disturbs me on a profound level, as it pretty much singlehandedly disproves every theory I've formulated over the last decade about what makes a good sitcom. After Arrested Development, Community, and 30 Rock, I'd determined that what it takes to make a good sitcom is to have a single camera show with a fast pace, lots of scenes, quick dialogue, a light, irreverent tone, and funny people both in front of and behind the camera.

And Free Agents did all of those things! It was quick and peppy and energetic, devoid of any laugh track shenanigans, and had Kathryn Hahn, Anthony Stewart Head, and Joe Lo Truglio in the cast and John Enbom (head writer of Party Down) and Emily Cutler (writer of Community's "Contemporary American Poultry" and "Modern Warfare," two of the best sitcom episodes of all time) on the writing staff. And it still, against all my well-formulated logic, just wasn't funny.

I could go episode by episode or scene by scene or line by line as to why not, but it really just comes down to the sad fact that the characters didn't pop, the stories were generic, and the jokes just didn't hit. It's upsetting, really: all the ingredients were right, and the dish still came out wrong. So what I'm getting at is that its cancellation is a blessing, because it frees up the many funny people involved to sink their time into something more worthwhile.

Also canceled: CBS's How to Be a Gentleman. Sure glad I took the time to review that one.

No comments: