Sunday, May 22, 2011

Judgement Day: Some New TV Favourites Bite the Dust

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on May 22, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

A scene fron NBC's Outsourced

When you love television, the threat of a show’s cancellation comes with the territory. Whether it’s because of middling ratings, skittish sponsors, quirks of network schedules, or a main star with eyes on the big screen, you know that a beloved TV series isn’t going to run forever. Nor, to be perfectly honest, should you want it to. Creatively speaking, in my opinion, some of the most fruitful consequences of the cable TV revolution are shorter seasons and shorter runs of shows. Thirteen brilliant episodes of a series like Terriers are worth more than 218 episodes of Smallville (which, after 10 seasons, recently aired its final episode). This is not to say that I wasn’t and am not still quite a bit upset about the untimely end of Terriers this past winter, but I’ve become a lot more philosophical about the lifespan of TV shows. Ironically, what made the cancellation of Terriers somewhat less upsetting for me was how well-constructed the series was, from start to finish. The writers and stars seemed to know exactly what the show was, and who the characters were, right out of the gate. What is more frustrating are shows that get cancelled just as a series is beginning to figure out what it is: you can see how good it’s going to become, only to see that future cut short. Every television season comes with a few heartbreaking announcements, and (with the cancellations of Outsourced and Traffic Light) the 2010-2011 season was no exception.

Chuck stars Zachary Levi, Yvonne Strahovski & Adam Baldwin
But it wasn’t all bad news: some old favourites got renewed and some new shows will continue for a second season. In the “saved from the fire” column, NBC’s fan-beloved but ratings-challenged Chuck will return for at least another 13 episodes next season. For the past three seasons, the action comedy has been perennially on the verge of cancellation, and often has generated more suspense off-screen than on-screen. Once again, the show was saved in the eleventh hour, and given a fifth, but undoubtedly last season. FOX’s Fringe (another fan favourite with ratings issues) was also greenlit for its fourth season. Despite a creatively rocky first season, the series has grown into one of the more original science-fiction series in recent memory. I used to say that Fringe was one of the most consistently inconsistent shows on television (a perfectly sublime episode could easily have been followed the next week by a ho-hum monster-of-the-week story), but the series found its centre at the end of its second season, and its stars Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson, and John Noble stepped up accordingly this past year.

But not all shows made it through to the other side. Mathew Perry’s Mr. Sunshine never got the ratings ABC expected and, despite its strong cast and a spirited and confident sense of fun, it looks like nine episodes are all we’re going to get. I also found a sweet spot in my heart for the short-lived Christian Slater sitcom Breaking In, which was cancelled by FOX after only 7 episodes. Besides Slater, the cast of this high tech workplace comedy included Bret Harrison, who played a similar character in the slightly longer-lived Reaper (CW, 2007-2009), a comedy/fantasy series I’ve been re-watching ever since I heard Breaking In was given the axe.

But my most profound disappointment of the season is reserved for the cancellations of NBC’s Outsourced and FOX’s Traffic Light.


A scene from Outsourced
Outsourced survived some extremely harsh (and, in my opinion, wrongheaded) early reviews to become one of the most charming and original sitcoms of the new season. The Mumbai setting of this workplace/romantic comedy not only set the show apart visually, it opened the door to stories and characters rarely seen on primetime television. Its Holi episode was a delight, as was its equally colourful two-part wedding finale. Despite its initially negative critical reception (and unfounded accusations of racism and xenophobia), Outsourced has been a hit for fans, especially in the South Asian communities. An aggressive letter-writing campaign to save the show (launched by the National Association for Multi-ethnicity in Communications) has so far been unsuccessful, but they are continuing their efforts, and I wish them all the best. It would be a real shame to see this one go. As Gupta (Parvesh Cheena) said in the closing frames of Outsourced’s final episode: “No Indians were harmed in the filming of this video.” None perhaps, until its cancellation, that is.

The cast of Traffic Light
Traffic Light (FOX) premiered among a sea of look-alike comedies this past January – one, in fact, for each major broadcast network. Within weeks of one another, ABC gave us Happy Endings, NBC’s launched Perfect Couples, and CBS aired Mad Love. Only Happy Endings will return for a second season. While Happy Endings rightly earned its renewal, out of the gate Traffic Light was easily the best of the four shows. While it did share a basic premise with Perfect Couples (5 or 6 friends in their late 20s dealing with life and relationships), Traffic Light had much stronger writing, five compelling lead actors, and a sweetness to each of the relationships that had heart, but never crossed the line into the maudlin. I looked forward to it every week, and am saddened that it won’t be back.

Still, I am happy that one of the two shows survived. Over the course of its dozen episodes, Happy Endings has really grown on me. Despite a surface similarity to single-friends-in-the-big-city shows like How I Met Your Mother, Happy Endings is actually less of a relationship sitcom than a dysfunctional-friends-as-surrogate-family comedy. If it wouldn’t risk a Courtney Cox-related time paradox, the best way to describe the show would be as Friends (circa Season 4) meets Cougar TownAlthough around a decade younger on average, the group of friends in Happy Endings are just as self-involved, aimless, and almost as often drunk as Cougar Town’s ‘Cul-de-sac Crew’ – and just as quirky and likeable. If you are a latecomer to the show, be sure to watch the episodes in their production order if you can. For reasons only a network executive might understand, ABC decided to air the episodes dramatically out of order, including dumping the 2nd and 3rd episodes near the very end of the season. The show is significantly easier to enjoy and appreciate when you can watch the characters unfold as they were written. Based on its recent performance, Happy Endings will likely start its new season with some ratings issues: check it out early and give it the boost it needs to stay afloat in 2012.