Arrested Development is one of those shows that seemed aware, even from the beginning, that its days were numbered. There was something ineffable about it that reminded me of the guy with an inoperable brain tumour who goes out and climbs a mountain, wins spelling bees and keeps an inspirational blog. Arrested Development lived each episode to the fullest.
So last month, when David Cross said that the show had halted production and suggested that Fox replace it with America's Cutest Retards, I was saddened but not surprised. Gail Berman, some suit from Fox, swears that stopping production is actually Fox's way of promoting the show. But c'mon, we all know that if it isn't officially cancelled now, it will be very soon. This is not just because Fox doesn't know good TV from a plastic bag of fetid curry. Some shows, no matter how many Emmys they win, just have an air of defeat about them. Well, not defeat exactly, but a triumphant nose-thumbing in the face of certain death. It's like the writers know that their work isn't long for this world and set out to go down in a blaze of glory.
Ultimately, this does two things. First, it bifurcates the viewership. Casual viewers might tune in to the show, sense that it won't be around long and click away. These viewers are the majority; they won't watch anything godawful, but they don't demand from TV what they would demand from, say, a book or a movie. These viewers just want to see the same thing at the same time every week, to be comforted and lulled-they are the people who keep the King of Queens and Everybody Loves Raymond in business. Then there's the minority of first adopters, who prey on a program's sense of doom, letting it turn them into rabidly loyal viewers. These people are the geeks and critics, who do stuff like collect money to keep Enterprise on the air and start petitions to bring back Babylon 5. They are, by and large, snobs. They only like stuff when other people don't, and their adoration only becomes stronger when the show is cancelled. They are the people who turn programs into cult hits because they love nothing better than the delicious agony of seeing good TV cut down in its prime. So, while the majority doesn't watch a show because it feels ephemeral, the minority is inadvertently sounding its death knell.
The second effect of the curse of cancellation is almost anti-intuitive: it usually makes the show better. Once the cast and creators realize that there's no need to pace themselves, they push to make every episode worthwhile and chock full of good ideas. They don't hold gags in reserve or make any filler episodes. Most importantly, there's none of that boring-ass long-term plot-arc bullshit, the certain setting up of two characters for boning in season four. Also, writers have the freedom to be saucier since freaky, think-of-the-children censor wannabes only target shows that are popular enough to make a difference.
A great example of this phenomenon can be observed on the program Freaks and Geeks, the current reigning champion of doomed-from-the-start cult hits. Early in Freaks and Geeks' one and only season, it was just implied that the "freaks" were all sexually active potheads. The implicitness made sense-if you want your show to last on network TV, you can't have high-school kids doing drugs unless something terrible happens to them (That '70s Show oddly not included). But midway through the season, as the writers started to accept their sad fate, the characters start joking about pot and sex and all that moral-fibre degradation that normal teenagers talk about. And, surprise surprise, it made the show much more realistic and interesting. Without the thought police sniffing around, the show went on to be one of the best, if shortest, high-school dramedies ever made. Nothing improves a TV show like a pack of writers giving the finger to network execs.
Sadly, not every program in this situation dies such a heroic death. Some shows refuse to see the writing on the wall, hoping for a last-minute stay of execution.
In the long run, the curse of cancellation does have an upswing for the soon-to-be-fired creators. The better writing and more devoted following usually gives these shows a decent afterlife on DVD. Family Guy, another Fox cancellation boner, ran for three hilarious seasons and had huge fan support, but was booted due to shitty ratings. The Cartoon Network snapped up the show in syndication, and all three seasons were released on DVD. The DVDs sold so well that now the show is being reinstated on Fox, and I believe there's even a movie in the works. The DVD for the final season of Mr. Show, which wasn't technically cancelled but may as well have been, is selling almost as well as the final season of Frasier on Amazon. A small but vocal (and often moneyed) fan base can yank such shows from the network rubbish bin and elevate them, Cinderella-like, to the profitable status of cult hits. It's a sweet deal for the royalty-earning creators, and because the writers and actors used their limited episodes to make great television, it's a deal that is richly deserved.
Sadly, not every program in this situation dies such a heroic death. Some shows refuse to see the writing on the wall, hoping for a last-minute stay of execution. Such shows end awkwardly, without tying up loose ends and leaving faithful watchers bewildered and annoyed. Think of ALF's bizarre, unfinished storyline, or the end of Married with Children. Both shows were long-running fan and ratings favourites, spiked suddenly and robbed of the dignity of a concluding episode. Or poor Angel, who ended both the Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer storylines looking over the edge of a never-to-be-resolved cliff-hanger, a giant dragon threatening to annihilate Los Angeles. These unfinished series will never sell as well on DVD as their more fortunate brethren because the ending is as unsatisfying in reruns as it was the first time around. It saddens fans to see a beloved show finish up without a proper goodbye.
And that's why programs like Arrested Development are so valuable. Though we'll all have to wait and see how it concludes, the show has faced its fate with stoicism and dignity: resolutely turning out quality material despite or perhaps because of probable junking. To those of you who think that "dignity" might be too strong a word for a show where one out of four jokes is about incest, I suspect you are not watching nearly enough of the King of Queens.
Audrey Ference is a writer living in Brooklyn with a cat and a TV, among other things. She kind of doesn't get what the big deal is about the OC. No offence.