The Upshot of Cancellation

One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately are the differences between cable and network television.  This is not a new topic. Much hay has been made of the way pay-channels like HBO and Showtime don’t have to worry about commercial breaks … but why is it that even the shows on “free” cable channels like FX and AMC still feel better than network shows?1 

For me, one essential factor is the difference in season lengths.  Cable TV shows generally only run for 11-13 episodes per season, while network shows nearly double that number.  Obviously, a writer needing to produce twice as much content in the same year might end up sacrificing quality for speed … but what if there were another reason?  What if a shorter season was actually linked to better storytelling in some essential way?

This week I’ve been enjoying reading the AV Club’s series of interviews with “Freaks & Geeks” creator Paul Feig, in which he talks through the writing and shooting of every episode in the short-lived series.  In the interview, Feig discusses how he and co-creator Judd Apatow discovered early on they were being cancelled at the end of the season:

We all just went into scramble mode and started saying, “Okay, we’ve got to play out these storylines we wanted to do [in future seasons], so that when we get canceled, we won’t go bummed out.”

This comment was sort of an “Aha!” moment for me.  Suddenly, Feig and co-creator Judd Apatow had to cram all the best story parts into the final six episodes.  And maybe that’s why “Freaks & Geeks” was such a brilliant show — every episode felt like it was truly an event.  I can’t help but wonder if the show would have been quite as strong without the axe hanging over the creators’ heads?2

Going back to the question of cable shows, I can’t help but think of how Feig’s experience applies to season premieres and finales.  Premieres and finales are where a series delvers its biggest dramatic punch — rules are changed, people are killed, stakes are raised.  A little basic math informs me that a cable show (whose seasons end after just 13 episodes) will have those moments twice as often as a network show.  No matter how you cut it, that gives the cable show a huge storytelling advantage because it disallows filler.3

How does this apply to writing in general?  I suspect it connects somehow to series books, but I haven’t worked that part out.  In the meantime, it’s simply a powerful parable about the importance of not holding anything back.  I’m currently in the middle of a second book, and I’m constantly getting exciting story ideas that I think I should save for a story in the distant future.  That’s ridiculous.  I should be putting everything into the book I’m writing now.  I should be treating this book like the last one I may ever get to write.

  1. “Free” is, of course, a euphamism for hundreds of dollars a year
  2. British TV seems to have internalized this idea without the need of a network axe. Consider the abbreviated runs of “The Office” or “Fawlty Towers,” both of which ended because their respective creators would rather have no new episodes than bad new episodes
  3. If you’re in the mood for more TV thoughts, you should check out screenwriter Matt Bird’s current blog series “How to Create a TV Show

5 Comments Leave a Comment

  • I think you’re right about Freaks and Geeks and the implications of this for storytellers generally. Feig/Apatow put the flame on high. What a great show. Wonder whether the same thing happened with My So-Called Life, another short-lived favorite.

  • Kelly says:

    I have to say, euphemism is spelled like that <== with an e. I lost on that word in my 7th grade regional spelling bee by spelling it "euphimism" in my one short bit of nervousness. Stupid, I say, but that's how it happened.

    I like that you mentioned The Office and no new episodes is better than bad new episodes. When Anthony Horowitz said he was writing the last Alex Rider book I was so bummed and wondered why he would stop when they're so popular, but he said he didn't want to write them just to write books and make money like some series/authors do. It made me respect him a lot. It could possibly be the most exciting series I've ever read, and I certainly don't want it ruined with bad books.

  • Roboseyo says:

    The one problem with the 22 episode/13 episode formula:
    when the writers then decide to take 7 episodes of material and stretch it into 13, as just happened in Season 2 of The Walking Dead. :(

    Which is not to say I don’t agree with your hypothesis – I think for the most part, having a shorter time generally draws better storytelling out of writers, in the same way as the limitations of a sonnet have generated much of the best writing in the entirety of western literature, while the Haiku and similarly brief forms acted in the same way for some Eastern literatures… it’s more to say sloppy or lazy writers can bung up any format they approach.

    I do like the idea of finiteness: of a series being started with a predecided number of installments. I think JK Rowling’s promise to end the Harry Potter series after 7 books was the saving grace of the last three books, and I think a bunch of TV series went one, or two, or four seasons too long (ahemSmallvilleahem) – i mean, if there’s still money to be made, it’s not that surprising commercially, but artistically? le sigh.

    If money were all people were in it for, that would just tarnish all kinds of legacies. Like… imagine if George Lucas decided to toss the Star Wars legacy to the wind and make some films about what happened BEFORE the beginning of the first star wars movie? wouldn’t that be awful, cynical and gross? Good thing that never happened!

  • kbryna says:

    I don’t love Freaks & Geeks as much as the rest of the world, though I do like it; but I didn’t see it until fall 2010, when a student in my representing adolescence class loaned me his personal DVD set of it.

    I think the DVD commentary – or maybe somewhere else I read – that when the writers did the penultimate episode, they knew for sure they were cancelled, and were able to chuck aside any concerns about intereference – that episode is the one when Seth Rogen’s tuba-playing girlfriend tells him that she was born intersexed. It’s an AMAZING episode of queer television, and the writers et. al. seemed to concur that it would never have been done – they might not even have tried – if they hadn’t know about impending cancellation.

    But I also wonder if the short-livedness somehow consolidates the greatness of shows like this – do we think Freaks & Geeks, and My So-Called Life are *that* great precisely because they were so obviously cut short? In a morbid parallel, is it like the way we tend to romanticize and hero-ize every person who dies very young, as if they were going to be the one to cure cancer, and colonize mars, and solve world hunger, and write the great World Novel?
    Or does it have to do with the shows’ subject matter – adolescence – and our own nostalgia or involvement with our own adolescences in conjunction with the shows?

    I don’t know. I DO know that I add to these two wonderfully good, sadly-cancelled shows the gone-too-soon ABC Family show “Huge,” which was as good as either Freaks & Geeks or My So-Called Life.

  • Kerry,
    I think you’re spot-on with your comparison to lives cut short. “Firefly” comes to mind as well.

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