Early Cancellation: Bane or Boon?

Having recently finished watching the entire run of Arrested Development, I started thinking about why it seems that so many beloved and acclaimed shows appear to pass on before it is their time to do so. Firefly, Arrested Development, Wonder Falls, Veronica Mars (maybe), Freaks and Geeks, and Sportsnight are just a few of the 'brilliant' shows whose fans vehemently argue were unfairly canceled while other lesser shows were left on the air. Is it that these shows were indeed brilliant and just a victim of bad slotting, being under promoted or some other sin committed upon them by the greedy networks, or were they simply under performers that only really appealed to certain niches?

Before I go into these shows in general, I'd like to first discuss what is perhaps the most famous (infamous?) case of early cancellation, Arrested Development. For those who haven't seen it or don't know anything about it, Arrested Development was a sitcom (here used loosely) that aired on Fox in the mid 2000s. It featured the single camera technique later popularized by other shows such as The Office and was without a laugh track. One could say it was one of the pioneers of the 'new television comedy' that didn't rely on the format and structure used by sitcoms for decades. The show is also famous for having recurring gags that reward continual viewership, and for having dense layers of jokes that improve upon repeat viewing. It's also hilarious.

When glancing at the bookshelves of people from my generation (born early to late 80s) it seems that almost every has a set of these DVDs (along with a copy of Garden State, but don't get me started on that one) and anyone who appreciates television comedies almost obligatorily lists Arrested Development as among their favorite shows. It seems that EVERYONE loves this show. How is it then, that it was canceled if it was so beloved?

Well one of the only things that you need to know was that AD was aired by Fox. Fox is infamous for doing this to shows (see: Firefly). They move a show around to different time slots, show episodes out of order (kind of devastating for a show like this with recurring jokes and a central driving plot) and generally underpromote interesting shows. However I'm not going to hold this completely against them. One of the reason that Fox tends to get shows like AD and Firefly, is that the network isn't quite on the level of the 'big three' and this results in them taking chances on shows that other networks might not. They try to give the show 'chances' by moving it around (even if in the end this fucks with the show's viewership) and at least give the show a shot. Even if that shot is fundamentally doomed.

Furthermore, Fox has shown a little more patience in recent years. It's true that Dollhouse turned into a great show, but it was far from perfect to start with. Add the quality of the early episodes to anemic ratings, and it's surprising that Fox let the show come back and finish a 2nd season (which again, was FANTASTIC). Maybe they were just afraid of all the Whedonites storming their offices and holding the station under gunpoint until Whedon is put back on the air.

Was Arrested Development one of the funniest shows I've ever seen? Absolutely! Should you watch it? I would say that most people in America would love this show if they gave it a full chronological chance. Does that mean the show was unfairly canceled? Well....

Don't get me wrong, the show is brilliant. However it did get 3 seasons (really 2.5) which is more than a lot of shows get. Plus those pesky ratings. Most people only found out about the show after it was released on DVDs, so just because a show is popular now doesn't mean it was at the time. Furthermore I don't think you'll hear any fanboys proclaiming the 3rd season to be the best. For whatever reasons (network pressure, knowledge of cancellation) the quality of AD noticeably dipped in the 3rd season. It's hard to know if this was due to the off the screen issues, or if perhaps the material had just run dry.

What if AD had aired another 3, 4 or 10 seasons? Would it still be as original and funny? Probably not. You would have fans saying that nothing would live up to the original episodes, and that all the good writers left, that the heart left the show, etc etc etc. Pretty much all the stuff that you hear about The Simpsons (I'm a part of that. I stopped watching during the infamous 'homer gets raped by a panda' era). I'm sure the actors and creators would never say that they wanted the show to end, but now instead of having a long lasting show that has lost it's sheen (The Office) they have a cult classic that is fondly remembered by all.

And that's the sticking point. Do the later seasons of shows taint the original ones for fans of long running series? I think it really depends on the person. I could never list The X-Files, or The West Wing as my favorite shows because of what happened on the later run of those shows (dear god does the quality drop off on The West Wing after the 4th season. It's like a completely new show!) I'd much rather have a show like The Wire which has a decent length, but spectacular run. Quality and quantity both matter, and it's hard to say 'I love the X-Files so much' when there is a 50% chance that you might hate it if a random episode was shown to you.

But canceled shows get to live in the idea of 'what-if'. Firefly especially survives on this. There were really only hints of greatness in that show, but what people saw was enough for them to proclaim that their favorite show of all time. It was one of the few cases where fans did get some kind of resolution in the form of the movie, but it was different enough from the show to allow people still to dream. Because Malcolm Reynolds never got raped by a panda, or replaced by T-1000, we can still dream that Firefly could have been the shiniest, best damn show ever.


'Extract' - Mike Judge

I'm a pretty big fan of Mike Judge. Being at least partially from Texas, I always thought King of the Hill was a funny and poignant take on a 'typical' Texan family. In addition to being hilarious, Office Space spoke to my generation's distrust of 'adult life' like few films have before or since. I even thought Idiocracy was vastly underated and unwatched as a thought provoking social commentary, even if it was greatly flawed. Because of all this I was eagerly looking forward to his 2009 release Extract.

After watching it this week (I don't find it cost effective to see comedies in the theater) boy was I disappointed. This movie ranks up there for me in terms of cinematic disappointment maybe almost on the level of The Phantom Menace (OK that might be a GIGANTIC stretch, even if I didn't think it was 'that bad' the first time I saw it). How could the creator of Office Space and Beavis and Butthead make something so.... bland?

In a short plot summary, Extract tells the story of a small business owner, played by Jason Bateman, and his struggle with being a part of the rat race. Really the problems start here. Does Jason Bateman ever play anything other than the likable audience surrogate? He's boring, never really funny, and his exasperated face gets old, quick. You also have That 70's Show's Mila Kunis arriving to spice things up as a grifter/con artist. There is also a subplot where Bateman hires a male prostitute to sleep with his wife (Kristen Wiig) so that he can hook up with Kunis without feeling guilty. Oh yeah, and a bearded and almost unrecognizable Ben Affleck plays Bateman's best friend.

That's a lot of big names to mess up. You get the slightly more hip crowd with Bateman and his Arrested Development stint, and Wiig is often pretty decent on SNL. Ben Affleck and Mila Kunis are pretty big in their own right and were probably used to draw in a bigger audience. Extract wasn't a complete failure (Wikipedia tells me it made $10.8M on an $8M budget) but I don't know anyone who saw it. It also scored decently well with the critics (a score of 61 on Metacritic and 63% on Rotten Tomatoes), even getting a B from my AV Club folks. All this points to a 'decent but underwhelming comedy', however if I had to 'grade' it, I would give it more something in the C- range.

First things first, it's just not very funny. There were a few guffaws here and there while I was watching it, but not anything close to what I think a 'comedy' requires. If your movie has less laughs in it than the average episode of The West Wing, you know there's a problem. No one watches comedies for the plot, especially if the plot of your movie is slow and meandering.

Back to that plot. The story starts when a worker in Bateman's factory suffers a major crotchal injury on the job. Kunis sees this in the newspaper, and starts to date the injured party in order to get him to sue the company for more money. She also gets a job at the extract company for unknown reasons. Bateman's personal life starts to go downhill when the prostitute he hired continues to screw his wife long after Bateman tries to 'fire' him. Additionally his injured employee hires a lawyer (Gene Simmons?) and might take the entire company out with the lawsuit. Everything seems to go downhill for Bateman, until miraculously everything gets fixed. He even meets up with Kunis for a night of romance, and she doesn't steal his wallet!

This last bit is the most confounding part of the movie. We don't spend NEARLY enough time with Kunis to figure out her character. She seems just like a self serving conwoman, and until Bateman gives her a verbal lashing she's completely one dimensional. However after he insults her and her parasitic way of life, she breaks down and cries. She doesn't really say anything, they have sex and then she leaves. Did she learn anything? Was she playing them all along? What the hell happened? Would she really turn down pursuing a multi-million dollar lawsuit just because the nice guy tried to make her feel guilty?

However my biggest problem with the movie is that it just felt like a cheap transparent ripoff of Office Space. I understand why he would want to recapture the magic from his cult success, but it doesn't work if the new movie has nothing to stand on by itself. There are the same comments about work being a drag, and feeling that your life is a waste, but even Judge doesn't seem to be committed to the message this time through. And unlike achieving some sort of cathartic change like we get in Office Space, here everything goes back to the status quo.

Extract is not worth seeing. I hope Mike Judge hasn't lost it, but perhaps after the monetary debacle of Idiocracy (the film industry refused to advertise for the movie, or even put it in many theaters based on it's strong anti-corporate message) he has decided to make middling movies that get made and make money without being the least bit interesting.


Dune - Book and Film

To me, Dune was always one of those pieces of nerd culture that I was aware of but never really interested in. Although everyone has heard of it, it seems that as the book ages, fewer and fewer young people have actually read it. Add that to the fact that those who do read it tend to be the ubernerds, and thus tend to complain about things like the sequels and the movie adaptations, it never really seemed to grab my interest. As I started to read other science fiction books I realized to really have any kind of basis in science fiction I would have to read the defining book of the genre. I am very glad I finally picked up a used copy of Dune (alas not with the awesome cover I've shown) because it wouldn't be much of a stretch to say that Dune is to science fiction what Lord of the Rings is to fantasy.

While I was reading Dune I constantly found myself thinking 'oh hey, that's just like the characterization in Ender's Game' or 'that sounds EXACTLY like the plot in Avatar' (which I haven't seen) or 'gee that sandworm seems mightily similar to those space worms in Star Wars'. Although some people don't like this kind of comparison, Dune is the kind of story in which every thing that comes after seems to rip off from. In a way it's more influential than Lord of the Rings seeing that science fiction seems to have permeated popular culture and mainstream media more-so than fantasy.

Also as in Lord of the Rings, Dune seemingly (I say seemingly only having read it this once) rewards rereading. The story throws you right into the plot and action without much exposition and what back-story you do learn, you learn naturally as the story unfolds. The book contains seemingly hundreds of made up words that require constant referencing to the glossary (as I also found myself doing in my first go through LOTR, although the map is less helpful here) and a complex political, ethnic, and social structure in which out characters inhabit. Frank Herbert's world is a fully realized one, and it's the kind of creation that obsessive readers love to revisit.

Now when it comes to the plot, Dune is a little slow compared to LOTR. The first third of the book is mostly setup and political maneuvering and really only the last 100 pages or so contain any kind of 'action'. The middle section of the book is where it really reaches a lull, where it seems that we spend 200+ pages with Paul and his mother wandering in the desert followed by them trying to convince the Fremen not to kill them. I could imagine why some people might find this book 'boring', although I thought it was written well enough to get me through the sand wanderings.

I must admit however, that I did see the movie before reading the book. About a year or so ago I went through a phase of watching David Lynch movies. Always one to be a completist I watched Dune, even though I knew nothing of the book and hadn't heard very flattering things. Being almost a complete Lynch apologist, I was still completely baffled by the film. A year later I remembered almost nothing about it, except that there was some weird glow worm floating in space and that Agent Dale Cooper was running around in tights. I had to constantly ask Lindsay 'what the hell is going on' and was kind of lost. The visuals were there (as they always are with Lynch) but it didn't make much sense.

After reading the book and re watching the film, I realize why this was the case. The book checks in at over 400 pages of small print, making it longer than any one of the LOTR books. Apparently Lynch shot a 4-5 hour cut of the movie, and presented this to the studio. Obviously at the time the studio did not want to do something as long as what the extended edition of Return of the King would end up being, so they cut it down to 2 hours. In this attempt they seem to have left the first hour of the movie exactly the same, seeing that it follows the book almost page by page. However from the time that Paul and his mother are left to wander in the desert to the end they condensed 350 pages into one hour. The film jumps from one thing to the next, leaving the uninitiated clueless. Making this even worse, there is a fair amount of mythology and religious plot-lines and subtext in Dune, making these parts of the film incomprehensible. Lynch got the mood and setting right, but he was a complete failure in condensing the movie down to a manageable length losing perhaps the whole point of the story. (No worry, Frank Herbert was said to be thrilled with Lynch's creation, and did not hold any changes or omissions against him)

As much as I enjoyed reading the book (although it did take me quite a while) I'm not sure if I could recommend Dune to someone unless they had specific interest in the history of the science fiction genre. As I said, it is a little slow and dense and really isn't for those who aren't invested in the book. Furthermore although the book has many sequels (unlike Tolkein, Herbert wrote this as a stand alone piece, and then as science fiction authors are known to do he hastily wrote 3 more volumes after it made money) everyone I have asked had pretty much said that they weren't worth reading. This comes from a reading nut, a science fiction nut, and an 80 year old man who only seems to like Dune and LOTR along with classics at his old age. Thus I don't have a lot of confidence that the sequels are worth anything. I will probably read Dune again, and I expect I might even enjoy it more the second time. Dune is an important book, and it's incredibly influential. I'm just not sure it's 'required reading' for anyone besides the most dedicated.


The West Wing: Seasons 1-3 - Aaron Sorkin

Back in when I was in secondary school, everyone in my family had 'their show'. We didn't have cable, and weren't really prodigious television watchers so everyone ended up having one show they were really into. As stated before, I was a Buffy person. My sister (although she watched TV less than everyone else) was a Friends person (which I also occasionally participated in) and my Mom was always a West Wing person (and as a group we were Survivor people). She loved the series from the first season all the way through the season finale 7 seasons later. Although some of my peers also enjoyed the show, I always kind of thought of it as an 'older person's show'. I guess this designation makes sense when you're 16, but at 26 you're kind of an 'older person' and that designation kinda falls apart.

So what did I know about The West Wing in those formative years and up until a few months ago? Well I knew that it involved a fictional president of the U.S., and that something dramatic happens to 'Josh' at some point, and that's about it. I had always heard of what a great talent Aaron Sorkin was (I still haven't seen Sports Night), and how his shows were meticulously put together.

What I didn't know about The West Wing is how entertaining it is. I figured the show would be kind of dry and heady, but did not really expect it to be fun. After watching almost the first half of the series I can report that it is one of the funnest shows I've never seen. Now this is not to say it is the funniest show I've ever seen (although it is quite often funny) but the dialog between the characters is so deft and clever that it often feels like you're watching the the Shakespeare of our time. Because of this, it's not really a show in which you can do other stuff while it's on, or walk away come back and know what's happening in the episode.

Except for Martin Sheen (and I guess the unlikable Rob Lowe) who plays the President, the cast is mostly a bunch of no-name actors (even following the success of the show). The characters are written with incredibly full personalities, and the actors make these characters their own. I think for almost everyone involved, it will be the defining part of their careers. Bradley Whitford will always be 'Josh', and 'Richard Schiff' will always be the persnickety 'Toby'. And the steely eyed President Bartlett may be my favorite fictional president of all time. Quirky enough but also a strong and charismatic leader, Sheen really steals any scene he's in. As it is with all great stories, it takes some time to feel out the characters, but by the end of the first season you love them all. I could easily watch an entire episode of The West Wing where the cast sits around and discusses the minutiae of the White House dress code over coffee.

Unlike most creative heads (Joss Whedon, David Chase, Matthew Weiner, David Simon etc.) Aaron Sorkin wrote the teleplays for almost every single episode (85/88) for the first four seasons of the show (conflict with NBC caused this to end after the 4th season). This is almost unfathomable if you think about it. Even a show like The Wire with the strong central force and creative vision of David Simon has at least 7 people writing episodes for a full season (and this is for 13 episodes, not the 22 per season that The West Wing has). This makes the show incredible consistent episode to episode, and really is the source of its strength. Characters never behave strangely, there aren't 'outliers' or episodes that seem completely out of place. The West Wing is consistent, and consistently spectacular.

Although the first season sets the tone for the rest of the series, I would say it's probably the weakest of the three that I've seen. One of the main characters is incredibly annoying and although they completely write her off the show without explanation by the 2nd season, her presence often throws off even the most cohesive of episodes. By the 2nd season the show really hits its stride, and the last couple of episodes leading up to the famous and incredible 'Two Cathedrals' have yet to be matched.

If there is a complaint with the show is that often too much happens. There are a few too many catastrophic storms or hurricanes, and a few too many hostage situations. Often the political and personal happenings of the staff is more then enough to fill an episode, and then Sorkin feels like there needs to be a national tragedy. Furthermore anytime anyone on the show has something good going for them personally, shit always seems to hit the fan. This has led my girlfriend to note that 'no one is allowed to be happy on The West Wing'.

I'm not sure if you can call The West Wing a procedural, because there are long term plot lines and there is really no other show like it in tv history. However it is the kind of show where most episodes stand alone so in that way it has more in common with a show like House than it does with a show like Lost. That being said, it is probably the best 'procedural' I have ever watched.

To me, The West Wing is to politics (at least for leftists) what Friday Night Lights is to football. The way football games are portrayed in FNL is what you wish real football was like. Almost every game comes down to an exciting finish and (at least up until the most recent season) the better team in terms of skill and likability wins. The main characters on The West Wing are all the 'good guys' and are in politics for all the right reasons. They also quite often 'win'. The 'others', whether it be republicans or members of the House or Senate, are often out to get our heroes for their own nefarious purposes. It's easy to root for our team seeing that they represent everything positive about the Democratic party. It's no wonder that this show was such a hit during the Bush years with liberals and intellectuals.

Just as it is with FNL and football, you don't have to be extremely interested in politics to enjoy The West Wing. Sure it will help if you are politically minded, especially if you have liberal leaning policies (I would like to hear what conservatives think of this, I don't know any who have watched it) but it's not necessary. You do need a rudimentary understanding of how our government works, but one of the hidden qualities of the show is that is also feels educational in these matters. Above all, The West Wing is intellectually stimulating and uplifting. It is a feel-good show, one that revivies your faith in human beings, and makes you understand what makes our country so great.