It’s been an insane week for television fans, as the networks have made some of the most insane choices I have ever seen, with cancellations and renewals cast about at record speed with seemingly zero thought put into them. By now you’ve probably heard the whispers, theories, and more surrounding the past few days over at Fox, but I thought that today, we’d take a quick dive into the craziness of the past few days, in order to figure out what happened, why it happened, and where we go from here.
This past week in television is known as the Chopping Block. Mid-May every year, television stations take a look at the shows that haven’t already been renewed and decide whether they should spend the money to keep them running or take the loss and end it to make way for the next season’s new shows. These decisions are based on several variables: how are the show’s ratings, is there an outside company helping to foot the bill, does it have a cult following even if it does get cancelled, and is the star of the show worth the trouble (see: Lethal Weapon)? This is the time where on-the-fence shows can get saved, like Fresh Off The Boat, while a seemingly safe bet can get cancelled, like Community. These cuts have been made all week, with little to no fanfare, as is always the case (bye, Lucifer). That is, until Thursday, May 9th. That was the day when, without warning, Fox Broadcasting announced its decision to cancel The Mick, The Last Man on Earth, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. This was shocking for a variety of reasons. For starters, while none of the shows were huge ratings boosters, they all had passionate fans online (more on this in a minute). Second, the shows were all popular amongst awards bodies, with Will Forte an Emmys staple, Kaitlyn Olsen a contender for Best Actress, and the entire cast of Brooklyn occasionally showing up in the nominations and contention. But perhaps the craziest of all is that there didn’t seem to be any clear reason for why the decision was made. The Mick was modestly performing under expectations, but even it had fans and cost very little to produce, so while it was the most likely to get canned, it was still a surprise. The Last Man On Earth had better ratings, and was reportedly only interested in a final season and proper finale, but it cost a fortune, so while it was not unexpected, it still stung. And then there’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine. The show is one of the most popular on television, thanks to a likable cast, smart showrunners, and a combination of The Office’s workplace highjinks, Parks and Recreation’s well-used ensemble, and Law and Order’s sense of police intrigue (albeit better handled, cast, and written). It’s television ratings were quite low, but when streaming services are included, it ranks up with most average modern sitcoms. It was a move that stunned and blindsided several fans. So what gives? Why were these shows all cancelled in their prime, despite popularity around the world?
Well, the answer to that came in the form of a rumor Thursday night, and was officially confirmed Friday morning. In an effort to match the ratings boom of Roseanne, Fox Broadcasting has picked up Tim Allen’s sitcom Last Man Standing. For those of you unaware of this show’s existence (for which I don’t blame you), Last Man Standing started out as Allen’s attempt to return to television for the first time after Home Improvement ended. The show followed Allen’s exploits as a conservative manly businessman who couldn’t understand why women were doing everything nowadays, especially in his own house, where he had three daughters. Allen quickly realized that this concept was awful and had the showrunner fired, rewriting the show to serve as a modern-day All In The Family, with him as the smarter, wiser, good-hearted Archie Bunker (I get that this is a paradox, but just roll with it). The show ended up smoothing over some of its harsher edges, but never really found a rhythm that made it work – it continued to be a show of lame jokes and repetitive sitcom clichés, feeling more like a Full House with sex and politics than a fully formed sitcom. Nevertheless, it maintained modest ratings (although still the second-worst on the channel), enough to hold Friday nights alongside its equal, Dr. Ken, for six seasons. However, in May of 2017, Allen was “blindsided” to learn that the show wasn’t being picked up for a seventh season. While no real reason was given at the time, we now know it looked something like this: Allen, convinced he was a big enough star to pull off the demand, requested a massive raise for the show’s seventh season. Normally, ABC and Disney would acquiesce such a barter, except that Fox, with whom they had split broadcasting costs, chose to end their partnership, meaning a renewal would require Disney to front the entire bill. Between the show’s subpar ratings and the fact that most of their views came from syndication over newer episodes, and paired with the fact that ABC already had eight family sitcoms with three more on the way without Last Man Standing or Dr. Ken, Disney chose to make the bold move of turning Friday nights into Fantasy/Superhero themed night while cancelling their two underperforming shows. Allen was displeased by the decision, as he didn’t expect the studio to cave. It was also inconveniently timed, as he had just made some mildly controversial statements regarding being a conservative in Hollywood (dumb, but we’ve seen worse), convincing him that his show was cancelled because of his beliefs as opposed to his demanded paycheck. This theory was proven false when the conservatively-owned CMT, the #1 provider for Last Man Standing reruns, announced that they would not pick up the show either due to the “exorbitant raise” that Allen was demanding. So in July of 2017, all efforts to save the show were abandoned, and the cast members scattered to the wind, with Kaitlyn Dever becoming an indie darling, Héctor Elizondo returning to making cameos in Hollywood, and Nancy Travis leaving Hollywood altogether because she was easily the worst part of the show.
Which brings us to Friday, and the baffling decision to bring this show back. This decision honestly makes no sense to me, for several reasons. Let’s start with the obvious: in order to make this deal, Fox had to flat-out cancel three of their most popular shows in order to afford Allen’s paycheck. I would understand this decision if the shows were less popular, or if the following reasons didn’t exist, but this detail alone is shocking. So let’s move on to exploring why renewing Last Man Standing makes little sense. It is absolutely understandable that shows want to explore more ideas like Roseanne. After all, the show brought in 18 million viewers in its debut, and that’s before you add in streaming services. That’s nothing to sneeze at. However, Roseanne has a few things in its favor that Last Man Standing doesn’t. For one, Roseanne ended its nine-year run as one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time. People were clamoring to find out what had happened to Rosie and Dan and Darlene and Jackie. While Allen does have a popular sitcom that people are interested in, that show is Home Improvement, not Last Man Standing. At its best, Last Man Standing earned the same ratings as modern Roseanne’s worst-viewed episode, and that was only the pilot. Many people don’t even know Last Man Standing exists. In fact, many people have erroneously reported and believe that it is the former that is returning. So while a decision to renew Home Improvement would make sense, that is not the case here (note: please do not renew Home Improvement. Wilson is dead and the boys are fine where they are. We are all good here). Second, Roseanne speaks to people because it is about a poor, blue collar family dealing with real issues in the Midwest, including the opioid epidemic, unemployment, and has even touched on racism (albeit haphazardly, they did try). Even when the show does address politics (which rarely happens, despite the way it was marketed), it presents it less as an approval one way or the other and more as a representation of the way a blue-collar Midwest family would talk and fight. Last Man Standing is one of several shows about an upper-middle class family dealing with classic sitcom tropes. There is little to distinguish it from any other sitcom in the past forty years, thus forcing it to feel unimpressive. And perhaps most importantly: the quality of the writing. Roseanne’s writing staff has turned out a couple of decent episodes, but the quality has definitely been of diminishing returns. And the ratings are reflecting that: while it is still a highly popular show (I’ll admit I watch it on Tuesday nights, because a) I love the characters from the old show, b) The Middle is on right after, and c) it helps me avoid The Voice), it has dropped from an unbeatable juggernaut to a popular sitcom leading the pack (The Big Bang Theory still leads while Roseanne sits comfortably with Man With a Plan, Young Sheldon, and Will and Grace). Meanwhile, Last Man Standing has always died on its writing ability. The jokes rarely worked, the bits were usually well-worn and old-fashioned, and while it would occasionally enjoy nuance, at its worst the show would become “Old Man Yells at Cloud.” I don’t know, maybe I could be wrong. Maybe enough people have found the show in syndication that it enjoys a second life over on Fox, and it becomes the ratings powerhouse that it never was. However, considering the cost-benefit analysis that this decision entails, I can’t help but look at this on paper and say, “What were they thinking?”
Which brings us to the cancelled shows, which is a journey in and of itself. Due to the popularity of all three shows, the casts and producers have started making their last-ditch efforts to save their jobs. The Mick is unlikely to succeed, but reportedly has one or two offers on the table. Meanwhile, The Last Man On Earth has the added benefit of only needing one more season, and apparently interest has been pouring in from every direction. Which brings us to Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Unlike the other shows, B99 has a massive groundswell of fans ready to do anything for it. The moment the cancellation was announced, critics, fans, and celebrities weighed in to save it, ranging from Linda Holmes and Alan Sepinwall to Patton Oswalt and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Within the hour, Hulu had stepped in to make an offer to showrunners Michael Schur and Dan Goor, much like they did with The Mindy Project. An hour later, Netflix, TBS, and NBC had pitched similar offers. Now, the Hulu pitch just makes sense on paper: while B99 was rarely watched on television, Hulu made up for over 2/3 of its overall viewers. Cutting out the middleman just makes sense. Furthermore, the producers would have a bit more freedom they didn’t have on television, allowing the show to possibly achieve new heights as an artistic achievement. Unfortunately, Hulu didn’t manage to make things work, and the deal fell through at 5 pm on Friday, leaving fans depressed and despondent. That is, until Friday at 9 pm PT, when Schur announced on Twitter that he had reached an agreement with NBC, and the show would be coming to Must See TV. That’s right: Brooklyn Nine-Nine will be coming back to television this fall on NBC. And while this is exciting news, I can’t help but wonder: why didn’t they do this from the beginning? NBC has run Schur’s The Good Place and Parks and Recreation, they were the original home to Andy Samberg when he was on Saturday Night Live, and the show fits into their comedy lineup perfectly. This just seems like a missed opportunity correcting itself. Nevertheless, Brooklyn Nine Nine is safe for now, and will likely air alongside Superstore, The Good Place, A.P. Bio, and the third most-popular sitcom on TV right now, Will and Grace, Thursday nights.
This is all the information we have right now. We don’t know when Last Man Standing will come back. We don’t know what other shows will be saved. We don’t even know what NBC, CBS, or ABC will be cancelling. All we know is that this has been one of the craziest 48-hour periods for television, and it’s been an emotional roller coaster for all involved.