Cancelling the cancellation

Last week, a sitcom called Brooklyn Nine-Nine was cancelled by the Fox network after five years of dwindling ratings. There was an immediate uproar from the internet—which exists, it would seem, for the sole purpose of increasingly immediate uproars—and many a GIF was waved in protest at the network daring to do away with a show that was clearly beloved by many (but not watched by enough, argued those who count coins).

Guillermo del Toro, winner of this year’s best director prize at the Academy Awards and unquestioned world champion of Twitter, was one of the most prominent advocates for the series—a workplace comedy about a glory-hound policeman and his colleagues at the precinct—declaring that “the world is better with this show in it”. This may seem a touch hyperbolic to those not enamoured by the show (available in India on Netflix) but fans are a blessedly passionate breed, and they entreated other, less foxy networks to “save” it. “Bring it back for another go around,” they pleaded, “we promise to watch it even harder this time, and make more people see it.”

Brooklyn Nine-Nine was resurrected in one day’s time. One day. In other words, it beat Jesus by a weekend. The GIFs went from eulogy to euphoria when it was announced that NBC would be picking up the show, beating out outlets like Netflix and Hulu. Those streaming services are used to playing messiah, Netflix bailing out shows like Arrested Development, Longmire and The Killing, while Hulu has resuscitated shows like The Mindy Project, Manhattan Love Story and Selfie. Congratulations, fans. The imperiously stern police captain Holt, played by Andre Braugher, will indeed return to slay with deadpan drollery. The show lives.

This does not always prove to be a good thing. On the contrary, much loved shows, when returning to other platforms, appear invariably to lose some of their mojo, as if reanimation has turned them into hollower, zombified versions of the original. The rousingly adored Community, one of the first examples of a series coming undead after online weeping, had an embarrassing dip in quality when it eventually aired on Yahoo. Arrested Development, as discussed in this very column last week, fumbled when it landed on Netflix, The Mindy Project faded away on Hulu, and The Killing was never the same after time spent on the sidelines.

There is no reason for this, of course. A show is a show is a show, with the same showrunner and the same team, and it shouldn’t at all matter on which channel or app a show shows up. In theory, bolstered by the vote of confidence offered by its voluble cult of fans, a returning show should in fact get better and more self-assured with its storytelling, but this—as far as I remember—hasn’t quite happened yet. Instead, perhaps owing to pressure, or perhaps due to that first humiliating death blow of cancellation, there is almost always a loss of life.

Minutes before I boarded a flight and wrote this column, an enormously acclaimed science-fiction series called The Expanse was cancelled by its network. The resulting bedlam for this show (available in India on Netflix) may be even more impassioned, albeit possibly less given to GIFfery. No less than George R.R. Martin made the proclamation: “The Expanse was the best space show on television, far and away. Nothing else even comes close,” wrote Martin on his blog, “I hope its producers can find another home for it.” By the time you read this column (if not by the time the plane lands), I expect HBO—which produces Game Of Thrones, based on Martin’s beloved books—to have made a bid for The Expanse, if only to entrench themselves in the dragon-maker’s graces. They may or may not be the ones bringing out the life support, but I am confident the show will return.

The reason for this is not a potential groundswell of new audiences seduced by the shouting of the original fans, since, in fact, original fans often take a rather off-putting “I saw it first” stance that alienates new audiences from subscribing to the already strong cult (Rick And Morty, on Netflix, is the prime example of a great show with graceless fans). The motive, instead, is the goodwill that comes from providing the rescue. For a minute there, those who love the show, those who genuinely feel for the show, will genuflect to the rekindling overlords, and no amount of billboards and original-series bravado can quite earn a “Bless you, Netflix” or “Thank God for NBC” in the same resounding way. For the price of a season, they have bought genuine love.

This, I presuppose, will become commonplace. Shows will become like superheroes, dying at the snap of a finger only to come alive in other forms, never quite deceased with one blow, but instead resting (and pining for the fjords) before it is their turn to bat again. At a time when sequels and spin-offs and adaptations of adaptations are eagerly bankrolled by networks which prefer familiarity to audacity, intellectual property will keep getting another go-around. The returning shows will also, inevitably, get better. The loss of pride currently associated with cancellation will give way to the rightful badge of honour earned by the shows good enough to win clamour and merit our outrage (after all, nobody’s crying about the demise of Priyanka Chopra’s Quantico).

Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which has gotten better with each season, may be the show to turn the curve. For now, we have earned the right to chuckle without pathos as we revisit our favourite episodes, and this is the kind of revolution we can all get behind. It is a romantic war, as insouciant as it is impressive. As characters by TV icon Aaron Sorkin—a few of whose shows could have benefited from internet insurrection—would say, “not for nothing”. Carry on, networks, keep playing God. Even if you really are Goldfinger.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online.

He tweets at @rajasen

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