Revive a Show at Your Own Peril

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Fox canceled The Mindy Project last week, just in time for its upfront presentation to advertisers on Monday. It took less than a week for the other shoe to drop. Hulu announced today that the show will return on its streaming service for a whopping 26 episodes – twice the number it likely would have gotten had Fox renewed it.

Fans of The Mindy Project likely have reason to rejoice. Especially given that the show has been a work in progress from the start, the assurance of more than two dozens episodes gives showrunner and star Mindy Kaling more creative freedom than she might have had under the authority of a broadcast network. Reviews of the show’s third season were the show’s most positive yet, and a fourth promises more of the same appealing qualities that solidified the show’s fanbase.

And yet, something about this news rubs me the wrong way – not the Mindy Project part, but the idea of un-canceling a TV show. For a while, the phenomenon of un-cancellation was a novelty reserved for the most unusual circumstances – Arrested Development on Netflix, Community on Yahoo. Netflix’s decision to pick up a fourth season of AMC’s flailing drama The Killing was one of the opening salvos in what has been twelve months of enthusiastic press releases and nostalgic listicles touting the returns of long-dead and not-so-long-dead shows.

As a business strategy, uncancellation makes sense – brand names sell, niche is the new broadcast. As a creative impulse, though, it’s a mixed blessing. Some un-canceled shows have survived the transition from one network or platform to the other, while others haven’t.

But the precedent that un-cancellation sets is a troubling one for people who believe that some televisions shows are better left finite. Had Community ended after three seasons, it might now be appraised as one of the most inventive, exciting sitcoms of the past twenty years. Instead, the show’s entire narrative is complicated by its resilience, by the loss and re-gain of showrunner Dan Harmon, by cast additions (Keith David, Jonathan Banks) and subtractions (Donald Glover, Chevy Chase, Yvette Nicole Brown) that challenged the show’s ideas about resilient surrogate families. By season six, the Community on Yahoo bears only tangential resemblance to the Community on NBC. One wonders if the cast and crew would have been better served creating something new out of the show’s remaining component parts, rather than trying to keep the show creatively energized despite its old age.

There’s no reason to suspect that the qualities that bring viewers to The Mindy Project will cease to exist once the show is exclusive to Hulu. But this isn’t about the quality of an individual show. It’s about the health and evolution of an entire medium. The ease with which a show can go from canceled to un-canceled conditions viewers to expect more than some shows might be able to provide. And the more time one show survives, jumping from platform to platform, the less time the people involved with that show have to create something new and exciting. If every low-rated but well-liked show on the bubble gets a pity renewal from another platform eager to capitalize on that show’s fanbase, it’s more likely that some of those shows will fall flat on transition. Fewer resources will be devoted to shows without built-in viewer loyalty, and television, like time, could become a flat circle.

(It’s happening already: just look at Twin PeaksThe X-FilesCoach (COACH!), Fuller House...)

It’s strange  – in an era of sprawling options for people interested in making and watching TV, safe choices have never been easier to make. All hail the return of The Mindy Project…but some shows are better off dead, and some creative people are better off creating something new than wheezing new life into a show whose time has passed.

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