Last week ABC announced that they would not be ordering additional episodes of Last Resort following the initial thirteen planned episodes. That this decision came after only seven episodes of the military drama had aired in the US and three in the UK epitomises the increasingly cut-throat nature of the TV industry these days. I'm not going to pretend to know the inner dealings of US TV networks but over the past few years it seems that shows are cancelled ever earlier and for shorter failings despite record budgets being invested in pilot episodes.
Are TV networks holding out for their own The Wire or The Sopranos? Surely the network bosses realise that these kind of shows don't come along too often. Obviously ratings are king and rarely increase once they begin to slide but what level warrants the chop? Such is the economic climate perhaps the rate of diminishing returns is becoming higher and higher. Maybe the level competition of has become too great, maybe it's evolution and a survival of the fittest until only HBO shows remain.
From a writers point of view it must be difficult to plan the story arcs for a first season without having the security of a fixed run. Imagine being a writer, do you load your pilot with the beginning of as many story arcs and cliched characters as possible in the hope this attracts viewers at the start or do you pace long story arcs and cliffhangers for later in the season and run the risk that viewers fall away before this point? Imagine being told your show is being axed knowing that you have some killer story lines just around the corner. The answer to the previous question is neither. Obviously, you write the perfect plot, recruit the perfect actors, get scheduled in the perfect slot and market the show perfectly. Answer me this, in this day of extreme competition and demand for immediate success would slow burning shows like The Wire have survived?
One issue I have with TV networks is the scheduling of 22 episodes. Look at successful shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, The Shield, Homeland, The Walking Dead and Mad Men, what do they all have in common? Seasons of between 10 and 13 episodes (granted some have episodes an hour in length). Not only do I believe it is much easier for viewers to commit to watching shorter seasons, (who wants to watch anything for 22 weeks? It's exhausting.) but it produces higher quality, more cohesive and less diluted story telling.
Lately, news of a show's cancellation has tended to spark brief twitter movements among the deceased show's fans and the past has proved that shows can be saved, see Firefly/Serenity or Southland. For fans of axed shows it is insanely frustrating that end of season cliffhangers are left unresolved and stories are left incomplete. At least in the case of Last Resort ABC gave the producers enough notice for the writers to amend the plot for the final episodes yet to be filmed and give viewers some closure.
Truthfully, the reasoning for this article comes from the fact that I am one of the aforementioned frustrated fans, several times over. Within the last few years, I've witnessed FlashForward and Alcatraz canned after first seasons had aired, leaving unconcluded stories and also Terra Nova and Last Resort axed mid-season in the UK, not to mention HBO's Luck being cancelled mid-season for entirely different reasons. Granted some of those shows weren't too great but were they THAT bad? Mid-season cancellation bad?
What is for certain is that it's a difficult time to be a first season TV show and that shows are certainly having to work harder than ever before to reach the promised land of second season renewal.