From Series Cancellation to Pickup: 'Fresh Off the Boat' Boss Details the Tragedy and Triumph of Pilot Season

Illustration by: Lars Leetaru

"The ratings are not good … I'm going to pull it from the air." And with those words, a broadcast chief upended a showrunner's life as she details here her fight to get another series picked up next pilot season — and how she ended up with a new hit.

This story first appeared in the May 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

 FEBRUARY 2013 

I'm meeting a friend when I get the call on my cell. "I have Paul Lee [of ABC] for you."

Maybe it's good news? Granted, my show Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 is getting low ratings, but that doesn't necessarily mean this is a bad phone call … right?

Paul gets on. "Hey, Natch. So you know how much we love the B, but the ratings are not good. I'm sorry, I've got to pull it from the air." He says more things after that, but I can't remember what they are. In less than a minute, it's all over.

I walk into the restaurant where my friend David is waiting. "We were just pulled from the network. Is that the same thing as being canceled? Like, is that how it happens?" The look on his face tells me it is. For some reason, though, I feel weirdly OK. "You know what, David? It's fine. I'm gonna be totally fine."

 JUNE 2013 

I've been drunk for three months. A lot of things happened. I think I did punch-up on some pilots and went to Mexico in the middle of the week one time, but I can't be sure. But the mourning must end. Or so says 20th TV and WME, my studio and agency. I'm not sure they quite understand what's happened, so I remind them. "My show was canceled, guys. Three years of work, done, just like that." They understand, they say, it happens all the time. The new development season is approaching, and it's time to "get back on the comedy horse." I guess it's true to some extent. What am I going to do, keep buying temporary tattoos of the Tasmanian Devil? ("He comes in on a cloud of chaos, then he's gone. Just like Apartment 23." — Me, to anyone unfortunate enough to be around me.) "OK," I sigh. "I'm ready."

 AUGUST 2013 

My friend Corey Nickerson and I sell a pitch for a show called Fatrick [a comedy about a 30-something former overweight kid] to Fox! We're excited!

 SEPTEMBER 2013 

With Jake Kasdan and Melvin Mar, I sell a second pitch for a show called Fresh Off the Boat to ABC! I was iffy about returning to the "scene of the crime," as I call it, but I also know I had an amazing experience at ABC … right up until they chopped up my heart and folded it into a cancellation burrito. I also notice that in the lobby where a poster for Apartment 23 used to be is now a poster for The Chew. I glare at it openly, weirding out Jake and Melvin, who are too polite to say anything.

 DECEMBER 2013 

We get a green light from Fox to shoot Fatrick in January! Corey doesn't get me a Christmas present, but I let it go.

 JANUARY 2014 

We're shooting Fatrick, and it's going well. People are feeling, quote, "really good" about this one!  

 JANUARY 2014 

ABC greenlights the FOTB pilot! I get the call at crew lunch while shooting Fatrick, hunched over a trash can in the parking lot of Fish Grill. It's the only spot I can get reception. I notice a lot of people threw away their chicken. Their fault for ordering chicken in the first place.

 FEBRUARY 2014 

Posting Fatrick and prepping FOTB, this should all work out smoothly! Fatrick is looking good!

 MARCH 2014 

Fatrick is not looking good. It didn't do well in focus-group testing. My anti-focus-group testing rant is interrupted by one word: "Reshoots."

 MARCH 2014 

Shooting begins on FOTB. After wrap every night, I work on Fatrick rewrites with Corey. At one point, I'm so delirious that I pitch a cold open idea for Apartment 23. Corey says we should write it down — maybe it'll work.

 APRIL 2014 

Shooting wraps on FOTB! And reshoots begin the next day for Fatrick. Someone asks me if I'm caught up on Game of Thrones. I want them to take a dragon to the face.

 APRIL 2014 

Both pilots finished and delivered. FOTB tested well, but the revised Fatrick pilot tested amazing. Those reshoots were time well spent!

 MAY 2014 

Fatrick is dead. We find out the official news the same way everyone else does, by reading it online. Corey and I get drunk and look at pictures of islands on our phones.

 MAY 9, 2014 

The Friday before upfronts and still no official word on FOTB. It strikes me that it's very possible all this work could be for nothing.

 MAY 10, 2014 

I get the call on my cell from ABC. "Congratulations! We're picking up the show! Get on a plane to New York RIGHT NOW!" We were the last show picked up in the entire network pilot season. What a roller-coaster 15 months it's been, bookended by two very different phone calls from the same network. The end of one thing and the start of another, the life cycle of a sitcom. I allow myself to bask in the good news for a moment … until another phone call comes in. It's the studio in a frenzy. "We need to move on staffing like yesterday. We're already behind!"

comments powered by Disqus