Critic's Notebook: Decoding the New Normal for Keeping or Canceling a TV Series

Here and Now - Tim Robbins and Holly Hunter - Publicity -H 2018
Ali Paige Goldstein/HBO

It's difficult to track when, exactly, good educated guesses about whether a series would be canceled or not stopped being accurate or relevant.

Let's just say that in 2018, there's a lot more confusion than predictable patterns. 

When HBO canceled Here and Now last week, was that predictable? I mean, I reviewed that hot mess, so I certainly thought it was possible.

But with Tim Robbins and Holly Hunter as the main stars and the pay cabler going back to one of its original, proven creators in Alan Ball, killing it certainly wasn't probable. For cable channels and streamers in particular, recent trends — if, say, 2016 is recent in the flux-filled TV universe — suggested that a second season for most prestige series or well-reviewed series was almost a slam-dunk. After all, in the Peak TV era, it often took people longer to find shows. Patience was necessary.

For example, look at Hulu. The streamer gave a second and then a third season to The Path before ending it just after its March conclusion.

Its comedy, Casual, not only made it through a second and third season, but got a fourth season and last season, wrapping up after its summer bow. Both of those series were well done and interesting, but you could also argue that they struggled to be seen. A couple of years ago, Hulu, like everybody else in this crowded field, was trying to come up with its own set of analytics that could tell it whether a show was working or not within those parameters.

I think Hulu really wanted The Path, a very solid show, to be a bigger prestige player. It probably got a third season because of that wishing. Casual, on the other hand, is an excellent, thoughtful and funny series that certainly merits all four of its seasons but unfortunately never caught on. Everybody from HBO to Netflix understands how that works.

But, sticking with Hulu, there are two other recent series that have ended, shedding the tiniest bit of light, if you're trying to figure out what lives or dies, on the process — precursors to the decisions on The Path and Casual.

On Jan. 9, Hulu announced that it had canceled Chance, the ambitiously creative series starring Hugh Laurie that got a two-season, straight-to-series order after a bidding war among rivals. Two months prior to its cancelation, I wrote about the weird, uncertain Peak TV fate that befell the series. I still think that fate was more outlier than predictable. 

Hulu's Shut Eye, on the other hand, was more cut and dried. The streamer announced Jan. 30 that there would be no third season. Frankly, it was a series that never caught on, and despite the talents of star Jeffrey Donovan, didn't have the allure of Laurie's more sure-thing appeal. That meant that when Shut Eye lacked buzz and never gained entry to the zeitgeist, its fate was predictable, whereas a huge TV star like Laurie failing to launch a very good drama was, well, not what Hulu expected.

At HBO, there was a decision to go for a second season of Divorce — and though that might have had more to do with Sarah Jessica Parker, since hardly anyone seemed to be paying much attention to the show (Insecure got a lot more buzz for the channel), maybe the numbers were good enough for HBO (which is a subscription service, so ratings are only one indicator). Given that the actress only got a Golden Globe nomination and the series got no major category love from the Emmys, I'd say staying in business with Parker was a key factor in the renewal. Divorce also got a new showrunner. Getting a new showrunner is a way for TV executives to trick themselves into thinking things will turn around in season two.

At Showtime, The Chi was renewed — with a new showrunner coming in — and you have to wonder if that will do the trick. Showtime also renewed I'm Dying Up Here. AMC renewed The Son for a second season as well. You'd be hard pressed to make the case that any of those shows have popped. But if HBO, Showtime and AMC are happy with them (spoiler: They will always say they are happy with their shows), then that's fine. But eventually lack of interest, buzz, awards, etc., will take a toll. A decision in the meantime gets made.

It's just that these days what goes into predicting that decision is impossible to track, as is calculating relevance, because every outlet seems to be using a different paradigm. At the same time, the depth of the competitive landscape justifies renewals like never before since there are ever more creative ways to judge performance across platforms. You can also swap out "judge" and insert "justify" to that sentence.

An inexact science became, in the last decade and certainly in the last few years, more magical thinking and guesswork than science. So it's more difficult to assess what metrics the channels and streamers are using on these decisions. 

Another example: FX's Snowfall. Now, FX is the best curated cable channel out there, but that doesn't inoculate it against series that don't work. Still, Snowfall was given the green light for a second season while the first was meandering toward its end. Again, with so many options for viewers to watch a series after the fact on non-original platforms (like Netflix, Hulu or Amazon), a lot of cable channels will be patient and see if there's a discovery or a spike for the second season. The current environment almost demands it (so if a cable series is canceled after one season, well, you can guess all the analytics came up bleak).

It's also easier to renew something like FX's Taboo, with Tom Hardy, when it's a co-production (BBC One) and, well, it has Tom Hardy. Shared costs, big names, a little time for overburdened viewers to discover it on a streaming platform — all pluses.

I've written about the very real and very difficult obstacles that series getting a second season face, and pushing more into that pile almost by default in 2018 is going to make those hurdles higher. 

But what is also happening now is this weird "tell" about renewals. It's certainly not scientific, but 2017 and 2018 series that were canceled after their first season — Gypsy, Girlboss, The Get Down, Everything Sucks!, Disjointed and Seven Seconds at Netflix; White Famous at Showtime; Here and Now at HBO; Jean-Claude Johnson, The Last Tycoon, Z: The Beginning of Everything at Amazon; The Mist at Spike; and, not officially but likely, McMafia at AMC — have to be considered colossal failures. Maybe not as colossal as HBO's Vinyl and Showtime's Roadies from 2016, but still. They were DOA.

Then there's the slush pile of series renewed for their second seasons, as described above.

After that, not getting a third season is almost always the reveal that a mistake was made about that second-season renewal. This will be the new normal — two and toast. That doesn't mean they were all bad — good shows can just be obscure and overlooked, like BBC America's Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. You may have heard some people suggest there are more TV series than can be sustained.

Shows that make it to a third season have to be considered successes, at least by the standards of the channels and platforms that made them (and currently there are too many examples of this to list). But now we're seeing a lot of these successful shows end after three seasons. That's new territory as well. Gone, mostly, are the days of trying to get a series to five seasons. If it does, great — something went very right or you're looking at likely one of the most acclaimed shows on TV. I think three-and-out is the new five seasons. There will be exceptions, of course, particularly for very popular shows, but a good three-season run also allows for creative turnover that caters to viewers who have been given so many new choices over the last four years — especially that they are now conditioned to look for shiny new things. In the cable and streaming worlds, you might soon find that five seasons is rarefied air. Holding on to a series past its sell-by date will be a network operating procedure (gladly, for them, since it would indicate success). On the cable/streaming end, Showtime would have the biggest adjustment to make, since it tends to keep its shows the longest.

Basically, the era of shows like Turn: Washington Spies (sorry, AMC, but it was a joke that had to be made) getting a four-season free pass are over. In this newer, more competitive but also mystifying era of TV, the rules of survival are being written with invisible ink — but they're also slowly coming into focus.