Critic's Notebook: Mourning 'Brooklyn Nine-Nine,' 'Last Man on Earth' and Even 'The Mick'

We've grown so accustomed to Fox renewing low-rated comedies that Thursday's axings felt shocking.
John P Fleenor/FOX

Back in January at the Television Critics Association press tour, the mantra from Fox brass was that even in a time of uncertainty with an acquisition by Disney looming, the plan going forward for the near future was "business as usual."

On Thursday, as part of the inevitable bloodletting that occurs every year on the eve of broadcast network upfronts, Fox proved either that the "near future" has passed or that "business as usual" isn't the order of the day anymore.

In one fell swoop, Fox canceled Brooklyn Nine-Nine after five seasons, The Last Man on Earth after four and The Mick after two, and sent your friendly neighborhood Twitter feed up in flames.

All three comedies were, by what used to be the established standards of network TV, absurdly low rated, like "Better than most of the shows on The CW, but worse than nearly everything else." But renewing low-rated comedies was absolutely "business as usual" for Fox. It's how Brooklyn Nine-Nine got to 112 episodes, how Last Man on Earth got to 67 and how The Mick got to 37. It's also how New Girl is going to hit 146 episodes when it reaches its series finale next week, a farewell that the show at least had the opportunity to plan for, arc and execute.

Fox is in the process of transformation and I don't know what it's transforming into. We'll hear early next week if network executives have the ability to articulate what the change is. There have been signs that part of that change will involve a shift to multicam comedies, with a possible return of Last Man Standing on the horizon, which will prompt inevitable freaking out about The Roseanne Effect and Fox going after a more conservative audience, and other concerns that may prove accurate — or it may turn out that Fox is simply attempting a pivot in its comedy brand looking at a blurry future. When ratings are as low as they were for these three canceled programs, that's only unreasonable on an emotional level. Basically, those of us rooting for additional seasons of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Last Man on Earth and Mick were praying that Fox would be content to tread water and fill space while awaiting the finalizing of the Disney deal. We were rooting for business as usual.

Leaving aside philosophizing and pragmatism, I really wanted to write a few nice words about two very good comedies and one frequently audacious comedy with a superb leading performance.

Let's start with Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which is heading toward a finale titled "Jake & Amy." It's a wedding episode, and if co-creator Mike Schur's past with such things is any indication, it will probably function at least respectably as a series finale. I hope it does.

There's no point feigning injury as if 112 episodes isn't a solid number for the police station-set comedy.

Schur and co-creator Dan Goor came to Brooklyn Nine-Nine off of NBC's Parks and Recreation and the shows share a common thread of people in wacky situations committed to trying to do good (and a ratings-defying longevity). The detectives in Brooklyn's 99th Precinct weren't always brilliant or courageous, but the lot of them — even Scully and Hitchcock — had a set of ethics and a desire to make Fake Brooklyn a safer, better place.

If we're talking legacy, the show's first one may be proving that Andre Braugher, an Emmy-winning actor on the cusp of TV's dramatic Mount Rushmore, was also a sublime comic force, a master of both perfectly timed line readings and stone-faced slow-burn reactions. Braugher's Holt was a black, gay police captain and the way the show treated his barrier-breaking was equal parts matter of fact and effortlessly progressive, so maybe that may be the show's actual legacy, coupled with a sensitive and sublimely handled arc this year that saw Stephanie Beatriz's Rosa Diaz come out as bisexual. Speaking of Beatriz, there's a whole appreciative sect of Brooklyn Nine-Nine fandom that has no idea how different this versatile actress is from her character, and when we get maybe five or 10 years down the road and she has played other varied roles, people will be able to step back and realize how great a comic character she inhabited here.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine deserves recognition as a master of the cold open, both each week's often absurd punchline and then the slam-cut into one of the few opening credit sequences I never fast-forwarded through. It deserves respect for one of the better handled central will-they-or-won't-they romances featuring sweet and funny work from Andy Samberg and Melissa Fumero. It deserves credit for smartly evolving supporting characters so that what really began as a star vehicle for Samberg became a crack ensemble in very short order. I'll miss the stories about Boyle's strange family, all of the things Terry enthusiastically likes, Gina's prematurely world-weary malaise and much more.

[I wouldn't want to rule out some sort of Hulu-like resurrection for Brooklyn Nine-Nine. After all, Hulu might not be in the show-saving business, but the last time it was, the streamer resuscitated The Mindy Project, another Universal TV-produced series that drew low numbers on Fox. Hulu stepping in allowed The Mindy Project to add to its syndicated load and pass the increasingly irrelevant 100-episode milestone, which Brooklyn Nine-Nine doesn't need.]

I have hope that Brooklyn Nine-Nine will reach a satisfying end. I already know Last Man on Earth will not. Without spoiling anything, the season ended last weekend with a large cliffhanger that had the potential to completely upend its very weird narrative universe. It was a tough cliffhanger, though, because it left me with endless questions rather than with, "Man, I can't wait to see what comes next!" anticipation.

It's no criticism to Last Man on Earth to say that it peaked early. It actually peaked immediately. The show's pilot, written by star Will Forte, and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, is one of the most innovative broadcast network comedy pilots ever made. Full-stop. For a half-hour, the show stayed true to its title and it's an outstanding piece of frequently dialogue-free comic storytelling, a celebration of creative anarchy and freedom with humane, melancholic undertones.

If Last Man on Earth was erratic after that pilot, it was at least equally inspired. The show was a mixture of perverse glee and gleeful perversity, whether it was killing off A-list actors in stunt cameos or finding the darkest veins of silliness in an underpopulated world of stacked, bloated corpses. It was a series with a profound understanding of loneliness and an immature revelry in pranks and bodily fluids. Almost on a weekly basis, I either marveled or scratched my head at the places the show seemed to be going. Some of the show's ideas were bad ones. They were never safe. I'll miss Mel Rodriguez singing funeral songs and impersonating Morgan Freeman. I'll miss January Jones' eternally underrated deadpan. I'll miss Mary Steenburgen's joyful depiction of disreputable drunkenness. I'll miss Tandy's balls: Gary, Jimmy, Greg, Kevin, Antawn, Trevor, Terrence, Trent, Darby, Bryce, Marshall, Peter, Thomas, Max, Dashial, Diego, Clementine and Jerry.

I'm not going to get as worked up about the demise of The Mick, but it was great that somebody let Kaitlin Olson do her thing in the spotlight for two seasons. Olson has frequently been my favorite part of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and giving her the chance to be the disreputable, unapologetic star of a show was worth it.

Like Last Man on Earth, The Mick had a high number of "Did they just go there?" moments, with a lower batting average. In its second season, at its best, The Mick embraced a cartoonish excess and, in the right moments, the supporting cast, including Scott MacArthur, Jack Stanton, Thomas Barbusca, Carla Jimenez and Sofia Black-D'Elia, even rose to Olson's very high level.

The carnage for Fox probably isn't over.

 

L.A. to Vegas had a hit-and-miss first season, with enough promising elements that I would have been perfectly happy to spend another season with Captain Dave and the rest of the Jackpot gang. But if L.A. to Vegas gets renewed over Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Last Man on Earth, I may be too distracted by scratching my head to get any enjoyment.

Lethal Weapon is in the strangest of limbos as Fox and Warner Bros. Television try to figure out what the value is to keeping the established and potentially lucrative brand around despite the fact that — behind-the-scenes controversy notwithstanding — Clayne Crawford was my favorite part of the show. If Crawford and his onscreen chemistry with Damon Wayans were the best thing Lethal Weapon had going and the show's ratings were already merely so-so, is there an artistic justification to bringing back a Crawford-free series, no matter how big a stunt-casting splash the studio will have to try to make in the hope of an audience revival?

We're also awaiting news on the likes of Gotham, The Exorcist and Lucifer.

So while we wait, let's honor 200-plus episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Last Man on Earth and The Mick. That's not bad.