overthinking the idiot box

May 22, 2006

Feature
The Five Stages of Cancellation Grief

by Luke Geddes

Your lips are chapped from licking the envelopes of all those angry letters to CW and ABC executives. Your fingers ache, worn out by the impassioned rant you posted on the TWOP message boards
Now that the Fall lineups have been announced, we at SMRT-TV understand many of you may be going through a rough time. As is policy in the television world, only a fraction of the quality shows live to see another season, and many adored series have been left behind. We share your pain, mourning fans of shows like Everwood and Invasion. Your lips are chapped from licking the envelopes of all those angry letters to CW and ABC executives. Your fingers ache, worn out by the impassioned rant you posted on the TWOP message boards. In protest you've changed the template of your blog to somber Minima Black. Your TiVo Season Ticket list may be looking heartbreakingly sparse come September.

The sad truth is that life encompasses death, and for TV Lovers, that includes the deaths of our favorite programs. In 1969, Elisabeth Kčbler-Ross published the revolutionary On Death and Dying, describing the Five Stages of Grief for those coping with the death of a loved one. In this, the over-stimulated and over-saturated second millennium, what is more beloved than our favorite TV shows? For the SMRT-TV reader (and writer): Nothing, of course!


Sorry, Bedford Diaries but no one's gonna miss you
So, for all the grieving viewers in the SMRT-TV audience, I've outlined the Five Stages of Television Cancellation Grief, especially pertaining to how essential technology has become to the process. Take heed, Bedford Diaries fans — er, fan. (I'm talking to you, creator/showrunner Tom Fontana.)

DENIAL
This occurs as early as the first warning signs. The struggling show is moved to a new time slot — say, from eight o'clock Tuesday nights to six thirty on Saturday mornings. While the realistic fan, hardened from years of disappointment, laments the rescheduling as its "death slot," viewers in the Denial stage rejoice. It was the timeslot that was killing the show's ratings, they say, less competition equals more viewers. And when the show is pulled off the air two weeks later, still they'll refuse to accept the truth. It's only a "hiatus," they say, desperation creaking their collective voice.

A particularly extreme case of denial takes place in the form of bizarre rumors, frequently spread on Internet message boards. For instance, shortly after Wonderfalls' cancellation in 2004 one user posted on FOX's official website forum, writing that he knows someone who knows someone, and long story short, Bill Gates is a huge Wonderfalls fan and is going to pay all of the costs to produce more episodes. Blessed are those na?ve few who can take solace in such silliness.

ANGER
Once the cancellation has finally solidified in the mind of the grieving fan, anger takes over, usually manifesting itself as blame. Blogs and web communities overflow with passionate tirades, by and large not irrational: The networks didn't promote it enough! The Nielson ratings system doesn't provide an accurate representation! The whole damn system is flawed! The average TV viewer/American citizen is an idiot, a mindless consumer, a philistine!

Note that these five steps aren't necessarily chronological. Anger often lingers throughout the entire grieving process.
Note that these five steps aren't necessarily chronological. Anger often lingers throughout the entire grieving process.

BARGAINING
The heart of TV grief, bargaining represents the campaign by fans to save their beloved show. The TV bargaining stage differs from the traditional applications of Kübler-Ross' model in that it can actually invoke change. You can't bring back the puppy that died when you were eight, but you can resurrect a TV show that was cancelled (as Family Guy has proven).

It begins by the signing of an online petition, or with a simple e-mail requesting that the network reconsider its decision. Then josslover69 posts the personal phone number of the network head on a message board. You call, drunk and weeping, begging for them to renew your show. Like a desperate stalker, your signals are mixed and you don't know when to give up. Now you're whittling away your paycheck to contribute to cute S.O.S. (Save Our Show) campaign gimmicks. Like Arrested Development and Roswell fans, who mailed bananas and Tabasco sauce to the FOX and WB headquarters, you're protesting Everwood by sending the CW, I don't know, a piece of wood. Or something.

And as you approach the cable channels your desperation only grows more and more pathetic, like a girl with low self-esteem surveying drunken frat boys at the end of the night.
And then the campaign begins all over again. Now you target the other networks, begging them to take in your abandoned show like a stray puppy. But they're not interested in picking up their competitor's leftovers. And as you approach the cable channels your desperation only grows more and more pathetic, like a girl with low self-esteem surveying drunken frat boys at the end of the night. You're sending petitions to Animal Planet and Lifetime, meanwhile harboring fantasies of a feature film continuation of the series.

As a grieving viewer, you risk falling back into denial here. Understand that it's unlikely that these extravagant efforts will change a thing. My advice is to pay your respects with a brief, sincere letter to the network's president — the real, snail-mail kind. Say your blessings, vote for it on tvshowsondvd.com and put it to rest.

DEPRESSION
Alas! The months roll on, the campaign has done all it can do. The number of users registered in fan communities dwindles. Message board posting stagnates. Campaign websites go months without updates, as TV Guide hypes the latest Jerry Bruckheimer Television Production that's taken the timeslot from your dear departed. You try to ease your mind by tuning into primetime's old reliables, only to run into commercials advertising unpromising new procedurals and soaps.

Will Arnett, you moan, how dare you be anything but a Bluth!
When the status of the show is finally updated on the likes of the futon critic, it is only to announce the stars have signed up for new projects. You can't help but feel betrayed, like all your friends have ditched you to hang with the in crowd. Don't they have any faith in the show? Will Arnett, you moan, how dare you be anything but a Bluth! Like the anger stage, depression can coincide with any or all steps of the grieving process.

ACCEPTANCE
Until the late 90s this stage was all but impossible for some. The show ended, and unless it had produced enough episodes to be sold into syndication, that was that. Into the TV graveyard it went, the listings of yellowed TV Guide back issues serving as obituaries to more halcyon times. The show would only be rerun in ever graying memories.

This all changed with the advent of DVD. In the days of cumbersome VHS tapes, only shows with the largest, most devoted fanbases — your Star Treks, Dark Shadows etc. — warranted entire season box sets. The best one could hope for was a few Best Of volumes from Time-Life mail order. Now suddenly DVDs offered a convenient, compact and relatively inexpensive medium perfectly suited to market entire seasons of seemingly forgotten TV shows.

Because of DVDs, fans of great lost series like Profit and Nowhere Man are finally achieving closure. As long as I have my Freaks and Geeks box set, I can be content that it will forever remain the most accurate, flawless, most beautiful depiction of American adolescent angst ever produced. I've even accepted that we'll never know if Coop escapes the Black Lodge on Twin Peaks.

But still the holes in my heart remain. My eyes become glassy as the new season promises yet another Twin Peaks rip-off and I think back to what might have been. And for every show granted eventual release, there are many more that may never get DVD memorials. (I, for one, am praying for Tim Minear's subversive procedural The Inside and Mike White's tragically forgotten Pasadena.)

Others, still not at peace with mere DVDs, find solace in fan communities. These serve as support groups for those just not ready to put TV past behind them. Like Star Trek before, Whedonverse properties live on in officially licensed paraphernalia (comic books, novels, toys etc.) while Whedon Heads (or whatever they call them) contribute with the likes of self-indulgent fan fiction, tributary Internet shorts shot in Mom's garage, and a never-ending cycle of conventions. Sorry, I'm being snarky. It really is a good outlet for those who need it; just beware of regressing into denial.

SAYING GOODBYE
To those that are facing TV cancellation grief, I offer you my sincerest condolences. And look, now that you're on your way to acceptance, take solace in the fact that there's always next season. You'll meet other shows. I know nothing can replace the way Invasion made you feel, but I hear Heroes is just your type.

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