No TV show enters the world fully formed, and this is especially true of sitcoms. It takes time, often an entire season, for a show to right itself, for a cast to gel and for audiences to develop. “30 Rock” had to realize Jack Donaghy was funnier as a mentor than a villain. “Arrested Development” needed room to spin its web of callbacks and self-references. The American “The Office” found its heart with Jim and Pam’s romance.
In part, this discrepancy is a product of the way that networks develop television shows (cable channels now use other strategies). In the spring, networks buy pilots, which are typically written by one or two people. In the fall, they green-light a slate of shows, which have a larger staff and a stricter deadline. Never judge a TV show by its pilot. “30 Rock” ’s involved a trip to a strip club; “Friends” put Rachel in hysterics; “Seinfeld” ’s established a tone of aimlessness, but was otherwise truly aimless.
But it’s not just about the writing. Unlike other art forms, in television you can see the marks of practical concerns — budget changes, contract negotiations and many other factors. “New Girl,” for instance, replaced Damon Wayans Jr. with Lamorne Morris (each playing a different black friend) in its second episode when Wayans dropped out to stay on the (surprisingly) renewed “Happy Endings.” Some critics argue, therefore, that you can only really judge a show by its third or fourth episode, when the noise gives way to a clearer pattern — “New Girl,” it turns out, was less about Zooey Deschanel being annoying and more about a group of twentysomethings all learning to grow up.
Of course, time is money, and in today’s TV climate, there isn’t much of either. Most pilots aren’t picked up, and networks start cancelling shows just weeks after new episodes begin to air. This year, the ax fell slower than usual, but by Oct. 4, ABC made the fist move, calling it quits to the truly terrible “Manhattan Love Story” after four episodes. Other networks were quick to follow: Fox gave up on “Utopia” and cut its order for “Mulaney”; NBC announced it would cut its orders of “Bad Judge” and “A to Z” to 13 episodes.
In order to get a show — and especially a comedy — on the air, most writers adopt a gimmick, something that will get people hooked for a season, or at least a few episodes. As Andy Greenwald wrote for Grantland, the TV development process “forces people to squeeze their best square-peg ideas into the frictionless, round maw of corporate desire.” So most network comedies tend to be built around concepts that might make you pause during an ad or an elevator pitch, but which almost immediately fall apart. “Manhattan Love Story” promised insight into the minds of its main characters and then decided that those minds were only thinking about boobs and purses. “A to Z” seemed destined to last 26 episodes, if only to tell Andy and Zelda’s love story — you guessed it — from A to Z.
The easy answer, from a viewer’s perspective, is not to get caught up in this process. Wait until half the crop fails, and until then, catch up with old stuff on Netflix, or watch the shows that you already know are good. That ignores the fun of watching shows develop. You get a sense of ownership. You become less a viewer and more like a sports fan, shouting, “Yes, give that character more time on the screen!” “No, don’t go for that ratty old trope!”
This year, I chose “Selfie.” It had a terrible, if predictable, conceit — a jury-rigged imitation of “Pygmalion” that featured Karen Gillan as Eliza, a social media–obsessed narcissist, and John Cho as Henry, her self-serious boss — and an even more tone-deaf pilot. But I like John Cho and Emily Kapnek, the voice behind “As Told By Ginger” and “Suburgatory,” so I figured I’d stick with it.
A few episodes in, “Selfie” started to bloom. As Cho and Gillan found their chemistry, the writers realized they could make Henry Higgs just as damaged as Eliza Dooley. He might claim to “improve” her by dislodging her from the Internet, but she has just as much to teach him about how to have fun without feeling guilty. Pygmalion hinges on class and misogyny, drawing a clear distinction between high and low society. In “Selfie,” there is no high or low society (this is a TV show, after all), merely each character’s entrenched judgments. “Selfie” didn’t just grow out the toxic premise governing its predecessor, it took aim at it. It was more a subtweet than a retweet.
Last Friday, “Selfie” was cancelled. ABC announced that it wouldn’t extend the show’s 13-episode order, and that many of those episodes might not air. The time slot’s likely going to holiday programming. The show averaged a tiny 1.5 million in key demographics, and it’s not likely that many will miss it.
I know I’ll miss it, though. I’ll watch the next six episodes, if ABC airs them. Maybe, as is more likely, “Selfie” will be sold to Netflix or Hulu or Amazon, and I’ll spend an afternoon months from now catching up.