May can be the harshest month for TV fans, as the networks make their annual series orders and renewals for fall. One show that didn't make the cut: Fox's Enlisted. Fox chief operating officer Joe Earley admits to TV Guide Magazine that the network didn't do Enlisted any favors. The show was originally announced for fall 2013, but later shifted to January, launching in a tough Friday night timeslot.
"With Enlisted, we feel really badly, it never got a fair chance, because of scheduling moves that happened around it," Earley says. He confirms that Fox executives seriously considered renewing Enlisted, as well as fellow freshman comedies Surviving Jack and Dads. "They were all heavily discussed because of the auspices that work on them," he says. "The shows themselves all had fan bases within the network."
For Enlisted executive producer Mike Royce, it was the latest in a string of heartbreaks. Royce was also behind TNT's Men of a Certain Age, a series still remembered fondly by critics and even Turner entertainment president Michael Wright, who considers it the "one that got away."
Enlisted earned high praise from critics. The show starred Geoff Stults as an Army sergeant who returns home from Afghanistan to a Florida post to run a platoon that includes his brothers (Chris Lowell and Parker Young).
In his own words, Royce describes the loss that comes with the cancellation of a promising show:
"Television is the only medium where they usually make you stop telling the story before you're done. If you write a movie or a book, maybe no one will ever see or read it, but you get to finish the story. In the music business, you get to finish the song; rarely does someone knock the mic out of your hands because you're losing males 18-34.
"Only in television do you get stopped before you're done. Often when you're just getting to the good part. That's what happened with Enlisted. My first big TV writing experience was six glorious seasons on a long-running hit (Everybody Loves Raymond). We stopped when we were good and ready. I thought that's how life was going to be. I was stupid. The next part of my career I was showrunner of a multi-cam sitcom (Lucky Louie), a hour-long drama (Men of a Certain Age) and two single-cam comedies (1600 Penn and Enlisted), all cancelled long before we were done telling the stories. My resume was diversifying in ways I didn't appreciate.
"The sad truth is, that's how life is for most of us in TV. I am not asking for sympathy; the TV business pays well, and as my friend Dave Attell says, I can always 'go cry on a bag of money.' But from a creative perspective, getting cancelled sucks. Actually it's worse: it's akin to a death of a friend or family member.
"That of course is an extreme comparison. Let me stipulate that my real-life family and friends are more important to me than characters I've written. Kinda. I know the difference between real people and imaginary ones because generally speaking, I'm better at listening to the imaginary ones. So how do you spend your life on a television show when nine times out of 10 your future is premature death? Well, first you spend months writing, producing and worrying about this new family of which you've been given guardianship. Again I'm talking about the characters. All these new people are in your head, it's like The Real World up there. You're going to spend at least a year with them, you'd better like them and you don't want anybody to be Puck. (Yes, I'm that old.) If you're lucky, you fall in love with these imaginary people. And they kinda become real.
"Then the show hits the air. You obsess about ratings. You go to review websites and swear not to read the comments and then you read all the comments, write a long rebuttal to some negative comments, delete it. You go running on a route that takes you by the studio and try to glean meaning from billboard placements. ("They moved the Enlisted one near the front gate, we're totally getting a back 9!") You get in long imaginary arguments with the network president.
"The good news is, you win ALL of these arguments, in fact, I am undefeated when it comes to imaginary arguments with imaginary network presidents. They usually end with him or her ordering 12 seasons of the show, plus we've reshaped the television landscape with me crowned as some sort of emperor king. The president is weeping. I might be flashing gang signs. It doesn't all make sense. At some point you realize you're defending your imaginary characters to an even more imaginary character and maybe it's time to take a nap.
"Then, not always but usually, in mid-May, that family of people you have in your head is unceremoniously offed. Dead. Long before their time. Of course just because story stops doesn't mean the stories stop. The people are still up there. Still real. I still daydream new Men of a Certain Age plots. Recently I sat down and wrote one out, took me a couple hours. That show hasn't been on for three years. So maybe I'm just a special kind of idiot.
"But just because the dead are gone doesn't mean we don't remember them. It's better to have loved and lost. I'm a much better person for having known SSG Pete Hill, CPL Derrick Hill, PFC Randy Hill, SSG Jill Perez, CSM Donald Cody, SPC George Chubowski, PFC Mort Gumble, PV2 Tanisha Robinson, PFC Cindy Park, PFC Brian Dobkiss and PV2 Ruiz (in a Season 2, we'd get that guy a first name). It's better to have shared an irreplaceable professional experience with the amazing Kevin Biegel who created these characters, and who let me help him raise this family. Not to mention the talented writers, cast, and crew who fought tooth and nail to make Enlisted a show of which we're all proud. And the never-say-die fans, civilians and military folks who loved Enlisted and felt a kinship with the characters. We actually received messages from soldiers who sought help for PTS because of the storylines we did about it. That is certainly reason enough for us to have existed, however briefly.
"And in the Internet age our family lives on: Enlisted will always be streaming somewhere. The fact that Freaks & Geeks and Terriers and Arrested Development continue to attract new fans means maybe we can score a few too. My old boss Phil Rosenthal's philosophy about the end of Everybody Loves Raymond was that the audience wants to know these characters are still out there, living their lives. Nowadays that happens even when you only get to make a few episodes.
"It's a pretty good death these days. But don't get me wrong, uh, cable networks? We'd like to keep living. Give us a call."