Can (and should) Netflix save dead TV shows?

netflixEver since Netflix won the bidding war for new episodes of Arrested Development, the online streaming giant has become a beacon of hope for TV fans left mourning cherished shows. This was compounded when Netflix was widely reported to be considering whether to pick up Fox’s family dinosaur drama Terra Nova and ABC’s found-footage mystery The River following their likely cancellation earlier this year. Even though those deals didn’t eventuate, they suggest that Arrested wasn’t a one-off. Perhaps Netflix may change the game by continuing to rescue shows that broadcast networks no longer deemed profitable, even years after they ended.

The excitement is understandable, because when American shows get cancelled, they invariably stay that way. British channels will happily bring back shows years or decades after canning them, but in the US, dead means dead unless you’re an animated sitcom. Networks are generally too prideful to reverse their decisions or to eat the scraps of their rivals unless they happen to be owned by the same company that produces the show (hence the rescue of Scrubs and Medium).

But Netflix apparently has no such reservations. They’re even willing to take meetings about picking up poorly reviewed shows that hardly have a groundswell of viewer support. There was no palpable desire to bring back Terra Nova or The River, yet Netflix still considered doing so. If even they were candidates, what else might be?

Because their entire TV catalogue comprises old material from broadcast and cable networks, there’s no sense in Netflix being precious about picking up where networks left off. While they are also producing original shows (House of Cards, Lilyhammer, Hemlock Grove) that invite comparisons with those on pay cable, Netflix could find a valuable niche in rescuing shows whose existing episodes have done well for them. They could circumvent the perception that they are buying reheated leftovers because they are merely buying more of an acquired product that has proven to be a worthwhile investment.

So now they’re even considering buying more of Jericho, the post-nuclear war CBS drama that ran from 2006-2008 starring Skeet Ulrich. Although it received mediocre reviews, it attracted a fanbase passionate enough to mount a substantial campaign to save the show after it was cancelled at the end of its first season. Fans inundated CBS with 20 tons of nuts (inspired by a line of dialogue in the season finale) until the network relented and ordered a 7-episode second season. Sadly, that rated even more poorly than the first and it was cancelled for good.

My first response to the article was, “Jericho… really?” If Netflix is trying to establish itself as a home of quality original programming, then renewing Arrested Development makes sense. It’s an immensely well-regarded show, but Terra Nova, The River, and Jericho are decidely not. If Fox had not renewed Fringe for a fifth season, picking it up would have been a PR coup for Netflix. Despite the tepid ratings that have kept it in danger for so long, Fringe gets a huge amount of attention online from critics and industry pundits and the fanbase is strong, armed, and ready to promote the show themselves. Arrested gave Netflix even greater buzz than Fringe would have. But the industry reaction to a revival of Jericho will surely be, “huh?” That said, Netflix may–perhaps quite rightly–not care whether they are picking up the hippest shows. If Jericho has enough fans streaming the first two seasons, that’s ultimately what counts.

But the wisdom of Netflix’s strategy is a separate issue to the not-so-cautious optimism that it’s provoked. Even though only Arrested has been rescued so far, suddenly cancellation doesn’t feel quite so final, even though there’s a lot riding against these revivals. Sure, Family Guy and Futurama came back, but animated sitcoms are a lot easier to resurrect in production terms. Bringing back Arrested requires logistics and will that no TV fan assumed was out there among those who pay for these shows to get made.

So Netflix has rapidly become the catchcry for fans of any long-since-cancelled property. Of course, Firefly fans have latched on, still determined that their show must some day come back. Dismissing their hopes would be churlish, especially since the entire point of this post is that such possibilities can now be considered. However, Firefly hasn’t been a contender for such a resurrection for some years now, and it’s sad that so many of its fans don’t realise the hurdles that would need to be overcome, Netflix or no Netflix.

Actors Nathan Fillion and Morena Baccarin are on successful shows that, in Fillion’s case at least, take up most of their time. There may be tricky rights issues given that Fox made the series and Universal made Serenity, which a new production would want and need to follow on from. The cast is ten years older: is it plausible that they’re all still on Mal’s boat? Space shows are expensive. And the big kahuna: Joss Whedon’s career is about to skyrocket thanks to The Avengers, so will he have the time or inclination to return to a franchise that he has publicly put to bed?

Let’s not forget that Firefly did get a major motion picture to wrap up its story, which was an unprecedented achievement. The Browncoats already got more than the fans of virtually every other cancelled show, so the hunger for more feels a tad entitled. Whedon had the drive then to make that happen against the odds, but does he have it now? And a Firefly production that he merely supervised, or that could only produce a small handful of episodes a year, would surely not satisfy the fans who have remained camped out for its return for seven years.

Recapturing that magic is hard, but not impossible, so I know how fans feel about the potential that Netflix represents. The incredible Back to Frank Black campaign has been tirelessly working with star Lance Henriksen to bring back Millennium, and Netflix could be the ideal venue now they are working with 20th Century Fox. And I’ve entertained fantasies about them reviving Deadwood, whose cancellation still makes me wince in a way no other has. But that show has even more hurdles than Firefly, as do many others.

So what’s striking about this trend is what it says about our inability to let go of these shows, even when we know better. Even when a show had a great run, like three whole seasons of Arrested, we still want more. The new episodes of that show could well leave us regretting they were ever made (Red Dwarf, anyone?), and we would only have ourselves to blame for banging the drum for so long. We weren’t content with what we had, and so we were unable to move on.

You could argue that this speaks to a dearth of quality television in the years since Arrested and Firefly, but that’s bogus. There are too many excellent shows to even keep up with, and that’s just what’s coming out of America. Granted, science fiction shows are in short supply and have few venues now that Syfy has changed its name to avoid having to make them. But we’re nonetheless in a golden age of television. Your next favourite show could be right around the corner. Who saw Lost or Battlestar Galactica coming? So why do we still need more of our old favourites?

Netflix nonetheless sees this hunger and is investigating whether it should finally enact the TV fan’s dream and become that magical place where a beloved show can gloriously return long after all hope should have been lost. But that gambit may have just as much to do with a fever pitch of nostalgia warranting Netflix’s investment as with new technology inspiring a business model that could sustain it. Nostalgia never truly satisfies, so that inability to fully look forward may ultimately cause us more regret than joy.

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