'The Big Bang Theory' Isn't Alone: What's Behind the Delayed Cancellation Notices

What was CBS trying to achieve by announcing that the next season of 'The Big Bang Theory' will be its last?

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Mayim Bialik, Johnny Galecki, Simon Helberg, and Jim Parsons in "The Big Bang Theory."
Mayim Bialik, Johnny Galecki, Simon Helberg, and Jim Parsons in "The Big Bang Theory."Credit: CBS

Imagine coming home to find a “Dear John” letter from your partner informing you of their decision to dump you – but only after you’ve slept together 50 more times. Or waking up in the middle of the night to find the Grim Reaper looming over you, only for him to give you advance warning he’ll be back to claim you in a year’s time.

Well, that seems to be television’s current modus operandi, as channels increasingly announce the end of a show long in advance of its final air date.

ABC was probably the first to start this trend back in 2007 with “Lost,” announcing at the end of the third season that the trippy show would continue for a further three seasons before wrapping. Although this was meant to assuage fans’ fears that the showrunners were making things up on the fly, the resolution still left many feeling as if the script had been presented to the cast on a napkin from a nearby diner.

While ABC’s “Lost” announcement was aimed at fans, many studios and channels presumably see their “mercy killings” as a way of keeping talent onboard. For example, when HBO revealed in late 2015 that the third season of critical darling "The Leftovers” would be its last, showrunner (and “Lost” alumnus) Damon Lindelof was allowed to deliver his unique vision for this most visionary of shows. So is it any surprise that he’s still in the HBO fold and now working on his eagerly anticipated adaptation of “Watchmen” for 2019?

In fact, HBO has become an expert at giving fans good news/bad news announcements about shows it is killing off. Viewers went into the truncated final seasons of shows such as “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Newsroom” knowing in advance the end was nigh, and the cabler has already revealed that the yet-to-shoot seventh season of “Veep” will be that comedy’s swan song.

FX went one better in May 2016, announcing it would be making two more seasons of its espionage thriller “The Americans” – which, despite being critically acclaimed, was always referred to as television’s best-kept secret. The beauty of this two-season death notice was that it gave the show’s creators ample time to craft a final season that could build to a beautifully orchestrated crescendo.

As well as not alienating the talent, early death notices also provide channels with a new marketing hook – the equivalent of the farewell musical tour – and also the chance to grab new viewers to catch up before viewing the denouement.

Paradoxically, it also serves to remind viewers that a show is still on the airwaves: When Showtime announced recently that the eighth season of “Homeland” in 2019 would be its last, it was probably news to some folk that Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison was still running around the globe trying to prevent terrorists from blowing it up. I actually gave up on the show earlier this year, but news that the endgame is in sight might actually lure me back for one final season (and they say Carrie is off her meds).

The same goes for “The Affair,” which Showtime just announced would conclude after one more season (its fifth). On a side note, it is surely no coincidence that the channel is persevering with the drama for longer than its ratings/critical response possibly merits while the series’ showrunner, Sarah Treem, works with Gal Gadot on a new Showtime series about Hollywood icon-inventor Hedy Lamarr.

By stretching the distance between announcement and show’s end, channels presumably also hope to prevent angry mobs gathering online with their virtual pitchforks, organizing protests to save their beloved shows. (And no matter how bad a show, someone, somewhere will always love it: Your Honor, please note for the record that I am now showing the jury a DVD copy of “Last Man Standing.”)

I always presumed these protests were a modern, internet phenomenon – but apparently not. As long ago as 1968, for instance, public protests took place to save the original “Star Trek” series from cancellation. While others took to the streets to protest the Vietnam War or police brutality, the LA Times was reporting that some 200 protesters gathered at Caltech with placards proclaiming “It is totally illogical to cancel Star Trek” and “Draft Spock!” Coupled with a letter-writing campaign, the effort succeeded in buying the sci-fi show another series – and the rest is (23rd-century) history.

Today, given the snake pit that is social media, it feels positively quaint that when fans of the soapy sci-fi show “Roswell” fought to reverse a cancellation decision a decade ago, their campaign involved sending bottles of Tabasco sauce to the WB offices. The same with “Friday Night Lights” and its fans’ efforts to prevent NBC from canning the small-town drama by sending the network light bulbs and eye drops.

And if you were the cabler behind “The Affair,” wouldn’t you do all you could to head off potential protests? Because who knows what fans of a show about illicit sexual trysts might send you through the mail or publish about you online.

Of course, not all early announcements about shows concluding are made because that’s what a studio or channel actually wants. When CBS and Warner Bros. announced last week that the upcoming 12th season of “The Big Bang Theory” will be its last, for example, this was seen as an admission that they had failed to convince star Jim Parsons to sign up for two more seasons and an eye-watering paycheck of a reported $50 million. But maybe it was a ploy to show Parsons just how many people were genuinely upset by the news and cause him to reconsider their generous offer? Or maybe they’re just hoping he remembers the cautionary career tales of the likes of former sitcom kings Matthew Perry and Kelsey Grammer, and reconsiders while there’s still time.

There is one anomaly in all of this, though, and that is how the newest kid on the media block insists on doing things the old-fashioned way.

Netflix operates with a degree of secrecy that the Catholic Church can only envy, so its pronouncements often come like bolts from the heavens. Last week, for instance, it announced a third season of “GLOW” some three months after the second season aired. In the same week, it also canceled its topical weekly comedy show “The Break with Michelle Wolf” – less than three months after it debuted. Who knew sudden death syndrome was a thing for Netflix shows too?

While “The Break” suffered from a saturated marketplace for “late-night” humor and dips in quality, at its best it proved a welcome showcase for Wolf’s often fearless comedy – showing she wasn’t afraid to go after liberals as well as the usual right-wing suspects.

Funnily enough, what started off as the show’s weakest point – its sketches – eventually became its biggest asset, suggesting that a “Broad City”-esque format may have been a better bet. What’s surprising is that Netflix was so quick to pull the plug without seemingly looking to rework the show (suggesting either viewing figures so small they would struggle to form a minyan or a strained working relationship).

I for one am going to miss Wolf’s shrill but scabrous comedic tone. If anyone feels like protesting her show’, I suggest they send an email to Netflix containing the video clip from “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” in which shrieking mandrakes are repotted.