Why Critics Will Never Understand Hollywood is A Business — But We Viewers Must: A New Series
Part 1: What the Cancellation of Cruel Summer Reveals About TV As Its Exists Today — And Always Has And Will
Last night I endured one of the most painful cancellations of a TV series I’ve had to endure in 2023. I was planning to write in reaction to it that night, but then I learned that there were more details not only to why it was cancelled but why the network itself was doing so.
I have also been meaning to begin a series for the past several months in which I try to reconcile the divide between what critics and consumers think Hollywood is and what it actually is. As you will see when I begin this article properly, last night’s cancellation is as pertinent an entryway into subject as I could have hoped for.
So this article will be the first in what will be a continuing series on the divide between how we should view Hollywood and how most people do.
Those of you who have read my blog know that there are few people out there who have thought more highly of Freeform’s anthology series Cruel Summer. When it debuted in April of 2021, I regarded it as one of the great accomplishment of that year and gave the newly founded HCA TV awards full points for not merely nominating it for Best Cable Drama but actually giving in their inaugural prize in that category. I named the series the best show of 2021 and was overjoyed when it was renewed for a second season.
I was just as ecstatic in the leadup to Season 2 and to when it actually aired. It is one of my favorite series of 2023 and will be among the top five series of this year, if not among the top three. So you can imagine how devastated I was to learn that Freeform had cancelled it last night.
This is the kind of blow that would normally have wrecked me for days, if not weeks. However, when I was doing research for the article I was considering right I learned two things that numbed the pain in different ways.
The first was that Cruel Summer had originally just been planned to be a one-shot and that the series had been such a huge hit (the biggest success Freeform had ever had) they had decided to renew it for a second season, this time as an anthology. So, while it is still a huge blow that Cruel Summer is gone, I am at least gratified that we got the second season in the first place.
The second thing is the reason this article is being written. I was so stunned at the cancellation of Cruel Summer that I barely registered that Good Trouble, an iconic series that had been going on for nearly five seasons, had also been abruptly canceled before the writers had been able to finish it. I imagine this will come as a blow to far more people considering that in addition to being a successful series, Good Trouble was a spinoff of another huge success for Freeform The Fosters. This will rock a significant amount of TV fans’ worlds — though maybe it should neither it nor Cruel Summer’s cancellation should come as a shock based on another event that happened earlier this summer.
This June Freeform also cancelled two series that I was very fond of. The first was its freshman thriller The Watchful Eye, a brilliant mix of intrigue and possibly horror set in a New York Hotel involving a suspicious death and a new arrival among a prominent family. I thought very highly of this series (if you read my column you know how much I thought of it) and it bothered me that it had been cancelled before it got a chance to grow.
The bigger blow by far was the cancellation of Single Drunk Female which was a scalding comedy with Sofia D’Elia playing a millennial trying both to get sober and deal with her wrenching family and friend situation. The fact that both of these shows were canceled this spring should have been a big flashing light that more cancellations were on their way; last night’s cancellations were the other shoe dropping.
Now some inside baseball. The head of Freeform’s original programming, who greenlit all of these shows, left the network last year. The only original series left on Freeform is grown-ish which will air its final episodes in 2024.
None of this is a coincidence when you take into context an article I read in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year. Freeform’s parent company, Disney, is as we all know, in the midst of some major financial restructuring. In this article, I learned that company was starting to make hard choice as to which of its networks and services were going to continue to broadcast original program. The fact that Disney Plus and Hulu are merging was one sign of how the industry was changing; that some of its cable networks will stop making original series altogether is another.
So taken in this very large context, while the cancelation not only of Cruel Summer but every Freeform had been airing for the last three years is devastating from an artistic standpoint, it is not the least bit shocking from a financial one. And it is keeping in the general theme that has been going on for years that I myself have commented on of cable networks increasingly getting out of the business of making original programming.
Now I imagine all of you TV viewers who have been upset that so many shows are being killed are blaming either cable or the parent companies for doing so. You are grossly incorrect. In fact, this is the inevitable consequence of why so many critics tended to think Prestige TV worked so well. Every cable network seemed to be creating a brilliant show and they seemed to be going on forever.
But the bill was always going to come due. The fragmentation of the TV audience may have been willing to lead to great creativity but it always going to come at a cost. Any business — and lest we forget television is one — can only continue to exist as long as it is making a profit for the investors. It has always been the way since there were only three networks; it was just as true when dozens of networks were providing it.
And eventually when it was time to cut costs or the budgets ran in the red, these networks basically had two options:
1. They could stop making original programming altogether.
2. They could be bought out or merge with another larger company.
Critics and audiences have never understood that there is no third option where they keep on making your favorite shows until the network closes down and ceases to exist. To be clear, that’s happened in a few cases but most of the audiences will shrug it off when it does.
This is what critics and viewers have never truly understood or appreciated about everything that entertains them. I realize trying to feel sympathy for a corporate entity may be beneath any real progressive but an institution is not one person and it is not all the billionaires at the top. And they are not just making a single product for you and you alone. If not enough people are going to Bob’s Big Boy, it disappears from truck stops. If no one goes to see the A’s play baseball, they have to move to Oakland. And if almost no one is watching The Winchesters or Stargirl, the CW has to start importing Canadian dramas if it is to exist in any form.
Nor am I going to blame the streaming services that have taken away jobs from cable or other services. No the fault, as always, lies not in the network but in ourselves. Really it lies in the entire nature of how life is today. We want our food, our packages and yes, our entertainment as quick and as cheaply as possible.
So yes, it could be bad for art if there are only a handful of places where brilliant creative shows can be made. But the average American will not give a damn as long as they can pay as little as possible to get it. This was the way when there were only three major networks to get TV from. This has always been the way with TV, film and plays. The critics care about art, the talent and investors care about making money, and the public cares about being entertained. The fundamental flaw of so many critics is that they think their approach is the only acceptable one and they blame the other two groups for not having the ‘intelligence’ the see it the way they do.
I’ve always been more of the opinion, as a TV critic, that I view my work more as the public does then as the critic has. I don’t come to any major TV show — whether it be The Wire or Only Murders in the Building or yes, Cruel Summer — expecting to find some great work of art. I want to be entertained first and foremost. I want to have fun. I would like to have my brain stimulated and my heart strings pulled. All of this can be done just as easily with lowbrow TV as highbrow. I’ve always felt it you get enjoyment from a program you shouldn’t be judged whether its Station 19 or Station Eleven. One group of people might think highly of the latter than the former but that doesn’t make them the final word. I’m going to go into this in more detail in future articles but critics are not gods but human beings, capable of their own flaws and prejudices. We should never blindly follow their judgments.
Similarly we must also remember that TV has always been a business and any businesses job is to make money. As a TV critic I get reminded of this perhaps more frequently and painfully than any one else. Year after year, you have to endure the fact that the shows you love and invested time in will not becoming back next season because while you may love them, not enough of the rest of the world does. It doesn’t get easier if shows you like survive season after season; the more invested in them you become, the larger the risk is they will end up falling by the wayside. Peak TV may have done much to improve the art of TV but its done nothing to ensure job security or that the show’s you love will keep on surviving in an era where the margin for renewal can differ depending on which network or service your on.
In that sense, the truly remarkable shows that stand as critical classics — The Americans, Parenthood, Damages are among my favorites of these — are remarkable in the fact that they survived long enough to realize their vision. Peak TV might have been a great time for art but there was no more guarantee the show you loved would survive any more than many of the characters on it.
So yes it will be harder for great artistic series to succeed and thrive in the years to come. How is that different from any point in the history of television? TV has always been driven by the number of eyeballs who are on the screen. The only thing that changed in the last twenty years was that a show could be a hit with far fewer eyeballs than there were with each passing decade.
As for how I’ll deal with the loss of Cruel Summer, last night I managed to finally track down a DVD of the first season online. I paid about $30 for it. I’ll do the same when the second season comes out on DVD in some form. I’m doing this in part because this how I appreciate my art; I’m always felt that you owe it as a viewer to have both a record of your favorite shows in something that isn’t digital and you should be willing to pay some form of largesse to show your appreciation. I recognize TV is an art, but I also respect that is a business and I think we should all remember to do the same.