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Canceled Sitcoms Have a Last Hurrah

Jul 31, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Natalie Finn

Special to TelevisionWeek

If a show has to bow out, either because the creators have called it quits or because the network has declared that the time is up, often the best place to take that bow is at a high-profile awards ceremony.

Quite a few swan songs will be sung at the 58th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards in August, including dirges for three sitcoms that, while not always (or ever) ratings winners, consistently provided a unique, quality brand of entertainment for whoever tuned in.

Six-time Emmy winner “Malcolm in the Middle,” one of the best non-animated sitcoms Fox has ever had on its schedule, exited the airwaves in May after a healthy seven-season run, scoring four Emmy nominations this year, including Jane Kaczmarek’s seventh consecutive nod for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series.

The series finale, which Fox respectfully aired between episodes of “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” rather than during the Sunday 7 p.m. (ET) time slot where the show had been languishing since January, attracted 7.4 million viewers.

This year marks Emmy’s last chance to honor Ms. Kaczmarek for her role as Lois, the hot-tempered yet loving wife and mother of five who had limited patience but was also happy to snip the ponytail off a girl who had humiliated one of her sons. Bryan Cranston, who played Hal, the bumbling yet well-meaning patriarch of this zany clan, received his third nomination for outstanding supporting actor.

When “Malcolm in the Middle” hit the scene in midseason 2000, Washington Post critic and TelevisionWeek columnist Tom Shales detected a “lovable kind of brilliance” and wrote that the sitcom was “a little bit like a live-action `Simpsons,’ but with a Bart who’s a genius, not an underachiever.”

Some Unhappy Endings

Showrunner and executive producer Matthew Carlson made sure that Malcolm, the aforementioned genius played by Frankie Muniz, fulfilled his potential. In the series finale, Malcolm gave his high school valedictory speech and headed off to Harvard.

If that sounds too fairytale-like, his family was covered in garbage during the graduation ceremony, resulting from an ill-timed explosion perpetrated by Malcolm’s older brother, Reese (Justin Berfield), who was just itching to be his high school’s next janitor. (No, really, he was.)

Coinciding with the end of “Malcolm’s” run, the show that has been Fox’s most critically acclaimed non-animated sitcom is also through. After three shaky seasons in which it seemed as if cancellation was always looming, “Arrested Development” was finally crossed off the schedule. The comedy barely registered with viewers this year, pulling in an average of 1.5 million people a week despite its 2004 Emmy win for outstanding comedy series.

The prematurely shortened saga of the rich and hilariously dysfunctional Bluth family was also nominated for four Emmys this year, including, once again, outstanding comedy series.

“We’re not doing this thing just to be different,” series creator Mitchell Hurwitz told Entertainment Weekly in 2004, in an article subtitled “`Arrested Development’ is the funniest sitcom in years. Why aren’t you watching?”

“It really does come out of a desire to do a funny show,” Mr. Hurwitz said, describing the blissfully oblivious, self-absorbed characters who populated “Arrested Development’s” universe and the relentlessly biting tone that characterized the show’s humor. “[Traditional sitcom] stuff stops being funny because you know what’s coming. We wanted to be a little more surprising than that.”

Another show that may have become a victim of its own creative success is HBO’s “The Comeback,” which was canceled after one 13-episode season.

Lisa Kudrow, who co-created the TV industry-skewering comedy with “Sex and the City” creator Michael Patrick King and is nominated for outstanding lead actress for her role as former “It” girl Valerie Cherish, turned in a performance that-if such a thing is possible-may have been too good.

“The Comeback” centered on Valerie’s complex emotions as she worked on a network sitcom for the first time in years while at the same time filming a reality show about her so-called comeback. Ms. Kudrow summoned up a spot-on mixture of misplaced ego, pathos-inducing frustration and strength, at times communicating a wealth of feeling with just a twitch of her head or by pursing her lips.

“Lisa’s amazing talent makes you feel for her,” said Mr. King, who also received an Emmy nomination for directing. “She can break your heart, then make you laugh.”

And that was exactly the effect that the character of Valerie was intended to have on people. “First of all, we wanted the series to be a roller coaster ride,” Mr. King said. “[Our] desire was to try to explore a different vibration of creativity, a different way of telling the story.

“But people get very nervous about something that they haven’t seen.”

What “The Comeback” was showing people, through a single-camera format, was a brutally honest take on celebrity culture and the dignity-sapping punches people like Valerie choose to roll with in order to stay in front of the camera.

“Lisa and I really are proud of the fact that we created something that had never been done before,” Mr. King said. “We created a new character that was so dimensional to people that they were either repulsed or fell in love with her.”

While many critics chose the latter, “The Comeback” struggled to find an audience. About 920,000 people tuned in for the Sept. 4 series finale.