While a small number of series have resumed filming with safety protocols in place, others have simply been told they never will. "Un-renewal" has become the latest television trend courtesy of Covid-19, resulting in the unexpected cancellation of beloved shows such as Netflix's GLOW right before they were supposed to complete their final season. With one episode completed, sparkly leotards on and hairspray cans at the ready, nobody expected the referee to blow the whistle for full time so soon.
Other networks are following suit: ABC has backtracked on a confirmed second season of Stumptown (which starred Marvel's Cobie Smulders as a bisexual PI), while TruTV axed Andrea Savage's third season of I'm Sorry. Comedy Central decided the sixth season of Drunk History would be its last, despite having agreed to a seventh in 2019.
And most recently, Showtime has called it quits on one of its already renewed shows, Kirsten Dunst's On Becoming A God In Central Florida. The decision baffled some fans of the promising show, particularly when the network revealed it had ordered a Dexter revival only days later.
Networks and streamers alike are reversing their decisions, cancelling well-performing shows and testing the loyalty of their viewers. Of course, this pandemic has impacted society in far more devastating ways, and it might seem silly to be upset over TV cancellations, especially when such a vast offer of titles is available. A show must and will go on, just not necessarily this show.
Yet it's worth pointing out that the "un-renewing" wave has dealt a particularly heavy blow to the ever-meagre gender and LGBTQ+ representation on the small screen. Within that, female-led, queer, diverse shows and their audiences have been hit the hardest. Out of seven shows un-renewed by networks over the past few months, five feature Strong Female Leads™ and four prominent LGBTQ+ storylines.
The case of GLOW is emblematic. Created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, the dramedy led by Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin tells the compelling, fictionalised stories of a group of real-life women wrestlers in the 1980s. No key issue was deemed too uncomfortable to be woven into the plot, addressing everything from the gender pay gap, reproductive freedom, sexual harassment, homophobia and reckoning with collective trauma. Again, no body was ever "too" something — Black, Latinx, queer, fat — to be proudly shown and turned into a political weapon, in and out of the ring.
Ironically, the emphasis GLOW placed on those bodies, safely slammed thanks to Emmy-winning stunt coordinator Shauna Duggins, may have been what brought the show to an untimely end. Such a physical show would likely bring more expensive Covid-related measures, especially given the size of the cast.
"We've made the difficult decision not to do a fourth season of GLOW due to COVID, which makes shooting this physically intimate show with its large ensemble cast especially challenging," a Netflix spokesperson said in a statement to Deadline announcing the "un-renewal".
"We are so grateful to creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, Jenji Kohan and all the writers, cast and crew for sharing this story about the incredible women of GLOW with us and the world."
Why not just halt production for the foreseeable, one might ask? In the current climate, the earliest GLOW would make a comeback would be 2022, nearly three years after the last season, leaving doubts as to whether there will still be an audience for it. It is certainly a long time, but fandoms can be patient and persistent. Judging by the outrage the "un-renewal" sparked on socials, GLOW lovers would have still tuned in.
Perhaps, Vulture points out, Netflix never thought another season would be profitable in the first place, appealing exclusively to an oddly specific demographic of "men in kimonos and women in cat hair" (as GLOW's Gilpin put it in the heartfelt post-un-renewal op-ed she penned for Vanity Fair). Don't misfits deserve the representation they won't find in most mainstream, male-led, overwhelmingly white, straight narratives?
The same applies to short-lived teen drama I Am Not Okay With This, featuring It protagonist Sophia Lillis. Despite good ratings, the show was axed in August, so fans will now never know if the show's protagonist might ever come to terms with her superpowers and queer identity.
Lest we forget, TV has been "burying its gays" for far too long, as per the common trope, confirming that LGBTQ+ characters are often expendable in comparison to their straight counterparts. Women, on the other hand, have been underrepresented and relegated to male-gaze-y, secondary roles in prestige dramas for nearly a decade, although that's changing now thanks to the introduction of more non-male, non-straight, non-white creatives in writers' rooms.
Still, it would be malicious to pin gender and queerness as the reason behind the "un-renewal". Netflix is a platform that prides itself on providing viewers with content-normalising stories and characters outside of the dominant groups.
"We're proud of our record commissioning shows and films by female creators with female leads. These are important stories and we are deeply committed to ensuring more women see their lives reflected on screen," a Netflix spokesperson tells Digital Spy.
In the last two years, the company has had a higher percentage of series by female creators and with female leads than the industry average , which makes these cancellations stand out more. Part of the merit goes to Cindy Holland, the former vice-president of the streamer's original content.
A gay woman, Holland worked at Netflix for 18 years and was responsible for launching some of its English-speaking hit series, like Orange Is The New Black and Stranger Things, championing diverse representation. After departing the company last September, Holland has left some wondering about the future of inclusive, diverse, relatable programming. At the moment, it does not look particularly bright.
Netflix, however, is committed to staying queer. It simply prefers to invest in established creators like Ryan Murphy while sidelining those who helped it reach its status. For example, Kohan's OITNB helped skyrocket Netflix's popularity in its early streaming days but isn't afforded the chance to give GLOW a proper ending.
GLOW co-stars are now lobbying for a movie that would allow them to make an exit their own way, but this suggestion doesn't address the safety concerns of bringing 20 people on set during the pandemic.
Even if Netflix agrees to an extended final episode for its longest-running "un-renewed" show, it has now become clear that the company isn't interested in keeping its shows in production for long. The streaming giant would rather commission originals with a consistent look and feel, like Murphy's. Whether projects like Ratched will move past their first season or not is another matter.
This quantity-focused attitude is a result of Netflix commissioning full seasons versus making pilots, ending up in more cancellations after one instalment. It's a new way of making television, fuelled by the confidence that subscribers will stay for an ever-changing catalogue rather than a portfolio of selected, long-running titles. The fact that networks have been launching similar subscription-based platforms means that this truly is the future. The pandemic is just speeding up the process.
Like in every revolution, a few heads will roll before things run smoothly, but indiscriminate "un-renewals" risk denying viewers agency and the closure they had been promised.
Netflix is at the forefront of the "un-renewing" trend with three titles cut short. The streamer appears to be reversing its initial audience-tailored outlook by collating its different viewerships into bigger, like-minded clusters to force-feed with the next compatible title, as per algorithm.
It doesn't matter what representation viewers might be after because a percentage is there to tell them what they should watch and promptly shove it down their throats via autoplay previews. At best, they might discover a true gem; at worst, they're stuck with flimsy, escapist, tokenistic fantasies à la Emily in Paris, the latest in an aggressively marketed streak of paper-thin originals.
This approach might leave out certain brackets that were served by "unrenewed" series, but it's a risk Netflix (and competing networks) is willing to take, positive that nobody will turn their screen off any time soon, regardless of what's playing.
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