In one of the biggest TV culls of recent memory, ABC today cut a veritable swathe through some of its most well known and long-running material, cancelling a raft of shows with a built-in pedigree and audience. Castle is one of the most prominent, a Steven J. Cannell-esque procedural detective show that has seen the ever-adored Nathan Fillion as the titular crime author-turned sleuth partnered with Stana Katic’s tough cop, allowing for eight seasons of largely ‘will they, won’t they?’. The revival of The Muppets has gone, and while they have done fairly well in recent years back at the box office, the Jim Henson legends have suffered creatively and crucially in terms of viewership on the small screen. Perhaps the most expected goodbye is to Marvel’s Agent Carter, the mid-season replacement for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, which ran for two seasons with Hayley Atwell reprising her role as 40’s heroine Peggy Carter to tell stories from the earlier days of the connected Marvel Cinematic Universe; in truth it was more of a cult hit than a mainstream one, suffering perhaps from poor marketing and a lack of conviction from the network. ABC hit Marvel in the jugular by also cancelling S.H.I.E.L.D. spin-off, Most Wanted, before it’s even begun – so why this sudden takedown by the network, and how might it affect the Marvel machine?
As usually happens with seismic shifts in any business, a new broom sweeps clean and ABC recently had a change of executive management; in came Channing Dungey, with an M.O. to clear out what could be considered some dead wood, presumably hoping to make her mark with a raft of new, memorable material. Castle, in truth, was looking shaky anyway; financial cuts meant Katic was getting the axe and the behind the scenes drama had hit the public eye, with show runners Terence Paul White & Alexi Hawley crafting two possible conclusions to the current eighth season – a game changing cliffhanger that could launch Richard Castle’s life into a new era, sans partner Kate Beckett; or a conclusion that would serve to wrap the season up. ABC, given the choice, went with the latter.
While Castle has plenty of fans, it’s never broken out as a major transatlantic hit in the way Fillion has never broken out as a major star (let’s face it, he’s the Bruce Campbell of his generation), so it won’t be catastrophically missed and at eight seasons it’s more than enough had a good run. You can’t say quite the same about Agent Carter, though few people would be surprised at this decision – especially given for some time Atwell has been linked to new ABC pilot Conviction, which looks on the bubble to become a commissioned full season. She presumably, especially after Peggy was killed off in Captain America: Civil War off-screen, knew the writing was on the wall for her corner of the MCU. Many will lament her show’s passing, but not enough to save it – simply not enough people bothered tuning into Peggy’s wartime exploits to warrant the cost.
We can see a marked difference in terms of Marvel’s television output when it comes to the ABC network model in comparison with Netflix’s little Defenders corner of the MCU (or perhaps MTU – Marvel Television Universe). The latter have much the same in the way of budget, but much less accountability to chasing ratings and justifying the heavy expense; Agent Carter wouldn’t have been a cheap endeavour, much like Supergirl wasn’t for CBS (following my article on the subject, CBS finally relented and allowed the CW to commission it for a second season) – that show will now land on a smaller, cheaper network but likely will run a few more seasons than it ever would have got on the bigger, more expensive network. It’s interesting also to see ABC cancel Most Wanted, which was set to star Adrianne Palicki (the woman who simply cannot catch a lead role break – I seriously think she’s cursed) and Nick Blood as Bobbi ‘Mockingbird’ Morse & Lance Hunter, leaping off from their appearances in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.. Now despite never being a critical darling, S.H.I.E.L.D. was recommissioned for a fourth season recently, and you’d find many fans who would rather have seen that money spent on Peggy Carter.
Truth is though, S.H.I.E.L.D.–with its (slightly) closer ties to the bigger MCU, and three seasons of establishment–pulls in more viewers. ABC, even with the Marvel brand, clearly weren’t confident Most Wanted would do that – though this isn’t purely a reshuffle doubt, previous executives weren’t sure either given how Most Wanted was cancelled before, only to later be reprieved. Peggy Carter and Hayley Atwell at least had a bigger fanbase, leaping off a very well known film – does anyone who doesn’t watch S.H.I.E.L.D. know or care about Mockingbird and Hunter? It’s unlikely. And it’s a fiscal gamble ABC clearly weren’t prepared to take, in the way Netflix perhaps would have done, and indeed have – who knew Jessica Jones or Luke Cage outside of comic book fans a year ago? Who cared? We may not know the metrics for Jessica Jones but they were good enough to warrant her getting a second season in 2017, and critically she won most people over.
So for Marvel on TV, this is an interesting time, and indeed an interesting time for comic book shows. Right now it looks like if you’re not on Netflix or The CW, your odds of survival are slim; those are places where a combination of ratings being no object and money being economically spent mean comic book shows are working both critically and financially. The Defenders corner of the MCU is already loved by many, and looks set to only grow, and the DC-Verse on The CW has a huge fanbase – even if Greg Berlanti & co are testing their patience with the scorned Legends of Tomorrow and some recent questionable choices on Arrow. The Flash is going great guns and many will no doubt give Supergirl a boost, especially if she’s tied in closer to the DC mythology on The CW, and there are even rumours the flawed but cult appreciated Constantine could be resurrected as part of the ever expanding mini-universe, especially after Matt Ryan’s successful appearance as the character on Arrow this season.
If you’re on a major network however… good luck making it past season one. As ABC have proven, unless you’re part of Shondatown or on a reality TV show, the knives may be out for you from day one – even if you’re as seemingly untouchable as the mighty Marvel.
Tony Black is a freelance film/TV writer & podcaster & would love you to follow him on Twitter.