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‘Michael J. Fox Show’ Creator: We’re Not Canceled…Yet

With rumors of cancellation after NBC pulled it from its lineup, Michael J. Fox Show creator Sam Laybourne sets the record straight, talks about ratings woes, and makes his pitch to save his show.

Eric Liebowitz/NBC, via Getty

Big TV news broke Wednesday night that was both shocking and not surprising at all. The Michael J. Fox Show had been yanked from NBC’s Thursday night schedule, with no indication of when the seven episodes remaining in its first—and maybe only—season will air, according to Entertainment Weekly. Some people thought that meant the show was canceled, which isn’t the case just yet, though the writing does seem to be on the wall.

It’s surprising news because of the huge buzz the show had coming into its debut this fall. NBC took the unprecedented step of giving it a full 22-episode order before a frame had been even shot, having so much faith in the return of Michael J. Fox to network comedy—an event that garnered its own amount of hype. The reviews of the pilot were positive. I loved it. The news is also not surprising, however, because ratings were so bad. Really bad. The show recently earned a terrible 0.6 adult demo rating and wasn’t featured in NBC’s promotion at the Television Critics Association press tour last month.

Still, The Michael J. Fox Show’s co-creator, Sam Laybourne, isn’t giving up on his show. After the news leaked that the series had been yanked from the schedule and rumors began swirling of its cancellation, we called Laybourne to set the record straight about his show’s fate, discuss its ratings woes, talk about how much better the show has gotten, and why he’s optimistic that this isn’t the end of The Michael J. Fox Show…yet.

Can you tell me what you know about the show’s fate?

Basically we spoke with NBC. I think there was just a miscommunication between them and the press when this was released last night. Of course, the ratings had been struggling. So they told us they’re taking us off the Thursday night lineup to find another slot for us. We have seven remaining episodes. We don’t know yay or nay about a second season yet, but we’re not canceled officially. We’re trying to get the word out and talk about the fact that the show has improved so much. I feel good about the final episodes so my goal is to get them a decent airing so that people can see them and give us a shot at a second season.

Why was it pulled?

I think NBC obviously wants higher ratings. Thursday night has obviously struggled for them. For a family show, we were on really late and we were after a show that was really great but tonally very different from ours, with Sean Saves the World. It’s a terrible night of competition in general on Thursday nights. So all of us were frustrated. NBC loved the show creatively and really pushed us to improve. So here we are at a great place with seven episodes we’re really proud of, but they decided to take us off that night and find a different spot for us. So it’s our real hope to get people who liked the show to advocate for us and make it clear to NBC—who are our collaborators and we have no ill will towards them at all—but make it known that there are people who love this show.

What do you think will happen to these remaining episodes? Will they air?

I don’t really know. Obviously it’s my hope that they air in such a way that it gives us a chance at getting more eyeballs and getting people excited about and building a critical groundswell. It’s a very tricky show to figure out—all shows are, but this one had its own specific challenges. The cool thing that NBC did was give us the 22 episodes so we could figure out the show and try things. But it’s that ironic thing that they’ve given us this wonderful order and this trial and error period in which we found ourselves, and now we’ve found ourselves!

And now you get the news that you’re yanked…

I get it—it’s the fatigue of having the low ratings. But with new shows you have to figure out the chemistry of the cast and the tone. I enjoyed our episodes in the beginning of the season a lot but I think we’ve gotten stronger. And right when that happens we’re off the air. So, my honest opinion, Kevin, is that NBC is still trying to figure out when we air them. They really like the episodes. I think they’re trying to figure out when we fit on a schedule is when we have more meaning. They’re not just in the business of throwing them on to be nice. They want them to work, too. And that’s what we want. My wish would just be a little earlier on a night would be great. For us would be to air in a way that’s not a burning off situation. But we can’t control that.

So you say you’re proud of where the show has gone and the improvement it’s had. What’s improved now from the beginning?

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So much of the show is about the tone and vibe. We retooled music, which sounds sort of small and auxiliary, but I think we figured out a way to help the audience. The show before us has a laugh track. There’s clear, comedic beats. With single-camera shows, you’re sort of reluctant to score too much on the nose we’re you’re leaning towards comedy. But there’s so much to be said for scoring comedic scenes and helping the audience to see reaction shots. The trick with this show is slowing it down a hair at times. So pacing and music are some of the DNA things we changed.

What about creatively?

I think from a story standpoint we’ve thought about the air order fairly specifically. Understandably, NBC moved certain episodes earlier as they’re trying to laser in on what they feel had the most punch early on. Because we know shows start in such a way that networks tend to move episodes’ order, we wrote episodes that were more stand alone and discreet, a beginning-middle-end story that didn’t serialize story lines. Those episodes were great but they lacked some of the great things that happen when you let arcs grow. But now we’re in a place that from episode 11 on we freed ourselves from a need to have everything be so standalone and allow for more interesting storytelling and more character-based jokes.

Are there things you’re really looking forward to in these remaining seven episodes?

There are big things coming, like Brooke Shields comes in as a love interest for Ian for a couple of episodes and she’s hilarious. It makes storytelling much more fulfilling because you’re leading to something. It’s like when The Office lasered in on Jim and Pam. It sort of freed up the whole show. And then you cared more about the stories. There was a deeper stakes going on. So I think that’s really how the improvement happened from a narrative standpoint.

So leading up to the show’s premiere, it had so much buzz, what with NBC’s massive order up front, the heralded return of Michael to TV, and then a pilot that got great reviews. Why do you think the ratings struggled from the get go, after all that hype and buzz?

I think it’s two-fold. This is a show that really benefits from seeing a few episodes. And sort of getting the rhythm. Getting Mike’s rhythm. Getting the sort of different tone of the show. It takes a little while to understand the cadence of this show. I think because the expectations were so gargantuan—in a way the 22-episode order, as wonderful as it was, I think it set a different expectation. It symbolized megahit from the gates. But in reality we were dealing with a subject matter that had never been addressed on television. There’s going to be an adjustment period for people. I think what happened was that everyone’s preconceived notion of what it would be and the reality of what it is, there was a disconnect there. For some people, there was a thing of, “I heard so much hype about this and it didn’t quite hit the mark I thought it would.” And it wasn’t for them.

I think another part of it is that a perfect target for us is families. We wrote it that way on purpose. I love family shows. We watched a lot of old-school shows in preparation for this. I think a lot of people have criticized us for having some retro “feelings” stuff and heart. But we always wanted that and felt like, “How cool to create a great show with Michael J. Fox, a family guy, for families.” And when you’re on at 9:30 at night—I get it, it’s so hard to find a place and NBC did what they had to do—but when you’re on at that time you’re almost giving away your opportunity right out the gate. I think the reality of this show versus the perceived reality plus the late time period damaged our ratings.

And then it’s a tough market. When you’re on Thursday nights there’s football, CBS doing amazing numbers. You sort of get lost. Even though everyone loves Mike I think staying committed to live television is hard for anyone.

So what’s your prognosis?

In some weird, perverse way, because I’m an optimist like Mike, I hope that, even though the story broke sort of erroneously and wasn’t exactly right, I’m hoping that the threat of cancellation helps people realize that, “I gotta get into this. I gotta give it another shot.” Mike deserves that. And it’s also really good. That’s why I can sleep at night, because I feel like the end of our year is so sharp.