The Fox military sitcom Enlisted should’ve been a success. It had a talented ensemble cast, was headed by Kevin Biegel, one of the people behind the excellent sitcoms Scrubs and Cougar Town, and, most importantly, it was really, really funny. (It made me cry.) Yet Fox, for reasons I can’t parse out, decided to air episodes out of order, resulting in characters suddenly dating several episodes before being introduced to one another, rivalries appearing out of thin air only to be explained weeks later, and a general sense that there were no real stakes in the show. After weeks of declining ratings in a nonsense time slot (Fridays at 9 P.M.), Fox canceled Enlisted. For a first-season half-hour broadcast sitcom, it costs about $1 million per episode, give or take a few hundred thousand dollars. So why would a network go to all the trouble of buying, producing, and airing a sitcom, only to air the episodes out of order, alienate viewers, then ditch the show for another?
A common answer is that the networks want to start the show out with the strongest episodes in order to attract viewers, who’ll then stick with the show through its later, weaker ones. Sometimes this is true! LaToya Ferguson, a TV critic for Gawker and The A.V. Club, pointed out in an email with me that the dearly-departed ABC sitcom Happy Endings “was an example of a show that was actually better… once you knew the characters, so airing the stronger episodes before the original early episodes really worked; you’d get a better sense of the characters and then you’d get more of the arc later.” But in the case of Enlisted and ABC’s Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23, a similarly-misscheduled show, “Neither of them really had weak episodes, but with Don’t Trust The B, airing the episodes out of order (with random late season one episodes airing alongside season two) actually hurt the already bizarre series when it came to finding an audience.”
Enlisted, Happy Endings, and Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23 were all fairly conventional sitcoms. (Happy Endings was essentially a much better Friends clone, and I say that with all the love in my heart.) None of them created strange and complex worlds, like Joss Whedon’s Fox space western Firefly or David Lynch’s slow, mythological ABC murder mystery Twin Peaks, both of which faced scheduling screwups and network interference. Fox and ABC seem to be the biggest culprits of canceling shows after airing them out of order, but as Ferguson says, “Networks, even if they may want to tout themselves as purveyors of quality, ultimately want the show that are going to be watched no matter what. That’s why CBS sitcoms have such a long shelf life and viewership.”
Sometimes, Flavorwire TV editor Pilot Viruet says, it makes sense to air episodes out of order, even for Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23. “[ABC] (correctly) assumed that new viewers were way more likely to tune in for the Dawson’s Creek reunion-themed episode than a random holdover from the first season,” she wrote me in an email.
The thing is, most new TV shows are unsuccessful, regardless of how the episodes air. The movie and TV news website Screenrant determined that 65 percent of new shows don’t receive a second season. Obviously, the networks think they have a shrewd maneuver to avoid episodes they don’t think will find an audience quick enough, but it almost never seems to work. With Enlisted there was enough public support that (The Army Times called for it to receive a better time slot, saying, “Frankly, it’s hard not to root for these TV troops.” Yet it was still cancelled. Maybe it’s time to try something new; Netflix’s model has shown that people, rather than tuning in week-by-week, are beginning to prefer binge-watching their shows, which only makes any chronological errors even more blatant and annoying.