“Enlisted,” one of this TV season's best new comedies – and easily its most star-crossed – has been in limbo for more than a month. The last new episode of the military sitcom aired in late March, and though FOX promised that the remaining four episodes would air at some point, possibly in a more favorable timeslot, it's not anywhere on the schedule for May – meaning that they'll air after FOX has already made its decision about what shows to renew and cancel.
While the show's creator, Kevin Biegel, awaits its fate (and also that of TBS' “Cougar Town,” which he co-created), he figured out a way to make the four missing episodes available early to at least some fans. Those four will get their world premiere at the ATX Television Festival, which will take place in Austin, Texas from June 5-8.(*) The series had a very successful debut at last year's ATX, and Biegel – who will host the screening with producer Mike Royce and potentially some members of the show's cast – wanted to at least close the circle.
(*) I will, as it turns out, also be at ATX, both to moderate some panels and to appear on one – along with Matt Zoller Seitz from New York Magazine, Todd VanDerWerff from The AV Club and “Lone Star” and “Awake” creator Kyle Killen – about ratings, recaps, and reviews.
I got on the phone with Biegel to discuss the show's fate, the various obstacles it ran into, and why he wanted to bring it back to Austin.
So how are you feeling?
Kevin Biegel: I have this weird thing where I'm like, “Well, we made the show, and it exists, and that doesn't end.” And we made a show where the end of the first season could, if we get canceled, function as a really wonderful end of the series. So I don't really feel horrible, if that makes any sense. And now I'm also waiting on “Cougar Town.” Though all signs point to better than 50 percent chance that that gets picked up again.
And if you had to put odds on this one getting picked up again? Is there any hope?
Kevin Biegel: There's always hope. But the smart thing is to be realistic and go, “We're not on the May schedule.” There's four episodes left, by the network's own decision, which seemed like a smart one at the time. They said, “We know you're not getting any exposure on Friday nights, and it seems foolish to waste these last four there. How about we save the final four until a really great spot opens up elsewhere on the schedule to get more eyeballs on you?” That sounded great in theory. But in practice, it was tough, because there wasn't any space to do that that was justifiable. It's one of those things where it got frustrating, frankly, but I understand it. But I know we made something I'm insanely proud of, and just taking myself out of it, I think it's a great show. And I know people are going to keep discovering it over the years. There's 13 of them. And I know FOX has this new model where they're skipping pilot season and rolling things out over bigger chunks of time. So there's always hope. But my biggest hope now is that I want people to see those final four, and it's all unofficial now when they're going to air them. But I've heard some dates, and they're going to air them. It's not like they're going to evaporate.
I know you guys launched the show at ATX last year. How did this new screening come about?
Kevin Biegel: It literally was me sitting in my office being bummed out, going, “Oh, man, it was so fun to go to ATX last year, I wish we could go this year!” And not thinking we had something to show, because I'm a little slow. And then I realized we had four leftover episodes, some of the four best episodes we did, and I think the finale's wonderful. And I realized, “Wait a sec, these aren't going to premiere before the ATX Festival.” Mike and I are big bookend people, and I don't know if that's superstitious or stupid, but we started at the ATX Festival for the first season, and maybe we're going to end it there, too. We can run four of them in a row in a theater, the stories are fairly connected. It worked great for the original pilot, it worked great when we showed a couple of episodes of “Cougar Town” when we were doing the grass roots tour. It was so much fun, and maybe we can have an experience like that again. And then we cleared it with the studio and the network, and they were on board. There's a lot of fans in Austin, and if you can make it there, it'd be awfully fun to see it on a screen. Maybe some of the actors will come. I bet Parker (Young) will go, (Parker Young impression) “Dude, I want to hang out in Austin!” and he'll fly himself down there.
And on a personal note, it's just really satisfying to have these four episodes that we couldn't wait to show to people, and then they're off the air, and to actually be in a theater with people to watch stuff you're proud of. That's a gift you rarely get as a writer. To have that experience is super super rare. Usually you're sitting in a dark room by yourself.
I've seen “Prank Wars,” which was originally going to be one of the first episodes to air, but I haven't seen the other three. What can you say about what people are going to see, either in Austin or whenever FOX finally airs them?
Kevin Biegel: The last four are probably some of the biggest things we did. It culminates the story between Derrick and the bartender. There's an arc that we very carefully mapped out with Pete's PTSD that would be hopeful but also realistic. We didn't want to do, “Now Pete's solved! Now Pete's healthy!” We tried to do this tough thing for a comedy, which is to deal with a very serious and real issue facing actual soldiers and take it seriously. And we culminate that in the finale in a really special kind of way. There's that. We decided that if we've got a few episodes left, we wanted to have as much Keith David as we could, so we amped up the physical comedy with him. With Angelique (Cabral)'s character, we decided to have her decide that she wants to be more in the Army than she is now, and to try to jump ranks. And Mike and I had long discussions with the writers about whether we should do something with Pete and Jill, and I always said, “No, that's cheesey!” But then we found a clever way to have our cake and eat it too with those guys. Parker's character may take a shine to Jill for very professional reasons, and that could lead to some brotherly conflict.
You mentioned the story arcs you tried to tell, but the season was aired pretty significantly out of order.
Kevin Biegel: Was it? Was it really? (Laughs) Here's the thing: to FOX's credit, they knew that Friday night is an insanely difficult thing for a first-year comedy. If you just go, “Poof. Here's a brand new comedy on Fridays,” that's tough. So they wanted to go with the four strongest cuts of episodes they had first. Which in theory makes sense. “Randy Get Your Gun” is really funny, even if it's confusing why there's a new guy in the platoon or whatever. The only stuff that really bummed me was when we did the football episode, which was great because it aired before the Super Bowl, but it also aired way out of order, and has Derrick already dating the bartender and knowing about her kid, before we aired the episodes where he met her and found out she was a single mom. Yeah, if I had my druthers, it'd be great to air them in order, and we can do that when it launches on Hulu or Netflix or whatever. My belief is that if fans like the show, they like the show, and you don't have to (mix the episodes up). In a perfect world, they would have done it in order. But they do it with a lot of shows, not just us.
There was also that brief window where they moved your timeslot to 9, and you got to air after an original “Bones,” and your ratings went up significantly. And then “Bones” went back to Monday almost immediately.
Kevin Biegel: Yeah. Here's the facts. They moved us up to 9, and it was so wonderful. Frankly, I think us and “Bones” go together perfectly. Tonally, the shows are very similar. We got a 1.0 (demo rating) that night, which I know doesn't sound like something to brag about, but a lot of comedies now are getting a 1 that are on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But it's never just about your show. There are 20 different shows that are trying to pull together with duct tape and bubble gum, and they needed “Bones” elsewhere. I really wish that we had kept that lead-in from “Bones.” I think it would have been great for the show, and we would have gotten more eyeballs. It's very difficult to have a show without a lead-in. It sounds like I'm complaining, but when your lead-in is repeats or other things that aren't compatible, it doesn't help. I think “New Girl” is feeling that right now with where its ratings are. And that bleeds into the next show. But what are you gonna do? The show was still on. People could find it. I have this crazy belief that people are going to find the show. We didn't make something that's just going to evaporate. It's not a random show set in someone's living room. There are a million of those. We made a show about a very specific and enduring form of work that there hasn't been a lot of shows about lately, and certainly not a lot of comedies, so there's already going to be an audience of people who are curious to check it out just based on the subject, and it seems like they have. That's a nice feeling. We hear from so many people, every single day, who say, “This hits so close to home for me.”
Which puts you in this unusual position, because Nielsen isn't recording viewership on military bases.
Kevin Biegel: And that's hard to talk about without sounding like a whiny Johnson. But here's the fact: you can't have a Nielsen box on a military base. I was talking with Justin Halpern who created “Surviving Jack,” and he remembered that he had a buddy growing in San Diego who moved onto the naval base and had to get rid of his Nielsen box. Nielsen doesn't monitor there. So there's the literally four million strong audience that's probably more inclined to check out a show that's about their lives than other parts of the audience is. We know they're out there, just from the volume of communication we get. We hear things like, “All the guys get together in the dorm and watch the show.” That's a cool feeling hearing that a bunch of guys on a base on a Friday night are watching it. We're trying to do everything we can to show people there's a fanbase out there. The fanbase out there may be small, but they're really vocal and active. And now they're doing things like watching reruns on Hulu together and tweeting about it, and then the show ends up trending on Twitter for a couple of hours, and it's not even on TV at the moment!
If nothing else, you got to produce a half hour of television featuring a man driving a mechanical spider while attacking soldiers with a poo gun.
Kevin Biegel: Can you believe we put that on TV? What the hell's wrong with us? Oh, that's why we're not on the May schedule! That makes sense! “Hey, rich, educated viewers, look what we did!”
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com