The 2014-15 broadcast television season was the year of the failed rom-sitcom. The fall’s first cancellation was Manhattan Love Story, trailed to the chopping block by A To Z; Marry Me folded the following spring. These shows tried and failed to pick up on the romantic-sitcom momentum of How I Met Your Mother, which had wrapped earlier that year, as well as that of New Girl and The Mindy Project, which were entering their respective fourth and third seasons on Fox. And even those shows weren’t completely safe: The Mindy Project was dumped by Fox in May of 2015, and it rebounded with Hulu shortly thereafter.
But three years later, none of these losses stings as much as the cancellation of Selfie, the social-media-fluent Pygmalion story created by Emily Kapnek. ABC cut Selfie’s run short at six episodes, just as it began to pick up creative momentum. Unfortunately, that storyline and character growth had failed to translate into ratings: Selfie’s pilot attracted 5 million viewers with a 1.6 rating among viewers under 50, but quickly dropped to 3 million for the rest of its run, hovering just below the 1.0 mark.
Abysmal ratings failed to supersede what Selfie did have going for it: Namely, palpable chemistry between its two leads, Karen Gillan and John Cho, and a strong supporting cast. The series was steered by seasoned showrunner Kapnek, who had previously created the well-received Suburgatory and As Told By Ginger (as well as the quickly axed Emily’s Reasons Why Not). But even Kapnek could only do so much with an instantly dated, slang-based title that was bound to turn people off from the show from the get-go. “There was nothing we could do about that title and marketing and stuff like that,” writer Brian Rubenstein told The A.V. Club. Rubenstein, who’s currently working with Kapnek on the upcoming Splitting Up Together, pointed to other ABC comedies from that era that were branded with buzzy catchphrases, like Cougar Town and Trophy Wife.
“I was super nervous about that title, and I think a lot of people were, and I think the show got judged by that title,” he said. “I understand why that perception was out there, but I didn’t have any fear about what the show was actually going to be.”
The unappealing title was unfortunately yoked to a rather bumpy pilot. As the show begins, stylish twentysomething pharmaceutical representative Eliza Dooley (Gillan) realizes mid-business trip that her boyfriend is married, resulting in a bizarre vomiting accident—not the most appetizing way to kick off a series. When the vomiting is (blessedly) over, Eliza has been humiliated on social media, and she realizes that while she has zillions of friends on Facebook, she has none in real life. Recognizing that her co-worker Henry Higgs (Cho) is an excellent re-brander, she enlists him to help her on a journey of self-improvement. “It’s possible to be beautiful on the inside and butt on the inside,” he tells her. “Like Gwyneth Patrow,” she immediately agrees.
Fortunately, the show quickly vaulted past Eliza’s toxic obnoxiousness, to create more of a winning character. The charm of Karen Gillan had a lot to do with that, and how well she played off of Cho’s more straitlaced character. The show smartly makes the relationship more even-handed almost immediately: The stuffy, unadventurous Henry has just as much to learn from Eliza as she has from him. As early as the second episode, Henry is encouraging Eliza to avoid booty calls from her rebound work relationship, Freddy (Giacomo Gianniotti, now on Grey’s Anatomy); Eliza in turn helps Henry navigate uncharted waters on Facebook after he accidentally tags himself on an ex-girlfriend’s breastfeeding photo. By episode four, their personal journeys are colliding in hilarious fashion, during a babysitting assignment in which Eliza can show off her developing sense of responsibility and rack up Instagram likes while Henry loosens up the faux dance floor they’ve built with their pre-K charge/DJ. When the two go on a work retreat in episode five, “Even Hell Has Two Bars,” it’s Eliza, whose social skills are able to navigate the situation, helping out Henry’s crippling inhibition. The frequent references to social media like Yelp and Henry’s cautions to “Eat it, don’t tweet it,” help the show sound modern, exploring new sitcom territory. But the story of a man making over a woman only to experience change himself is as classic as the show’s inspiration, My Fair Lady (or going back to that movie’s source material, Pygmalion).
As Eliza and Henry got closer, the show sped up the usual will-they/won’t-they cycle to take advantage of the spark between the two leads. “We had a lot of questions, especially early on, about how we were going to play that,” Rubenstein remembers. “The will-they/won’t-they, it’s hard to come up with a unique take. We wanted to get it out there a little bit sooner. It’s a very delicate dance you have to do, and we tried to make it work the best we can. I know we had a plan for what the next 13 [episodes] was going to be for their story, but I can’t for the life of me think of it right now!” The two never even kissed on the show, but there were enough romantic moments between them—like Henry riding up to Eliza on a white horse at the work retreat—to be absolutely swoon-worthy.
Selfie not only had Eliza and Henry’s relationship as the heart of the show, but a supporting cast that played an increasingly larger role as the first season wore on. “In [Kapnek’s] mind, it would transform into an office comedy,” Rubenstein said. “It wasn’t going to be Henry giving Eliza a life lesson every week. Because we had these great actors, we had a lot to work with.” For example, David Harewood as Sam Saperstein, Eliza and Henry’s benevolent, but uncomfortably emotionally open, boss. “When I went to the table read for the pilot, I just knew David Harewood from Homeland,” Rubenstein said. “And he just blew the room out, he was so funny.”
Saperstein loved to stress the importance of turning his employees into a work family. Veep and Childrens Hospital star Brian Huskey played Henry’s hapless co-worker Larry, who winds up on Henry’s couch after a fight with his wife. Da’Vine Joy Randolph, as office assistant Charmonique, had a savvy self-assuredness that stood out in comparison to Eliza’s insecurities, not to mention an adorable 9-year-old son (Keith L. Williams) who sounded just like Eddie Murphy when he cried. Even Freaks And Geeks’ Samm Levine showed up as Saperstein’s newlywed son-in-law. And Eliza’s adorkable neighbor Bryn (Allyn Rachel) and her friends constituted a send-up of Selfie competitor New Girl.
In a scene that ran just before the cancellation announcement—during the Rubenstein-penned sixth episode, “Never Block Cookies”—Eliza goes over to Henry’s house and confronts him. They wind up having an intimate moment where he grabs her around the waist, leading to an almost-kiss that’s one of the most smoldering moments in sitcom history. Rubenstein remembers that moment in particular: “Emily came down and was sort of orchestrating how that whole thing would go. Just the chemistry between those two was really cool to watch; it felt that way on set.”
Unfortunately, just as Eliza and Henry were reaching their breakthrough, ABC canceled the show. Rubenstein called the experience “the most depressed I’ve ever been over a show. We were absolutely crushed. I’ve been on several shows that got canceled, but this was the most depressing atmosphere. We were all so close and knew we were doing something cool with the show; we were so bummed out over the missed opportunity, not getting to do more.”
The news was followed by a popular #SaveSelfie hashtag and an online petition that received 65,000 online signatures. Critics protested the loss of “the most promising interracial couple on TV.” But those basement ratings doomed the show, so any protests constituted a too-little, too-late response, and the final primetime episode of Selfie aired on November 11, 2014. A few weeks later, the series’ remaining six episodes were available for streaming on ABC.com.
“We got some not-that-great reviews, and people were down on the title or whatever,” Rubenstein said. “And then boom, it got canceled, and people were like, ‘Wait wait wait! The show’s really good actually,’ and it’s like, ‘Oh, no! It’s too late!’ We did feel that outpouring when it got canceled, and we were like, ‘Dammit, where was this earlier?’ [Laughs.] So it was awesome to see, but it was also bittersweet because the show was gone.”
Those final six episodes are well worth seeking out online, especially for Henry and Eliza ’shippers. In episode nine, “Follow Through,” Eliza realizes that she has feelings for Henry and reveals herself to him in an elevator, but he’s not yet at the same place she is, and stammeringly rejects her. That’s followed by “Imperfect Harmony,” in which all the now-familiar characters step up to the karaoke stage in a Saperstein-enforced mandate. Rejected Freddy sobs his way through “Maneater,” and Eliza ends up pouring her heart out in a kickass performance of Sia’s “Chandelier.” Even better, Saperstein walks Henry through a cathartic performance of Cat Stevens’ “Wild World,” an apt ode to his protective feelings for Eliza. The series wraps up for good a few episodes later, not with Henry and Eliza getting together, but with the knowledge that next time, Henry will be ready. And Eliza finally begins to realize her true value beneath all of her surface polish. All considering, it’s as tied-up a package as fans could have hoped for.
It’s extremely difficult for a comedy to hit its stride immediately. Unsurprisingly, the first cancellation of the current TV season, CBS’ Me, Myself And I, is also a sitcom. “You need time to figure out the show, and come together and fully realize what it is,” Rubenstein said. “It’s very rare that a comedy is just roaring out of the gate. You need to give things time to find the voice. I can’t speak to the business side of things recovering or ratings growing or whatever that is, but it does suck that we are on such a short leash—and we all do feel it, but at the same time there’s nothing we can do about it.” It’s a system that results in a network being quick to toss a show and go back to the drawing board instead of giving a still-fledgling show a chance to work out its kinks.
“That’s what we couldn’t understand,” stresses Rubenstein. “You have John Cho and Karen here. If anyone came in and pitched you these two, you would greenlight it immediately. And you have them now. So let’s let this play out a little. But unfortunately, that didn’t cross their minds.”
Life moves on in the TV world and elsewhere, so three years later, we find not only Kapnek working on a new sitcom, but Gillan ensconced in a blockbuster film franchise (Guardians Of The Galaxy) and about to hit the big screen again in Jumanji this December with current box-office catnip The Rock. Cho is still the Sulu of Star Trek’s big-screen “Kelvin timeline,” and has moved on to an entirely different kind of show: Fox’s The Exorcist. Rubenstein reports that every writer from that writers’ room “has gone on to do awesome stuff.”
And Selfie has taken on a bit of a life of its own, thanks to the current streaming TV climate. All of the show’s 13 episodes are available on Hulu, constituting an enjoyable rom-sitcom package in only a few hours of viewing time. And people are still coming around to it.
“Maybe, like, six months ago, the show kept coming up, and I couldn’t figure out why,” Rubenstein said. “And I went in to work, and this writer’s assistant was like, ‘You wrote on Selfie?’ and she just peppered me with a million questions. And I was like, ‘Why is this coming up now?’ And she’s like, ‘It’s on Hulu’s front page!’ So that’s really cool that it can live on in that way.”
“It’s also depressing,” Rubenstein added with a laugh—and it is. Three years later, Selfie still stands as an egregious example of a promising show that got canceled just as it was beginning to get great. It definitely deserved more than the brief chance that it got.
One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? A wonder of a missed opportunity.