Steampunk Fortnight

ABC Cancels The Cleveland Steamers

ABC finally pulled the plug on the limping Drew Carey vehicle The Cleveland Steamers after a six-season run. Initially a mid-season replacement, it was Carey’s follow-up after the long-expected cancellation of The Drew Carey Show earlier in the year. The Cleveland Steamers reunited Carey with long-time collaborator Ryan Stiles and a multi-ethnic cast that won them an NAACP Image Award and the first cast album a Latin Grammy.

Carey and writer Bruce Helford had been kicking around the idea to put together a sitcom to take advantage of the massive upswing in interest in steampunk following the box office smash hit Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the highly-rated return of The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. to Fox in fall of 2003. Carey, whose pay-per-view improv spectacular Fart Jokes for the Hearing Impaired had just set ratings records, busily searched for a cast to populate an alternate Cleveland airship factory. The concept was inspired by a skit that Carey and Helford had written for, but rejected by, Saturday Night Live when Carey hosted in 2003.

Carey had been wanting to work with English comedian Tony Slattery, who had worked with Stiles on the English version of Whose Line is it Anyway?, so Slattery was plugged in as Drew’s best friend from elementary school, Clark, who went off to London for schooling, returning as the manager of the Cleveland Airship Factory. Slattery was convinced to come to America, and recommended Richard O’Brien, best known for starring in and writing The Rocky Horror Picture Show, to play Neal Coxswainheadon, the owner of the Airship company who is always on the lookout for a new moneymaking scheme. Carey, Helford, Stiles, O’Brien and Slattery were all involved in the writing of the initial pilot script, which was completed in early September, 2004.

Carey felt he needed strong female characters to round out the cast, so he brought in Gina Torres, best known for playing Zoe in Firefly and Serenity. She was cast as Alicia Benzal, the gritty main-welder who was the unobtainable love interest for the underling accountant played by Carey. Torres has said she was apprehensive about being the only non-comedian in a team of sitcom regulars until “… the check cleared.”

Carey then brought in Amrita Arora to read for a part, after seeing her in Awara Paagal Deewana on a flight back from London. Arora, still stinging from the failure of her lesbian-themed Bollywood romance film Girlfriends, took the role of Mira Madhubala, the head of Airship Stewardess training. She was singled out as the breakthrough actor of the group and received a great deal of attention from the media because of it. A spread in Maxim and a feature in Rolling Stone all painted her as the major star coming out of the series. Her casting also paved the way for other Indian actors to appear, most notably Lisa Ray, Aishwarya Rai, and Amitabh Bachchan, who won an Emmy for guesting as Mira’s poetry-spouting father, Doug Madhubala.

The core group of the series required at least one final member, and with the pilot was scheduled to shoot in mid-October, the casting team was frantically diving through headshots and auditions. The solution came via a tape of a Danish actor that was somehow misdirected to Mohawk Productions. Henning Moritzen was known as a serious Danish actor and had starred as the father who molests his children in the first Dogme film, Festen. Casting directors loved his reel, entirely in Danish, and made contact with his agent. Carey and company rewrote the script to have Moritzen play Marx, at first a silent “wing man” who eventually becomes less enigmatic and starts to join Carey and the cast on their weekly adventures. Moritzen was shocked by the offer, but instantly accepted, as it was a chance to work in the U.S.

The use of foreign actors led to many complications settling immigration matters, especially for Moritzen, whose deal was solidified only days before shooting was to begin.

The pilot was shot between October 10th and 15th and delivered to ABC on November 1st. On November 17th, the announcement was made that the show would be debuting on January 27th, 2005. The team had already begun shooting in anticipation of a thirteen-episode order. Filming was intense, as all of the participants had film projects they wanted to pursue. Typical weeks would see them shoot two episodes in six days, with table readings and costume and prop checks on Mondays and Thursday, followed by rehearsals on Tuesdays and Fridays and shooting on Fridays. The schedule was incredibly ambitious, though Arora was used to the hectic filming schedules of Bollywood and viewed it more like a vacation from difficult shooting.

The visual style of the show added more problems. Brass, wood, and leatherworkers would often work hundred-hour weeks preparing sets and costumes, which made the episdodes very expensive. ABC also had serious reservations about the program, leading them to hold payment for episodes until after they had aired, but also including a bonus that closely tied payment rates to ratings.

The network gave a fairly strong push to the program, running a number of different ad campaigns. The team knew they could market it on steampunk alone, and the debut had many executives sweating. Debuting on Thursday night was certain to help.

They had no idea.

The Cleveland Steamers debuted as the winner of the night with more than twenty-five million viewers and a thirty percent share of the viewing audience. The ratings did drop significantly for the second episode, but for the first seven episodes they never pulled less than nineteen million viewers. This was the highest debut for any show of the season, and led to a huge following on the internet calling themselves “Clevelanders.” In early April, it was announced that ABC had ordered a full twenty-five episode season of The Cleveland Steamers for the 2005-2006 season. The ratings actually improved as the season went on, and it ended up as the season’s fifth-highest rated program.

Reviews of the early episodes were largely middling, with many pointing out how it was simply “The Drew Carey Show decked out in leather.” While the quality of the casting was widely praised, as well as the art direction and set design, many complained about the scripts being tired, rehashed sitcom fare that would have seemed hackneyed to the writers of Home Improvement back in 1995. Sticking to the three-camera format didn’t help matters, either. The episodes with musical numbers, as well as the LIVE STEAM editions that would become annual events, were highly regarded. Improv comedian Wayne Brady, an occasional drop-in character, served as the host for the LIVE STEAM episodes, which earned him an Emmy nomination for Best Guest Appearance.

The second season maintained the frantic filming schedule, but it also saw the rise of ratings to where it frequently challenged American Idol for the top spot in the weekly ratings. The first season received a number of Emmys, including one for writing, a technical Emmy for set design, and Best Actress for Arora. The second season featured a number of additions to the cast, including Joel McHale as Drew’s absurdly attractive cousin Lucien.

The third season saw the loss of Torres to her own CBS drama. Michelle Rodriguez, who had recently been fired from ABC’s LOST, took on the character, leading to many odd jokes about how her appearance had changed and wondering if she’d gotten a new haircut. The change was not particularly well received, and the rating showed a slight decline. The addition of Stacy Ferguson from the Black Eyed Peas as the new love interest for Drew picked up viewership for May sweeps, but the show finished just out of the top ten for the season.

The fourth season was delayed due to Arora and O’Brien needing to complete outside projects. The debut, in late October, let more than twenty-three million viewers see the completion of the Fergie/Carey romance. As the season wore on, the ratings were down to less than twelve million for the second-to-last episode of the season. The finale was perhaps the only bright spot, featuring then white-hot singer Amy Winehouse playing O’Brien’s daughter, drawing more than sixteen million viewers.

Critical voices were now actively hounding ABC to cancel the series, though there were still legions of dedicated fans of the show who made the DVD releases of each season top-sellers. The third season of The Cleveland Steamers is currently the top-selling season of any television program ever. ABC executives did cut the budget for the program, which led to Carey and others taking marked pay-cuts.

The fifth season showed that there would be no saving The Cleveland Steamers. The show lost Moritzen, Arora, and Slattery, though producers quickly enlisted Rutger Hauer, Ayesha Takia, and Stephen Fry to play the roles they had vacated. This led to a steep decline in viewership. The ratings dropped so low that the show that had once come close to toppling American Idol was now regularly beaten by reruns of Psych on USA Network. Oddly, the writing on the sixth season of the show was highly praised, and many Clevelanders consider the sixth-season LIVE STEAM episode to be the finest the show ever produced. A running gag of having the sexy Takia show up with a soaked white blouse every episode was also seen as a good gimmick. Hauer’s portrayal of Marx was much more like the first season than Moritzen’s take on the character in later years. Despite the quality of his performance, Hauer was known on-set as .15, referring to his suspected blood alcohol level while filming what he considered to be a terrible television series.

Despite expectations, the series not only survived the season, but also was picked up for seven episodes the following season. This decision was a shock, and to some an unpleasant one. Fry, who had been vocal in his displeasure of having to be in a “stupid piece of American bafoonery,” left the show, only to be replaced by Richard O’Brien, who was playing both Neal and Clark simultaneously. Takia was replaced by Sofia Vergara in a move which was played to great comedic effect, but was considered at least a little bit racist as the character remained Indian despite being played by a Colombian. Surprisingly, Ryan Stiles also left, but instead of being replaced by another actor playing the role, he simply never appeared on-screen from that point on, though he was always referred to as being present, and was heard on phone calls or yelling from off-screen. The seven episodes were completed by the middle of July, and the entire cast began working on other projects. ABC sent out the season’s episodes to critics, who gave it high marks, especially the episode called “Dropping a Log” where the tree which had served as the symbol of the company had to be cut down. The reviews were very strong, but ratings for the previous season’s re-runs were in the .83 range and ABC decided to pull the plug.

ABC has announced they’ll be showing the first six episodes on a single Thursday in early September and the cast and crew have assembled to shoot another ninety minute episode to wrap up the series. Former cast members Arora, Takia, Slattery, and Ferguson all agreed to come back, with some characters being played by multiple actors without explanation of the changes. Guest stars Lady Gaga, Troy Aikman, and the entire 2010 cast of Dancing With The Stars are featured as guests in a story that deals with the dismantling of the Airship factory and Drew and Mira establishing Trans-Sub-Continental Airships in India. The finale is being shot partly in Mumbai, with Carey, Mira???, and Alicia??? finally settling their long-running love triangle, which is complicated by the return of Fergie and the addition of Gaga to the mix.

While steampunk remains sweaty-hot, the cancellation of The Cleveland Steamers will leave only seven shows on network TV dedicated to Steampunk, with only one, The Parasol Protectorate appearing in the top ten. The Clevelanders have started an on-line movement for a Cleveland Steamers movie, though few believe that it’s in the cards after the expected finality of the last episode.

“I don’t think we’ll be able to find a way to crowbar a movie in,” said Carey in a recent Entertainment Weekly interview, “but for the right number of zeroes, I’d be willing to try.”


Chris Garcia is a filmmaker, computer historian and Hugo-nominated fan writer. He is the co-editor of The Drink Tank (with James Bacon), Exhibition Hall (with James Bacon and Ariane Wolfe), Journey Planet (with James Bacon and Claire Brialey), all available at eFanzines.com, and the up-coming film journal Klaus at Gunpoint. He Twitters as Johnnyeponymous.

Image border courtesy of From Old Books

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