The Walker clan may not be headed off into the Pasadena sunset so quickly: ABC has just boosted its commitment to Brothers & Sisters, the Sunday staple many industry insiders had figured was in its final year. The death-watch rumors stemmed from ABC’s decision last May to order only eighteen episodes of the Sally Field family tearjerker for this season. The thinking was that the network would wrap up the show in late winter, then, come spring, use the plum post–Desperate Housewives slot to debut Off the Map, the third installment in the Lord of the (Shonda) Rhimes medical trilogy. But today, ABC confirmed it was buying four more Brothers & Sisters scripts, which is usually just a formality before green-lighting production of actual episodes. So does this mean the show will be back next fall after all?
Well, maybe. In the short term, the extra love for Brothers & Sisters is mostly just a symptom of how poorly ABC’s fall newcomers have been doing. The network today also ordered four more scripts for freshman drama No Ordinary Family (which, like Brothers & Sisters, boasts Greg Berlanti as exec producer). But it’s hardly a hit, while other first-year ABC shows are either struggling (Detroit 1-8-7, Better With You), near death (The Whole Truth), or already canceled (My Generation). Brothers & Sisters may not be a Sunday blockbuster, but it’s a rock-solid performer at a time when ABC needs as many steady hands on deck as it can find. Having another month of episodes on hand next spring is just smart planning, given that this fall didn’t produce a bumper crop of new hits. As one industry insider told Vulture this afternoon, “I’m not sure if ABC can afford to give up on Brothers & Sisters for next year, as had been the plan.”
Still, there’s a big difference between keeping a show alive a little longer and moving forward with a whole new season next fall. One reason Brothers & Sisters has been on the endangered series list is because of its hefty price tag (relative to its modest ratings). Paying top dollar to land Sally Field, Calista Flockhart, and the hot-off-of–Six Feet Under Rachel Griffiths certainly helped the show get off the ground back in 2006, as did adding in the not-cheap Rob Lowe. But five seasons in, the high-priced cast is as much a liability as an asset (and one reason why ABC brass didn’t complain too loudly when Rob Lowe chose to leave last season). If a few of ABC’s mid-season shows (including Off the Map) take off, Brothers & Sisters may yet be on the bubble again come next May. Given how much the Walkers love drama and last-minute twists, such uncertainty seems highly appropriate.