NEW YORK (AP) — After nearly two years off the air and in limbo "The Game" has returned to TV, giving BET a big ratings boost and fans another chance to share the highs and lows of a football wife and her athlete husband.
The show premiered its fourth season Tuesday night on BET after a three season run on the CW that was canceled in 2009. "The Game" set a ratings record for BET, which said 7.7 million viewers tuned in, making it the No. 1 original telecast on the network, and No. 2 of all-time, behind the 2009 BET Awards, which had 10.2 million viewers and took place three days after the death of Michael Jackson.
"We're coming out hitting hard," said executive producer Salim Akil. "We really hope it opens BET up to more voices, to more people being able to come in and pitch shows and have a variety of different scripted shows on the network."
"BET has been absolutely top-notch in the way that they've been handling this, from allowing us to be creatively free ... to the advertising to now having the cast at TCA," continued Akil, referring to the recent Television Critics Association gathering in Pasadena, Calif. "All of the things that we didn't get over there at CW, we're getting at BET."
While BET hasn't announced a fifth season, "The Game" is helping the network change its image. The show is the first scripted series for BET, which also premiered its own original show, "Let's Stay Together," right after "The Game" Tuesday night; 4.4 million viewers tuned in to watch "Together," which airs at 10:30 p.m./9:30 p.m. Eastern.
Coby Bell, who stars as football star-turned-sports broadcaster Jason Pitts on "The Game," says BET is taking on a new and positive direction.
"This is the beginning of a change," he said. "We're going to be the first (step)."
Along with the Queen Latifah-produced "Let's Stay Together" and "The Game," BET is also putting together a show called "Reed Between the Lines," starring Tracee Ellis Ross ("Girlfriends").
When the CW canceled "The Game" in 2009, no other network showed interest in picking up the show. Akil said it was even tough booking meetings to pitch the series.
"When there wasn't maybe a couple of calls (returned) at least for a meeting, I was sort of surprised," he said.
His wife, Mara Brock Akil, is the show's creator and co-executive producer (along with Kelsey Grammer); she also executive produced "Girlfriends" with Grammer and is a consulting producer on ABC's "Cougartown." After "The Game" was canceled, she returned to the CW to present an hourlong version of "The Game" and once it was clear that the network was still uninterested, the Akils — as well as the show's cast — thought the game was over.
"I'm usually extremely optimistic," said Tia Mowry, who stars as Melanie Barnett-Davis, a medical school graduate and wife of football star Derwin Davis (Pooch Hall). "I had to let it go. I was like, 'Melanie has died.'"
The new season of "The Game" picks up two years after it ended. The relationship for newlyweds Melanie and Derwin is still rocky since Derwin recently had a child with another woman. Malik Wright (Hosea Chanchez) is second string to Derwin, who is now the San Diego Sabers franchise player. Tasha Mack (Wendy Raquel Robinson), Malik's mother and former manager, is guiding Derwin's career. And Kelly (Brittany Daniel) is still separated from Pitts and has her own reality series called "Ex-Baller's Wife."
"We offer the fans real-life stories that they can relate to," Hall said.
The show's resurrection is mainly due to those fans, who long waited for the show's return, watching reruns on BET and petitioning online.
"It's so crazy how these fans are so embedded and ... attached to these story lines," Mowry said. "They actually think Melanie and Derwin are real."
The show moved its location from Los Angeles to Atlanta, shooting the new season's 13 episodes in a "guerrilla" style.
"No rehearsals, no run-throughs," Chanchez explained. "You had to really trust your director, writers and fellow actors."
But trusting one another was easy for the cast members. During the show's hiatus, they all kept in touch: The women had spa days and Chanchez even spent Christmas and New Year holidays at Robinson's home.
"We kept in touch and I think that's an important factor to why the show came back," Mowry said. "We all would go out, hang out, eat and just chill."
Though the cast is celebrating now, Mowry said they still remember the show's more challenging times when cancellation loomed like a storm cloud over the CW set.
"People always came to me, they were asking me questions ... 'Tia, what do you think?'" Mowry said, recalling the cancellation whispers. "I'm like, 'Dude, we're wearing the same clothes on every episode and they've cut our production costs.' I just knew it (was over)."
But the show's producers and the cast say the return is more than just another paycheck. They say it's to show the world that there needs to be a greater minority presence on television.
"As a person and a viewer in any art form, you want to see yourself represented," Akil said.