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The 13-Show Killing Zone

October 25th, 2009

All too often some really good shows get sacrificed before the altar of the imperfect ratings system before they even get a chance. The original Star Trek is an excellent example of this; even under a more forgiving system 40 years ago, it was canceled after just two seasons; it went for a third season only because of a massive fan protest. When the show closed, a ratings expert told the executives that they had just canceled their best-rated show–back then, they did not pay enough attention to demographics, and did not understand the show’s power with the strongest of purchasing groups. Trek went on to create a television and movie franchise that is still reaping dividends.

But now, shows aren’t allowed to go for even two seasons before they are allowed to survive; we are now in the age of 13-episode semi-seasons–and if a show doesn’t do well right away, it can get axed even before all of those episodes can get on the air. And so, even with demographics, the networks and studios are still making rash, impulsive, even panicked decisions, axing superior shows because the “numbers” told them to. The same old system persists: dreck goes on forever if it can draw a flash crowd, but quality with potential staying power gets trashed because it isn’t given a chance.

Network television today has a severe case of attention deficit disorder. Imagine someone who leaves the theater if they’re not sufficiently entertained in the first ten minutes of a movie; that’s what’s controlling television today.

Dollhouse is an interesting case, partly because of the history preceding it. Joss Whedon had previously debuted in network TV with a show called Firefly. Fox aired the show, although “aired” is a generous term here; it was a half-hearted thing at best. Firefly was one of the best shows many had seen in a long time, and given time (and proper respect by the network), would almost certainly have developed the same success that Trek eventually did. Unfortunately, because it was botched by Fox, it did not find footing in the first few weeks it was on, and so got canceled. It was later given a chance to tie things up with the feature film Serenity, though it was more of an abortive last gasp than anything else.

Whedon continued with Fox to create Dollhouse, which is traveling in a similar direction in some ways: a very good, high-quality show, it did not find a mass audience in its first dozen episodes, and so was slated for cancelation… until Fox apparently found its senses just long enough to allow the show to hang on by its fingernails. It is undoubtedly because this is Whedon, a producer with a string of success in his past, and they realized what a huge mistake they had made with Firefly. But even then, it was a close thing–and may yet fall into the scrap heap.

Look at Pushing Daisies–a fantastic show, funny, well-made, full of promise. Dead. That seemed to be a no-brainer to keep for the long term, but no. It’s as if shows aren’t allowed to gain momentum, and save for the one exception with Dollhouse, no major network has the guts to look at a show, see its potential, and subsidize it long enough to really see what it can do.

One recent show you may not have even heard of was an ABC series called Defying Gravity. Canceled after just 8 shows (the 13th and final episode just aired), it was a straight-up sci-fi show about a future interplanetary space mission. Not very well-publicized, it was further sabotaged by a horrible description–it was characterized as a space mission where the crew was subjected to reality-show-like treatment. The thing is, that was nowhere near the actual plot of the show. Using Lost-style past-and-present synchronized storylines, the show was about the crew training for the mission, and 5 years later going on that mission, taking them to five planets of the solar system, supposedly for exploration and science purposes. As was slowly revealed throughout the season, their purpose was in fact very different–and although a good deal of progress was made in advancing the story, now we’ll never find out what the writers intended, as the show has been axed. But it had good writing, acting, and production quality, and promised to be an excellent show. But ratings weren’t good enough in the first two months for ABC, so screw it.

Four years ago, there were three SF shows that failed in their first year: Threshold, Surface, and Invasion. Invasion kind of deserved to die, but the other two showed tremendous promise. Threshold was sharp, funny, and edgy, and a bit like Fringe is today (thank goodness that one seems to be going OK), and absolutely deserved to keep going. Surface was a bit more goofy, but had a very interesting mythology. What I really liked about the show, however, is that it went where few shows go: taking a story that begins in the present day and the world we know, and then shaking things up. TV shows love to be coy, love to have beneath-the-surface worlds that never get revealed publicly, presumably to allow viewers to imagine that “it could actually be happening.” Me, I love a show that completely changes the game, and shows how the world could change. Surface did that, but was canceled just as the game-changer happened.

It seems that the only place where a potentially good show can make it beyond 13 episodes nowadays is on cable. Some shows there far outlive their potential (Stargate: Atlantis really wasn’t as good as shows like Pushing Daisies, and though it’s not even close to being as good as Defying Gravity, Warehouse 13 is going for a second season), but some shows have much-deserved runs which never would have been possible on network TV. Take, for example, Battlestar Galactica; that’s a definite canceled-in-13-episodes network fiasco, but instead it got a 5-year run and was fantastically popular. One can bet that the SciFi channel made a bundle off of that show.

Babylon 5 is another example, one of the earliest in fact, of a show that lasted on cable way beyond its network survivability; it not only lasted four seasons in its original form, but even got a fifth year on a different network (TNT picked it up). Admittedly, it should have died at the end of year 4, but it was brilliant right up until then. One could even trace this phenomenon back to Star Trek: The Next Generation, which used syndication to survive–a good idea, as the networks would undoubtedly have axed it after its first year.

Maybe another change will come, but in the meantime, be prepared to continue the network ritual of seeing quality come, getting attached to it, and then seeing it stupidly and mercilessly torn down. It’s like reading a really good book and wanting to finish it, but having the publisher snatch it out of your hands after the first five chapters.

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  1. October 25th, 2009 at 23:58 | #1

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Luis about the momentum thing. Firefly could have gone on to be a huge show I feel if it had been given time. What was produced in those 13 episodes was great, and so much missed potential there.

    Dollhouse I have gone back and forth on, but this week’s episode focusing on Sierra was by far the best of the series yet, and it really shows what we could be losing.

    Don’t get me started on Pushing Daisies … I knew it was doomed from day one, I tried not to get attached to it, and I failed. That was a great, great show, and ABC totally squandered it.

  2. buckmom
    October 26th, 2009 at 22:14 | #2

    I so agree with you about Defying Gravity! I enjoyed the show SO much, and think the promotional aspect was completely mishandled. I know a lot of people who were put off by the early comparisons to “Grey’s Anatomy” and the idea that there was any connection to reality TV.

    Episode 13, in particular, left me completely overwhelmed by the implications for the future of mankind. I’m pretty sure I never got that sensation from Grey’s : )

  3. K. Engels
    October 26th, 2009 at 23:38 | #3

    Babylon 5’s fifth season was a stinker because they crammed the entire story into season 4 because they were being canceled. TNT picked up a season 5 too late. JMS had to come up with a new plot arc to there could be a season 5.

    I recently watched NBC’s Kings: The Complete Series (all 12 episodes) on DVD. It was a really, really good modern retelling of the King David story. Just like the science fiction shows you mentioned, it was canceled before the 1st season finale even finished airing. The producers deleted most of the scenes in the finale that created new plot threads for season two. As it was, the finale ends with David in exile, not as King.

  4. Stuart
    October 27th, 2009 at 00:40 | #4

    Most of the story there in season 5 was going to be there. Only the civil war story got shortened. I never understod the hate; because I love the fifth season.

    On the original point, M*A*S*H is another one that did poorly in the first season. You would hope they would learn that great shows can grow from the less watched shows once word gets around, but shows are canceled before people even have a chance to talk about it.

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