Friday, February 10, 2006

Arrested Development sees the writing on the wall

Tonight marked the "season" finale of "Arrested Development", arguably one of the best shows on television. The show has struggled in ratings during its three seasons, and it looks like there is no future for it. I know many people that watch it and adore it, and I've had some great conversations on how well-written it is, let alone the clever and unique quality of humor in the writing. This is a brilliant and hilarious comedy, pushing (yet having a lot of fun with) the boundaries of what characters can say on primetime television.

It never found its audience, though.... at least not the huge audience Fox had hoped for it. Fox seemed rather squeamish about giving the show a third season to begin with, and this squeamishness turned into a harbinger of death after they slashed its episode order from 22 to 13 in mid-production. Fox didn't exactly try to bolster the ratings, lining up the final four episodes to be played in a row (best to get it all over with at once so it doesn't take up any more space on the schedule, right guys?).... even worse, they played it on a Friday night (a.k.a. ratings graveyard) and against the opening ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Olympics. Real tactful.

It doesn't take much to get me on my soap box about how the best television programming is cut short in the most unceremonious of ways. Once a network decides that the show is over, all support is lost. They shuttle the show around the schedule so that it's impossible to know when it's on. The television awards circuit (a disgusting power play of popularity-contest campaigning only, just a dusty step below the high-glam Oscars) failed to even mention "Arrested Development" this year for much of anything, opting for recycled "Everybody Loves Raymond" tread and genuine overrated crap like "Desperate Housewives" to both sweep happily to the podium for whatever they were up for, again. I tend to think that the reason why a lot of quality television programs are short-lived is because the viewing public isn't smart enough and/or too fickle to follow along and commit. Hence the vapid sitcoms (where does one even start the examples to list?) and unchallenging episodic drama fare (is it just me, or are the relentless spin-offs of "Law & Order"and "CSI" starting to get ridiculous? In five years when we have "Law & Order: Meter Maids" and "CSI: Toledo", I don't want to have to say I told you so).

Like I said before, I know lots of people who watch "Arrested Development" and that it has a very dedicated fan base. Besides that, it's got string critical support across the board. So, is this enough to save a show? How many letters must it take, how many online petitions must one sign? Unfortunately, I don't think that will work. A show rising from the dead is not totally unheard of, though. "Cagney & Lacey" came to being as a mid-season pickup; it was sentenced to death row in the spring of 1983, about half-way through its second season. The show had strong critical support but brought in low rating, which was reason enough for CBS to cancel it, and they did. Despite the low ratings, the show had attracted quite a dedicated viewer base. They had also picked up a handful of Emmy nominations that year (including a win for Tyne Daly) with the writing already on the wall. Thanks to a relentless letter-writing campaign from the loyal viewers and the support of the show's producers, it persuaded the right people at CBS to give it another try. "Cagney & Lacey" came back to life with a seven-episode third season in the spring of 1984. The show remained on the air until 1988 with a total of seven seasons, and spawned at least four made-for-TV movies since then.

Grassroots campaigns by passionate viewers don't always work, though, and I'm afraid "Cagney & Lacey" may be the lone exception. "Once and Again", a family drama in all the best ways and by far some of the highest quality television ever made, was placed on the chopping block by ABC in its third season in 2002. The same old hallmarks reared their ugly heads: shortened episode order, a tour of obscure openings on the primetime schedule, and a disappearance of awards support (miraculously scraping only one Emmy nomination from its third season, and Susanna Thompson brutally robbed of a supporting actress nomination, passed over in favor of Tyne Daly, coincidentally, and a wheelbarrow-ful of un-surprising "The West Wing" contestants). Fans of the show (myself included) began a campaign to save it from cancellation. We raised enough money to take out three different ads in The Hollywood Reporter (I think one in Variety, too) to point out to those in Hollywood who read them that this show was worth saving. In fact, with ABC trying to tout its desire to produce quality family television (and recovering from the fatal overkill of placing hour-long blocks of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in primetime four days a week), the ads that appeared appealed to their wishes. They didn't budge; it was still being canceled. In a final desperate attempt (and with a surge in hardcore fan financing), a billboard was put up across the street from the ABC offices in Los Angeles pleading to give "Once and Again" a longer life. No such luck, and today all we have are the first two seasons on DVD.

The last glimmer of hope for "Arrested Development" lies in the reported interest of ABC and Showtime wanting to pick it up. ABC will give it one 13-episode season, but Showtime will give it two. There's no word about what will happen though, because Fox hasn't officially canceled the show, so no deals can be made just yet. All this is Hollywood gossip that you can find for yourself, but I'm crossing my fingers that some of this hope will come to fruition. Is it so much to ask that quality television stay on the air simply because it's quality? Of course, because like all enterprises, the networks must make money, and money and high ratings go hand in hand. How exactly Fox is making money on embarrassingly dismal drek like "The War at Home", though, I'm not sure of.


J.J. Gittes said...

Who are you, Judge Reinhold?

is that so wrong? said...

"My name is Judge."