Thursday, May 17, 2007

Serial (TV) Killers or "How I Learned to Start Worrying and Love the Jericho Bomb"...

I'm actually typing this while watching the last episode of Jericho. I don't mean the last episode of the season (although it is that) I mean the last episode period. CBS announced it's fall schedule this week and Jericho was nowhere to be found. It joins Andy Barker, Drive, and Studio 60 on the scrap heap of shows I actually liked that won't be around next year. 60 and Barker hurt because they were such great shows, but Drive and now Jericho hurt even worse because they were both "serialized" dramas. A show that makes a promise that the story is going somewhere if you will just stay with it (now, who was supposed to stay with whom again?) Anyhow, since the success of LOST the networks have been throwing more and more of these shows against the wall to see what sticks, and having little success. Quick, name a serialized drama that lasted more than one season. FOX's "Prison Break" is the only one and it has morphed more into a basic drama than the quirky, puzzle solving, progressive plot of the first season.

Of course, it's not like this is the first time this has happened to me. Last season, I found myself fully engrossed in "Invasion" and "Reunion" before they fulfilled the "only the good die young" cliche. Reunion was a particularly brilliant idea where each episode progressed from year to year as a group of graduates looked to solve the murder of one of there core high school group. The problem is we only got from 1986 to 1994 (2006 was the eventual destination) before the network gave up, leaving the murder unsolved. And this is the crux of the issue, closure. With Jericho now cancelled, we have no idea whose was behind the attacks, or if the US will recover, or ... well, you get the point. It's a complete tease. It's the worst kind of customer service. And it does nothing more than make it harder for the next show to survive.

Think of it this way. The networks are training us that the consequence for watching a new show is pain and lack of resolution, therefore less and less of us are willing to invest in new shows each season. We figure we will watch the ratings, and just buy the DVDs if the show is successful. Then, of course, the dreaded circle of cancellation is complete when the networks pull the plug because no one is watching.

Can anything be done? I say yes. Since I'm never one to complain without offering a solution (OK, fine, I'm usually one to complain and not offer a solution, but today, a new leaf) here are my three suggestions in making a serialized drama work on network TV:

1) Go with a mini series - If you have a great idea and it can be worked in less than 8 hours of programming (with possible expansion after) create a four week event (in sweeps of course) where the show will air in it's entirety. Sci-Fi's "The Lost Room" was a perfect example of this. It was an amazing show, that could have easily been a weekly, but they knew it needed resolution so they made it into a 6 hour mini series. They now have the option to do another "season" if they feel like the ratings/DVD sales make sense (or more importantly cents). As a viewer I'm completely satisfied no matter which way they go.

2) Go with DVD - Believe the show is good enough? How about releasing the entire first season on DVD before airing a single episode. This would require a complete shift in production schedule, but would give your viewers the good faith of knowing that at least the first season is already finished. You could build afan-base off of the discs and having them on the shelf as the season airs gives viewers an opportunity to pick it up mid-season if they are getting impatient, either way you win.

3) Go with the Internet - Not sure if the idea will work for a series? Create a scaled down intro series and release it online as a free video podcast. Make sure it lays out the foundation of what will give the eventual show it's oomph, but run it as long as it takes to see if the idea will catch on. That way you aren't out too much of an investment if it doesn't and you haven't sold out your viewer by letting it gomid-season.

Believe me, I'm not naive enough to think the networks owe it to me to keep a show that no one else is watching on the air. But I do think they owe it to us to plan enough ahead to make sure resolution is possible if it happens. The point is, Mr. Network dude, if you keeping dropping bombs on us eventually we will all disappear, and the TV landscape will be as barren and desolate as the world of Jericho itself. Or maybe it already is, and I'm the last remaining survivor.

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