When great shows die (and weak ones linger)

22Nov08

The news came down today: Pushing Daisies is no more. Or at least we’ll be burning through a few episodes until the end. We knew this was coming. In fact, when I first watched the show, I was convinced that it was too quirky, too idiosyncratic, too… downright beautiful for network TV. I was happily stunned by the strong ratings it got last fall. While I certainly don’t underestimate the abilities of television audiences to appreciate great TV, I doubted that the biases of the Nielsen ratings would mesh well with the visual splendor and whimsical tone of Pushing Daisies, which is so well suited for DVD (or even better, Blu-ray). It looked and felt so unique, and those types of shows typically take a while to take hold.

But instead, it started strong, dwindling a bit throughout the fall but still maintaining a healthy viewership. And then the writer’s strike hit, grounding the series in the midst of a cliff-hanger. David Bianculli nicely recaps how ABC mismanaged the show post-strike, putting it on hiatus until the fall, then underpromoting it. What he doesn’t note is the two reasons why ABC is loathe to give the series the nuturing and patience it needs (and that other classic series that took years to grow into hits received). First, it’s an expensive series to produce – they put all the money on the screen, as arguably the best production design in the history of television costs a lot.

More importantly, the show is produced by Warner Bros. not Disney – in today’s age of common-ownership, a series produced by a competing company (which accounts for around 1/4 of network prime-time) is operating at a handicap. ABC doesn’t benefit from the show’s DVD sales, its potential future in syndication, any tie-ins or licensing opportunities (wouldn’t you buy a Pie Hole cookbook? Or Li’l Gumshoe?), or the basic cost savings involved in sharing production and distribution under a common corporate umbrella. The show’s ratings more or less match its timeslot competitor Knight Rider, but NBC/Universal both produces and airs that series, making it more likely to be given more chances.

I’ve written before about trying to think of a series ending less as a failure than a conclusion, about Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars. After all, we will have a good 22 episodes of Pushing Daisies, which is a vast amount of screen time compared to any film and most series in the U.K. But it’s somehow more painful for a show that lingered just enough to get you hooked, but not long enough to feel that it finished anything that it started. Creator Bryan Fuller says he’ll try to get Pushing Daisies to continue its story via comics or film – if Barry Sonnenfeld has any remaining pull in Hollywood, he’ll need to use it!

Fuller has also said that he may return to Heroes, where he wrote during the first season. This disappoints me, not because I want to see Fuller unemployed, but I really want Heroes to fail, going down as one of television’s great trainwrecks. After the mess of last year, season 3 of Heroes seems to be getting downright catastrophic – both in its declining quality (which, I’ll admit, I can’t judge directly as I stopped watching after the first episode this fall, but the buzz online is bad) and its behind-the-scenes turmoil. After firing two main writers, creator Tim Kring has been spouting off again, proving that he doesn’t get how fans watch TV:

“[Serialization] is a very flawed way of telling stories on network television right now, because of the advent of the DVR and online streaming. The engine that drove [serialized TV] was you had to be in front of the TV [when it aired]. Now you can watch it when you want, where you want, how you want to watch it, and almost all of those ways are superior to watching it on air. So [watching it] on air is related to the saps and the dipshits who can’t figure out how to watch it in a superior way.”

I won’t pile on, given other TV critics have done an excellent job pointing out how patently ridiculous this claim is, and how it points to a deep misunderstanding of both seriality and viewership. But I have a history with both Heroes and Kring, and thus I can’t leave it be – after posting a harsh condemnation of the show and Kring’s previous dumb statements, I posted a revised appreciation for the some of the issues the show was juggling, inspired by meeting Jesse Alexander, one of the now-fired Heroes writers. Tim Kring himself commented on my blog, highlighting how the show aims to please a vast array of viewers, from chocolate to vanilla (a cliché he repeats in the interview above, a bit after calling viewers saps and dipshits).

But now it’s clear that he has no commitment to serial pleasures, as his presentation made clear that he would rather be writing an episodic series, or at least one with smaller unrelated arcs & a flood of new characters. It seems that his true investment is in the new age drivel spouted by Suresh, the process of discovering super powers and figuring out what it all means to humanity. In praising origin stories, he said, “Once the original story is over, and the character has no more questions about what’s happening or existential drama, then the questions become just about plot, and then it becomes harder for me personally to connect to.” Clearly the problem with writing a show about people with super powers is that you have to provide that annoying “plot” and then the audience expects the characters to actually use their powers!

So the bottom line: Heroes doesn’t deserve Bryan Fuller. I hope Fuller, Alexander, and other Heroes castoffs band together to do something worthy of their talents. And I hope whatever network airs it gives it more of a chance to thrive than Pushing Daisies.



5 Responses to “When great shows die (and weak ones linger)”

  1. While this doesn’t change your key point, when I was at the Disney Media Summit, someone asked about their shows that weren’t owned by them, and they insisted that contracts are actually quite intricate, giving Disney a cut of quite a lot of platforms even for shows that they didn’t own themselves. But they stressed that this is determined on a one-by-one, show-by-show basis. The question actually used Pushing Daisies as the example, though, and my reading of the Disney answer was that they do indeed make money from the other platforms. They also pointed out that owned-and-operated affiliates are still a key source of revenue for the networks, and argued that for this reason, they’re less afterlife-platform-obsessed than writers are, since Disney still makes a big bulk of its money from the original broadcast.

    As I said, that doesn’t change the fact that they can still make more money if it is theirs. I guess where I’m going here, though, is ABC is still a bunch of turds for canceling this wonderful show. Not just business people following what makes sense, but turds😉

  2. 2 LTorchin

    Thanks for this. I didn’t know Kring was such a d***, and a misguided one at that. Poniewozik is correct in his statement that alternative platforms have been a boon for serials. (Had it not been for DVD releases of first seasons, there are numerous programmes I may not have watched).

    I considered television to be a character driven medium. While having some plot to move things along helps prevent stagnation or broader audience outcry, I have found most people open to shows that enable the smaller moments, mundane or unusual, that reveal more about a character. To this end, Mad Men is a suitable example. I’d even argue for Lost as doing this (in the main).

    But again, Kring is fooling himself. The problem with the present Heroes line-up (and I’ll confess, I continue to watch), is that these characters are simply too flat. They are not developing. You compared your experience of viewing Heroes to Maya’s bleeding eyes. One can now compare the experience of the show– and perhaps some of its more appealing actors– to the cocoons and forced coma imprisonments of the characters. Everyone’s immobilised watching things move at an erratic pace and with no sense of a place in a coherent fictional world. They exist, but for limited purpose. Why do I continue to watch then? Because I have DVR, insomnia, and possibly high hopes for a programme I so enjoyed in the first series that I saw the second series (not reading your blog enough then) as a possible hiccup/writers strike casualty.

    It is sad about Pushing Daisies although I’ll admit I’ve only seen the first series, and that didn’t move me as much as Wonderfalls, and Dead Like Me, two shows I continue to mourn. PD is charming (I look forward to the second series) but lacks the alcoholic cynicism I crave in my quality viewing.

  3. 3 Fred Holliday

    Let’s face it, the WGA strike last year did nothing to help PUSHING DAISIES and no doubt contributed to it demise.

  4. 4 MikeRoberts

    Maybe it’s just me, but Kring doesn’t seem to “get” why serialization is not reliant upon watching habits: if anything, the advent of DVD box sets and streaming media make serialization a much more effective structure in TV narrative and episodic TV LESS so..I smell a response paper coming on…

    To the Bat Office…..*slides down the pole*


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