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Why Sci-Fi Struggles on TV – Geek Girl Navigating The World
The major networks all seem to agree on one major idea when it comes to sci-fi programming. Mainly, that’s the idea that it doesn’t seem to work. Terra Nova was canceled after just one season and discussion on the fate of Fringe seems to be generating more interest than the show itself. Flashforward barely made it through a season and no one seems optimistic about Alcatraz. It almost seems to beg the question. What is so broken with big network sci-fi?
While in some cases, it’s the actual shows, the real problem, in my opinion, is the networks themselves. Every new TV season, I get hopeful because it seems like there are at least one or two shows that will let me get my sci-fi fix in and make my inner cheese-monster deliriously happy. Then, the shows debut and I watch them. My usual policy is to give a show at least two episodes before I really decide whether or not I like it. I try to give them a fair shake because I’ve watched enough DVD sets to see how uneven a first season can be until the writers, actors, and crew really find their footing.
Still, it never seems to fail. I’ll find a series that I really love watching and then all of the sudden, it’s no longer on the day or at the time when I am expecting to see it. If I’m lucky, a quick online search will reveal that it’s just been moved around on the schedule. If not, I find out that it didn’t even last three episodes. In some cases, it may have even lasted less.
Networks don’t seem to realize that a show like that needs some time for its audience to build. Take a look at Supernatural for instance. Those first three seasons, I spent the summers in terror because I wasn’t sure that I was going to find out what the resolution for the cliffhanger was going to be. It’s always a cliffhanger with them and it’s always one of those cliffhangers that leaves viewers feeling off-kilter and disoriented as they try to imagine what’s going to happen next. Of course, I also usually spend the summer internally cursing everyone involved with the show because they’ve done that to me again, but I’ve come to accept that as an acceptable drawback to watching the show. Over the course of those seven seasons, Supernatural has gone from a perennial cut-list mention to being one of the best rated shows on the network.
Supernatural was given the chance to build an audience, which it has, despite having spent some time on the Thursday night line-up, right up against CSI. It was one of those shows that wasn’t desperately hyped with all the finesse of a two-year-old begging for ice-cream. The show is well-written and balances tone and pacing well and all of the Geeks that I know really appreciate that. Supernatural built its audience the old-fashioned way. It generated its own buzz and word of mouth and a dedicated (or, as many have suggested, rabid) fan-base has given rise to a group of people who will enthusiastically tell everyone who will listen long enough what a great show it is. All of this despite an attitude at the beginning that mostly seemed to involve the condescending air of “Yeah, yeah, we’ll keep the weird little monster show. Whatever.”
So why doesn’t anyone else who is not a specialty network seem to be able to keep a sci-fi show running? I think it mostly boils down to impatience. The audience may be steady from week to week, but the network itself wants to see growth. Instead of advertising the show more heavily or featuring it on a website or giving new viewers a chance to catch episodes they might have missed, the network starts playing three card monte with the schedule so frantically that when they finally come to a rest you’re lucky to even be able to recognize that they have shows, much less which shows are on what night.
It’s beyond frustrating. It heads right into annoying territory. Usually, these switches are as badly publicized as the actual show was. So, after the fact, the fledgling audience discovers that instead of Tuesdays at seven, they needed to be watching on Thursdays at nine, or Saturdays at eight or even Monday at nine-thirty. Maybe the networks are assuming that everyone has DVRs these days and that said technology always works properly. Sadly, this is not always the case. Not everyone has a setting they can select so that they will always be able to watch the entire season no matter how much programming gets shuffled.
Then, of course, there has become this insistence practically across the board that it’s perfectly all right to produce the first half of a season and then deliver the second half of the season to the audience somewhere between three and four months later. I think these hiatuses became more common after the writers’ strike that truncated so many TV seasons. Shows like Pushing Daisies and Eli Stone, along with Jericho and Reaper got brief reprieves and were able to come back for a second season. Sadly, they didn’t seem to gain more audience attention when they came back, which, somehow seems to translate, in network terms, into making the hiatus shorter because, clearly, that’s going to work much, much better. I think the rapid demise of Flashforward and the short revival of V can both be offered up as proof that this concept is, in fact, completely erroneous.
When it comes to a show being interrupted like that, the audience is going to move on. People get used to watching a certain show during a particular time slot. If that has been messed with, all of the sudden the channel surfing will begin and people will find something else to watch. That something else is usually a mid-season replacement that will be run continuously and enough time has been allotted for the audience to become hooked. It’s one thing to have a couple of weeks in between episodes, or even to have a month long hiatus in December, when people are usually focused on everything else besides television, it’s quite another to follow that traditional Christmas break with the Extended Pause of Doom. Good luck getting anything but the most well-established shows to recover from that. In order for an audience to want to watch “their” show, they have to be able to see it.
A sci-fi show that’s meant to attract the Geeks needs to be more than just pretty. Special effects will only get you so far and then, you’re going to need good writing and engaging characters to maintain the attention of the Geek audience. We can absolutely deal with serialization and long-ranging story arcs, believe me. Every Geek has at least one pet mythos that they will enthusiastically spout at the drop of a hat if someone will only get them started on the topic. Low budget effects that are well-done will make most Geeks just as happy as state-of-the-art work would. There is even a specific type of Geek that will be thrilled to see those older gags coming into play (if you’re curious to find these particular types of Geeks, go to a convention and start talking about squibs, no not the Harry Potter kind of squib, special effects kinds of squibs, watch the fun when you find the crew that gets it). The thing is, Geeks want either a cast of characters that they can love or a story that they can follow, or, ideally, both.
Still, I do find myself holding out some hope. The networks do all seem to be trying pretty hard to create something else to fill the sci-fi void. CBS has Person of Interest which I would classify as near-future sci-fi because I don’t like to think about the CARNIVORE program and what it may or may not be able to actually do if it truly does exist. The show has a promising set-up and a good cast and, so far, I have found it highly watchable. It builds suspense well and carries an overarching story-line that can’t necessarily be easily and tidily resolved in just a single episode.
I still watch Fringe chiefly because I like the characters on the show. John Noble is brilliant as Walter. There’s a dignity about him that comes through even when the man’s rambling about Dr. Pepper and sleeping in a bathtub. It makes him believable as a disgraced scientist who wasn’t crazy so much as he was ahead of his time. Sure, there are times when I get fed up with the pacing and the limits of suspension of disbelief, but at the same time, I really want to see how the characters react to each new bit of outlandishness they end up facing week to week.
The show that I’m really looking towards in terms of my true, hardcore sci-fi fix, though, is TNT’s Falling Skies. I started watching the first episode out of curiosity and spent each subsequent episode certain that it was going to end up being canceled because it was a great mix of alien-invasion apocalyptic survivalist sci-fi with consistent writing and explanations of the aliens that didn’t over-explain too much. It’s action and plot driven sci-fi that’s lent itself to new jargon like “Skidders” that feels more organically evolved than most shows. It’s coming back for a second season and that, more than anything, gives me hope that eventually, the networks will figure it out and deliver some good sci-fi that has a chance of sticking around for more than a few episodes.