When sci-fi television shows fall beneath the guillotine (2010)

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Why some shows are allowed a dignified death and others are killed-off without warning

While shows like “Dollhouse,” “Battlestar Galactica,” “Stargate SG-1,” and “Stargate: Atlantis” and even “Lost” are given the opportunity to conclude their series with some semblance of a storyline wrap-up, more frequently networks just unceremoniously yank sci-fi shows off the air without the dignity of a proper send-off or good-bye – “Firefly” being perhaps one of the more glaring examples.

With Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse” airing its final episode last month, this is a perfect time to analyze how sci-fi shows are treated by the networks when their time has come. Fortunately, with “Dollhouse,” Joss was given advance notice that Fox was not going to be picking-up the back 9 episodes of the 2nd season and it allowed Joss the opportunity to wrap up the series – unlike when Fox abruptly cancelled “Firefly” a mere 8 years before, which ended with Fox airing “Firefly’s” 2 hour pilot as its swan song; a maneuver that still has fans scratching their heads in bewilderment. I mean who airs the 2 hour pilot after a show has been cancelled? It’s like rubbing it in the fans’ faces that a terrific show was forever gone.

But even with the chance to tack on an ending to the series, “Dollhouse” felt like it was rushing to its conclusion and the 1 hour finale left a disjointed feeling for many who felt like it was trying to tie up the show with a bow on top. Unfortunately, the show’s mythology and various character back-stories were never explored properly in the haste to conclude the show. But like several other shows prematurely killed-off before their time (e.g., “Pushing Dairies” or “Eli Stone”), there is only so much a creator/writer can do to tie it all together, working within the time-constraints and miniscule budget allowed to conclude a series.

“Lost” may be the exception as ABC clearly committed to an end date several seasons before its conclusion and appears to have spared no expense. It is arguable that “Battlestar Galactica” was also allowed the luxury of a decent amount of time to conclude its saga as Syfy also allowed them to select an end date to end the series. But for anyone who watched the 2 hour tie-in “The Plan,” you can plainly see that Syfy was keeping a tight reign on the budget in order to tie-up the extraneous storyline on what the Cylons were really up to – what was their master plan. So “Lost” is an example of a network fully standing behind its creative product and providing it with a properly funded good-bye. “Battlestar Galactica” (the series) too was given just enough time, but it is dubious whether they were granted sufficient funding to really go out in style. (Imagine what “The Plan” would have looked like with ABC’s money behind it.) But “Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica” are the exceptions and not the rule.

As noted previously in my prior article: “The Grieving Season Continues: Mourning the Loss of Last Season’s Sci-Fi Shows Cut Down Before Their Time,” the past television season has been particularly blood-thirsty in killing off many sci-fi television shows – a record 16 sci-fi shows have been cancelled. Of those 16, only two had scheduled end-dates (“Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica”) and the remaining 14 were simply terminated without notice. Those shows cruelly decapitated were: “Dollhouse,” “Defying Gravity,” “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” “Stargate: Atlantis,” “My Own Worst Enemy,” “Reaper,” “Kings,” “Kyle XY,” “Pushing Daisies,” “Eli Stone,” “Eastwick,” “Life on Mars” (U.S. version), “Merlin” (while it still airs in the U.K., it was not picked-up for a 2nd season in U.S. by NBC, though it was just announced that Syfy has agreed to air its 2nd season), and “Primeval” (it was initially cancelled and then re-picked up by the BBC six months later after further financing was secured).

As the 2009-2010 season is not yet over, it is conceivable that another 6 sci-fi shows will also suffer a similar fate in the next few months: “Heroes” which may not be picked up for its 5th season after a lack-luster year of ratings; “V” and/or “FlashForward” which may not have the ratings power to convince ABC to grant them 2nd seasons; “Demons” which also did not garner the critical acclaim and ratings that the BBC was hoping for and ended after just one season, “Saving Grace” which TNT has already announced will be ending after this next season; and possibly the British version of “Torchwood,” which the BBC has been reluctant to pick up for a 4th season and Russell T. Davies has announced that he plans to make an American version of the series (furthermore, with its lead John Barrowman currently moonlighting on “Desperate Housewives,” the show’s fate is certainly dubious and uncertain).

So with 22 sci-fi shows vanishing off the television landscape, it may leave you wondering what exactly is left. Here it is, the sci-fi shows still standing are: “Caprica,” “Stargate Universe,” “Warehouse 13,” “Eureka,” “Sanctuary,” “Doctor Who,” “Being Human,” “Fringe,” “Chuck,” “Smallville,” “Supernatural,” “Vampire Diaries,” “True Blood,” “Legend of the Seeker” and “Being Erica.” (NOTE: I know there is some debate as to whether fantasy-based shows should be considered under the genre umbrella as “sci-fi,” but for purposes of this article, they are being included.)

However, in a sign that not all is well in its world, J.J. Abrams has allegedly requested an end date from Fox for the series “Fringe.” This is ominous as Fox has not been known for its generosity in time-table or budget for forecasting the end of its shows. Rather, it prefers the guillotine-method: any show not worthy of its time and money is immediately pulled off its schedule. So the blood-letting is likely to continue if there is not some way to successfully triage the dozen or so sci-fi shows still left.

Also, in light of the fact that “Heroes” ended its 4th season on a minor cliff-hanger with Claire Bennett revealing her unique abilities to the world and with the ratings having fallen to a precipitous low of just barely 4 million viewers, there is little hope that the show will return for a 5th season. So how will fans react then knowing full well that they did not get an ending worthy of the show they loved? Will NBC allow it to return for a limited number of episodes to wrap-up the series, like CBS did with “Jericho”? Or will NBC simply turn its back on a show that has earned it hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and garnered it accolades for such risk-taking programming? Fans and critics have debated whether even allowing “Heroes” to wrap-up would be satisfying enough. After all, the show has become a shadow of its former self creatively, evidenced by the hemorrhaging of viewers. So is an opportunity to wrap-up the characters’ storylines even necessary? Or should the show be allowed to fall off the radar without much fan-fare or notice? And has the death knell sounded with the recent news that Tim Kring is working on another series that may be picked up for this Fall? Surely if the creator of the show has jumped ship, it is an ominous sign that the show is ready to be fitted for a coffin.

And what about the ABC shows “V” and “FlashForward”? Should they too be allowed to air their remaining episodes and quietly be put to bed as well? Or should ABC make an effort to revitalize these shows and pledge its commitment towards a second season for both? With the loss of both David Goyer and Marc Guggenheim as show runners from “FlashForward,” the triaging seems too little and too late. The powerhouse visioneers have abandoned ship. Is all hope gone for what was supposed to be two of the biggest sci-fi sensations in years on television?

And if any of these shows are canceled, will they too be allowed a dignified death or will they simply fall beneath the guillotine as the network screams “off with their head!” (Hopefully Lewis Carroll doesn’t turn over in his grave with the liberal borrowing of that particularly visual reference.) And if any of our beloved sci-fi shows are canceled, what do we as fans do? Do we cry for hours and vow never to watch the mean ole network ever again? Do we sit in shock for months denying it ever happened? Do we immediately start “save our show” campaigns in order to get it re-picked up by the network or by another supposedly sci-fi friendly network? Or do we take the time to grieve quietly and say a proper good-bye to the television show that struck a chord within our soul?

Thus, this begs the question: should creators and network executives have built in expiration dates for sci-fi series? Is the open-ended sci-fi series a thing of the past? Will viewers actually stick around and commit to a series if they know exactly when it will end? Is built-in “obsolescence” the dawn of a new era of sci-fi television? Is this the only way to guarantee death-with-dignity for a sci-fi series?

As unimaginable as it is, perhaps planning for obsolescence (a definite “end” date) is preferable to watching our TV shows decapitated without warning in the increasingly mercurial arena of television ratings. There certainly is an argument for planned-obsolescence versus letting our beloved shows fall beneath the guillotine for not every TV show is allowed the time and money to actually end the way they want.

To answer the question: why are some shows allowed a dignified death and others are killed-off without warning? The answer comes down to one simple factor: money. No network wants to pay for the show that is losing money and viewers faster than it can recoup its investment. It used to be that a television show did not get out of the red and into the black until it hit the magical 100th episode mark – hence, the big celebration when any show makes it that far. Thus, if a network does not believe that a show will actually make it to that point, it will cut its losses and try to invest its money in another show that will make it that far. As for why some networks are more generous with allowing a show to wrap-up its storyline, well, that is perhaps because they see a monetary value in concluding a series so that it will sell successfully as a DVD box set. And sometimes, it is because the network simply feels it is the right thing to do so it does not upset the fans and viewers. After all, if viewers believe from the get-go that the network will just keep killing off shows without allowing them to conclude a storyline, the viewers may not bother tuning into new shows at all. It is a difficult decision, but ultimately the smarter network plans for cancellation and treats both the show and the viewers who watched it with respect.

So whether the future answer should be that sci-fi shows have pre-planned end-dates or planned for obsolescence, sci-fi viewers must simply be more vigilant for there is still no guarantee that their shows will not vanish without a trace. The guillotine will continue to fall suddenly and without discrimination. Sci-fi television remains a dying genre.

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