Monday, June 29, 2009

Pushing Up Daisies

The end of another week, time for another blog post. (I have another science-related one planned for the next of the month next week.) This time, I talk pop culture - in particular, yet another great show that was recently canceled. After a long delay in airing the final three episodes, Pushing Daisies finally came to an end this past weekend. ABC's bright, colorful and conversely dark detective/pie-making romantic comedy show had a lot of things going against it from the get-go - the biggest being the ABC network itself.

The show debuted back in fall of '07, to much initial hype - plus, actual advertising! - and critical acclaim that followed the show for the rest of its run. After the first episode saw solid ratings, ABC began drastic advertising cutbacks. Between a sudden lack of advertising and the loss of the portion of the premiere's viewership that tuned in for the novelty and opted not to continue watching due to the perceived 'too weird'-ness of the show, ratings began to drop soon after. Then the WGA strike happened, cutting the show - like many - off mid-season with only nine episodes for its first season. Planned story arcs and development had be dropped. And by the time the show returned for its season season last fall, it was clear that ABC wasn't interested in keeping it afloat. (The show was expensive, and this follows an in no way uncommon trend of networks barely backing fresh and original shows, and then dropping them when they can't compete with much more popular mainstream reality shows on other networks. Like what CW did to Veronica Mars after UPN had openly supported the show in its first two years - prior to the merger with WB that created the CW network - due to its critical acclaim and a desire to have a great niche show, rather than fixating on ratings.)

ABC made virtually no effort to make the public aware when Pushing Daisies returned to television last October, the first season's fans mostly only aware of the show's return due to its being in the online schedule. The only commercials ABC aired for the show over the remainder of its run were the brief previews for the next episode at the conclusion of the most recent episode's airing. The ratings fluctuated little as the network acted as a key architect of the show's demise. (When even Fox managed to keep Arrested Development around longer in harping on its acclaim left and right.) Thirteen episodes were shot for the second season, and creator Bryan Fuller, the cast, and crew were expecting the show to be picked up for another half-season in the spring so the show could finally get a solid whole-season run. This did not happen. ABC instead canceled the show after only airing ten episodes last fall, and then removed all evidence of the show's existence from their site and pussyfooted around questions of when the last episodes would air. The show ended up finishing its run in Europe and hitting DVD in the UK before the US run was finally completed over the last Saturday night in May and the first two in June, in completely unadvertised time slots that reminded that the only reason ABC was airing the last episodes at all was due to contractual obligation.

The ending was unplanned, and had to effectively be rushed and tacked on in the form of a final two minute epilogue of sorts added to the last episode, "Kerplunk," which, while a strong episode to conclude with, still wasn't written with any intention of ending the show there or providing any real closure - numerous major plot threads were left dangling. Thanks, ABC!

This kind of luck is not exactly something unfamiliar to fans of Bryan Fuller's shows. Showtime's Dead Like Me - which Fuller himself left several episodes into the first season, but the show continued to be stellar even without him - was canceled despite being the premium cable network's second most popular show. One of many poor decisions made by then new - and now no longer - head of programming Bob Greenblatt (Who seemed to have something personal against the show's existence, stemming from his own involvement in HBO's death show, Six Feet Under, though the respective premium networks' death-themed shows were very distinct from one another - HBO's focusing on a family and funeral home, versus Showtime's being a laugh out loud funny dramedy about grim reapers.) whose only noteworthy pick-up for the network was Weeds. (Which I just finished the 4th season of on DVD, and it continues to be fantastic.)

Fuller's second show, Wonderfalls, aired briefly on Fox in spring of 2004. And by briefly, I mean that they aired four episodes of the thirteen - out of order - and then pulled the show from the air, having made no real effort to push it to begin with despite early critical notice. And naturally, it aired in the same Friday night at 9 PM time slot that killed Joss Whedon's Firefly back in 2002, and which Whedon's Dollhouse has astonishingly managed to weather enough to get a second season for this fall. (And while Firefly was excellent from the get-go, Dollhouse took about half a season to get away from corporate meddling and into fantastic territory.) Where Pushing Daisies was "too weird" for the average TV viewer, Wonderfalls was probably a mix of that and "too cute" for Fox's audience, as it worked as one of the better TV romantic comedies in some time. (Though thankfully, its thirteen episode run provided enough closure with its conclusion that for what it is as a short, self-contained magic realistic series, it's wonderful as the name implies.) Dead Like Me was pitch perfect for its network and audience - so of course it'd take an unprofessional executive to mess that up.

ABC hasn't exactly been known for their good decisions in regards to programming in recent times either. Pushing Daisies was pretty much in their crosshairs after the pilot, as they've made it clear that they're more concerned with ratings and advertising dollars than they are with producing quality original content. (A notable ongoing trend on network television in general, since it's cheaper and easier to make zero-IQ reality shows based around competitions - whether singing, dancing, or something as insipid as the Wipeout obstacle course show ABC's shoving down America's throat at the moment.) Ugly Betty was surprisingly renewed after enduring talk of that show's heading toward cancellation with its lower viewership numbers. They premiered Rob Thomas' (Veronica Mars) reimagining of his short-lived '90s series Cupid (Which originally starred Jeremy Piven) with Bobby Cannavale at the helm and canceled that as soon as they could after airing its episodes, without any advertising or any hint of interest in considering keeping the show. (I only caught the last episode, and it wasn't bad. I haven't seen the originals how to compare, though.) Following the effective ending of Mike Judge's long running animated series King of the Hill, they premiered his next show - with a couple of other creators - The Goode Family, only to chuck it into a Friday night 8:30 PM ratings death slot, rather than giving the show a chance to find an audience. (Again, an observable trend.)

And of course, after Scrubs got the ending it had been building up to for years after issues at NBC kept them from getting a proper ending done there (And ABC picked the show up after NBC decided not to after the WGA strike delayed the ending another season - though in the least, the official 'final season' was consistently good, returning to many of the themes that made the show's earlier seasons memorable.), ABC's executives decided to renew the show after its ending. Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence saw ABC renew his previous show on their network - Spin City - after his departure and run it into the ground for a couple of seasons before canceling it, with some major notable casting changes. Lawrence almost escaped the same thing in Scrubs' run on NBC, but ABC was having none of that - they wanted to 'capitalize' on their investment when the show was only trying to wrap things up when they picked it up. So while we got a strong final season, now we have a season or two ahead - which I plan on not watching - without Bill Lawrence and several key members of the main cast. I imagine they'll be making the new interns introduced in the final season into regulars, and considering how past its prime the show has been, there's really nothing good about what ABC's doing with it. Let it die with dignity, ABC.

In the least, Pushing Daisies fans have some things to look forward to. Starting this fall, DC comics will be publishing a 12-issue Pushing Daisies comic book miniseries - which Fuller himself is involved with - as the official "third season." (Much like what Joss Whedon has done with Buffy the Vampire Slayer in more recent years.) The only plotline revealed for the comics so far involves an offbeat take on dealings with zombies - which should be interesting to see, given the undoubtedly inevitable connection with the leading Pie Maker character's supernatural ability to bring back the dead with a single touch and return them to death forever with a second. This also makes sense in that Pushing Daisies made its initial debut in the form of a promotional comic book at San Diego Comic-Con 2007 before its television premiere that fall. Both ABC and Fuller have stated that we may see a movie sequel to the series yet as well, not unlike that which Dead Like Me received years after cancellation earlier this year. (In part thanks to DVD sales, which also revived Family Guy a few years ago, and just recently led to Comedy Central picking up a new season of Futurama thanks to the strong sales of its DVD movies.)

Since Pushing Daisies' cancellation, Fuller returned to work on Heroes after having been involved in its first season, and effectively helped the latter half of season 3 avoid being terrible. (Unlike the first half and the entirety of the second season.) He's announced since that he's moving on to new projects, and currently working on two pilots - the details of which are currently unknown. As such, when Heroes returns for season 4 this fall, odds are that it's going to go right back to terrible. (And yet this is what gets the ratings and picked up by NBC - Chuck was lucky to get picked up for a third and final half-season for next spring, and they're facing major budget cuts, including one of the main cast members. At least they'll get a final half-season to wrap things up, but one has to wonder how much of that half-season will be advertising for Subway, considering that they had to work that directly into the show a few times in season 2.)

Fuller has confirmed that he's been interested in developing a new Star Trek series - something set back in the same timeline as the original series, pending the success of the recent revival movie. (Which was a huge hit, of course. Only movie I've seen in theaters this year so far - only other one that I know for certain that I will being Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - and while my mind wasn't blown, I still enjoyed it and wouldn't mind seeing more in that vein. I'm looking forward to the sequel.) This prosposed new Star Trek series wouldn't be set around the Enterprise, but a different ship and crew in the era. There's no confirmation of whether this proposed series is one of the pilots he's presently working on, though. And questions remain of how stylistically in line it'd be with his original shows, and whether being tied in with such a big brand and established universe might somewhat stifle the creativity involved - he did start out as a writer on Voyager as is, before going on to much bigger and better things - and whether or not having this particular big brand attached would be enough to create something lasting. (Considering how much public interest had waned in Star Trek by the end of The Next Generation, with Deep Space Nine and Voyager not having the hugest viewer bases, and Enterprise getting canceled for - among other reasons - low viewership numbers.) Was the Star Trek movie this summer a fluke, or a sign of new interest in the franchise? It's needed a reboot for some time, and the movies and a new Fuller show could potentially accomplish everything a Star Trek reboot's needed - to become fresh again. But now that we know the public's willing to rush out to see a new action-oriented Star Trek summer blockbuster with Sylar as Spock, the question is, will they watch a new TV series? Network involvement can be worrying as well, considering how much Fox's meddling held back Dollhouse in its earlier episodes. And Fuller himself obviously doesn't have a great history with networks, as amazing as his shows have been. Outside of Dead Like Me on Showtime, his work is not known for pulling big ratings numbers - though it gets the critics talking - or being easily marketable to the masses. And that's Fuller at his best - even while his work on Heroes is easily the best part of that show, it's still nowhere near his completely original projects.

One also has to question whether or not he might be at his most creatively uninhibited and at least risk in terms of audience in perhaps returning to premium cable at some point, considering the audience Dead Like Me found on Showtime.

Suffice to say, ABC's showing itself to be one of the more rotten and unadventurous networks these days, and in being uninclined to watch the forced continuation of Scrubs, once The Goode Family's gone, I don't anticipate watching anything on ABC anytime soon.

Network television is turning into a cesspit, as the networks continue to flood themselves with reality garbage and refuse to commit to - or even properly promote - quality original programming,. We're lucky Chuck got picked up for a third half-season and it's outright surprising that that Fox decided to give Dollhouse a second season. But at this point, it's becoming more apparent that if you want to find the best shows on television, you have to turn increasingly to cable and subscription channels, with FX having continued to support It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (Despite ratings that would've gotten it canceled in no time on a network. Now they're shooting their 5th season and planning an hour-long Christmas special to air later this year.) in its twisted hilarity, and channels like Showtime bringing Weeds, HBO bringing Flight of the Conchords, True Blood (Which I just finished the first season of.), and so forth.

If I ever end up getting any opportunities in the television business - depending on where and how far my writing career takes me, seeing as it's far from even having really begun at this point - I'm doubtful anything I'd write or work on would have any kind of shot on a network. (Unless it was work I was pretty much taking to pay the bills, as opposed to something I'd have any creative control over.) Even CW rushed to cancel Veronica Mars after forcibly changing many aspects of the show and drastically dropping the quality of the writing. But of course, CW wants to be Lifetime Lite, in now fixating solely on an audience of teenage girls, axing Reaper despite its better ratings (And better writing) than the atrocious 90210 revival that's followed it. But then, the CW execs also seem to be deadset on creating "controversial" shows, when all they're doing is making bottom of the barrel crap for that audience. Yes, we get it, teenagers like to have sex. This is not shocking, controversial, or new. I don't have the greatest amount of confidence, but I'd still love to see the Reaper team's syndication revival efforts actually go somewhere, since that show's final episode only left me wanting more.

At any rate, things to the effect of "argle bargle bargle." Network TV is run by idiots and they're fixated on the idiot audience. It's a sad time, looking for intelligent, sharp, well-written and funny programming these days. Anything that's remotely daringly original gets no backing and dropped as soon as it can't compete with something like American Idol in the ratings. There's my pop culture/TV nerd rant for you (Until my usual new TV season lineup post this fall), full of the necessary agitation and vitriol. It says a lot that both networks focus so heavily on terrible reality programming, and that it's so popular to begin with. Even these past few weeks, everyone's been fixated on that disgusting "Jon and Kate" show about a couple basically exploiting their mob of fertility drug kids and the entirely unsurprising inevitable dissolution of their marriage. You took fertility drugs, had way too many kids, and spent years exploiting them on national television. How is this the basis for a healthy marriage or a good environment to raise kids in? NONE OF THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA.

What is wrong with us that we watch these things? Is it like this obsessive cycle we have with celebrities, where we love to see them rise just so that we can watch and cheer on everything that tears them down? Do we want to see people make stupid decisions, just so that we can sit back smugly in our den and think to ourselves, "I'm smarter than them?" Is this what entertainment's come to? It's not exacty healthy, is it?


CrazyCris said...

I gave up long ago on trying to understand the what, when and how as to networks choosing or losing a show... :s It's come to the point that I avoid many new series until I'm pretty sure they'll be around for a while 'cause I don't want my TV heart broken again! :s

"Carrie Blackshaw" said...

Well well well said!! I loved "Pushing Daisies", it was original, it was so well written and engaging not to mention the level of talent on the show. And as an actress myself I'm very big on that. My heart was broken when another well written original show was taken off the air "Valentine". it was on the CW network and it was such a great show. Series give writers jobs, actors jobs, costume designers, makeup artists but no let's spend less and put up some reality show. and of course, watching someone's marriage fall apart is way better. Its classic schadenfreude.

"Carrie Blackshaw" said...

P.S- I liked your other posts too and I'm following you. If not too much trouble I'd love for you to read my blog. And if you don't find me too irritating please feel free to follow me too :)

Benjamin Fennell said...

@CrazyCris: Yeah, it's awful. Always the smartest and best written shows that seem to be the axe, since people'd rather watch something idiotic and mindless instead.

@Carrie Blackshaw: Thank you! Yeah, Pushing Daisies was something special. As a writer myself, there was no not appreciating the cleverness of the script, and the casting was flawless - there wasn't a single person on that show who wasn't an immense talent. A shame about Valentine - I never did see that one myself. But yeah, that's CW. I'm still mourning the loss of Veronica Mars and Reaper. That network's been terribly run since the merger that created it. Indeed, that's pretty much it, cheaper just to watch people's lives fall apart in front of the camera instead of paying a ton of talented people to put their talents together and make something remarkable.

And thanks for following! I'll give your blog a look as well. :) Always nice to get new readers, and I'm always looking for new blogs to read, since I need to build my reading list more.

livenomad said...

The problem with following series is when you are hooked onto it, there is a pause when the season ends and there is an impatient wait for the next run. And sometimes its replaced by a show they think caters to similar viewers but are wrong. I agree with CrazyCris, have given up trying to figure out when what will be showing.

Benjamin Fennell said...

Indeed. At least the internet helps some with the scheduling issues. In Pushing Daisies' case, ABC didn't try to figure it out or its demographic - they just stopped pushing it after the pilot aired and waited for its ratings to fall far enough to cancel it.

This happens far too often when a show challenges the conceptual status quo, sadly. While shows like Heroes and Lost seem to suffer from focusing too much on being incredibly intense and suspenseful from episode to episode without a concrete, well planned narrative from beginning to end.