Fantasy, We Have a Problem

Once Upon a Time has done well-enough, Fringe hobbled along as long as it could, and Fox's Awake made it to a second season, but so many others — AlcatrazDo No HarmLife On Mars — have tanked. Network television currently has a genre problem.

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Network television currently has a genre problem. For the past few seasons or so, the big broadcast networks have tried to churn out mysterious paranormal thriller after mysterious paranormal thriller, fantasy sci-fi adventure after fantasy sci-fi adventure, with middling results at best. Once Upon a Time has done well-enough, Fringe hobbled along as long as it could, and Fox's Awake made it to a second season, but so many others — Alcatraz, Do No Harm, Life On Mars — have tanked. Why do these concept-heavy genre shows keep wiping out? Let's take a look.

Last week ABC debuted its latest serial, a mystery/fantasy/Dan Brown homage series called Zero Hour. Despite the show's pedigree — it was created by Prison Break mastermind Paul Scheuring and stars E.R. favorite Anthony Edwards — the premiere episode performed miserably. Like, ABC's lowest-ever in-season premiere miserably. You might be able to blame bad marketing for some of the show's failure, but really this was ultimately a probably of quality. A complete dud with crtics, Zero Hour was a scattered mess, unsure of its tone and genre with a muddled, rather than intricate, central plot. On the show, Anthony Edwards plays the editor of a conspiracy magazine whose wife gets kidnapped after she finds some sort of mystical clock. Yes, a mystical clock. The larger plot involves the Catholic church (of course), Nazis (naturally), and some kind of unpleasant something that a bunch of WWII-era priests were hiding in the sewer. Woof. The idea of putting this kind of modern-day Indiana Jones-style yarn on television in 2013 is a nice one, perhaps even a noble, but Zero Hour's execution was messy and poorly focused, nowhere near up to the task. Plodding and stumbling around corners when it should have been racing along, Zero Hour seemed undecided about how seriously to take itself. Which is the problem for a lot of these shows.

By "these shows" I mean the recent spate of sci-fi/fantasy-ish series that have come blundering along in the vacuum left by Lost and have been given a false sense of encouragement by the more recent relative success of Grimm and Once Upon a Time. These are shows like 666 Park Ave, like Do No Harm, like Revolution. While thematically different for sure, they're all conceptually complex shows told in (mostly) serial form. And they all kinda stink. 666 Park Avenue, about an apartment building in New York City that may or may not have been owned by the devil, showed some early promise, but quickly got its feet tripped up in its own messy mythology. Do No Harm was, of course, the lowest-rated network premiere in recorded ratings history and was quickly canceled. But had it continued on, I doubt that its ridiculous modern Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde shtick would have begun to improve. And Revolution -- which does OK for NBC, largely, I suspect, because of its lead-in from The Voice -- tells an only marginally engaging story about a not-so-distant future without electronics and electricity. The true common bond here is that these are all programs that sound a bit silly when described aloud, but that do, in their own ways, hold some degree of promise in the actual execution. Trouble is, they're rarely getting it right.

This is a war between two polar extremes: Stark seriousness and free-wheelin' camp. For whatever reason, TV audiences seem to favor one or the other; rarely does a big mainstream television show find success while dwelling somewhere in the middle. You could make the argument that Lost had its moments on the goofier side, but all told that was largely a serious show, and it worked because of it. We felt the gravity of the castaways' situation pretty palpably, it was gripping television. (For a time, anyway.) On the other side you have Once Upon a Time, an unendingly dopey show that amicably embraces its dopiness. It's a welcoming, jolly experience because it's not putting on airs. (I watched the entire first season for some insane reason!) Same goes for NBC's modest Friday night hit, Grimm. Back on the Lost end, you've got Battlestar Galactica (cable, I know, but basic cable), a deadly serious space epic that treated its outlandish plotlines like documentary fact. These extremes work, they correctly classify a series.

Do No Harm, a bad concept to begin with, tried to fuse a sleazy and vaguely sci-fi concept to a case-of-the-week medical series. A difficult, if not impossible, task; one that needs to be done very carefully. But there was nothing careful about Do No Harm, a show that flopped like a dead fish in the no man's land between sincerity and soap. 666 Park Avenue suffered from the same problem, a confusion of style and mood. When a show like Zero Hour can't figure out what it is — not smart enough to be a nerdy thriller, not self-aware enough to be an affably lighthearted romp — it falters and collapses in the same fashion. You can't just ham-handedly slap a few previously successful TV genres into one jumbled polyglot and then veer wildly in tone to try to cover as many quadrants as possible. That's just not feasbile these days.

The successful shows also give the impression that they know where they're going, their mythology, the science of their worlds, is all leading up to or pointing at something. While that may not have been eventually true of Lost — or, arguably, Battlestar — it seemed that way for long enough that audiences got hooked. Fox's Alcatraz, for example, failed to give that impression. By spending much of its time being a convict of the week procedural, we only got glances of the larger mystery, as if the writers were buying themselves time to figure things out. That might not have been true in the writers room — maybe they knew exactly where they were headed — but they did not communicate confidence to the audience, which can prove deadly. The same is true of Zero Hour, which threw modern conspiracy theories, secret Nazi plots, religious mysticism, and good old fashioned terrorism at the screen as if to distract us. Nothing felt connected, organically or synthetically. The audience was left shrugging its shoulders instead of leaning in close for the "Scenes from the next." If nothing else, future shows in this vague vein should learn that courage of conviction is of vital importance when asking people to invest their precious time in something that's going to take a while to explain. Wishy-washy-ness is unbecoming.

So let Zero Hour's failure, and that of so many of its lazily ambitious colleagues, be a warning to whomever is putting together concept-heavy programs for next season. Figure out what the show is now, check and double-check. Be mindful of tone, of consistency, and be convinced that there is a whole grand story here, not just a successful one-line network pitch. Better to do all that perhaps painstaking work in the beginning, when the opportunity still hangs in the horizon, than to watch a show swan dive out into the world and break all the wrong kinds of records.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.