Ask Matt: Fringe, Glee,The Choir, Lone Star, NCIS and More!
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Question: One of my favorite shows is Fringe, but I can't help but wonder if Fox could pull an X-Files switch. I'm thinking maybe it should be moved to Sunday nights at 9/8c. This was great for The X-Files and made Sunday nights so darn cool. Fringe has that type of feel, and let's face it: two hours of cartoons is a bit much. I have a feeling they could get a nice ratings spike as well. Curious to know what you think — and do we really need more CSI-type shows? — Michael
Matt Roush: Well, those are two very different questions. And one doesn't really inform the other. CSI-style procedurals are still the flavor of the decade — especially on CBS, which knows exactly how to feed its audience — and everyone wants to be in on this lucrative game. But a show like Fringe will always be separate and special, and Fox knows that. The network has done a pretty good job of nurturing the show to where it can go all-out this season. So far, the results have been spectacular, creatively anyway. The ratings, though? Kinda fringe-like. But moving it to Sundays? Never gonna happen. While I may agree with you that the animation block is ultimately a case of too much of the same irreverent thing, it works for Fox, and the tentpoles of The Simpsons and especially Family Guy at 9/8c aren't going anywhere. Moving Fringe and Bones to Thursdays was a calculated risk, but Fox was pretty much dead on the night before these shows took up residence, and now the network is programming for consistency by keeping them there. So while it would be great if Fringe were pulling a bigger number and retaining more of Bones's consistently solid lead-in, Fox's expectations are also realistic. What could they replace Fringe with that would do any better and, in this case, reap as much positive media and fan attention? Answer: Nothing.
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Question: Following Fringe's very low ratings these past two weeks, is it conceivable that Fox would cancel it, considering it's in, arguably, the toughest time slot, facing competition from CSI, Grey's Anatomy and The Office. It seems to retain a loyal following, but is it enough to keep it alive? The show is, in my opinion, on a creative peak. Surely Fox must have known such a move to Thursday night would have this effect? Should I be worried this will be its last season? — Gerry
Matt Roush: I don't see a cancellation threat looming anytime soon for the reasons articulated above. Fringe is getting to the point, not unlike Lost in its latter seasons, where no one can expect many new viewers to come to the party. The mythology is front and center, the characters' relationships have been solidly established, and it's not the kind of show that's likely to attract casual passers-by, especially in that time period. But the audience for a show like this is devoted and passionate, and there is value to that. I would think when time-shifting and other factors are added to the equation, Fox will find reasons to stick with the show for a while longer. (It might be smart for the producers to calculate a five-year game plan, though, just in case. Would hate for a show like this to be yanked before it gets to the end of its planned story arcs.)
Question: Given that two shows have already been canceled after only two episodes, how do you think a show like The X-Files would have fared in this environment? It is my understanding that The X-Files, one of my all-time favorite shows, didn't have good ratings at all in the beginning. Thankfully, Fox gave it a chance, but wondering if any non-cable network would take that chance today? — Faye
Matt Roush: It was such a different time when The X-Files premiered back in 1993. Shows were canceled quickly back then as well, possibly more so, but Fox was a considerably younger network, Fridays even then carried low expectations, and while there was a time early on when X-Files was dangerously under the radar — except to a handful of critics (including myself, who got on board within a month of premiere) — the show did ultimately break from the pack and helped define the Fox brand. If it premiered today and was seen to be as original now as it was then, I'd like to think the viral buzz online and in the media would have elevated it even more quickly. The worst thing that can happen to a show is for no one to talk about it, and I can't imagine The X-Files being ignored in today's mega-media environment. By the way, don't read too much into the quick cancellations so far this season, which were made for very specific and different reasons. Fox's research told them the risk they had taken in Lone Star did not pay off. It was rejected by the viewers and Fox saw no upside in keeping it on. ABC's My Generation was simply a terrible show in a treacherous time period that had been rejected by the critical media even before the audience failed to show up.
Question: What's your take on No Ordinary Family? Cute, but I do not think it is going to last. — Deborah (via twitter)
Matt Roush: You can read my early thoughts about No Ordinary Family here. In short, I found it to be cute, too, and it's the sort of show I want to like, but it's an uneasy hybrid of family and fantasy show that I hope can evolve beyond cute. I'm actually encouraged by its first-week numbers. Despite airing opposite two of TV's hottest shows, the juggernaut NCIS and the phenom of Glee, airing its widely promoted Britney Spears episode no less, it still managed to pull a respectable number. If it can hold on to its family-friendly demographic, that's the least ABC can hope for. And if it does hold up, maybe ABC will give it a chance to be seen in a less cutthroat time period. ABC is struggling with many of its other new shows this fall, so I'm pretty confident this one will get at least a full season to find and prove itself.
Question: In a hyperactive summer TV season, my favorite show has been The Choir on BBC America. Initially advertised as a "real-life Glee", it was nothing of the sort to me. The only thing it had in common with Glee was groups of people singing. It wasn't slick or flashy, and the teenagers singing weren't 20something actors playing teenagers. I have enjoyed all three series and was just wondering if this show has been received well enough in the U.S. for any producers and network execs to put plans in motion for an American version. I seem to remember some choir competition shows being aired before, but nothing like this that shows a choirmaster like Gareth Malone building choirs from scratch. I have teared up nearly every week watching these decidedly ordinary folks come together to amaze themselves, their families, their communities and schools, and us with their efforts and achievements. It has been hard to get back into the fevered show choir fantasy of Glee after this affecting look into the real world of choral singing. — Frank
Matt Roush: Let's not use The Choir to beat up on Glee, OK? Both live in very different TV worlds, and if there's any reason to compare them, it's because both are aspirational in nature (even Glee, if you can look past its gaudy and often aggravating excess). Both series are among the best things to happen to boost the image of arts education in ages. But The Choir is absolutely among the most emotionally affecting highlights of this TV year, and I'd love for everyone to experience it. (Hoping it will be released on DVD soon for those who don't get BBC America.) I haven't heard of any stateside producers adapting the concept, but if there's a Gareth Malone of our own out there helping some American community or school find its voice in song, I hope some documentarian can capture that experience with the same care and love the Choir filmmakers achieved. The Choir is more of a docu-series than an actual reality show, and took quite some time and effort to produce, so it's hard to know where in our current disposable reality climate this would fit in. (Given that channels like A&E and Bravo long ago abandoned higher culture in pursuit of ratings.)
Question: I want to state that I am a very patient, loyal and forgiving fan of a lot of shows, but I am very irritated with the new season of Glee. It seems like Ryan Murphy is going out of its way to alienate viewers just like he did with Nip/Tuck after a couple seasons. I watched all of the first season of Glee, and I understand that it was creatively inconsistent, but the show never bothered me until now. The Britney Spears episode seemed to really show everything that is wrong with Glee. The episode made little narrative sense, jumped from one tone to another, and continued to make characters more insufferable (Sue, Rachel and especially Mr. Shue). Sue's attempt in the premiere to derail the new football coach by accusing her of molesting Brittany was low even by Sue standards. And the whole "Toxic" auditorium scene was one of the most cringe-worthy Glee moments to date. Give me more Quinn and Puck! Thank you for letting me rant. — Adam
Matt Roush: Even at its recent worst — and I think the season opener's abuse of the new coach was among the series' low points — Glee has a way to go before it hits the depths of latter-year Nip/Tuck. I understand the frustration when the show fails to live up to the very high expectations of its hype, but for all the Glee backlash out there, I tend to throw back this question: Would you really prefer the TV landscape not to have a Glee in it? For all of its obvious flaws, I can't imagine the answer being yes. That said, I agree the first two episodes were not Glee at its best, and while I enjoyed some of the musical sequences in the Britney episode (and loved Heather Morris' work throughout), it was almost shockingly formless. But this week's episode, which tackles matters of religion and faith as the club rallies around one of its own during a personal crisis, is Glee at its best. It's manipulative to be sure, but cuts to the emotional core in the way only a musical can sometimes do. What I love about Glee is that it elicits such passionate responses, pro and con, from its admirers and detractors. No middle ground here. And from where I sit, there's too much middle ground on TV everywhere you look, so (this week anyway) God bless Glee.
Question: I was thinking about the Lone Star dilemma. I am typically the exact person to whom that show is marketed. I love serialized storytelling and complex, morally grey characters and ideas. Al Swearengen, Don Draper, Omar Little — I love me some antiheroes. Here's the problem: the pay and cable networks kind of have me all sealed up! Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, Treme, Justified — I don't have time to follow any more dramas. I feel like the networks have, over the years, trained me to seek this type of storytelling elsewhere. I knew when I started watching Breaking Bad that network executives weren't going to insist that season 2 have more stand-alone episodes. I knew when I picked up Boardwalk Empire that it wouldn't be canceled halfway through the first season due to dismal ratings because it's going up against Dancing with the Stars.
These types of shows by their very nature attract a smaller audience, and yet networks develop them with the expectation that they will perform similarly to CSI or Grey's Anatomy. On a rare occasion, we get something like Lost or 24, so different and original that they become real phenoms. But typically, the more complicated shows with less universal appeal are canceled quickly or changed to suit the network's needs. Whereas a show on FX, HBO, AMC, etc. appears to be given much more time to grow, and critical acclaim can be as important as viewer numbers. Do you think the networks have bungled their chances at this kind of complex storytelling by being ratings slaves (both in the past and presently)? Would it help to temper expectations about what numbers these riskier ventures will bring in? With so much quality out there, I have alternatives to this attitude, which I believe disrespects the viewers. — Katelyn
Matt Roush: Some very provocative points here. It's also the first time I've heard that someone rejected Lone Star primarily because there's too much good TV to watch elsewhere. The real point being, of course, that broadcast networks lately have given viewers little reason to believe that they're interested in developing, let alone standing by, the sort of daring and morally complex programming you tend to find on cable these days. I know that Fox was concerned — scared, even — to swing the bat with Lone Star, but sometimes that fear pays off. Didn't this time, for a variety of reasons, including subject matter and self-defeating scheduling. But I do think if a network chooses to put a show on that can't be easily pigeonholed by genre or precedent, there should be some leeway given for a slow build or it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. The problem is that the ratings competition for bragging rights — We're #1, or #1 in the demo! — is so cutthroat the networks can't at present support a show that craters the way Lone Star did. We're in a transitional time where the lines between network and cable are blurring, and I hope that will eventually lead to a parity where broadcast networks can have their own versions of a Mad Men or Dexter to shake things up. But we're not there yet.
And now for a discussion of just why viewers rejected Lone Star, despite the entreaties of critics.
Question: I usually give the vast majority of shows a try, for at least 1 or 2 episodes. I like trying out new genres, I like quirky shows and attempts at original ideas. And I'm open to non-standard heroes (serial killer as a lead character, anyone?). Then there is Lone Star. It was the only show I turned off in the middle of the first episode. Ever. Your take is "it's built around an anti-hero (albeit a charming and sympathetic one)." I would not define him as an anti-hero. I consider an anti-hero a character whose actions may be villain-like, but whose motivation is heroic, if only to himself (see Dexter). Anti-heroes are people we can relate to as they take our place in the situation and act out things for us. Con artists in Leverage "get even" for us. Spies in Chuck save the day for us. In film, Sam Spade may be on the shady side when seeking The Maltese Falcon, but he comes through for the audience in the end.
There is nothing charming or sympathetic about the Lone Star character. He's putting himself in a no-win situation, he's playing the people that he claims to love, he opts to stay in the same situation when given an out (the legitimate job offer) and I see no good exit strategy for any possible upcoming situation. I see no entertainment value in it at all. It's like watching a train wreck. There are too many good shows out there that deliver solid emotional and entertainment pay-offs to waste time on a show that doesn't. And that's why I won't be watching Lone Star. — Claire
Matt Roush: This was the tone of many of the e-mails I got regarding this show during its brief life. And as I look at Lone Star from this angle, I get it, and I also get why the network and studio were so worried going in about how to market something so morally tricky that it risks repelling the audience it wants to attract. Which is exactly what happened. I wish Claire had made it to the end of the pilot to see that Bob was going to extremes to try to right some of the wrongs he had done, standing up to his emotionally manipulative crook of a father along the way. But even so, what he has done and what he continues to do by marrying his Midland sweetheart is indefensible. Defending Bob really isn't the point here, though. Getting caught up in an original, challenging story is. One of the reasons critics embraced this pilot, beyond the appeal of its handsome cast and the quality of writing and production, was simply because it was so different, because many of us hadn't seen anything quite like it before and we couldn't quite imagine how they'd be able to pull off a series around this situation. Train wreck? Maybe, but it's also the kind of creative tightrope act that gets our juices flowing. Everyone involved, including its champions in the critical media, knew Lone Star was a risk. My main worry in the way all of this played out is the chilling effect it may have on the next original voice out there who wants to try something on network TV that hasn't been done before.
Among the other mail I got on the subject was this from Chris, who writes: "There's one simple explanation as to why Lone Star didn't do better in the ratings: Viewers aren't interested in the essential storyline no matter how well-acted, written or recommended. Even with recording and time-shifting, there are only so many hours, and viewers choose how to spend their time. Critics may feel that not supporting a show that is not standard fare leads to the dumbing-down of all programming, but viewers obviously decide 'What's so special about this?'"
Question: Do Tony fans have to organize the same kind of squeaky-wheel whine campaign to support our favorite NCIS character? If CBS looks at these letters as genuine indications of overall fan wishes, then we need to know. When I read letters like the ones you've published about Ziva, I get flashbacks to the Mulder and Scully war back in the '90's. You were around back then. "The show is about Scully! It isn't fair that Gillian Anderson doesn't make as much money as David Duchovny!" And so on. Seriously, does CBS do genuine audience research about character popularity and/or storylines that impact the future of the show? — Lezlie
Matt Roush: Ha! Clearly, I don't make these letters up. To be honest, I couldn't. NCIS is a show I enjoy when I watch it, and its popularity compels me to keep an eye on it, but I don't feel nearly as passionate about it or its characters as so many others do, so I merely let them use this forum as a sounding board, within reason. (And while I can't speak for the network or the producers, all of this ranting and raving is purely anecdotal and isn't likely to shape the future direction of the show or its character development.) Thrilled to be able to spread the wealth to Tony, who is one of the primary sources of my enjoyment of this show. But be careful what you wish for, because just as I put this letter into the mix, I got the next one.
Question: I have a question for you regarding NCIS, and it has NOTHING to do with Ziva. Shocking, I know, but LONG before Ziva came along, the most compelling and dynamic relationship on NCIS was the one between Tony and Gibbs: two strong male characters who seemed to have an effortless onscreen chemistry. Where did THAT relationship go? Where did the funny, irreverent, smart and COMPETENT Tony DiNozzo go? The last two seasons have seen Tony turned into nothing but the butt of every joke, half of a painfully bad and hard-to-watch pseudo will-they-won't-they UST [unresolved sexual tension] joke of over-the-top flirting, and rather useless as both an undercover operative and as an agent, since nearly all of the skills and advantages he used to bring to the team have been handed to Ziva in an attempt to make her some sort of uber-spy-agent-over-the-top Mossad Princess Barbie. Enough is enough, already.
When does it end? When do we get our old Tony back? When do we get Senior Field Agent Anthony DiNozzo back? You know, the guy who has been on Gibbs' team six years longer than any other agent in Gibbs' tenure at NCIS. He's been missing far too long, and the show is suffering for it. — Kit
Matt Roush: Points taken, although I still kinda like the guy. Anyone want to make a point about how they've been treating Abby or Duckie or the alarmingly skinny McGee?
Question: So excited to have a choice on Fridays: Medium, Blue Bloods, Outlaw (which I LOVE). If Fridays are so bad for them, why are they putting new shows on in these time slots? I think there must not be many other slots available, but I wonder about the logic? I am a fan of the two new shows already and would follow Medium anywhere. — Kathy
Matt Roush: Well, don't get too attached to Outlaw. The numbers have been terrible, along with most of the reviews. Fridays are challenging for the networks, because viewing levels are smaller than on weeknights for all of the obvious reasons, and they're fighting for pieces of a smaller pie. CBS has the best luck on the night, because its loyal audience is least likely to be looking for alternatives, and with Blue Bloods, has one of the new season's few true hits. The networks have scaled back their expectations for the night, but they're not willing yet to go dark, either. There's always the hope that something will catch on, the way CSI and The X-Files did years ago on Fridays (in each case, relocating with great success). Which is why you see them continue to throw shows into what many see as a graveyard, though not yet as dire as what became of Saturday night. Two shows previously announced for Friday this season may not end up there after all: Fox's Human Target has thankfully been reassigned to Wednesdays starting in November (part of the Lone Star fallout), while ABC's Body of Proof has yet to be scheduled, and may end up filling in for one of the network's weeknight duds. It's just another sign that except for CBS (and to a lesser degree the CW, with its fantasy combo), or unless you're a newsmagazine, it's kind of a last-resort time slot.
That's all for now. Keep sending in those questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, and in the meantime, follow me on Twitter!
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