Ask Matt: Fringe Frenzy, The Killing, and More
Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson
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Question: On the Chuck episode that aired Jan. 6 ("Chuck vs. the Kept Man"), one of the subplots was Casey and his daughter Alex watching Downton Abbey. This subplot was far more enjoyable than the tedious Jeff and Lester subplot. Do you know if there was any special reason why the writers chose to plug Downton Abbey?
On a different note, I am looking forward to the second half of Fringe's Season 4. Fox has recently said the show was losing the network money and they weren't in the business of losing money. Reading between the lines, what does this mean for the future of the show? And how exactly do they determine whether a network show makes a profit — is it based on advertising revenue from commercials? — Brian
Matt Roush: I didn't see that episode of Chuck — just hearing about a Jeff and Lester subplot reinforces that decision — but seems to me the very image of a tough guy like Casey watching something as refined and twee as Downton Abbey would have been the joke, plus it's a very culturally "now" reference. Regarding Fringe, I don't think it's a secret that this show is perpetually "on the bubble," but this is certainly another make-or-break season. And to simplify matters greatly, the calculus involved in determining a show's financial health and value involves many factors, including the license fee the network pays the studio (in this case Warner Bros.), the production deficit the studio shoulders, the ad rates a show can command and whatever back-end revenue is projected from ancillary, overseas and possible syndication sales. This subject clearly riled up the fan base this week, as the next few questions make abundantly clear.
Question: I was wondering if I could get your take on Fox executive Kevin Reilly's comments regarding Fringe, in which he praises the quality of the show to high heaven, before coming out with this little gem: "We're not in the business of losing money." Now I am inclined to understand that TV is a business, but can we stop pretending that business isn't booming? When individual stars are paid $1 million dollars for 22-45 minutes of television, we can acknowledge that business in television is good. Kevin Reilly isn't going home at night, trying to figure out how to pay the mortgage this month. One show that does not make them money does not mean that they lose money — it just means they don't take in the obscene amount that they're used to.
I know that networks could not routinely keep shows on the air that lose them money, and the shows they produce must predominantly make money to allow for the continuation of the programs. But network execs take this stance that any show, regardless of quality, critical acclaim and DVD sales must make them money in the immediate moment, or else get it off the air and start running that new reality tripe that costs nothing (but dignity) to make (keep in mind, I don't put all reality in this category — So You Think You Can Dance, Top Chef and Project Runway are all faves of mine). Fifty years ago, publishing companies routinely published quality books that they knew would lose them money initially, because they believed in the long-term benefits that publishing quality material would accrue. NCIS is the highest rated program on TV (I think), but in terms of DVD/Blu-ray sales, it is still (as of this week) outsold by Firefly, a canceled sci-fi show from 2002. The kind of fans Fringe attracts are the rabid, die-hard, purchasing fans that network executives give no respect. It's short-sighted. I'm certain this issue is muddied by the fact that the DVD rights are often owned by a company independent from the network, so when on earth are these people going to jump into the 21st century and straighten these issues out?
I'm not advocating that all critically acclaimed shows with no ratings be given a free pass. But when there is a series that a network has already invested a great amount of time and resources into, and the network claims to love the story it's telling, what is the harm in looking at it long-term instead of only seeing the immediate losses? (Cough, Community, cough.) Speaking of Community, please please please tell me there's some good news that people at NBC aren't thinking the same way as the people at Fox! (Hold onto that dream, right?) I'd be heartbroken to lose this daring, creative gem from the line-up. What other show on TV would have the seeds to animate its cast for an episode? Oh right, Fringe. Sigh. — Katelyn
Matt Roush: I'm not inclined to condemn a network executive for speaking an unpleasant truth, so while I share your frustration that Fringe has to keep fighting for its life and ultimately may not win the battle to survive to a fifth season, it's not my place as a critic to suggest a network be in the business of programming loss-leaders, much as I'd selfishly enjoy the benefit. Look, it's no fun when this column has to confront the hard realities of the TV business, but the bottom line is the bottom line, and if Fox finds itself able to develop a show for Fridays they feel would cost less and generate more revenue, that's what they'll do. It's that simple and that complicated. Fox's support for Fringe has given the show a fourth season I wouldn't have predicted would be feasible, and pragmatically, it probably wasn't. Regarding the NCIS comparison: That show is such a monster hit, airing constantly on cable and around the world, it hardly matters how it performs in the DVD marketplace. (It's not like you can't watch it umpteen times a week if you so desire.)
Shows like Fringe and Community are in a very similar and rickety boat — we who love them can't imagine why more people don't choose to watch — and if the overall network-TV picture were more robust, there's little chance they would have survived as long as they have with their ratings, which would be tough to sustain on most cable networks.
Question: Fringe will probably be canceled if Fox can't work something out with Warner Bros. to bring down the cost, right? It never ceases to frustrate me that ratings don't take online viewings into account, given the fact that the networks/studios make these shows available online and viewers don't need to rely on live broadcasts anymore. Rather than go on a long rant about that, I was wondering if the online appeal of shows like Fringe might work to its advantage somehow. Couldn't Fox work with Netflix (or someone like that) the way that NBC and DirecTV worked together to produce Friday Night Lights? — Drew
Matt Roush: It still boils down to economics. Online viewing doesn't generate the revenue that on-air viewing does, and white knights like DirecTV (which has already said it's no longer in the business of saving shows, preferring to develop its own) apparently aren't as easy to find as we'd hope. Although, with Netflix also getting into the original-production business, that's not a bad idea. It would be great if a cable or satellite partner could jump on this particular cult bandwagon, and Fringe's producers have said they're willing to continue the franchise in webisode or some other form of distribution. So even if Fox does end up pulling the plug for any of the reasons elaborated above, that may not be the end of the story.
Question: I sample a fairly large quantity of TV — and stick with far more of it that I probably should. Still, I can't help but identify something others seem to view as a mundane supernatural show targeted at teenagers, The Vampire Diaries, as one of my favorite shows. It truly has faster pacing than much of the other programs I watch, save some of the British imports I'm most fond of. So my question is this: Are The Vampire Diaries' writers really that much more creative, or do American shows typically stick to a slower format to plan for more seasons (thus make more money)? I understand that TVD does have some source material to draw from already from the book series, but like The Walking Dead (which I also love), TVD has deviated from the books to keep the show entertaining to as much of the target audience as possible. What really got me thinking about this was the midseason premiere of The Vampire Diaries, which gave fans of its will-they-won't-they couple a kiss that in most other shows would have taken many more years to get to. I hate the stigma this show has as being for kids, while when it comes to giving viewers at least one payoff per episode, few other shows are in its company. Any insight you can give on television pacing or the perception of this show would be great. -Shawn
Matt Roush: That kiss was awesome, no question about it. And Vampire Diaries' breakneck pacing is perhaps its greatest asset, although more and more, serialized shows are burning through story at a fairly fast clip to keep the audience from losing interest. Revenge is a great example of a first-year soap that's breathlessly churning up intrigue. In the past, it might have taken a show like this a full season before bringing the "real" Emily (who's passing as "Amanda") to the Hamptons to stir things up. With Vampire Diaries, I almost worry that there's too much story at times, and keeping track of the rules of who's a hybrid and who turned who and how often characters can come back from the dead, etc., can be fun but also tends to make the show even more preposterous than it needs to be. Regardless, a show like this on a network like The CW is always going to be patronized and pigeonholed and not taken terribly seriously. (It took years for Buffy the Vampire Slayer to get its due, especially from the industry.)
Question: For the legions who went ballistic over the non-ending, no payoff on Who Killed Rosie Larsen in lucky episode 13 of season one of AMC's The Killing, here's a pre-emptive Jeer for Veena Sud — who runs the show. I just read an extensive interview in Written By magazine (the monthly of the Writers Guild of America). For all those who were left hanging and vowed not to return, as well as for those who were led to believe that the murderer would be revealed in the first episode or two of next season as an enticement to give the show another chance — don't hold your breath. According to the article: "For the record, who killed Rosie Larsen will not be revealed until THE END OF SEASON TWO." The capitals are mine — for emphasis — and to show my anger at being manipulated. I for one will not be watching season two — nor will I be buying the DVD set for season one. So I count on you and TV Guide Magazine to tell me whodunit — while I use my time watching other shows. — Michael
Matt Roush: At least this time they're being upfront about it. But yes, that admission does seem to have once again raised the hackles of those who felt so poorly treated by the way the first season ended (or didn't) — which seems to be the prevailing critical opinion, though by no means a universal one. The Killing might have gotten away with extending the Rosie Larsen mystery instead of becoming an industry punchline if we'd been given some dramatic payoff along the way, instead of what now feels in retrospect to be an endlessly frustrating wallow in mood. I still find the show tonally interesting, and will stay with it through the second season, so yes, I promise to tell you whodunit when the time comes. If you still care.
Question: I have tried to like Happy Endings. It runs right in line with a great Wednesday night line-up on ABC. But I just don't think it's funny, despite everyone really loving it. But then ABC brings on stuff like Work It, which is terrible, and leaves Cougar Town on the shelf? What gives anyway? If ABC doesn't want to air the show, sell it to NBC, which desperately needs some better shows. Any more news on what ABC will do with Cougar Town? Second, Grimm was supposed to be the show this season, but I am loving Once Upon a Time and don't even keep up with Grimm any more. Were you surprised at which one is doing better? — Sharon
Matt Roush: With shows like Happy Endings, as with many comedies, it's really a matter of taste. I laugh at some of the banter, especially when delivered by Max and Penny, but I don't feel any authentic connection to anything that's happening with these incessant joke-machine characters and have mostly been able to resist its smarmy charms. But it's clearly the favored flavor of the season at ABC, which under new management has let Cougar Town languish all season. Now that Work It is already forgotten history, we should know very soon (possibly by the time you read this column) when and where Cougar Town will be scheduled. But I admit I laughed at the scenario by which NBC would pick the show up — given that ABC stepped in to give Bill Lawrence's Scrubs one last season when NBC let it go. Let's just say I don't see this happening.
Regarding the fairy-tale dramas: I'm not sure Grimm (being on NBC and airing on Fridays) was ever expected to be a bigger hit or draw than Once Upon a Time, which was also seen as a major risk of the fall season. I am rather surprised, pleasantly actually, at how well Once Upon a Time is performing, and even more so at how I find myself looking forward to it most Sundays. I enjoy its broad and sometimes even corny appeal, and it's so great looking. Grimm is also far from the disaster I predicted, and given the state of NBC seems a good bet for renewal, but its murkier and more violent mythology lands it in the cult niche category at best.
Question: Any word with what's going on with BBC's Being Human? I heard the actor who plays Mitchell left and the one playing George is going to leave. Will there be a new season on BBC America? I never started watching the Syfy series because I was watching the BBC edition. How does it compare to the British one? — Carol
Matt Roush: Late last week, BBC America announced the fourth season of the original (and superior) version of Being Human would begin airing Feb. 25 as part of the Supernatural Saturdays franchise. Aidan Turner (Mitchell) left at the end of last season — quite violently and memorably, if you'll recall — and by all accounts, this appears to be a transitional season for Russell Tovey (George) as well, with new characters being introduced as the originals are phased out. (Lenora Crichlow stays put as Annie, for continuity's sake.) I'll reserve judgment until I see how the new blood plays out, but it's hard to imagine it will leave me as unimpressed as the Syfy version does.
Question: These questions might be a bit far afield from what you normally answer but I thought I would give it a try. Both relate more to the business of TV. First, I am curious as to the purpose of the TCA winter press tour. I follow the summer one with avid interest and there is a lot of interesting or perhaps more accurately amusing commentary in the press about it. The main purpose seems to be to introduce the new season of shows, but I haven't been able to figure out the purpose of the winter version.
Second, what are your thoughts on what an actor/actress owes fans? This seems to come up perennially when contracts come up or when a series' final season rolls around and fans want to see old characters come back. Some people think they are owed the continuation or revisiting of the character. How much of fan satisfaction is really based on how the producers/writers handle it? Is there a "norm?" How do you think about actors/actresses exiting roles or returning for finale seasons? - Megan
Matt Roush: Summer press tour is primarily focused on launching the fall season (although some summer programming tends to be addressed as well), but the winter gathering is no less vital, as it provides a chance to take the networks' temperature at the season's midpoint, and if you followed the coverage of sessions like the one where 2 Broke Girls got put on the hot seat, plenty of news of a sort can be generated. It also provides a platform to preview the new midseason lineups, which in a year like this are at least as compelling (with shows like Smash and The River on the horizon) as what happened in the fall.
Your second question is more problematic, because there's no "norm" in how to handle the departure of a cast member from a long-running show. Some do it more gracefully than others, and sometimes it leaves a bad taste from which the show and/or the actor (usually the latter) never recovers. It's always great when stars come back to a show that made them famous — I'm thinking George Clooney's cameo at the end of ER, along with the return of other former cast members — as a nod to the fan base and often as a favor to the producers that helped put them on the map. But once an actor leaves a show, hopefully without burning bridges — which clearly isn't always the case — I'm not sure what they actually "owe" anyone but themselves to make smart choices with the rest of their career. It's really up to the producers and writers to satisfy fans with a resolution to the character's story, and if the door remains open for the character and actor to someday return, of course it's nice when that's able to happen. But when it doesn't, sometimes for logistical but possibly for personal reasons, I wouldn't necessarily look at that as a slap in the face to fans.
Question: I really liked The Firm! Something different and I love the storyline already after only two episodes. I noticed that the author of the book version is the executive producer of the show, which makes me think this show will only get better! However, before I get into this show too much, is this show already set to air "all" episodes up to the finale or is this based on ratings like every other show? - Mike
Matt Roush: I wouldn't get too excited about John Grisham's participation in this series, which is almost certainly more advisory than creative. And I wouldn't get too attached to the show, which premiered to pretty dismal ratings. I suppose it's possible that NBC will air all 22 episodes, which are being made as part of an international production-distribution deal, but no show is guaranteed a full run if it collapses in the ratings. Even on NBC. And to show how wide the range of opinions can be, here was a reaction from Archie C. in my e-mailbag regarding The Firm: "Riveting and exciting! Akin to watching paint dry." I'm afraid I'm inclined to agree with Archie on this one.
Question: I know that A&E has picked up the series Longmire for a 10-episode first season, but when will it premiere? All I can find out is that it will premiere in 2012, but can you tell me anything more specific, like a date, or whether it will debut in the spring/summer or not until fall? — Brandon
Matt Roush: Over the weekend, A&E confirmed that Longmire will be part of the summer schedule. No exact air date yet, but it wouldn't be such a bad idea to pair it with The Glades.
Question: Do you think there's any chance ABC could bring back Man Up now that they have finally put Work It out of its inevitable misery, or maybe some other network could pick it up (paging NBC stat!)? I know Man Up hasn't gotten any love from the critics — or its network, apparently — but I know several people, myself included, that loved that show. Personally, I think Last Man Standing is OK and I usually chuckle once or twice during most episodes but I always laughed non-stop at Man Up (the episode with the chickens was a classic) and I really miss it. ABC always seems to break my heart (i.e. Better Off Ted, Dirty Sexy Money, Pushing Daisies, etc)! — Kristin
Matt Roush: Sorry, but Man Up is down for the count, and not even NBC is that desperate.
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