Monday, July 16, 2012

In Defense of Your Annoying Friend: Firefly, Arrested Development and Community

Last week-end there was a 10th anniversary Firefly Reunion panel at San Diego Comic-Con.  The week before that Ron Howard tweeted a picture from the Arrested Development writer's room where they are beginning work on a new Netflix series to be followed up by a movie.

It got me thinking about all the great but obscure shows that we've lost over the years. Ultimately, these shows get the axe due to low ratings which result in low ad revenues for their networks.

Now, beyond that, there seem to be other reasons—most of us know the story of how Firefly was mistreated by FOX before it ever even hit TV screens. We also all probably have a particular favorite show that was full of promise but was cancelled before it ever had a chance to find an audience and even begin to reach its full potential. (The awesome Threshold springs to my mind.)

It seems the networks no longer have the patience to let a show develop or for word-of-mouth about it to get around. If a new series doesn't hit certain targets in the first 3 or 4 weeks, it's gone. A show like The X-Files—were it to premiere today— would never get nine seasons. Hell, it probably wouldn't get halfway to nine episodes! 

Now, the networks would claim they're a business, and as such, they must make money. They're right. The trouble is they're costing themselves money with this short-sighted behavior. You see, whenever a new and interesting show comes up—say, something trying to be the next LOST-like show (creating long-term plot-lines and mysteries to be solved over time*)—most people I know now take a "wait and see" approach. No one wants to get hooked on a new show—to get pulled into its world and learn to like its characters—only to have the rug yanked out from under them after a few short weeks. People have become leery of even starting to watch what may appear to be a great new show for fear that the network will pull it before they can get any resolution.

This fault lies not with the wary audience, but with the short-sighted network programmers. So many shows have been pulled too soon that no one wants to invest their time in a new show any more, and so new shows fail. If a network would just let a show run (commit to a full season or two), and do this on a regular basis, they would probably start gaining the trust of their audiences again. But somehow I doubt that's going to happen, given the current mindset of TV executives and the splintering of TV audiences over broadcast TV, basic cable and premium channels.

Of course, the big broadcast networks see what's going on over at HBO and AMC and assume that they need to make their shows more racy or violent. They're completely missing the point that what's really going on over there is that good stories are being told, and that these stories and the characters within them are being given the chance to develop. These shows are being given the the time to find the right audience!

Of course, competing with the likes of Mad Men or Breaking Bad takes effort and commitment. It also takes work … and patience. The networks find it far easier to pull a show that doesn't hit its numbers in the first few weeks and just replace it with another cheap, mindless reality show.

The real shame is that many shows later find an audience after it's too late. And this brings me back to Firefly. More people have watched Firefly since it was cancelled than ever saw it when it was on the air. I suspect that if the number of people who love the show now had been watching when it originally aired, we'd have had at least four or five seasons.

Think about that. All of you people who've bought or borrowed the DVDs, or watched it on SyFy or NetFlix and were disappointed that there are only 13 episodes, and don't understand how such a fantastic show got cancelled so quickly—you all wish there was more Firefly to watch. Same goes for Arrested Development. Sure, at least it managed to get a couple of seasons** but it, too, has become more popular since the release of DVDs and NetFlix Streaming.

So now we come to our Annoying Friend.

We all have at least one of those Annoying Friends who is always telling us about how great something is and how we should be paying attention to it. I both have them and have been one—notably in the cases of the two shows mentioned above. 

The problem is that our Annoying Friend is Annoying. So we often don't listen to her or him.

But—how often, in hindsight, has that Annoying Friend turned out to be right? How many of us had an Annoying Friend tell us to watch Arrested Development, but for whatever reason, we never got around to it until after it was off the air?

My point is that the next time your Annoying Friend tells you that you really should pay attention to something … maybe do it? Before it's too late?

Oh, and one final thought: WATCH COMMUNITY, DAMMIT!

*The disappointing ending of LOST notwithstanding.
** OK, so it's officially 3 seasons, but there were only a total of 53 episodes. (Anyone else remember when a "season" of television meant 26 or more episodes?) 

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