Today's Brew: 'Friday Night Lights,' 'Wipeout,' 'NCIS' ... Well, It's a Mystery
If you're a Roman Catholic, like me, you get used to thinking, "Well, it's a mystery."
All of the universe cannot be fully explained nor rationalized away -- as those poor, brave souls in Japan know with heartbreaking clarity -- and what is true of the universe as a whole is also true of that little corner of it called TV.
Screenwriter William Goldman, in talking about the movies, said, "Nobody knows nothing," and that goes for all of entertainment. Why some things succeed and others fail is as much about luck and happenstance and timing as it is about effort or talent.
Quality shows fail; cheesy shows are giant hits ("Jersey Shore" and all of the "Real Housewives" come to mind).
Why? Eh, it's a mystery.
I have loved plenty of shows that failed, from "The Adventures of Brisco County Jr." and "EZ Streets" to "The Good Guys," and several shows that have hung on by the skin of their teeth but never became big hits, like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (before you yell, it was never The WB's highest-rated show, or usually even the second highest-rated show, but it did well enough by The WB's modest standards to survive) to "The Wire" and "Friday Night Lights."
(I shall always have a warm little spot in my heart for former NBC chief Ben Silverman and DirecTV for striking the deal that let under-appreciated "FNL" have a full five-season run -- the final season begins on NBC Friday, April 15.)
Now, you may say, well, you're a TV critic, you have elevated and refined tastes, and you don't like shows that normal people like.
Hold it right, there, buckaroo. I've been on the case of megahit "NCIS" since the beginning, long before the mainstream press was finally forced to take notice -- went off in a blog post a few years ago about that -- and as any regular reader of this blog knows, I love the intellect-free but fun-filled "Wipeout," reality-competition megahit "Dancing With the Stars" and reality hits "Deadliest Catch" and "Dirty Jobs."
OK, and "IRT: Deadliest Roads." Nothing like TV you have to watch through your fingers, curled in a fetal position.
For what it's worth, here are a few theories I've cooked up as to why shows succeed or fail (bearing in mind, "nobody knows nothing") ...
Timing is everything. When you've had a hard day at work, do you want to come home, help the kids with their homework, argue with your teenage daughter about boys or college admission, maybe look over the budget with your spouse and then sit down and watch people do the very same thing on "Friday Night Lights"? Maybe not. Shows have to hit people at the right place and the right moment in their lives. On the other hand, if the show is funny enough, like "Modern Family," you just might.
Stars don't matter. Maybe they do in movies -- but I'd only make an argument for a few people even there -- but big-name actors don't get people to watch scripted TV, at least not past the pilot. If the viewers still don't like the show, they're gone. But stars are something to promote, so I know why the networks try.
Stars do matter. But usually only in reality TV, because viewers hope they'll learn something new or the star will do something ridiculous or entertaining. You tune in because you know something about the person, and therefore you care more than with a total unknown. But if the star is boring -- which means he or she is probably a sensible person and not an unbalanced exhibitionist -- the audience is gone. (Which may go a long way to explaining why sane, sensible stars don't often do reality shows.)
Big-name producers matter ... to a point. Again, it's a selling point to have a name producer, but very few of them are hit machines, and the recognition doesn't often penetrate beyond a small slice of the TV audience. But if you've got a Mark Burnett or a J.J. Abrams, you've got wider recognition and a good track record, and that's about as good as it gets.
Swing viewers matter. There will always be a loyal constituency for every show -- the size varies wildly, and often it's not enough -- and there will be a certain number of people who wouldn't watch the show if you paid them. It's those people in the middle, not necessarily inclined to love a show nor to hate it, that are the difference among utter failure, cult hit and "NCIS." I believe a lot of those swing viewers came to "NCIS" through its frequent airings on USA, and that the show was accessible enough and consistent enough to satisfy them when they tried out the new episodes.
A copy is never as good as the original. Never. Ever. Development execs should have this tattooed on their arms, so they have to see it every day. A COPY IS NEVER AS GOOD AS THE ORIGINAL. And cloning is only for sheep. Unless you get the same producer, same writers, same crew, same actors, same premiere date and same societal conditions at the time of the premiere date, you can't clone a hit.
Amuse yourself first. If you're a producer or a development exec or a network exec, and a show tickles you or moves you, go with it. Unless you're deeply weird or clinically insane (and sometimes even if you're one or both), someone else will feel the same. How many of those someones there are, well...
It's a mystery.