May 11, 2011 12:12pm PT by Tim Goodman
The Fox Tuesday Night Murders Postmortem
When I saw the list of Fox casualties on Tuesday night (a sneak attack before next week's upfronts), my initial reaction wasn't shock so much as bewilderment. The network dumped The Chicago Code, Traffic Light, Human Target, Lie to Me and Breaking In. Other than the last one, those are -- or were at one time -- very good shows.
But given a little more time to process it, most of the Fox cuts make sense -- but sense doesn't lessen the impact of people expressing their anger on Twitter and vowing to never watch Fox again (doubtful). But the cuts also bring up some issues about television in general and Fox in particular.
Let's start with Chicago Code, a series that looked for all the world like it was going to break out and be a solid network cop series. Shawn Ryan knows how to write and how to run a series, so the pedigree was there, but ultimately, week-to-week, Chicago Code couldn't live up to its potential. My main problem with the show was never for one second believing Jennifer Beals, an actress I normally like. She was miscast here. She always looked uncomfortable in the uniform and was overshadowed by Delroy Lindo, the real star of the show. As for Jason Clarke, another fantastic actor, he did fine work and will one day get the hit that eludes him (meanwhile, Brotherhood on Showtime was his best TV work and a better show as well).
The cancellation of Chicago Code and the near-certain killing of Detroit 1-8-7 on ABC perhaps give insight to a bigger issue: the street-cop series needs a revamp (in much the same way that Ryan's own The Shield on FX and The Wire on HBO pumped new blood into the format and raised the standard to great heights). I've said it many times -- those two series made creating another cop series pointless. You weren't going to make a better one. Seems now there's only a niche to fill when it comes to quirky cops or blue sky cable offerings. Either go full-grit or go funny. Nothing else is gaining any traction with viewers.
Lie to Me and Human Target, on the other hand, were two solid shows that were mishandled. Lie to Me probably could have been a long-running procedural for Fox had the network not essentially killed it midway through the second season. It ran from September through late November in order, popped up once in December and returned in -- wait for it -- June. Fox tried to spin it as a summer show, but it smelled for all the world like a burnoff. No wonder, after that loss of faith and a shuffling of showrunners, that Season 3 had doom all over it. Reminder to networks: Viewers are not dumb.
Human Target was a cult show that needed a deft hand to make it a wider hit. Instead of adding what the fans wanted -- more Guerrero (Jackie Earle Haley) -- the network added two female characters to balance the testosterone and make it more amenable to female viewers. The result? A show changed for the worse. So, in retrospect, no surprises in that clump of cancellations.
No, the true troublesome killing was Traffic Light, a sitcom scrambling for viewers that needed more patience than Fox was willing to give. Here's the problem: Fox's comedy development has been woeful for years, a weakness management knows all too well. The animated Bob's Burgers was a nice surprise but merely strengthened the net's reputation for only being able to make animated comedy. Raising Hope, however, proved that all wrong by being the best freshman sitcom on television. Could its ratings be better? Sure. But look around the dial --very few comedies are really killing it in the ratings. After criticizing (often viciously) Fox's comedy development for, oh, more years than was pleasurable, I thought Raising Hope and the seriously underappreciated Traffic Light were steps in the right direction. Over at NBC, where comedy also struggles, Parks and Recreation was deemed woeful until it was allowed time to find its tone and direction, as it did last year and this season. That patience is precisely what Traffic Light needed (and a much better title).
You don't kill a comedy that has merit, especially when your nonanimated track record is so dismal. But Fox clearly believes that series cannot, in any form, be relaunched. And it might be right about that. Viewers have too many choices. Cable is a sea of options. And new fall shows are around the corner. And yet, I fear that Fox has been swept up in the Comedy Renaissance and believes the underperforming Traffic Light can be easily replaced.
We'll see about that.
The question now is, does Fox deserve the egregious backlash it's getting? Probably not. The network has been as inconsistent and unpredictable as every other broadcast network (sticking with the dreadful ’Til Death way too long; doing a favor for Fringe fans by being patient, etc). You could make a graph of the past five years of Fox decision-making and find plenty of instances of doing right and doing wrong. Perhaps the vitriol suggests viewers expect more from Fox. (That's a good sign for the brand, at least, though it hints at a forgetful or forgiving sense of what the former upstart network has put out in recent years.)
I was never as enthralled as other critics were with Lone Star, so its meteoric failure and cancellation early in the season didn't make me all pissy and sensitive about Fox going forward. If you're counting beans and audience opportunity with Chicago Code, well, you could argue that Fox's decision is sound. They didn't think it could be saved (or relaunched). Another drama (or two or three) will come along and be both popular and strong. The channel knows how to make quality dramas (tweaking them in the growing process and selling them to an audience has proved far more difficult). I don't have many worries about future dramas at Fox.
But killing a comedy with potential -- that's a red light that wasn't heeded.