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At the end of a far-ranging tour-de-force executive session from Fox’s Kevin Reilly, he asked for something that might have been a step too far — even though it was, on the surface, both simple and logical.
He wanted more patience for Dads, the Seth MacFarlane non-animated sitcom starring Seth Green, Giovanni Ribisi, Martin Mull and Peter Riegert. First, let’s start with the obvious — Reilly is not dumb. He came prepared with a copy of some searing, critical quotes about an unnamed show that had yet to air. That show? The Big Bang Theory, currently crushing every other sitcom in the known world, ratings-wise. His point — that critics could be harsh on shows too early. (For the record, I hated the Big Bang Theory pilot, and while much later I came around to believing it’s a good series with strong comedic performances, it’s still not a series I like and not one I choose to watch of my own accord.)
But the idea of patience is a complicated one. I recently wrote that a struggling network like NBC (or ABC) truly only has patience as a tool in their toolbox. They need to put on good shows and let people find them, rather than giving up too early and starting over with something unknown. But the X factor in that argument is that we were talking about shows that were truly good. Not bad shows hoping to turn good.
In the case of Dads, the pilot is terrible. No doubt Fox and Reilly know this because critics haven’t stopped tweeting snark about it since the screeners arrived. Not only is the show not funny, it has heavily racist overtones for Asians.
Reilly agreed that not everything worked in the pilot and that the tone was off — but we don’t know yet if Fox is going to talk to MacFarlane about tinkering with the pilot. We do know that he defended MacFarlane and the show’s writers as some of the best in the business, indicating that even if the pilot misfired, future episodes would more than likely begin hitting on all cylinders.
There’s precedent for this, of course. Seinfeld for one, 30 Rock for another (first four episodes in particular) and then five of the first six episodes of Parks and Recreation as an exclamation point. Parks and Recreation came back for season two and was great right out of the gates. Now, you could say that the P&R writers just didn’t get it right when they were making the pilot — even when they had plenty of time. And that given another shot at it, but with some hindsight about what didn’t work with the tone and the characters, they nailed it.
Will that happen with Dads? Who knows. There’s a stink to it. It’s multi-camera on a network that doesn’t really do multi-cams. The laugh track is annoying. And the notion, which Reilly at least began discussing but didn’t have enough time to flesh out in a longer conversation, is that politically incorrect humor has a place (and a history) on television. But Dads isn’t Family Guy (not by a million miles), where animated characters transgressing boundaries of taste resonates in our brains as so clearly over the top, whereas Dads is live-action, and when you make a terrible joke about a Chinese guy’s tiny penis — and keep referencing it endlessly — you’re in a different world altogether.
But beyond that is the whole notion of second acts. Even if we acknowledge that shows, particularly comedies, do get better, it ignores the fact that most do not get better and obscures the bigger issues here: time and choice. One of the biggest obstacles to any show on television trying to find an audience is that people only have so much time in their lives to devote to nightly viewing and there are countless series to choose from.
Think about it. You already have your returning favorites. You aren’t going to dump those. An endless batch of new series are kicking in this summer, then hitting maximum capacity in the fall. At what point do you give something like Dads a second chance at a first impression? A second chance to make you laugh? Twenty-two more minutes in hopes you won’t hear another racist joke that’s not even funny to begin with?
I admire Reilly, but I’m not sure Dads is the hill I’d choose to die on in defense of patience and the need for a let-it-ride approach to politically incorrect comedy.
And here’s the thing — Fox has other shows this fall that are worth your attention — dramas and comedies. Ultimately you may not even find them. You might choose others from across the broadband and never get to them.
That’s why, when you get to Dads, losing those 22 minutes might be a loss you won’t forget nor want to repeat. And shows across the spectrum need to understand the competitively cruel world they’re playing in: It’s very likely that you’ll get one shot. So make it count.
In that regard, circling back to Dads, if there’s an acknowledgement that the show is uneven and the pilot does need work, maybe some tinkering or overhauling is necessary before it gets on. But the way the broken network system works, a wholesale restructuring is impossible because the show is moving on to other episodes. Unfortunately, the new world order of television has no sympathy for outmoded industries. Even if your content is so good that you deserve a second shot, that doesn’t mean you’ll get it. And when your content is so bad that it doesn’t even deserve a first chance, it’s hard muster up any sympathy about a plea for patience.
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