Save Our Show Campaigns [May 14-18, 2012]
by Alisa Perren — University of Texas at Austin
May 13, 2012 – 13:31
Monday, May 14, 2012 - Maya Montanez Smukler (UCLA and The New School University) presents: Hung Out to Dry: HBO’s Cancellation Habit
Tuesday, May 15, 2012 - Maria San Filippo (Wellesley College, Harvard College) presents: ‘Enlightened’ or Not?: How HBO Learned to Trust Its Viewers But Not Its Shows
Wednesday, May 16, 2012 - Jennifer Porst (University of California, Los Angeles) presents: Breaking In a Formula for a Successful Network Sitcom
Thursday, May 17, 2012 - Vernon Shetley (Wellesley College) presents: Lip Service: The Greatest Glaswegian Sapphic Soap Opera Ever Made
Friday, May 18, 2012 - Stephanie Spiro (The New School University) presents: Felicia Day and The Guild: The Web Series That Saved Itself
Theme week organized by Maya Montanez Smukler and Maria San Filippo.
Image from E! Networks.
Premiering in June 2009, HBO’s half-hour comedy Hung embodied in its leading character a recession mania sweeping the country, as American Everyman Ray Drecker (Thomas Jane) takes the emasculating downturn of his present day life—divorce, unemployment, homelessness—by the balls. Strutting through the depleted streets of Detroit in time to The Black Keys’ cranking anthem “I’ll Be Your Man,” Ray strips his way through the opening credits, a gesture that serves both as a surrender to dire straits and an act of dissidence—he may be broke, but he can still turn heads. Hung, a show about an unemployed high school teacher making the most of his best asset—a large penis—becomes a sex worker in order to provide for his family, garnered 9 million viewers per episode during its first season, ranking it as the channel’s most popular comedy program in five years.
Last December HBO cancelled Hung, along with Bored to Death (2009—2011) and How to Make it in America (2010—2011). Speculation that the channel’s roster was stacked with new shows, compounded by HBO airing programs only on Sunday nights, pushed out existing series. Hung’s numbers dropped from 6.9 million during 2010 to 3.9 million in 2011, its third and last season, but still it ranked higher than its peers. In their final seasons both Bored and How to Make it in America clocked 2.3 million viewers each, a 25% drop from the previous year. In the case of Enlightened (October 2011—), which aired to 1.5 million viewers and was picked up for a second season, ratings seem arbitrary in HBO’s drastic cuts.
What does seems clear, as Maria San Filippo suggests in tomorrow’s post, is the network’s proclivity for understated yet provocative content without being wholly committed to letting series run their course. Ray’s sexcapades paired him with Tanya (Jane Adams), a feminist poet turned pimp. The scrappy duo begin by mixing business with pleasure and at program’s end find true friendship. As a narrative, Hung’s “orgasmic living” may have been cut short, but it stands out—both series and storyline—as an example of the “It’s Not TV” brand of impressive American entrepreneurship. Regrettably, HBO seems to be selling out its own as mercilessly as U.S. big business has done. Taking our lead from Ray, this week’s theme tackles the elusive politics of staying on the air and the constant threat of cancellation.
HBO and flashier rival Showtime became powerhouses by programming series so provocative or pedigreed that non-subscribers sign up to tune in. Game of Thrones, Girls, and The L Word are such shows; Enlightened is not.
Enlightened is the low concept, low profile series subscribers happen upon, warm to, then incrementally, intimately, embrace. Hence why Enlightened, which after premiering last October became the lone survivor of HBO’s pre-holiday massacre (see yesterday’s post by Maya Montañez Smukler), needs saving from the fate that befell older shows with more viewers but no award nominations Bored to Death, How to Make It in America, and Hung. Whereas the broadcast networks’ draconian ratings-and-sponsorship gods, as Jennifer Porst will discuss tomorrow, likely would have axed it too, Enlightened was granted a second season with which to score more viewers and accolades…or else, is the implication. The irony being that Enlightened’s magnetism stems from its slow build, tonal alchemy, startlingly human characters, and realistically restrained drama. Denying its dramatic series the opportunity to unfold over time, HBO is forsaking the second part of its successful model: having lured subscribers in, keeping them devoted (The Sopranos and Sex and the City, anyone?).
Satirical but un-ironic, outrageous without being over the top, Enlightened is a pitching nightmare precisely because it is so compassionate and true to life. Growing out of his own experiences in treatment following a Tinsel Town meltdown, Enlightened proved as inspirational for writer-creator Mike White as David Lynch’s comparable debacle was for Mulholland Drive. Luckily for us, White also followed Lynch’s lead in recognizing the too rarely exploited talents of Laura Dern, who plays disgraced executive-turned-cog-turned-whistleblower Amy Jellicoe, and re-matching her with real-life mother Diane Ladd as the chilly widow reluctantly receiving her daughter back into the maternal fold. Amy’s only other allies, her drug-addled ex-husband (Luke Wilson) and a nebbish co-worker (White), are equally wary of the havoc Amy’s born-again idealism could wreak. They should be. Earnestly seeking to be an Obama-era agent of change, Amy defies contemporary American apathy and corporate greed, doggedly intent on becoming her better self even as she confronts the difficulty of self-reinvention and shaping a just world. Season 1 ends with the ominous suggestion that change won’t emerge through political protests or in the boardrooms, but only with a revolutionary spark. Or is that just what it takes to remain on HBO?
When Fox tested the pilot for Breaking In, it scored the highest of any of their pilots for the 2009-2010 season. Nonetheless, Fox passed on the show. Then, in November 2010, Fox changed its mind and ordered seven episodes as a midseason replacement for the painfully awful Running Wilde. Breaking In debuted as the highest-rated Fox live-action comedy show of the past three years, but, in May 2011, Fox canceled the show before it finished its run. The rumor was that Fox decided to go with all female-skewing comedies.
Miraculously, the show was resurrected again in Fall 2011 for a thirteen episode midseason pickup, making it only the second show ever, along with Family Guy, to survive cancellation by the same network twice. The show’s second season premier aired on March 6, as part of Fox’s two-hour Tuesday night comedy block that includes (female-skewing) New Girl and Raising Hope. As a part of the show’s attempt to appeal to Fox’s desired female audience, the show introduced Megan Mullally as a new co-lead for Christian Slater, and shifted from a caper-of-the-week structure to an office-based show. Although the ratings improved from the end of the first season, on April 11, Fox pulled the rest of Breaking In’s episodes with no indication of when it might return.
This all highlights the fact that, while Fox may be particularly schizophrenic in their scheduling, networks currently face a nearly impossible task when developing successful sitcoms. While cable channels’ subscriber dollars allow them to run lower rated, edgier, single camera comedies aimed at niche audiences, networks are stuck trying to maintain relevance among a younger demographic while still amassing the widest audience possible.
When networks develop shows like Breaking In, they end up with a show that only kind of appeals to most people. Unfortunately, that does not make people tune in every week, and unless the networks can figure out a formula that works—or convince their advertisers to prefer smaller, quality audiences—audiences might be stuck with promising shows like Breaking In that undergo painful retooling as they’re cancelled and revived, while bland shows enjoy an eternity in primetime.
Lip Service has frequently been termed a Scottish version of The L Word, but the differences are as profound as the similarities. The L Word had an expansive idea of its own significance; in its six-year run, it continually engaged controversial topics: coming out, gay parenting, bisexuality, transgenderism—and on and on. Lip Service is more modest, both in its scale and its claims. Where The L Word initially offered six central characters (Bette, Tina, Jenny, Alice, Dana, Kit), Lip Service makes do with three (Cat, Frankie, Tess). The L Word was set in the global metropolis of Los Angeles; Lip Service takes place in the peripheral town of Glasgow. The ghost of the after-school special at times hovered perilously over The L Word; Lip Service aims more to entertain and engage viewers than instruct them.
Whatever Lip Service lacks in scope, however, it more than makes up for in depth and texture. Britannia’s empire may have waned, but her actors still rule the airwaves, and the Lip Service cast is (almost) uniformly stellar. The dance between Ruta Gedmintas’s Frankie and Laura Fraser’s Cat, the one magnetic and destructive, the other buttoned-up and industrious, hardly breaks new ground, but is given vivid life by Gedmintas’s charisma and Fraser’s nuanced intensity. Fiona Button, with her huge, perpetually astonished eyes, leavens the sturm und drang of the Cat and Frankie relationship with an endearingly awkward humor. Where Jenny Schechter, in her hectoring self-pity, became the true voice of The L Word, Tess, carrying on as an actor despite backstage mishaps and rehearsal nightmares, often seems the character closest to the hearts of Lip Service’s creators. On The L Word, the writer reigned with a supreme and oft-abused authority; Lip Service, in contrast, highlights the performer.
BBC Three has shown Lip Service oddly little love. Audiences were apparently strong for the first season, but the network delayed greenlighting a second; the show premiered 12 October 2010, but the second season didn’t air until 20 April 2012. One wonders whether that delay is connected to the “prior commitments” that dictated the catastrophic plot twist that blindsided viewers early in season two. Sometimes, one doesn’t know whether to be more grateful to a network for creating a wonderful show in the first place, or more angry with them for their poor stewardship of it.
How do you save your show before it even starts? You might want to embrace a new model, self-produce the show with the help of your interactive fans, bring it to the wild frontier that is the Internet, and work it on the web to amass a large set of followers using an audience collaboration model and the power of Twitter.
In terms of breaking into television as a star, Day was a new breed, virtually unknown in the world of A-listers. Instead she was proving herself to be a self-made cyber-star, the web’s ingenue, a major player amongst the nerds and i-listers (Internet folk). Honest and accessible — wearing her avatar heart on her digital sleeve — Day was emerging as a Twitter goddess with the mind of a gamer.
In an interview with Fast Company, Day mentioned that television studios wouldn’t be as interested in her show idea if they didn’t think it had a mainstream audience. She pointed out that in the world of the web, even a niche audience could be millions of people. So Day engaged her cult following and created The Guild’s 5+ minute episodes herself, her way, marketing it organically by cultivating an accessible, honest brand, and tapping in to her enormous social media network.
When the networks saw how popular The Guild was, they came calling, but by then Day had already partnered with Sprint and Microsoft and she had made a deal with XBOX 360 to cross entertainment and gaming platforms. This also gave Day creative control of her show, something she may have lost if she had signed with a television network.
Five years after the launch of The Guild, Day’s i-television empire grows in a medium that is more flexible than tradtional TV, allowing for more creative autonomy, and reaching a global community with a global village mentality.
Day was recently commissioned by YouTube to create a network called Geek and Sundry that plays to her “niche” crowd of millions. Cancellation? Never. This is one i-ingenue with a show that is not in need of saving.
Sun, 13 May 2012 18:31:49 +0000