The Failure of Failure in Terriers

Curator's Note

One of the taglines promoting FX's 2010 series Terriers read "Too Small to Fail," a reference to the perilous economic status of the central protagonists' private investigation business. But as the show’s small but scrappy - and occasionally rabid - fanbase found out, the motto was prophetic in predicting minuscule ratings and FX's decision to end the show after a season. But should we regard this series as a failure? In a 2009 dossier on failure published in The Velvet Light Trap, I cautioned against reading the economic failure of a television series as a sign of aesthetic failure, as the lack of a measured audience sufficient to pay for the show often does not match up with its creative accomplishments.

Yet Terriers does invite the label of failure, due in large part to the drama's relentless focus on society’s have-nots - the central duo consists of a failed cop and a failed thief, grappling with failed relationships and running a failing business. Although the show is often quite humorous and almost breezy in tone, as exemplified by this opening scene from the series pilot, there are real emotional and economic stakes at play, as Hank and Britt's failures matter in a way that is rarely seen on commercial television. We like our televisual failures to be villainously earned, melodramatically redemptive, or referentially outsourced to backstory or off-screen action - lovable losers on television rarely actually lose.

Most of the post-game analysis over why a show as critically hailed as Terriers failed to reach a sizable audience focused on how its marketing campaign and title both seemed designed to obliquely evoke a sense of the show, rather than clearly explicating the story and characters. But I believe the failure strikes more deeply to the function of entertainment television, where such representations of failure are rarely embraced by a mass, or even niche, audience. Ultimately, the failure of viewers to embrace Terriers's low-rent milieu and bottom-scraping heroes is the saddest failure of all, as it speaks to the limits of what television can represent, even in today's fragmented narrowcast era.

Comments

Karen Petruska's picture

limits of TV

Jason, thanks for starting off the week with a post that complicates the notion of "TV failure" in such a sophisticated way.  Jumping off from your post, I would love to hear more about the typical "culprits" for failure—the nondiscerning audience, the misguided executives, and the limits of the televisual form.  It is this last one that I think most intrigues me—whether there is something specific about the medium of television that limits the types of stories or characters it can portray.  Do you think this is unique to television to some degree?

Also, another issue that "Terriers" brings up for me is based on my own experience with the show.  I read the glowing reviews after the initial promos failed to capture me, but I consistently forgot to tape "Terriers" because the show seemed DOA.  Even though I know ratings discourse is problematic (something that will be discussed later this week), I let it prevent me from engaging with this show because I didn’t want to commit and suffer the sadness of early cancellation.  Is "Terriers" perhaps an example of the worst kind of failure—one that is pre-determined by matters entirely outside the program itself?  Is there a moment to which we can point where "Terriers" failure became inevitable?  And if so, what can we learn about TV programming based on this example?

Cory Barker's picture

Failing audiences

Great post, Jason. To Karen’s point about her personal experience with Terriers, I wonder how much the groundswell of support for a low-rated series, from both critics and audiences, actually hurts its chances to succeed. I know a number of people who were in Karen’s position. I had friends who respected my opinion on TV trusted that they would like it, but outwardly mentioned it wasn’t worth getting invested now because all the rhetoric centered on how it was going to get axed anyway. They mentioned watching the DVDs or just torrenting it over the summer. 

So at this point, with Twitter and the "#SaveShowX" hashtags and the open letters, does the paratextual discourse around a show (i.e. that it’s going to die) actually prevent any new viewers from jumping in? Even those willing to try a show like Terriers have probably been burned by the cancellation demons before and perhaps they don’t want to go through that same kind of hurt again.

This is obviously not something we could really "prove," but I’m interested in how it could change in any way. Having to outwardly support a show on the bubble inherently tells those not watching that it’s probably going to go away soon and I can’t really blame them for not jumping in with episode seven when the ratings are already very, very bad.

Jason Mittell's picture

Failure to Join

Karen & Cory,

You both point to a chief challenge of the defining tenets of US TV - "success" is defined by infinite continuity, while endings are signs of failure. A one-season wonder like Terriers could be seen as over nine hours of excellent moving-image storytelling, a scope exceeding nearly every film. But instead, we do often write shows off when they seem doomed to cancellation, deciding not to invest our time in them because they may not continue (I did a similar move with Lights Out this spring, giving up on the show after a few episodes that didn’t fully grab me, justified by the signs of likely cancellation.)

I’m curious to see if American TV can adjust to the realities of ratings & opportunities of other sales platforms to embrace the shorter-run model typical of European TV, and help redefine "short-lived" as an asset rather than mark of failure. One good sign is FX’s commitment to run seasons in their entirety, even when the ratings don’t warrant it - compare this to Lone Star, which only got 2 eps on air before Fox pulled the plug completely.

Thanks for the comments!

limits of the televisual form

Hi Jason,

Thanks for a great post—and for the link to the failure dossier, which looks excellent, and really helpful! 

I want to build on Karen’s question about the limits of the televisual form, and the way that "failure" seems maybe an insufficient term for what we’re talking about here. After all, infinite continuity certainly indicates economic success, but it’s also a sign of a kind of failure—a show that has overstayed its welcome, for instance, or gone stale. This kind of perpetuity would certainly suggest that the show has "failed" to successfully achieve narrative closure (although this failure, is, of course, the point).

So it seems to me that failure—or, more precisely, lack—is built into the form of serialized television, if not other TV genres as well. After all, it’s the questions a show fails to answer that keep fans coming back for more. Maybe the literal failures of Terriers combined with this metaphorical one was too much for a lot of readers? I’m curious—did they regularly solve the mysteries they faced?

Ashton Webb's picture

Interesting conclusion, Anne.

Interesting conclusion, Anne. I would like to note how Lost repeatedly presented mysteries that never seemed to get solved. This seems to be the considered failure of the series by many(financial success incosidered). So any show has the potential to fail in some way regardless of monetary, narrative, or publicity successes?

 

Isaiah Masters's picture

Terriers

  

This is an interesting post Jason because you engage the sad truth of how our television structure limits our ability to get true or real concepts out past the executives that screen everything we see on TV.  Because there is so much money involved in the television industry, executives will only play what makes money.  Because the main function of television in our society is to provide entertainment, that is where the market will go.  Entertainment.  People don’t want to turn their TV on and watch people struggling and failing because every individual has their failures that they are trying to forget.  People watch TV to escape the reality of our world, and the complications and troubles that come with it. yes”>  So, although Terriers may be critically acclaimed, this form of television and narrative style is more suited for cinema, which does not rely so heavily on fast, quick, and easy entertainment that is expected from television today.

 

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