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Top 10 Reasons Genre TV Shows Fail

BY Jennifer Griffin

Published 11 years ago

With such a broad canvas to work with, one might expect genre TV to be safe bet for studios and networks hoping to attract the 18-34 demographic.

Lately though, science fiction, fantasy, the supernatural and horror are proving to be unknown quantities with no predictable measure of success.

Many promising new shows do not return for a second season.  Some never leave the pilot stage.  So why are genre TV shows failing to bring in the numbers and what exactly are the factors that turn viewers off a promising new series?

We list the top ten cardinal sins of genre TV that can effectively kill a new show.


1.  Shows that don’t stay true to their own universe.

Genre fans are generally willing to embrace new concepts – alien invasions, brave new worlds, body swapping, superpowers, time travel, parallel dimensions and more.   If a show lays down a rule which says ‘vampires only come out at night’ fans are going lose faith in the credibility of the show’s universe if they see one strolling around in the sun in the next scene.  We will accept what we are told provided the show creates a sound explanation for it and sticks to it.  In short, a show must stay true to its own universe in order to maintain credibility.

Falling Skies premiered last Sunday.  Although it’s far too early to predict success or failure at this point, I was surprised to see this first rule broken at the second episode mark.  We are told that the aliens are attracted to heat. We see bad guy John Pope (played by up and coming Stargate vet Colin Cunningham) use a flare gun to attract scout ships to the resistance camp.  All well and good.  But then we remember we’ve been watching people chatting away by campfires within plain sight of the mothership in several scenes.  Are the aliens only attracted to heat when the story requires them to be?


2.  Characters that never reveal more about themselves than we see in the pilot.

The pilot for any good genre show paints the hero with broad brush strokes.  We discover two or three essential and tantalizing pieces of information about the character and hope to learn more as the season progresses.  However some shows forget to flesh out the character any more than we see in that first episode, leaving us with a cardboard cutout rather than a figure we can root for.

Compare Elizabeth Mitchell’s roles in V and Lost. When V started we got the impression that divorced FBI agent Erica Evans was good at her job and was an overprotective mother.  When V wrapped after just two seasons, we knew little else.

On the other hand, doctor Juliet Burke from Lost grew and evolved over her time on the show.  She had a rich backstory complete with a family and a medical career in fertility treatment.  These elements later played key roles in her character development on the show.   She had shifting relationships with Jack and Sawyer.  She made choices which carried huge implications, such as choosing to defect from the ‘Others’ in order to stay with the survivors of Oceanic 815 and attempting to save Ben’s life by operating on his tumor when it might have been wiser not to.  And she sacrificed herself to save the lives of her friends in the show’s penultimate season.

Some people loved the character of Juliet on the show, and some didn’t.  But at least we know what it was we felt about her and why.


3.  Shows that don’t kill off characters after they have served their purpose.

Heroes I’m looking at you.  Sometimes it really is better to have loved and lost rather than sit and watch your favourite character suffer through increasingly absurd storylines just for the sake of having something to do each week.  When the viewer can mentally picture the writers’ room angst, it’s time to call it.


4.  Characters that fail to learn anything.

These characters are doomed to make the same mistakes week after week and we are doomed to watch them.   Used as a lazy shortcut to a desired outcome, or as a means to heighten drama, these characters are scripted to repeat their mistakes with goldfish-brain enthusiasm in order to further the story.

Take FlashForward‘s Mark Benford.  Those who tuned into ABC’s now cancelled scifi drama will know that FBI agent Benford had a bit of a temper.  Benford’s temper landed him in trouble on occasion.  And by ‘on occasion’ I mean at least twice an episode.  It wasn’t FlashForward unless Benford was overturning a table, beating someone up or angrily overstepping his mark with a work colleague or his wife.  The resulting fallout always served to alienate Benford and made it that much more difficult for him to put the pieces of a puzzle together or maintain healthy relationships with those around him. Which is exactly how the writers wanted it to be. Benford (and whoever was writing him) just never learned to take a different approach.


5.  Badly paced episodes.

Sometimes a new show comes along with a great story to tell, but with a frustrating sense there is all the time in the world to tell it.  If the opening episode of a new show doesn’t leave you feeling like you’ve just stepped off a rollercoaster, then it’s unlikely the remainder of the season will be any better.  A slow burn is never a good idea for a new show’s opening episodes.

Badly paced episodes also leave the viewer with the niggling worry that perhaps there isn’t much story to tell. If you’ve been watching for 20 minutes and still can’t see any sign of this week’s story, then it’s time to switch channels.

Viewers will usually make up their minds about a show after 3 episodes.  If most of that time is spent watching characters navel gazing, or looking at long sweeping shots of the landscape, the show is going to start hemorrhaging viewers.

BBC’s Outcasts was a beautiful show in many ways. It featured a diverse and colorful cast of characters and actors who gave convincing and poignant performances. It was shot on location in South Africa, and showcased genuinely alien-looking landscapes that were sometimes harsh, sometimes lush but always surprising.  Its special effects budget was impressive and it had a complex science fiction story to tell which slowly built up in layers, week after week.  It stayed on air for just 8 episodes.


6.  Franchise Fatigue – when to stop flogging the dead horse

Franchise Fatigue is something we tend to associate more with cinema goers than TV viewers, but the characteristics are principally the same.  The spin off always sounds like a great idea on paper.  As one show is drawing to a close, another can potentially spring up to take its place.  The fan base is already there and overheads can be lowered by hiring new, younger actors who don’t command the same salaries as their predecessors.  Spin-offs usually feature the same theme but with new characters.  But aren’t we forgetting why why the first show ended?  Most likely it was due to declining viewership.  Story ideas are tapped out.  No theme has been left unexplored.  Often, spin-offs simply prove the rule that it is possible to tell a story to death.


7.  Comic Book Capers

Plenty of comic books have transitioned to TV (and vice versa) and when the essence of the comic book or graphic novel is preserved, the show does well.  Take AMC’s The Walking Dead for example.

Some comic-book-to-TV efforts however preserve all of the brash, simplistic and at times clumsily metaphorical style (think Wonder Woman’s star spangled knickers) of a comicbook but none of the nuance, complexity or depth that modern TV audiences want.  When this happens we get a show so replete with cliches, clunky exposition and comic-book heightened drama that it’s simply too cringeful to watch.

It’s hard to know just how bad the recent Wonder Woman pilot was in order not to make it past the pilot stage, but chances are … well you know the rest.


8. It features virtual reality as a key component to the show.

Nuff said. (featured below: Ron Moore’s failed pilot Virtuality.  There was a lot of virtual reality.)


9. Franchise Fallout

Not to be confused with Franchise Fatigue, Franchise Fallout occurs when a studio decides to put a genuinely creative spin on their spin-off by creating something entirely new.  What happens next is that fans of the original show become alienated because the new show is not like the old show.

When Battlestar Galactica spin-off Caprica first aired, it naturally drew the curious attention of BSG fans. However these same fans soon turned away because what Caprica was offering was family drama with corporate boardroom politics and not space battles and high stakes drama. Sometimes expectations can ruin a new show.   The same can be said of Stargate Universe.  If this show hadn’t been burdened with the word stargate in its title it may have fared better.


10. Insanity on the part of the network

We all know the story.  A hot new show looks promising, but then the network fiddles with the creative process by changing the episode order, switching the air dates or splitting up the season run with a ridiculously long hiatus and suddenly your favorite new show is consigned to the cancellation bin.


Do you agree with our top 10 genre TV fails?  Would any of these be enough to make you stop watching?  What are your personal peeves and what cancelled shows do they belong to?

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