overthinking the idiot box

February 13, 2006

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Behind the Screens
Reunion: Anatomy of a Cancellation

What went wrong with Fox's year-leaping drama, and what does its demise mean for the future of high-concept television?
by Michael Adams

There are only so many places one can look when attempting to lay blame for why a TV show failed. The most obvious starting point is the network that aired the program; ultimate control over scheduling and promotion lies with them. Next on the list is the creative team responsible for the show's production; if the product is unusually poor (or too good, as can sometimes be the case), then it doesn't take a genius to figure out that few people will actually watch. And it is those people, the viewers, who are the final factor in an unpredictable and inconstant equation. (The argument could also be made that advertisers play into this scenario as well, with The Book of Daniel being an example of a show that was hampered by limited advertiser support. If more people had tuned in, however, the controversy that accompanied the show's premiere would have been a moot point and advertisers would have climbed aboard, as they did with NYPD Blue in 1994.) It is a rare instance when all three of these components align to create the TV equivalent of a "perfect storm," and that is exactly what happened in the case of Fox's ill-fated drama Reunion.

Fox tried to ignite viewer interest in Reunion by running promos early in the summer that clearly emphasized the show's central conceit — that each episode would present the pivotal events of an entire year in the lives of a sextet of friends, beginning in 1986. By the time the show got up to 2006, the viewer would have seen everything necessary to dissect the mystery surrounding the murder of one of the six. The high-concept drama sounded appealing and the buzz was promising, especially with Desperate Housewives seemingly ushering in a soap opera renaissance. But it wasn't long before Reunion hit a brick wall. The show had the advantage of premiering prior to the fall season's official start date, giving it a jump on the competition. But even airing against reruns (and despite a compatible O.C. lead-in), the show barely achieved lift-off, debuting with just 6.6 million viewers. It didn't help matters that a last-minute presidential speech preempted the show's second episode, breaking any momentum that may have built and forcing the nascent show to face off against its tough Thursday competition (CSI and The Apprentice) with little traction. Just when things couldn't get any worse, the show was put on hold to make way for baseball's postseason, a hiatus that sealed its fate. Fox stopped promoting the show, viewers continued to ignore it, and by the end of November sweeps, Reunion, now averaging less than four million viewers, was cancelled.

If viewers didn't care enough when there was the promise of finding out whodunit, why would anyone want to tune in to a show that would forever remain open-ended?
In a surprising move, Fox announced that they would keep the show on the air, with the intention being to run out the 13 episodes that had already been produced. This plan proved short-lived, however, when it was revealed that there would be no resolution to Reunion's murder mystery. If viewers didn't care enough when there was the promise of finding out whodunit, why would anyone want to tune in to a show that would forever remain open-ended? The fault here lies with the show's creative team, headed up by creator and executive producer Jon Harmon Feldman, who ironically faced similar treatment from Fox with his last effort, Tru Calling. In a statement following Reunion's cancellation, Feldman said, "The show was intricately plotted over 22 episodes to tell the full story of our characters' lives (and deaths)… There is no way to solve the mystery…without being able to complete the full arc of our story through present-day." The inherent flaw in Feldman's explanation is that the show never had a 22-episode order. While Feldman obviously hoped that his brainchild would be the fall season's biggest hit, the reality was much different. At the point where a producer realizes that his show is in serious trouble, a back-up plan should be put into effect. Feldman and his writing staff should have presented their story in a way that would have enabled them to tie up loose ends within the confines of the original 13-episode order if necessary. This way, whether or not the network decided to pick up the show for a full season, it wouldn't be the viewer who was left hanging.

Here again, Fox is partly to blame, as the network should have mandated that Feldman orchestrate this two-tier plan, just in case the show failed to connect with viewers. Fox entertainment president Peter Liguori was asked about Reunion's demise at last month's Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour, telling reporters that the way Feldman "was laying out the show to gap those additional 14, 15, 16 years was an incredibly complex path. There were a number of options, and he didn't make a definitive decision on which option he was going to go with as to who the killer was, and there was just no way to accelerate that time." This sounds like insincere lip service from an executive who, disappointed by the show's performance, simply stopped caring. (For anybody who does still care, Liguori said it was likely that the killer would have been the daughter of murder victim Samantha.)

Don't like long-form high-concept storytelling? Don't tell Jack.
With Reunion's network and creator pointing fingers at each other, and viewers ultimately saying "nay" to a show that worked better in theory than execution, is there any hope for such potentially rewarding long-form, high-concept storytelling in the future? Fortunately, the answer is yes. The treatment of Reunion notwithstanding, the networks seem committed to developing unique shows that defy pigeonholing and require the audience to show up more than once in order to get the answers to the questions posed. The unmitigated success of ABC's Lost and the ever-increasing numbers for Fox's 24 have proven that there is certainly a place for smart, demanding shows that reach beyond a niche audience. The past year alone has seen the launch of several such projects, including Fox's Prison Break, ABC's Invasion, and NBC's Surface, all of which essentially follow one central storyline week in and week out. (The creators of Surface, though, should suffer the same chastisement as the team behind Reunion for not offering a more satisfying wrap-up to their story in the show's recent finale, which, given the ratings, will likely serve as the series' swan song.)

Already in development for next season are several shows that follow a single-story format. Fox has Vanished, a drama from executive producer Mimi Leder (ER, John Doe) that revolves around the search for a senator's missing wife, told from the perspectives of law enforcement, family members, and the media. NBC has a missing persons thriller of its own in Kidnapped, wherein each episode will detail one day's work in the investigation into a child's disappearance.

Even comedies are getting in on the act: ABC is developing a sitcom called A Day in the Life, created by King of Queens executive producers Cathy Yuspa and Josh Goldsmith. The show will be a real-time look at what happens over the course of a couple's wedding day. This particular concept sounds like a variation on the original idea for the Alphabet's Jake in Progress, which was supposed to document one date over the course of an entire season. (We'll forever have to wonder whether that version of Jake would have been better than the one ABC actually decided to air.)

CBS has no real incentive to put on a show like Lost or 24 when it can use its crime shows as filler whenever necessary and can successfully rerun them all summer long while the other networks suffer huge audience losses.
Though the viewer can bask in the glow of a warm TV and escape into worlds of conspiracies and intrigue, there is a definite drawback when the networks greenlight a high-concept serialized program — they don't rerun well. Notice that CBS, home to hour upon hour of stand-alone procedural dramas, is notoriously absent from the list of networks developing this type of show; after the cancellation of the sci-fi drama Threshold, the closest the network now comes to high-concept is flashback-driven sitcom How I Met Your Mother. CBS has no real incentive to put on a show like Lost or 24 when it can use its crime shows as filler whenever necessary and can successfully rerun them all summer long while the other networks suffer huge audience losses.

It could be argued that ABC's Murder One, with its first-season format of following a single murder from crime to trial to aftermath, marked the advent of this more daring brand of storytelling. It could also be argued that this Steven Bochco production was ahead of its time, perhaps even too realistic for its own good, coming as it did on the heels of the O.J. Simpson trial. The reverse is true for a show like 24, which is able to capitalize on our fears and advantageously trade on our collective desire to quash terrorism. Both of these shows take their craft to the next level, going beyond their concepts to either alienate or attract an audience, but never settling for middle ground, a problem that plagued Reunion from the start. Outside of its year-to-year structure, the show didn't strive to be anything more than an ordinary soap opera. In a television era where ordinary is becoming less and less tolerated, Reunion failed to stand out in a crowded marketplace. Blame Fox, blame the writers, blame yourself for not even sampling it, but harbor no guilt for the cancellation of a show that failed to live up its own potential.

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