Thursday, April 21, 2011
Originally Appears in Issue 6
Rubicon, a critically acclaimed conspiracy-thriller, is set to debut this year on BBC4. However, disappointing US ratings mean the show won’t be coming back for a second season. Derek Owens laments how TV drama is under threat as networks join the rush for instant hits.
Perhaps appropriately for a show with more moments of subdued tension than gunshots or explosions, Rubicon died with a whimper: a statement from its network, AMC TV, praised the story of a defence analyst who discovers a sinister conspiracy involving his employers, API, but confirmed that the programme would not return with a second series. The news wasn’t particularly surprising. The show had been troublesome to produce – original creator and show runner Jason Horwitch was replaced in mid-production by Henry Bromell – and ratings hadn’t been spectacular. Still, the cancellation of the critically-acclaimed show after a single series is a worrying sign of a short-termism that’s crept again into the decision making of American network execs. Even as, officially, we still enjoy a golden age of TV drama, the desperation to achieve instant success in the hyper-competitive environment could yet kill it off.
Few would claim, of course, that Rubicon was a perfect show. The series lead, Will Travers (The Pacific’s James Badge Dale), reacted to learning of a terrifying conspiracy with the passive befuddlement of a man trying to locate his car keys. The script had the occasional lines of exposition and import that just didn’t come off naturally, and the occasionally head-scratching plot point – this was probably inevitable in any conspiracy thriller cut short.
However, Rubicon was a show with real promise. Horwitch and Bromell borrowed more than just a bag of themes from classic seventies paranoia films like Three Days of the Condor, All the Presidents Men and The Conversation – they lifted the hybrid of intimate camera-work, a minor key tension-building soundtrack and slow building of tension to create a real throwback to these demanding but deeply satisfying stories. They also brought in some extraordinary actors, including stage veteran Michael Ivan Cristofer (whose ‘villain’ Truxton Spangler is visceral, peculiar, and wonderfully complex) and lesser-known talents like Jessica Collins and Dallas Roberts as Will Travers’ deeply troubled colleagues.
More importantly, the show had started to really find its feet in later episodes, branching into the private lives and troubles of Will Travers’ colleagues. Issues of power and its abuse were being teased out. And something actually got blown up. Oddly, but entirely in keeping with the programme’s personality, the big explosion happened off-screen, in the penultimate episode – a substantial ratings drop for the finale a week later probably sealed Rubicon’s fate. Even as critics praised the show for its uniqueness, visual brilliance and strong finish, most acknowledged that a second series was highly unlikely.
Rubicon, however, wasn’t the only highly-regarded show this year to be culled from the broadcast schedules after failing to achieve instant, Mad Men-esque success: Terriers, a tale of two private detectives scratching out a living, was also ditched by FX after only one season, while Fox’s Lone Star (an intriguing series about a Texan con-man struggling to keep his double life together) gave up the ghost after only two poorly-rated episodes. The fact that the show was in the same timeslot as NBC’s The Event, Dancing with the Stars and CBS’ inexplicably successful Two and a Half Men probably doomed it from the start.
Fierce competition is, frankly, killing new shows: at the height of the US’s autumn season, 16 new shows premiered in one week – when season premieres of existing shows were taken into account, nearly 50 new episodes were battling for eyeballs on the major American networks. The powers that be in TV land are responding to – and feeding – this glut in one of three ways. Some are sticking to tried and tested shows, however critically reviled and problematic they may be to make (the aforementioned Two and a Half Men, though its continuation since axing Charlie Sheen is yet to be confirmed). Some, like AMC, are chucking short runs of oddball shows at the wall and hoping that they stick – after Rubicon finished up, the network had a hit with post-apocalyptic zombie thriller The Walking Dead. Meanwhile, others are committing to shows with mind-blowing budgets and A-list talent in the hope of outgunning the opposition: Boardwalk Empire, HBO’s Scorsese-produced, award friendly period gangster piece springs to mind.
However, networks following that third path are in the minority, and there was even some doubt about whether HBO would bring Boardwalk Empire back for a second season: with the market for high quality TV as competitive as it is, it appears, executives don’t have the luxury of waiting for secondary characters on a show to come into their own and connect with viewers, or for a show to find its feet after tweaking its formula. This is understandable, but lamentable. After all, would The Wire have become a seminal show if we hadn’t been allowed to emotionally invest in Omar (or indeed any character besides Jimmy McNulty) by a network that believed in the series enough to renew it despite middling ratings? And indeed, had Fox not allowed Matt Groening to switch the focus of The Simpsons from Bart to Homer, the programme wouldn’t have become half as successful as it did. These are, of course, radically different shows, but they illustrate a core truth – few programmes, if any, get it right immediately. They need time to bed down and refine their formula, but the current environment means that only exceptionally strong-willed executives will give a series that breathing space if it hasn’t been an instant hit.
This changing environment probably won’t result in the deluge of TV offal that some critics fear. Of course, we’ll still have shows like Two and a Half Men, but many networks will continue to commission innovative shows in the hope of unearthing another Mad Men. The downside is that, unless the quirky show that captures your heart is an instant hit, you’ll probably have to content yourself with a single series, a topic to bore people silly about, and a dream of how good the programme could have become if networks had a bit more backbone.