Don’t Fear The… You Know

Alan Sepinwall asks about Reaper: “Dammit, why must so many rookie shows this year get their acts together right when they’re about to be canceled?” It’s a good question. Reaper has been one of the most entertaining shows of the new season, but it’s always lived with the stigma of not quite living up to its potential. Tuesday night’s episode was a good one, as was last week’s. These two episodes went a long way toward solving the problems that have kept the show back: namely that it felt repetitive, the hero was too passive, and it lacked a good female character. Last night showed Sam getting more active, the underlying stories getting more interesting (and shaping the adventures-of-the-week into something better) and, finally, the female lead, Andi, learned that Sam is the Devil’s errand-boy. The fact that she didn’t know what was going on in any of the episodes was a big problem for the show earlier, since it meant the plots were hugely imbalanced in favour of male characters, probably hurting the show’s ratings with women even though the creators are female.

None of that may matter, though. Reaper started out with some of the better ratings of any new CW show this season, but that was mainly because the CW didn’t have any new hit shows. (Gossip Girl is not actually a hit.) But the CW isn’t a real network, and that has become all too apparent this season, as the hybrid monster network sees its already-pathetic ratings get even worse. In other words, it’s gone past the point of being a smallish network that can keep non-hit shows on for their niche appeal — the way the WB and UPN both did — and is reaching the point where the mere fact of being on this network spells death for any show, since nobody’s watching.

Also, Reaper looks like it may be a victim of the writer’s strike. I’m on record as being skeptical that TV has been hurt in general by the strike; ratings are down, but they were down before, and the strike is a convenient scapegoat. (House‘s ratings were down when it returned, the linked article notes, in large part because it was on a different night and people didn’t know where to find it.) But in the case of a show like Reaper, the writer’s strike came at just the wrong time, because it was a new show, a show with a lot of potential, but a show that needed time to live up to that potential. If a show has already managed to iron out its bugs and fix its problems, it can handle a temporary hiatus. If a show is really sucking when the strike hits, then — in the unlikely event that it’s brought back — the strike gives the writers a chance to make a completely fresh start, the way NBC vainly hopes the writers of Heroes will do this fall. But Reaper at the end of its first 13 episodes was in the middle of that chart: it hadn’t solved everything, but it had solved some things and was on its way to solving others. The interruption came just at the moment when they could have done what they appear to be doing now, making a new batch of episodes where they demonstrate that they’ve learned how to do it. They lost the audience for over a month just when they had a chance to pull them in; the CW should renew Reaper, but if they don’t, then that will turn out to have been a very deadly month indeed.

You can get more of this in this L.A. Times article, where Scott Collins talks to the showrunners about Reaper‘s on-the-bubble status.

I should add that some of the most interesting episodes to watch in any series are the episodes from the “back nine” of the first season, the episodes that are ordered after the network decides to extend the initial 13-episode order to a full season. Sometimes these episodes can be among the best of the series: the first 13 episodes will always include stories, lines, and performances that aren’t quite right, because everybody’s learning how to make the show work, but once they’ve done that, the back-nine is where they can apply everything they’ve learned in those first 13 weeks. Some shows that are merely good in their early episodes turn great, really great, in the last 9 or so of the first season. On the other hand, there are other shows that go to hell in the back nine, because the best ideas have been used up to make the first 13 and the next 9, which are almost a new separate season, don’t have the same freshness. Some shows recover from that and come back with a good second season; others don’t.

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