Terriers: Is The Title Really a Problem?

As we wait and see if Terriers will get a surprise renewal (many people online are emailing FX, having been informed that the network pays more attention than usual to emails — the address is user@fxnetworks.com, by the way), I was thinking a bit more about whether my favourite new show of the season has really been hurt by its title. The star, Donal Logue, is one of many people who claims that the show would have been more successful if it had had a better title. And it’s hard to argue that it’s a good title, since no one would hear it and know what the show’s about or even what it’s like.

But does a title really hurt a television series that much? I’m not sure. Remember a show called The Sopranos. It’s hard to realize this because we’re all used to it, but that is a truly terrible title by those same standards. If you heard about a show called “The Sopranos” and had no idea what it was about, you would think that a) It was about singers and b) It was about women. Calling it “Tony Soprano” would have been a more traditional and conventionally effective way of titling it.

Of course few people heard the title “The Sopranos” without having some idea what it was about, because the network launched a splendid promotional campaign, including a logo that made the title look threatening, and an instant-classic poster that conveyed the subject and theme of the show even without words. So they didn’t need the title to tell us exactly what the show was. And once we do know the show, the title isn’t so bad at all; in fact, for those in the know, it’s pretty good, because the incongruity of the name is part of the joke. (Having a hero who is constantly worried about the decline of traditional masculinity, and giving him the most “feminized” last name possible, is one of the many little jokes the show is built on.) If the show had failed, the title might have been blamed, but it probably wouldn’t deserve the blame. It’s clear that it didn’t turn anybody off.

There may be a difference between that and Terriers, because “The Sopranos” at least sounds arresting and unusual, while “Terriers” does not. But a title that sounds a little commonplace or bland can still intrigue people — if it’s accompanied by promotional images that also pique the audience’s attention. Which brings us back to the subject matter of the show, as revealed in the posters and promos. It’s about two scruffy, down-on-their-luck guys, and I suspect, unfortunately, that that turned more people away than the title. But FX exacerbated the problem with a promotional campaign that actually used the titular dog in many of the posters. Not only did this make for some incredibly ugly posters (the two guys aren’t that bad-looking, but the dogs certainly were), but it killed the chance for the posters to really get us psyched to see the characters, the way the Sopranos posters did. I don’t think any show’s failure can be blamed entirely on bad marketing, but I think this was not a well-marketed show and that the marketing has more to do with it than the title.

I would add that a TV show doesn’t necessarily need a great title the way movies or books often (not always) do. A really spectacular title can sometimes seem too gimmicky; worse, it can become irrelevant as the series develops. That’s why so many of the biggest hit TV series have literal titles that simply tell us who the star is, or where it takes place, without trying to do anything special. “The [fill in name of star] Show.” “Friends.” “ER.” “CSI.” “The West Wing.” “Laverne and Shirley.” “Lassie.” Because the decision to watch a TV show is much more casual than the decision to see a movie or buy a book, the titles themselves don’t need to put as much pressure on us to watch: they can promise comfort and simplicity, rather than something epic.

There are shows with gimmicky titles that do very well, of course. “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Modern Family” are all examples of current hits (on one network, yet) where the title is sort of gimmicky: the first is a play on words, the second is self-parody, and the third is a big pronouncement about the show’s ambition to teach us all how a family ought to be in this day and age. But an elaborate title is probably more likely to blow up in a show’s face. The choice of “Arrested Development” as a title was probably a mistake: not only was it hard to promote (because of the two long words that don’t quite flow together when you say them — the clash of “d” sounds, I think, creates the problem) but the elaborate double meanings of the title — it’s a play on the different meanings of the word “Arrested” and the word “Development” — instantly hinted that this was going to be a show in love with its own cleverness, and that couldn’t have helped it much in trying to find an audience.

“Terriers” at least is a title that’s short and easy to remember, and that probably is more important than a title that’s inherently memorable or even descriptive. You don’t have to find ways to shorten it in the promos, and it’s not hard for an announcer to say clearly. If the promotional campaign had been more effective, and more importantly if the show had been more popular (as popular as it deserved to be, let’s say), I don’t think anyone would be talking about the weakness of the title.

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