The Strange Magic of a TV Flop

Lone Star. I mentioned it in a couple of previous posts, how the premiere was an epic disaster despite great reviews. The creator, Kyle Killen, led an internet campaign to save the show, encouraging as many people as possible to tune in for the second episode (which almost didn’t air because the ratings for the pilot were so bad). And now we know that the ratings for the second episode went down a bit, as second episodes often do, and that a number of people who stuck around to watch it were tuning out in the second half-hour. The main question at this point, unfortunately, is when Fox will shut down production and whether we’ll get to see the episodes that have been produced.

Update: And it’s gone. Canceled after two episodes. Fox can’t actually be blamed for this decision, since they had no choice. The key question about any show’s survival is whether it’s doing better than what the network could replace it with. (This is what keeps many low-rated NBC shows on the air, that they do just enough numbers that the network is in doubt about whether it could find something that would do better.) Almost anything would do better in that time slot than Lone Star has, sadly but true.

Some have wondered whether there was any point in fans getting involved in a save-our-show campaign for a show that was essentially doomed. I think this misses the point, though: save-our-show campaigns are only partly about saving a show. Yes, people do it because they like a show, or in this case because they liked the pilot and thought it would make a good show. But it doesn’t really matter if the campaign has a chance of working or not, and it really shouldn’t matter, because it’s not like an election — you don’t pick a show to support based on practical considerations. These campaigns are fun for the people involved: in this case, they got to interact with other fans, interact with the creator, and most of all feel like they were interacting with the show itself: demonstrating support for a TV show is one of the few non-passive things we can do. And it’s also a way of expressing your idea of what TV ought to be, or what you’d like to see the networks do. The Lone Star campaign was about fans saying that this is the sort of show that networks should be doing, the cable-style, morally-ambiguous drama. From a business standpoint, Fox has no choice but to take it off, and most campaigners knew that on some level — but so what? It’s Fox’s job to make business decisions; it’s not the fans’. The fans just want to stick up for what they find entertaining, and that’s what save-our-show lobbying is all about.

As to why it’s such a flop: I don’t know. I was talking about this last night, and I realized that while there are all sorts of reasons you can come up with for why a show flops, it’s hard to find a definitive one — especially when, as with this show, everybody seems to have collectively changed the channel after House. All the reasons are probably true to some extent. It was hard to promote, so no one really knew what it was; it was about a man who is cheating on two women, and only Archie comics readers like to hang out with guys like that; the competition was tough. The explanation I would add is that James Wolk may not have what it takes to carry a series. He’s basically a Krasinski — handsome but not impossibly so, affable, nice hair. The comparison I draw is if the part of J.R. Ewing were played by Bobby; pretty guys with good hair can be likable and fun to watch, but they’re frequently not very compelling. And anti-heroes absolutely must be compelling or they will drive people away — you can have a cute, affable Romeo but a cute, affable Othello or Macbeth is something else again. Anti-heroes don’t have to be old, but it helps if they’re so charismatic that you can’t take your eyes off them no matter what they do; I never got the impression that James Wolk is someone people absolutely had to see. Perhaps they needed to cast the part older and pick a more familiar actor for this make-or-break role.

But then, perhaps that wouldn’t have worked. And none of these explanations, even taken together, can fully explain why this show flopped so badly. That’s why a flop, in its own strange way, has a certain magic to match a hit. No one fully knows what makes a hit — if they did, they’d be making hits instead of this season’s crop of disappointments. But no one knows exactly what makes a bomb, either. We can explain why Lone Star was not popular; we can explain why it isn’t going to get picked up for more episodes; we can’t really explain why audiences just didn’t want to see this show. That’s kind of interesting in its own way.

Of course, just because we can’t explain why Lone Star bombed is no reason we can’t speculate about it, so if you have your own theories about what caused its failure, have at it. And, of course, let’s remember that the viewership of Lone Star would be a great week for all but a select few cable dramas; of the top 25 basic cable shows in the U.S. last week, the only drama in the mix was Sons of Anarchy, which got fewer viewers than Lone Star did. Still, obviously, cable is not broadcast and vice-versa, and the fact remains that  Sons of Anarchy is a hit and Lone Star isn’t.

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