When I heard that The Artist Formerly Known As the Sci-Fi Channel had signed Tim Minear to create a remake of Alien Nation, my first thought was the same as most people’s: how long can this show last? Minear is perhaps the showrunner most associated with cult flops (he’s created and/or produced one show after another that got a cult following and bad ratings), adapting a famous cult flop. Every show he has worked on since Angel has been an unpopular show with some kind of fan following.
I like Minear’s take on the series (a partial throwback to the kind of “buddy-cop comedy” that hasn’t been seen on television for a while), so to say that he’s mostly associated with cult flops is not an insult. To become a king of cult flops, like Minear, or Judd Apatow in his TV days, or Jay Tarses, or Bryan Fuller, you have to be able to do the following: a) Create pilots that actually get picked up, b) Create shows that are interesting enough that they actually have a fan following. Most TV pilots don’t get picked up, and the series that do get picked up usually fail. Most failures come and go without anyone caring; there are many producers who have had more flops than these guys, but nobody liked any of those shows.
A cult flop is often — not always, but often — a show that got picked up despite having some ingredients that made it unlikely to be a hit, like Freaks and Geeks (too depressing and not contemporary enough for kids, too few adult characters for the adults) or Firefly (fake Western at a time when Westerns are no longer popular). The uncommercial elements set it apart from the other shows on TV and give it a cult following, but simultaneously make it more likely that the show won’t last more than a season.
All of which is to say that if someone is associated with cult flops, he must be doing something right; to create a cult flop means beating the odds several times, getting a show past the development, pilot, and series stages and offering a show that people actually care about.
Of course, creating a show for the soon-to-be-no-longer Sci-Fi Channel is different from creating one for the networks; Scyfy is almost like the WB and UPN were in the mid-’90s — a place where a show that would have been a one-season flop on a regular network can potentially have a four or five-season run. So despite my first thought, there’s no guarantee that the new Alien Nation will flop. If it were on Fox or NBC, then yes, it would be a guaranteed flop.