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Biting the Hand That Programs

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Should we be angry we got only 10 episodes of JFC, or glad we got that many? HBO photo: John P. Johnson

I’ve been working on my review of CBS’s musical mystery Viva Laughlin, which, to give you a preview, is just as bad as you’ve heard, but not for the reasons you might think. And it got me thinking. Watching this adaptation of the British Viva Blackpool–which I loved–I resented CBS for taking what could have been an excellent series and ruining it, mainly (not to spoil my review) because they bought the idea, then seemed too craven to really run with it.

But is that fair? At least CBS did buy the idea. They took the chance, however briefly, on a series they had to know would draw easy, cheap jokes and comparisons to Cop Rock. We can, and should, criticize the result if the show is bad. (And, hoo boy!, is it ever.) But should I attack CBS for watering down its risky idea, or praise it for taking the risk in the first place?

Here’s another example: like many Freaks and Geeks fans, I was implacably bitter toward NBC for how it scheduled the show, moved it around and failed to promote it. (The show had intense partisans within NBC, but reportedly Garth Ancier, who was heading NBC programming while F&G aired, never really got it.) But NBC did at least buy the show and make 18 episodes. I’m not sure if any other network in 1999 would have done that at all–not cable, because most of them did not then have the programming budget, nor a broadcast network. (It would have been too dark for CBS, too unsexy for ABC, too good-natured for Fox and too old for The WB/UPN.)

Likewise Arrested Development. Yeah, we all miss it. Yeah, Fox should burn in Hell for an eternity for canceling it. Except, should they? The show had Fox written all over it–satire, dysfunctional family–and the network gave it three low-rated seasons with relative creative freedom. It’s not as if Fox picked up the show because they hated it so much, with the diabolical plan of canceling it three years later. (See also: UPN/CW and Veronica Mars.)

Or John from Cincinnati. I totally get the frustration of the fans over HBO’s cancellation of the show, and yet let’s be honest: what other network, in America and perhaps the world, would have made this show? FX or Showtime? Fat chance–too philosophical, confusing and elliptical. (For all their great series, FX and Showtime like their TV pretty straight-up.) Rail against the network all you want, they still gave David Milch the equivalent of a MacArthur Foundation grant–except it cost them much more money–to do essentially whatever he wanted for ten hours. (With some variations, you could say more or less the same thing about Deadwood and Carnivale.)

I guess I sound like I’m making excuses for the networks, and I don’t want to do that. But it’s a question worth asking sometimes, whether you write about TV for a living or just obsess about it as a hobby. Is it worse to betray a risky idea or never to take the risk in the first place? I’m not sure I know the answer, but I’m interested to hear yours.