Just like tossing spaghetti on the wall, networks are hoping something sticks despite a track record of midseason misfires.
Ron Howard’s “Parenthood” smelled like a winner, even when the NBC drama had to be recast due to star Maura Tierney’s cancer diagnosis and treatment, and then the show was pushed from a September 2009 start to a midseason premiere. Popular actress Lauren Graham stepped into Tierney’s role, with critics raving.
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But the family-centric series has barely made a ripple in the ratings waters since its March 1 premiere. Meanwhile, the contrived CBS placeholder reality series “Undercover Boss” became the hit of the midseason.
There’s no accounting for what the public wants when it comes to programming, a fact not missed by a TV industry constantly scrambling to come up with smash shows on an assembly line that fails more often than it succeeds.
After the traditional fall stampede, midseason offerings lean toward outlandish series and burn-off product. The zone also provides a protected spot for a tender series that might not stand out in the fall, but has the potential to grow, given the right nurturing.
Iffy track recordSpring has barely sprung, yet some midseason series have already aired and gone, including Fox’s “Past Life” and ABC’s “The Deep End,” reminding viewers that while this fresh crop offers a welcome break from reruns, the track record isn’t great for midseason series to gain hit status even in a less crowded landscape.
The CW’s sweet series “Life Unexpected” centers on an overly bright teen, much like Dawson was in the 1998 midseason winner “Dawson’s Creek.” Despite critical praise, viewers have been slow to gravitate toward “Life Unexpected.” As a result, it’s one of the few CW shows that hasn’t received an early pickup. Viewers have been much more interested in the network’s “The Vampire Diaries” than in “Life’s” whip-smart girl reconnecting with her birth parents and trying to make her way in the world.
But even viewer interest isn’t always enough to secure life after midseason. CBS’ odd little murder mystery “Harper's Island” got some early buzz when it premiered last spring, and quite a few folks glommed onto the intriguing series. But CBS passed on keeping the puzzler on the air for another round with new characters.
Will the quirky “Happy Town” on ABC (premiering April 28) fare any better? Early reviews of the show, which centers on a small Minnesota town with an undercurrent of evil haven’t been kind. Unless the muddled scripts get better, viewers will probably toddle off to a sunnier place.
Fox’s “Human Target,” featuring a seemingly immortal human, has been holding steady since its January premiere, although several veteran oddsmakers are already counting it out. The last time a supernatural spring series hit big was back when “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” sucked in viewers.
The Buffy-verse included supporting characters that were sometimes more interesting than the title character. “Human Target” follows suit with an ample array of intriguing supporting characters. And it doesn’t hurt that hero Chance (Mark Valley) has the same great chiseled looks as Buffy’s beau Angel (David Boreanaz). But Chance has an easier time battling the bad guys than going against the midseason curse.
Dramas in general haven't done as well when launched in the spring, but those rare winners such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Practice” have created a big splash. “Parenthood’s” mix of comic moments, hip talk and emotional scenes fall in line with those hits, but it hasn’t been able to click with the audience.
At this point, this worthy series looks like it’s heading down the “Lipstick Jungle” path of also-rans rather than turning into a contender for a fall perch. Yet things looked similarly bleak last spring for midseason entry “Castle” before the lightweight mystery series gained a solid following.
Despite a downturn in viewer interest in medical dramas, CBS dived into “Miami Medical’’ (premiering April 2) because of the dazzling past performances of producer Jerry Bruckheimer (“CSI” and “Amazing Race”). This series has a far way to go to step into “CSI's” shoes. And the characters won’t spark those spring romantics the way “Grey’s Anatomy” did when it premiered in March 2005.
The road’s a little easier for a cable series. HBO’s fantastic “Treme” by David Simon (“The Wire”), premiering April 11, is set just months after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. “Treme” is character rich, from the street musicians to the unique city itself, and HBO will stand behind the series despite ratings. FX’s “Justified,” the Elmore Leonard crime drama with a Western throwback that debuted March 16, captured respectable-for-cable ratings to make it a winner. Unlike broadcast, cable can afford to be more patient.
Broadcast requires more of a hot response from viewers, and patience is hard to come by. The networks lean more toward the proven formulas, even at halftime.
Bring on the laughsPerhaps it’s coming out of the bleak days of winter, or just because the shows have been better, but viewers have warmed to midseason comedies more readily than other formats. “Happy Days,” “The Simpsons,” “Malcolm in the Middle” and “The Office” all began as midseason hopefuls. But the road is littered with comedies such as “Surviving Suburbia” and “In the Motherhood.” It looks as if Fox’s March entry “Sons of Tucson,” which hinges on the dubious charms of star Tyler Labine and uneven scripts about a dad for hire, will wander down that same road to oblivion.
In recent years, reality shows have flooded the schedules as cheap substitutes for scripted programs. ABC even scored a ratings behemoth in “The Bachelor” when it premiered in March 2002. That super hit blended a vicarious thrill with loads of romance.
There’s no new reality series offered this spring with a similar appeal. Jerry Seinfeld’s “The Marriage Ref” doles out some comedy while peeking into the wacky lives of married couples seeking arbitration. Meanwhile, ABC’s going the cooking/health route with British chef Jamie Oliver, who’s trying to reform bad American eaters in his new series “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.” And the CW has randomly tossed out two reality shows filled with scandal, self-absorption and gossip: “High Society” and “Fly Girls.”
Oliver will probably have more luck getting Southerners to toss their deep fat fryers than most of the midseason series will to get past May.
Susan Young is a Northern California freelance writer and president of the Television Critics Association.