SyFy Summer Programming Comes to a Close: What Next?

ashleyWith a much talked about name change, the Sci-Fi channel, now SyFy, transformed itself from a caterpillar into another, different looking caterpillar on the night that Warehouse 13 debuted back in July. Better people than me have discussed the pointlessness and silly rhetoric accompanying this transformation ad nauseum, so I won’t take the discussion further. What I do want to talk about is the future of the channel and how they might really effect the changes they were hoping to make with that new name.

I think Julia Louis-Dreyfus said it best at the Emmys last Sunday: “Welcome to the last official year of network television broadcasting.” She was joking, of course, but the sentiment rings true. Once upon a time, the Big Four were in charge. If it wasn’t on ABC, NBC, CBS, or FOX, it wasn’t worth watching. And then came HBO, the fabled provider of censor-free television, which of course critics heaped praises upon because it was something! different! HBO television is a rant for another day, but it’s important to note that that’s when it all started. Soon other networks joined the fray, Showtime of course is responsible for that bastion of military science fiction, Stargate SG-1, which debuted in 1997. Prior to all of this, the only science fiction show to ever air on a cable network was the fabulously successful Star Trek: The Next Generation, also the only science fiction ever show to be nominated for Best Drama Series. It all snowballed from there.

Nowadays, thanks to DVD, DVR, and the internet, viewers are just as likely to watch a cable TV show as a Big Four one (Five, if you count the CW/WB or UPN, which nobody really does). What’s more, as was the lesson learned from Sex and the City and The Sopranos, smaller network means less restrictions on content (if not budget), which, funnily enough, leads to better quality (for the most part).

In 1998, the SyFy (then Sci-Fi) channel had its first successful original series in the short-lived Sliders, which only ran for two seasons, and which was quickly overshadowed by the Henson Company’s Australian puppet sado-masochism space opera, Farscape, in 1999. The critically heralded Farscape ran for four seasons when a contracted fifth season, which would have wrapped up all story-lines, was unceremoniously interrupted by the show’s cancellation, which nobody saw coming. Despite losing it’s first successful original series, the network didn’t suffer much, having rescued sci-fi juggernaut, Stargate SG-1 from the Showtime graveyard. In 2003, the channel made the somewhat controversial decision to fund the re-imagining of the classic (if cheesy) ’80s TV show, Battlestar Galactica. Hardcore fans threw a shit fit, but the gambit paid off. The re-imagined Battlestar Galactica quickly became a critical success, garnering the prestigious Peabody Award in its first season, and officially stamping the Cylon and “frak” into pop culture. While Battlestar Galactica was busy pushing boundaries and taking names, Sci-Fi had brought several new series to light, all of them successful, including: Stargate Atlantis, Eureka, Doctor Who (first-run until the rights were bought up by BBC America), and most recently, Sanctuary. Firefly even got a second birth on the channel in 2005 in honor of the release of Serenity, and the network has a constant stream of revenue from endless re-runs of The X-Files, Lost, and other classic sci-fi shows like Star Trek and The Twilight Zone.

It seems that since the imminent expiration of Battlestar Galactica, Syfy as a network — with the exception of Stargate Universe, which is really a sure bet with the franchise’s built-in fanbase — is playing it safe with shows that are quirky and fun and a little bit off, but that are in no way able to supply for that hardcore sci-fi need that some of us feel. Eureka is a quirky little show that isn’t so much science fiction as it is fantasy and comedy, and even the Jane Espenson led Warehouse 13, while being a bit darker, is still just a bit of fun. This is to be expected, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with a little fluff every now and then, especially in summer. But unless we’re counting Stargate Universe — which might very well deliver on this front, only time will tell — there is a distinct lack of anything resembling “hard-core” science fiction, let alone space operas, on any channel on television right now.

In July, David Howe, the President of SyFy spoke with io9 about the promise of a new space opera to replace the holes left by Farscape and Battlestar Galactica. Howe acknowledged that the cancelling of Farscape was a mistake, and cites Firefly as something he’s looking to emulate. (And he’s not the only one, she screams, pointing out the irony.) The prospect of a new space opera to sink my teeth into makes me drool, but only if it’s done right. FOX has said that it is in the works for a Firefly rip-off, but it’s seven years too late. SyFy needs to be thinking about the future right now. Sci-Fi/SyFy has always excelled in giving small shows a chance, whether they be groundbreakingly excellent like Battlestar Galactica or small homespun pieces like Eureka. Instead of trying to distance itself from its image — which was never the problem — SyFy should be focusing on producing high quality television programs, quality shows on all ends of the spectrum. With the highest ratings ever on the channel, they have done just that with Warehouse 13.

Warehouse 13‘s pilot, which besides having the dubious honor of heralding the new SyFy era, broke the ratings record that was previously held by Stargate Atlantis‘s pilot, “Rising” in 2004, and then went on to break the record previously held by Eureka, to become the most watched original series in the channel’s history. So just what exactly is this show doing right? Well, everything really.

Eddie McClintock (Bones‘s Sully), C.C.H. Pounder, sci-fi veteran and character actor Saul Rubinek, and newcomers Joanne Kelly and Allison Scagliotti, populate the fictional top secret warehouse, led by writers Jane Espenson and Brent Mote. So you have two answers right there: top notch character acting, and top-notch writing. Certainly the idea of government conspiracies and paranormal wonders is not a new one, but Warehouse 13 doesn’t claim it is. Instead, the show plays on those who have come before. McClintock’s and Kelly’s characters, reluctant Secret Service partners Myka Bering and Pete Lattimer, have distinct traces of Mulder and Scully in them, but only a little. Bering and Lattimer have their own distinct, charming and smart-ass voices. And where The X-Files was there to scare, Warehouse 13 is there to titillate and intrigue. Like Bones, but with weird mystical science. The Artifacts that are stored in the Warehouse can be dangerous, sure, but the whole thing is just too fun to ever really scare me.

But perhaps the smartest thing about Warehouse 13 is that it’s not done cooking. The first nine episodes of its first season were spent developing the world that these characters will be populating for hopefully quite some time. As Myka and Pete were becoming acclimated to each other and the idea that they aren’t just Secret Service agents anymore, we as viewers are developing an emotional base from which to jump off of so that when series (?) villain MacPherson was introduced, we had something to lose. The brilliance of this strategy is that it allowed new viewers to come in every week and viewers who’d been watching since the pilot to ease their way in with silly storylines and humorous character bonding, and with that out of the way, Warehouse 13 is pretty much free to do anything it wants. I can’t predict where the show is going in future seasons. Hell, I can’t even tell you whether or not that character [SPOILER!] who “died” in the finale is really dead or not. So, if SyFy is smart, it’ll keep this show around for a good long time and allow it and its writers and characters to grow into the premise. When a show is executed this well (not perfectly, mind you, but there’s always something to be said for care and consideration), you can never anticipate where it will end up. If SyFy keeps giving us shows as well made as this, and like Eureka, with heart, it’s in good shape for the future.

On the Friday before Warehouse 13 aired its season finale, Eureka ended The Longest Season of Television Ever™. A lot can be said of the thinking behind SyFy’s proclivity towards splitting show seasons into halves (i.e. Battlestar Galactica 2.0, 2.5, 4.0, 4.5, etc.). Season Three of the town of crazy geniuses who live in Oregon and cause lots of trouble while charming, aired its first episode in Summer 2008, and especially considering that there were only eighteen episodes in the season, that’s a really long time. Season One remains the strongest season to date of this show, but that doesn’t seem to matter (to me, or to anyone really), because we come back for the characters and the atmosphere. In a lot of ways, Eureka doesn’t even really need plots — and those are pretty implausible most of the time anyway — as long as we have those characters to love. Regardless, Season Three was fragmented, and not just by time and space. The first half, aired back in 2008, was relatively tight-knit, focusing on a single major story-line and culminating in a couple of startling revelations, but with those revelations came change-ups to the beloved formula. The departure of a main cast member and the pregnancy of another gave Season 3.5 a choppy feeling that made it feel more like a transition than an actual story.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy this season, because I did. Jaime Ray Newman was a breath of fresh air, finally letting our beloved Sheriff see some action other than the violent kind, and his daughter, Zoe, seemed to come into her own. Mostly, I’m excited to see where this ends up. I’d like to see Taggart back full time, and I hope that Zoe will be back, because she is an integral part of the show, but the thing I most want to see is pay-off from that damn Season One finale. Carter needs to discover what he lost when Henry messed with the timeline. There is so much potential in all of those revelations. I mean, think how Alison will feel knowing that it was supposed to be Carter’s baby she was having, not Stark’s! If they never come back to that story, honestly, I will feel incredibly cheated.

As for fall SyFy programming, there is much potential. Caprica, the gorgeously rendered Battlestar Galactica spin-off looks very promising, although to be honest I’m not sure it’s going to be really be my thing. Mafia/Crime Lord/Terrorist stories have never really done it for me. I mean, I hate The Sopranos, so that should give you some clue (no, I mean it, I really really hate that show), and I fell asleep during The Godfather and never finished it. On the plus side for you noobs, you don’t even need to have seen Battlestar Galactica in order to watch it. But, Caprica doesn’t start until January 22, 2010, for newer fare we look to Sanctuary. Like Warehouse 13, Sanctuary has incredible potential. Unfortunately, unless some major re-hauling was done over the summer, I have a feeling that potential will not be realized. I have more detailed thoughts on that show here, but suffice it to say that I have my fingers crossed. The SyFy show that I have the most hope for, even over Caprica, is Stargate Universe. I will be writing more about this after the premiere on Friday night, but if that show can overcome its previous limitations, then we might be in for a real treat.

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Comments
2 Responses to “SyFy Summer Programming Comes to a Close: What Next?”
  1. Dan says:

    I really can’t explain why I love Warehouse 13 as much as I do. It’s essentially a patchwork of numerous other shows…but, the way in which these pieces are stitched together seems to work really well.

    As for Eureka, even though I enjoy it, I feel like something has been seriously off this season. I don’t know if it’s the unrealized fallout from the season one finale, or something else…something just felt off.

  2. Jen says:

    I will comment!! Where are the rest of the geeks?

    I haven’t watched Warehouse 13 so I am a little behind the times. It seems like it has all the required elements for a show that I would love and I have had more than one person recommend it to me. I’ll work on that!

    Eureka and I, however, are old friends. I agree that it’s pretty fluffy, but there are some seriously heartbreaking moments. Some factions of the sci fi population might not find it as appealing as I do. I just can’t help but enjoy it, though. I kinda want to live there, or at least open up a coffee shop called Cafe Diem because that is a seriously good name. I was sort of confused about the latest season – the 2 halves did not seem to match up and I kept waiting for them to resolve the storyline from the first half. Maybe they counted on us forgetting since it took so long for the second half to start up? I almost did!

    I am looking forward to the new start-ups. I think they have a lot of potential. My husband watched the first season of Sanctuary and liked it enough that it got added to my list. I haven’t seen the Caprica pilot movie yet. It is also on my list. I’m nervous about this one more than anything else. I really want to love it, but I was so invested in the story and characters of BSG… But I refuse to judge anything before I have given it a chance.

    Ok, I think that’s a long enough comment.

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