Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Not To Be Continued: A Survey of TV's Failed "Killer Serials"

As of this writing, ABC's powerhouse series Lost is nearing the end: a sixth season and the climactic, final episode set for May, 2010.

Similarly, Fox's anti-terrorist nail-biter 24 may not have much (real) time remaining beyond an upcoming eighth season...not so much due to ratings; just because of age and the nature of television (as well as the recurrent misbehavior of the lead actor...)

When these series end, the TV fad they popularized will likely enter a new phase. You know what I'm talking about: the "killer serial.”

"The Killer Serial" -- that's my self-devised nomenclature for a dramatic prime-time TV network series that:

a.) frequently ends episodes on a crazy, nail-biting, cliffhanger note,


b.) dramatizes a large, interconnected “meta” story from week-to-week, episode-to-episode. The events of one episode often pick up directly where the events of the previous episode ended. If you miss one episode in sequence, you're out of the loop.

In the 1990s, science fiction, horror and mystery series such as Twin Peaks (1991-1992) Babylon 5 (1993-1999) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) experimented with long-form “story arcs” and could also be viewed in this light –- as “killer serials” -- but it was not truly until 2001 that non-genre, mainstream dramatic efforts like the Joel Surnow thrill-ride 24 emulated the format. Furthermore, story-arc shows like Babylon 5 and Buffy (not to mention X-Files and Millennium) always had standalone episodes as sort of "catch-your-breath" opportunities too.

In this post-2000 rise of the “killer serial,” the serialized drama format has also been coupled with something else: a particularly dynamic or memorable high concept. The result? Blockbuster television ratings. In 2004-2005, Lost fit the mold perfectly: a high concept series about plane crash survivors trapped on a mysterious island, with each episode revealing a piece of the island’s puzzle. Although ratings have diminished over the years, the high-concept Lost has often been credited for the revival of dramatic TV series following the reign of reality TV and games shows, circa 2000 - 2004.

Likewise, one of the biggest hits of the 2005-2006 season was the high concept “killer serial” called Prison Break (2005 - 2009) starring Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell, concerning a diverse group of convicts escaping from Fox River Penitentiary. The escape plan was put together sequentially -- week after week on the series -- leading up to the actual execution of the strategy during a cliffhanging season finale. Prison Break ended this season, after four relatively successfuly years.

But reading the tea leaves (not to mention network schedules...), it isn't difficult to discern that the high concept "killer serial" TV drama is showing some real signs of fatigue. In this essay and survey, I remember a number of "killer serials" from the last few years that didn't quite make the grade. Some of these programs were actually quite good -- some noticeably less so -- but cumulatively they have all helped contributed to the downfall of a form. After a re-cap of each series, we'll look at some of the possible reasons for the "killer serials'" failure to hold on to large audiences.

Reunion (2005; Fox Network): A Different Year Every Week

Reunion was the high-concept story (and mystery...) surrounding six friends who graduated from Bedford High School in 1986. These buddies were inseparable, but then something tragic occurred in 2005: one "close" friend apparently murdered another.

Reunion began with that act of homicide -- and the subsequent investigation of Detective Marjorino (Mathew St. Patrick). He started peering into the past of each of the five surviving close friends of the deceased, and each new Reunion episode gazed at one year (following 1986) in their tumultuous lives.

This high-concept conceit, I might add, required the skilled (and way too photogenic...) main actors to age -- backwards and forwards -- over a twenty year span, week in and week out; playing characters at significant life crossroads such as marriage, college graduation, even mid-life crises.

The major characters in Reunion were blue-collar Will (Will Estes), best friend of wealthy slacker and child of privilege, Craig (Sean Faris). Will was also in love with Craig's girlfriend, Sam (Alexa Davalos), a gorgeous medical school student who was pregnant with Will's baby in 1986 but then gave the child up for adoption in London.

Then there was Carla (Chyler Leigh), a shy, smart girl who has never left quiet Bedford, but who "grew up" to become a manipulative vixen (!) over the two-decade span encompassed by the series. Meanwhile, Jenna (Amanda Righetti) was an insecure and promiscuous young woman hoping to start a career in the movies. And future Seattle tycoon Aaron (Dave Annable) was in love with Jenna,...but Carla was in love with Aaron, so that was the show's second love triangle.

All the trouble started in Reunion on the night of a party in 1986, shortly before high school graduation. On a beer run, Will and Craig were involved in a car accident in which the driver of the other car died. Craig was driving, but he convinced Will to take the rap so he could go to school at Brown. Will acquiesced, and eventually spent a year in prison for a crime he didn't commit. From there, things spiraled out of control and events led up to the murder in 2005.

Reunion was decidedly a soap opera and a mystery, but the high-concept dramatic approach -- featuring one episode set in each year leading up to a murder -- made it pretty damn intriguing. Viewers were asked to assemble the pieces of the puzzle themselves since they would only catch brief glimpses of the characters as they aged from episode to episode. The characters themselves may have been "stock" in design (the good girl with the secret, the vixen, the blue collar guy...) but the series' structure was anything but off-the-shelf. On the contrary, it was a revolutionary way of vetting a murder mystery. Reunion also had a high "nostalgic" appeal by referencing movies, music and pop-culture from 1986 - 2005. Even the "class warfare" angle -- blue collar kid vs. child of privilege -- added an element of interest to this "killer serial."

One of Reunion's first episodes was pre-empted for a prime-time presidential address, and that early loss of momentum seems to have cost the series dearly. Ratings dropped, and Fox pulled the series from the air after nine episodes...leaving unknown (in America, anyway...) the identity of the murderer.

Drive (2007; Fox): The Fugitive in Motion
was another short-lived action serial from Fox, one that essentially played the concept of the classic Burt Reynolds comedy The Cannonball Run (1981) straight. The series involved a heroic protagonist named Alex Tully -- Firefly star Nathan Fillion -- in a The Fugitive-type situation...on wheels.

In the introductory installment, Tully returns to his home only to find that his beloved wife (guest star Amy Acker) has disappeared on their wedding anniversary and that he is the prime suspect in her disappearance. The answer to her vanishing, however, rests not in the pursuit of a One-armed man, but rather in Tully’s forced participation in a secret, exclusive, and highly-illegal cross-country race. The prize in this race is not just information, but a thirty-two million dollar stipend.

So in the first episode (“The Starting Line”), Tully races to Key West, Florida and the Wayfarer Hotel...where he just misses the race “orientation” held by the mysterious "Agent for the Conspiracy," Mr. Bright (Charles Martin Smith). However, after roughing him up, Tully learns more details of the contest, including the fact that involving the police is grounds for “immediate disqualification.”

Furthermore, the destination of the race is a mystery, and clues are provided only in terms of mysterious riddles like “Fly to Jupiter and find the Red Eye” or “Kennedy killed in 73.” Other important race factoids: it’s a “game of "strategy not just speed” and it is “bad” to place last.

Tully reluctantly partners with the beautiful Corinna Wiles (Kristin Lehman) in the race, which consists of 42 cars and competitors. It is learned in the second episode, “Partners,” that Corinna’s parents were killed while participating in the same race back in 1982. They were reluctant participants, apparently because young Corinna was a captive of the race organizers and they had no choice. Now Corinna is out for revenge and has stolen a flash drive with encrypted data about the race in hopes of exposing the puppet masters behind it.

Other contestants in the race include a father-daughter combo, John (Dylan Baker) and Violet Trimble (Stone). John is an astrophysicist who has only one year to live and wants to provide financially for young Violet. Half-brothers Winston (Kevin Alejandro) and Sean (J.P. Pardo), meanwhile, join the race to spite their lying father, who has refused to acknowledge the juvenile delinquent Winston as kin. But the strangest of all the contestants is Wendy Patrakas (Melanie Lynskey), a recent new Mom with an abusive husband, Richard. At first, it appears she has brought her baby along on the race, but this is merely a ruse to come out ahead. Instead, she has hidden the baby in an undisclosed location. The slightly off-kilter Wendy loses the first leg of the race and so must pay a penalty: she has to “remove” (meaning kill...) someone from a competing vehicle. She finds a creative way around this order in the second episode.

Some critics compared Drive to a scripted version of The Amazing Race, which makes sense since Lost is in many senses a scripted version of Survivor. Like Reunion, it's not entirely clear why viewers took a pass on Drive, a high-octane thriller with swerving, adrenaline-provoking camera work and a great sense of style. Much of the action in the series took place inside speeding cars. Through the auspices of amazing and realistic computer animation, car interiors and road exteriors blended with fluidity as viewers traveled from vehicle to vehicle, back and forth, across highway lanes, like mad ping-pong balls. Drive also featured an impressive golden-sunshine palette (it was set in Florida...) that differentiated it from the blue steel look of killer serials like Prison Break. But the series benefited most strongly from the presence of charismatic, ever droll Fillion in the lead.

Drive only aired four times before being canceled, leaving viewers with many questions, particularly: who was behind the evil race, and why were some contestants forced into participating?

Kidnapped (2006-2007; NBC): And the Bad Guy Is?
Jason Smilovic’s Kidnapped died a quick death during its network run on NBC, only to receive overwhelming critical accolades upon the complete series’ release on DVD. Better late than never, one supposes.

Kidnapped opened with a glimpse of tremendous wealth and privilege. The audience met the Cains, a super-rich family living in luxury in Manhattan. Patriarch Conrad Cain (Timothy Hutton) was one step away from being a gangster, and boasted a very shady past. He was married to heiress and beauty Ellie (Dana Delaney), who may or may not have had an affair with a U.S. Senator.

Meanwhile, Cain’s alienated son, Leopold (Will Denton), had an odd hobby. Every day, he would practice holding his breath underwater for sustained periods; a reaction to an incident in his childhood when he nearly drowned in the family pool. Leopold, who happened to be reading the book Origins of Consciousness, was under the care of a bodyguard, the extremely competent and taciturn Virgil Hayes (Mykelti Williamson) because, according to his father, “sometimes the world doesn’t make sense.”

Sure enough, on the way to school one morning, Leopold becomes the target of a vicious and highly-organized kidnapping attempt. Virgil does his best to rescue the boy during a sustained firefight, but a sniper eventually takes Virgil out, landing him in the hospital. Leopold is taken.

This kidnapping takes place on the day that FBI agent and Virgil’s brother-in-low Latimer King (Lindo) is set to retire, but those plans are put on hold, and he teams with FBI agent Andy Archer to help the Cains. The family has already been warned “Don’t Call the Police,” and attempt to avoid the FBI, but to no avail.

The Cains also retain the series’ lead and protagonist, Knapp (Jeremy Sisto) a disheveled but brilliant sort who is a specialist in kidnapping cases just like Leopold’s. He brings along his assistant and tech-head, the beautiful Turner (Carmen Egojo), who insists she doesn’t share Knapp’s bed. Even if she would like to.

Over the thirteen episodes of Kidnapped, Knapp and Turner, Latimer and Archer and Virgil -- both separately and together -- attempt to rescue Leo, who, as it turns out, has been removed from the country and taken to Mexico, where he is held by a vicious thug, played by Robert Burke. The clues in the kidnapping lead Knapp to a malevolent character named Schroeder (Doug Hutchison), but even he is just a cog in a much deeper conspiracy, one that is not revealed in full until the shocking thirteenth episode.

The final set of episodes in Kidnapped find the various protagonists in Madeira, Mexico, getting ever closer to Leo’s position, even as Latimer is hounded by an Internal Affairs officer named Vance who believes the agent is crooked. Everything is apparently resolved during a shoot-out in a Mexican jungle as Leo is freed (and Virgil takes a bullet for him.) But, by the time of the final episode, “Resolution” everything the viewer thinks they understand about the case is overturned in a bravura and shocking ending that reveals there was simultaneously more and less going on in Kidnapped than one could imagine.

Taut and involving, Kidnapped gave Sisto a great lead role to play: a kind of ruffled, disorganized and brilliant child of Peter Falk’s Columbo. Dana Delaney also registered strongly as the tough-as-nails but quietly vulnerable Ellie Cain. Entertainment Weekly called Kidnapped one of “the best new shows” of the 2006 season, noting that it “slithers more insidiously than a rattlesnake.” That’s a good description for a powerful "killer serial" that died too soon.

Vanished (2006 - 2007; Fox): Disappearance as Second Chance...

Many critics, this one included, believed that the serialized thrill-ride Vanished would prove one of the hottest shows of the seasonin 2006 - 2007. The previews looked promising; nay thrilling even. And Fox gifted it with a great time slot, Monday nights following the red-hot Prison Break. And the premise – about a senator’s wife gone missing – promised sex, lies and videotape. Who could ask for anything more in a "killer serial?"

Yet this is one high-concept series did not live up to the hype; nor prove a success in the ratings. In fact, Vanished lived up to the series title and vanished all-together by 2007. Of course, one might blame Fox for being such a fair-weather friend. The network gave Vanished a terrific time slot, then pulled the serialized drama off the air for three weeks running to air Major League Baseball. That’s not exactly the way to keep interest high in a “killer serial” series which requires a solid attention span.

Vanished is the story of Georgia Republican Senator, Jeffrey Collins (John Allen Nelson). The politician is being pressured by his party to vote for a controversial Supreme Court candidate, but puts that anxiety away as the series opens in order to see his school-teacher wife, Sara (Kelly) receive an award for her good works. Before the event, Sara reveals to Jeffrey that she has a secret to share with him. Then, at the party -- before she can divulge the information -- she disappears.

Did Sara run away? Has she been kidnapped? Or was she taken to assure Collins’ vote in the upcoming confirmation hearings? Is she pregnant with another man's child? Or is there an even deeper conspiracy at work? Facing these questions is a tarnished F.B.I. agent, Graham Kelton (Gale Harold), who sees this case as an opportunity at redemption after a terrible mistake on a hostage case months earlier. His partner is Lin Mei (Ming-Na), and after seven episodes, there is a shocking turn of events when Kelton is murdered by the conspiracy and Eddie Cibrian, as agent Daniel Lucas, replaces star Gale Harold. (Talk about a "killer" serial...)

Senator Collins and his family are not above suspicion in Sara's disappearance either. His son, Max (John Patrick Amedori) is a drinker, and his daughter, Marcy (Margarita Levieva) has a pathological dislike of her stepmother (Sara) and is planning to elope with a much older man.

Also circling around the disappearance of Sara Collins is press vulture Judy Nash (Rebecca Gayheart), a journalist who covered Kelton’s previous case (and his ghastly mistake...) and is now bent on uncovering the truth about the Senator’s wife. Ultimately, the conspiracy involves not just Sara, but – of all things – the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Unlike most of the other high concept dramas in this survey, Vanished is highly-cliched, superficial, and badly-written. By contrast, Kidnapped overturns old conventions at warp speed and is filled with surprises, whereas Vanished doesn’t feel nearly as intelligent, or aware of the fact that it is repeating an old story. The law enforcement officer with a tragic past, the politician’s wife with a dark secret, the nosy journalist – these characters are so familiar and so two-dimensional that some of the early episodes actually play as parody. Kelton’s flashback to the kidnapping case gone wrong - involving a very fake looking CGI explosion - is about as silly and hackneyed as possible, and Harold is an ineffectual first lead here: playing the material melodramatically, and going over-the-top. Rebecca Gayheart doesn’t fare any better in the Lois Lane reporter role: her performance never rises above superficialities.

Couple the poor acting and banal characters with police procedural lingo audiences have heard a million times before, and one can begin to detect why Vanished never proved to be the draw it could have been. In the right hands, with the right scripts and dramatis personae, this could have been another Prison Break, another 24 – hell, even another Kidnapped – but this series just isn’t in that league.

Harper's Island (CBS; 2009): And Then There Were None

A slasher movie on network television! This recent entry in the "Killer Serial" sweepstakes involves friends and family gathering at a wedding on a scenic island in the Pacific Northwest. Problem is, a serial killer starts offing the guests, one by one...week after week.

Harper's Island
just aired the program's final episode on July 11 and in all likelihood the series is canceled. That said, the thriller generated quite a bit of enthusiasm and interest among fans and critics.

So why did all these "killer serials" fail where 24, Lost and Prison Break found fame and fortune? It could be that most of the shows aired on Fox, the same hair-trigger network that uncermoniously killed Harsh Realm, Firefly, John Doe and The Lone Gunmen. It could be all the scheduling and the pre-emptions that the shows suffered prevented a "habit" from froming.

Or could it be something else? Is it possible that we only have so many hours to devote to our TV entertainment? And that, quite simply, it's exhausting to keep up with too many of these high-concept, cliffhanging dramas at one time? Did television viewers make a Darwininian, "survival of the fittest" selection and opt to keep 24 and Prison Break, but snub Drive, or Kidnapped, or Reunion?

That's one possibility, but don't expect that the wholesale failure of the high-concept killer serial form is going to send network television scrambling back to the days of standalone episodes such as those seen on Star Trek (1966-1969) or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. There may be some re-trenchment in terms of continuing storylines, but with Lost and 24 living on borrowed time, audiences may soon themselves surfing the channels for a new fix: the newest and most outrageous high-concept thrill ride yet...


  1. Hey John, great article.

    Here's a few more shows you can add to the mix:

    Day Break (2006)- aired on ABC while Lost was on hiatus. told the story of a cop who relive single day again and again (much like Groundhog Day). It was quite powerful, but it never really got of the ground and captured the audience, and was cancelled after a few episodes.

    Surface/Invasion/Threshold (2005)- three "clone" series, which tried to cash in on the succes of Lost.(None of them survived more than a season).

    Surface dealt with misterious sea creatures, Invasion dealt with a small town facing an alien invasion, and Threshold dealt with a secret army unit,trying to deal with (again) aliens. Of the three, my personal favorite was Surface, which was the only one who had some kind of an original idea. the other two quite literally sucked.

    point pleasant (2005)- This one was a real peace of crap. a failed attempt to combine a supernatural theme (about the daughter of Satan, no less), anda cheesy teen soap, like The O.C. or Gossip Girl. Everything was bad about this one- the Acting, the Writing, the Directing- Everything. It was cancelled after a few episodes.

  2. Hey Nir!

    Thank you for the contribution. You are right about Daybreak, Surface, Threshold and Invasion and the others. (In fact, readers of the blog can find my reviews of those, and Traveler, in the archives...). They were also Killer Serials that didn't make the grade.

    I watched Point Pleasant and couldn't believe how bad it was. And then, recently, I've wanted to watch it again just to make sure my memory didn't trick me.

    It really was that bad, wasn't it?

    John Kenneth Muir

  3. I know I'm late to the game here, but I also remember a serial about a bunch of people who were part of a (mysterious?)bank robbery, and each week we would get a little more info on what actually happened. I assume it was more (and less) than we though. Tim Daley was in it, I think.

  4. You mean "The Nine". Didn't like it.