As this year's television season limps to a close, with a number of long-running series finales that ranged from the sweetly cloying (The West Wing) to the overly self-congratulatory (Will and Grace) to the largely unmemorable (Alias, That 70s Show), I'd like to take just a brief moment to speak about none of them.
That's right. You're getting enough 'ink' about those shows in other media. Media that bravely choose to pay lots of attention to shows that you've watched and that you care about, or, at least, shows that feature actors and actresses who appear regularly in the tabloids. Instead, this intrepid columnist is going to ask you to spend some of your valuable time on shows that you probably never watched and that sank without much critical notice. (So, Arrested Development, that doesn't mean you.) I'd like to call your attention to the failure of a trifecta of shows that was grouped together - by critics and, I imagine, by viewers -- at the beginning of the season: "Surface," "Threshold," and "Invasion".
What do these shows have in common? Well, none of them was headed by a marquee name (unless, I suppose, you count Lake Bell or Carla Gugino as marquee names). All of them have titles that tell you almost nothing about what they're about. (Could "Surface" be the wacky adventures of a feuding bunch of table top designers? Or "Threshold" a game show about testing contestants' endurance? Who knows?). And, of course, none of them caught on sufficiently with viewers to generate definite commitments to return next year. (Although you can never be sure what television executives will do: 7th Heaven's "series finale" was apparently so popular that the new CW network seems to be bringing it back for one more season.) And, it should be said, none of them was particularly bad; "Invasion," as a matter of fact, had a slow-building sense of menace that earned it admirable notice from no less an expert on fright-making than Stephen King.
Because menace and fright is what all three shows had in common. More specifically, they featured the slow realization by a small group of heroes that the world was being threatened by inhuman creatures. The details differed slightly - in "Threshold," they were aliens, in "Invasion" they were either aliens or, somewhat portentiously, "hybrids" that were "the next step in human evolution," and in "Surface" they looked like alien sea creatures, but ended up being a human scientific experiment gone horribly wrong. But in all three cases, the plucky band of humans selected, or self-selected, to battle the menace had to do it in secret, usually in order to avoid widespread panic, general chaos, and, presumably, budget-busting crowd scenes or unconvincing stock footage.
So the fact that all three failed is kind of interesting. Yes, television shows are like New York City restaurants - a huge percentage don't last their first year; but I suspect that there's something about the particular storylines that, right now, isn't so appealing. All of these shows, as I've tried to suggest, are at heart about conspiracy, that terrible things are going on that we, the public, don't really know about. But we don't need deep- sea monsters and aliens to feed our anxieties about conspiracies; the newspapers are reporting enough of them to keep us busy, thank you very much. Whether it's unidentified energy executives taking meetings in the White House, apparent NSA tracking of domestic communications, rumors about the possibility of hacking voting machines - it doesn't matter if the stories are true or not; what matters is that they're out there, and that they have a significant impact on the public imagination - and, as a result, on the public taste.
Does anyone doubt, for example, that the scariest monster on network television in the last few months was President Logan on "24"? The idea that an entire terrorist conspiracy could be organized around the president of the United States: that's the ultimate conspiracy theory. And it hardly seems a stretch that the writers and producers of "24", who admittedly are also looking for a good story and for shock value, are counting on general concerns that the government is not acting in our best interest, and spinning them into the stuff of nightmares.
If that's the case, we should all devoutly wish for more aliens to make their way back to television. Little green men should be the worst thing we have to worry about.