Out-Foxed: Heavy death toll for network’s 2014-2015 TV shows

Added to NBC’s prime-time cancellation debacle, the Fox network’s trail of TV series carnage should make for a blizzard of back office pink slips. Or not.

Backstrom (Rainn Wilson) investigates the hit-and-run death of a wealthy Portland woman. But Rainn and his character won't be returning on the Fox lineup this fall. (Screen capture of Fox video)

WASHINGTON, May 10, 2015 – Adding the list of 2014-2015 Fox TV series cancellations finalized last week to the massive, mostly sitcom body-bags from NBC could make for an epic YouTube “fail” video montage. Problem is, this fantasy video compendium would likely fail as well.

Shall we count the ways?

“Backstrom”: Sad to say, this midseason replacement show is now officially heading for the showers. We kind of liked it, although the writing was uneven.

Starring Rainn Wilson—formerly one of the top stars of NBC’s long-running sitcom “The Office,”—“Backstrom” is, or was, a new crime procedural dramedy focused on and around the quirky career of a seedy detective whose brilliance in solving complex homicide cases is exceeded only by his ability to sustain the intensity of his alcohol and substance abuse problem.

In some ways, “Backstrom” seemed a bit like the successful British BBC1 detective series “Wallander,” which starred Kenneth Branagh as a brilliant, but dark and deeply troubled Swedish detective. That series was derived from the popular detective novels of Swedish writer Henning Mankell that chronicled the brilliant and troubled career of his well-known, angst-ridden far-North gumshoe.

“Backstrom,” in turn, was derived from the tales of yet another eponymous Swedish detective—Everett Backstrom—this troubled sleuth being the creation of writer Leif G.W. Persson. But putting the series in quirky Portland, Oregon and adding a not-always-effective comedic element to the crime-solving brew ultimately didn’t work, despite Wilson’s dogged and surprisingly effective portrayal of the U.S. series’ central character.

Given the nature of Backstrom’s issues, perhaps Fox was looking to score another hit like its long-running and highly-original series “House.” But the “Backstrom” cast never quite seemed to click.

“Wallander” is scheduled to shoot its three final installments this year, assuming that Branagh—still in great international demand as a director and actor—can be pried loose from his impossibly busy schedule. “Backstrom,” however, won’t be getting that chance, leaving its main character lost forever in the urban funhouse of Portlandia.

“The Following”: Highly regarded in its original season, this violent Fox detective series starring big-name movie actor Kevin Bacon was officially and rather unceremoniously deep-sixed last week after running for a respectable three seasons. It now joins fellow detective series “Backstrom” on Fox’s “Do Not Resuscitate” list.

Ratings had been dropping steadily for this series. Its primary focus was on the exploits of troubled FBI agent Ryan Hardy’s (Kevin Bacon’s) dogged pursuit of serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), whose literary fascination with the works of Edgar Allen Poe contributed to his MO.

Rumor has it that Warner Brothers Studios might be trying another route for salvaging the series. Similar to its efforts on behalf of its abruptly A&E-canceled contemporary Wild West detective series “Longmire”—whose Season 4 will now air on Netflix sometime this summer—Warner is allegedly negotiating “The Following’s” return on Hulu. Stay tuned.

“Gracepoint”: Based on the runaway first season success of dark and brooding British detective serial “Broadchurch,” Fox decided to take the same series stateside. Renamed “Gracepoint,” the Fox version even managed to pilfer the British series’ popular star, former “Dr. Who” heartthrob David Tennant, to headline the American version. Both shows follow the troubling trail of evidence, as a pair of mismatched detectives try to track down the murderer of a young boy in a small, closely-knit, rural coastal town.

Interestingly, Fox touted the series as a British-style “limited run” effort, and it did complete its 10-episode story arc last fall. But now it’s official: There won’t be a second season.

The primary reason for “Gracepoint’s” death sentence was likely that series’ low ratings. But other culprits may also have been afoot, particularly the fact that “Broadchurch’s” followup second season seemed to stumble when it aired in the UK. So cloning that season on these shores, when its U.S. iteration had already failed to attract much interest, didn’t seem to make sense.

Further, we think Fox erred by scheduling this retread not long after it originally erred in the UK and while the edgy and atmospheric original series is still available on Netflix (which it still is). In other words, perhaps a key reason behind “Gracepoint’s” low ratings here was that many who might have viewed it − fans of richly complex but slow-moving detective shows on PBS −had already watched and enjoyed the original on PBS or via streaming video.

“Gang Related”: This LAPD procedural launched its inaugural early summer season a year ago last May. Ratings were not particularly impressive for Fox, and its fate was left hanging. But Fox ultimately decided to stem its losses, and “Gang Related” is no more.

“The Mindy Project”: Penned by writer/actress Mindy Kaling, and starring herself, this quirky Fox comedy re-imagined real life Mindy as a successful but often socially inept OB-GYN whose smooth-running practice was not reflected in her awkward, ineptly handled love life. Ergo, the “Mindy Project,” Mindy’s effort to right the Ship of Love and set it sailing as perfectly as her career by finding Mr. Right and getting him to the alter.

“Mindy” got off to a good start in its first season, sustaining most of its audience in its second. But it faltered in its third season, perhaps due to the fact that nearly any character’s serial disasters can get tedious in time unless there’s some sort of resolution.

But with ratings in the tank this season, Fox pulled the plug—ironically on a Season 3 cliffhanger ending, with Mindy pregnant without a ring and with arrangements to get that ring very much in doubt.

The series’ remaining fans were outraged, much like “Longmire’s” fans when that still successful series was arbitrarily canceled by A&E for questionable reasons, once again leaving the cliff hanging after Season 3’s finale.

Unlike “Longmire,” however—which was picked up by Netflix largely, we suspect, due to an indefatigable effort by an online fan collective known as “The Longmire Posse,”—Mindy’s fans don’t seem quite as organized, although they set the Twitterverse aflutter after last week’s cancellation announcement, perhaps set off by a Tweet from the real life Mindy.

Word has it, however, that Hulu might pick up the show for a final season. In the meantime, the TV Mindy is dealing with a big problem. Stay tuned. Something will happen. Or it won’t.

“Mulaney”: In a clear stab at reviving the critically and popularly successful—and lucrative—comedy magic of the gone-but-not-forgotten “Seinfeld,” Fox launched its own approach to that franchise, “Mulaney,” last October. A bit like Mindy Kalin’s “Project,” “Mulaney” was headlined by the eponymous real-life stand-up comic and ex-“Saturday Night Live” writer John Mulaney.

But unlike Mindy, Mulaney played a fictionalized version of himself in the show, even to the point of doing stand-up comedy as his fictional character before live studio audiences on the show.

“Mulaney’s” cancellation is by now fairly old news, since the series was axed back in January and ran its last episodes in March. But it joins “Mindy” and a slew of NBC comedies on the Island of Misfit Sitcoms. “Seinfeld,” or even “The Dick Van Dyke Show” it was not.

“Red Band Society”: Finalizing another bit of old news, Fox had had great hopes for this odd new series, which debuted on the network last fall. It was billed as a “dramedy” operating under the unusual plot premise that focused on a batch of teens with various and sometimes serious illnesses who resided in a hospital ward. Adding to the brew, it also was sort of a musical.

I got a chance to review this one in advance, but decided to leave it to its fate. For me, the premise was too weird, and the prospect of visiting sick kids every week frankly creeped me out. There’s a difference between pathos and bathos, and for me, at least, this series crossed the line, although that certainly wasn’t its intention.

Apparently, “Red Band’s” prospective audience was creeped out, too. On November 16, 2014, Fox announced it would 86 the series after running the 13 episodes it had ordered. But it pulled the plug after running only 10, decided to air them beginning January 31, 2015, going first with Episode 11 and then running the final two episodes together as a season.

In some ways this was an innovative venture. But the topic was simply too inherently sad to pull nearly any demographic.

“Utopia”: Last and likely least, this was Fox’s earliest, most obvious and most disastrous fail last fall. Built as a freeform and nearly unscripted reality series, the premise, like that of “Red Band,” was interesting.

In a twist on “Survivor,” the crew of mismatched people put together for this show were unleashed here in the U.S. on a large plot of land where their given task was to create from scratch a new, more perfect and self-sustaining society governed by their own laws and morals and built by hard work and ingenuity.

There was no real plotline for the show. Things were just supposed to happen, because… well, because a bunch of people can’t just simply live with each other without a goal or some basic rules of the road.

Fox began to promote the show last August by posting videos of its characters and early beginnings on the Internet, obviously to create some buzz and anticipation for the series. It actually did.

But what viewers saw on TV was a formless mess complicated by no visible forward progress and by a cadre of uniquely dislikeable characters even by reality TV standards. Worse, it initially ran multiple episodes per week, and these days, who has the time, really.

Having spent a ton of money on the series already, Fox quickly scrambled to fix the problems, but there were just too many. After moving single episodes of the show to Friday—TV’s Death Valley—Fox cut their losses way early, canning the quarrelsome would-be Utopians and the show after only a few episodes that no one watched.

The final category here is gone…AND forgotten. The moral of the story seems to be: Even a “reality” show must have a plotline.

With all last season’s cancellations now a formal and collective reality, Fox, like NBC, will need to go back to the old drawing board to come up with enough promising new 2015-2016 shows to fill in all its now-huge programming gaps. To do so, they’ll certainly need to do better than they did this season.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17