Oh, cheer up. There's a lot of TV, some great and some mediocre. Some shows should just be cancelled, pronto. We all know that. And yet some trifling, terrible shows seem to linger forever.
But last week, an odd thing happened in the TV racket. Actor/writer/producer Kurt Sutter called a halt to his series The Bastard Executioner, which has been airing since September on FX. Sutter took out an ad in several trade publications to make the announcement. It said, simply, "The audience has spoken and unfortunately the word is, 'meh.'"
The unfussy announcement, made without complaint, is highly unusual. Sutter had enormous success with his previous series, Sons of Anarchy. But The Bastard Executioner, his daring, highly ambitious 14th-century period drama – set in Wales and made in Britain – lost half of its audience during its first weeks on FX. It started with four million viewers and dropped to 1.9 million by episode six.
The series, an expensive but prestige project for FX, could have continued and been tinkered with, but Sutter was adamant that it was time to stop. He told The Hollywood Reporter: "I'm not the guy sitting in my ivory tower spitting s–t out and not caring if anyone is watching. I don't want to write something that nobody's f–ing watching." The swearing is Sutter's usual colourful way of talking. There was no bitterness, no anger.
Thing is, hardly anybody does what Sutter did – shut down the show and walk away.
The entire TV industry is in chaos. Not because nobody's watching, but because there is too much TV. Everybody is offering content, everybody is moving to a streaming model of distribution and, until things settle down, content is king.
What's happening in network TV is now beyond bizarre. Five years ago, networks were quick to pull the trigger if a new series performed badly over its first three weeks.
Fox famously cancelled critically acclaimed dramas such as Lone Star after two episodes. Now what happens is not cancellation, but chipping away at a show's status. The major networks have made it to mid-November with only one outright cancellation of a new show – ABC's crime drama Wicked City. Instead of cancellation, a show that was scheduled to run for 13 episodes is trimmed back to nine or 10 episodes.
One reason is inventory. No network has a shelf full of replacement series ready to air. As viewers drift off to cable and streaming services, a show with poor ratings is a better bet than an unknown production that will start with zero viewers.
This makes the TV racket a baffling arena. There are shows that should be cancelled.
Why the heck is Grey's Anatomy still on the air? Hasn't Modern Family become lame and repetitive? Could the new soaper Blood & Oil be any more boring? If you thought Castle had been cancelled, think again. It's still there, mysteriously. The same goes for The Middle. Surely the novelty of The Muppets has worn off and the show should be put out if its misery? Once Upon a Time was, once upon a time, an interesting fantasy, but now it is fumbling the plot. I'm sure you all have your own list.
None of us want to put people out of work, but commercial television is, as Kurt Sutter says, about the number of people watching. Somebody should take a sword to the network schedules in the way that the weak and undependable were put to the sword on The Bastard Executioner.
The Art of More (now streaming on shomi) is one of the reasons networks are dithering and the TV racket is chaotic. The first hour-long original drama made by the streaming service Crackle, it's big, bold and, regrettably, not that special. Set in the upper end of the art-auction world, it's all sizzle, no steak.
The main character is Graham Connor (Christian Cooke), a poor, barely educated young man from Brooklyn who has hustled his way into the art world. That's because while serving in Iraq he got involved in smuggling artifacts. Now he's the hotshot dealer trying to land the collection of obnoxious billionaire Sam Brukner (Dennis Quaid). Essentially, he is a pimp, and the connection is made rather too emphatically.
There are some spiky exchanges with his rival Roxanna Whitman (Kate Bosworth), but there isn't much here that's adult or sophisticated. If it were on a network, it would be a candidate for quick cancellation.