Tough times for sci-fi shows on TV right now. Shows that came on with great fanfare seem to be dropping like flies, and — largely — I find myself not caring so much. (Though I’m worried about Fringe.) Why? Why would I not care that shows I’ve invested considerable viewing time in have been suddenly axed?
It all boils down to character.
Give me characters I care about, and I’ll watch a show. Give me characters I identify with, and I’ll love a show. Take characters I like and put them through changes that make them less sympathetic (or unrecognizable), and I’ll stop watching — or at least, not care when the show goes away. That’s what happened to Caprica and Stargate Universe, and nearly happened to Fringe. How did it happen? Let’s look.
Caprica was a story about parents who lost a child to terrorists, and a child who still lived on, but only in a virtual world. It was also about criminals, and an honorable man trying not to become one of them. We identified with the parents, the child, and the honorable man (and, to a lesser extend, his honorable assassin brother). Yet, at the end of last season, the parents had split, one of them was working with criminals (thereby becoming a criminal himself), another spying/snitching on the terrorists (and looking much like a criminal herself), and the child apparently destroyed — to reappear only sporadically this season.
Additionally, the honorable man had also become a criminal, somehow leaving his assassin brother as the nicest guy on the show. The other characters are actual terrorists and wannabe terrorists. Who’s to like there? Nobody. (They even killed James Marsters, who was the most interesting terrorist.) So, basically, all the people I liked in the show turned into people I didn’t like, or (in the case of Zoe) aren’t showing up enough for me to care. The show is filled with criminals, terrorists, and snitches — and not in an amusing Sopranos kind of way. Watching Caprica has become like watching lemmings march toward a cliff. Everybody’s doomed. It’s hard to care about that.
Similarly, the cast of SGU — aside from Eli — has become increasingly self-involved and unreliable. Some, like Rush, started that way. Others seem to have become consumed by their own personal problems. I like this show better than Caprica — but I’m having a hard time caring about anyone here, either. It seems like everybody is falling apart. I can’t imagine wanting to be trapped on a ship going to the end of the universe with any of these folks, probably not even Eli. Rush was created to be annoying, so I give him something of a pass (though not when he behaves stupidly — as characters here often do), but what about the rest of them? Would you ask any of these guys to a party? I wouldn’t.
It doesn’t help that they created a new, interesting character — Ginn — only to build sympathy when they killed her off. That’s cold. Doesn’t make me want to trust the creators and then go along for the ride — especially not to the end of the universe. Captain Kirk, that’s a guy I’d follow.
Fringe almost made the same kind of mistake. They took our favorite character, Liv, and put her in an unlikable universe (aside from a few shadows of dead friends). So, every other week, in the alternate universe, we were annoyed by all the evil folk (as well as worried for Liv). Why should I care about these alternates? They’re bastards! (For the most part.) Then, they took Evil Liv and put her in with the cast and crew that we’d come to care about. Meaning every other week, we got to be annoyed watching an evil twin of someone we really like screwing with other people we care about. Every week we get to be annoyed by something, but the things we’re annoyed with alternate. Not a recipe for long-term success.
Fortunately, the Fringe creators were wise enough to make this alternate/walternate plot last only for part of the season. If they kept it up much longer, I’m not sure how many viewers would have hung on. As it is, they’ve moved the show into Friday, “death night” for ratings. I fear it may not last. Which is too bad, because it’s a good show, even if it did make the almost fatal error of changing characters we like into ones we don’t. Caprica and Stargate Universe weren’t so lucky (or wise). A few years back, I gave up on Heroes for the same reason: the characters I liked changed to the point I couldn’t recognize them. I suspect that’s why that series tanked, too.
I hope that Fringe has realized its mistake in time to survive. What do you think?