I saw an interesting quote the other day that shed some light on my evolving attitude toward Flash Gordon (season finale Friday, Feb. 8 at 8 p.m. on Sci Fi). The quote is from a recent interview with the show's consulting producer Gillian Horvath:
"We went into that first episode's premiere with very high feelings for the show. We had really enjoyed the cuts and the dailies that were coming to the office, so we went into August with the feeling like, 'This is great. We are on the coolest show. We're so happy to be here. It's gonna be so fun to watch this thing grow.'
"Then we got some pretty hard online reviews from people who were disappointed and we were like, 'What happened there?' When I look back at it now with brilliant hindsight which is always 20/20, I can see that part of what happened was that there were stories that we knew were developing over time, therefore we could see the germs of them in those early episodes. People viewing couldn't see where it was going."
Horvath knows a thing or two about not finding an audience: her resume is a cornucopia of shows that didn't get talked about, including Painkiller Jane, the gay-themed drama series Dante's Cove, Adventure Inc. (which co-starred Flash regular Karen Cliche), MythQuest, Baywatch Hawaii, and Forever Knight. Here she owns up to a major miscalculation on the part of the Flash's producers: planning the season's story arc is great, but each episode has to be involving and self-contained as well.
Long-Term Stories, Short Season
Flash's attention to its year-long arc is part of a recent trend which has worked well in some instances but undermined the success of other series -- sci-fi series in particular, usually by making the early episodes of the first season cryptic and opaque in order to lead up to season-ending revelations. This worked on Lost, for example, because the situation itself was so compelling that the immediate, moment-to-moment crises sucked you in even as they built toward a series of big-picture climaxes.
Other premises don't lend themselves to this kind of micro/macro synergy. Journeyman, though excellently written, took a leisurely approach to explaining what was actually going on; series star Kevin McKidd warned viewers before the show's premiere that all would not be made fully clear until the end of the first season. When NBC told them to wrap things up with the thirteenth episode, some of the explanations and half-gestated backstory were mixed into the dialog, increasing the viewers' sense that the show was being pushed out the door.
Other series have likewise had mixed success with concentrating on the long story arc. The low-rated, much-derided Enterprise, for example, started to improve with the third season, which was devoted entirely to the war with the Xindi; but at the same time this monolithic storyline seemed difficult to pick up once it was already underway and so repelled some of the very viewers (skeptics reacting to improved buzz) that it was trying to attract. Brannon Braga's 2005 series, Threshold, failed to catch on in part because it paced its big revelations over the long haul -- leaving viewers in the dark when the show was prematurely canceled, like Journeyman, after half a season.
And then there's Heroes. The first season drew viewers in, despite the slow accrual of clues as to the villains and their motive, because the first half season was essentially a prolonged origin story for Peter, Hiro, and Claire, not to mention bad-guy Sylar; huge word-of-mouth propelled the show toward its weak season 1 climax (in which Peter is more worried about his powers going awry than in defeating Sylar). Season 2 continued trying to build long-term stories, but without the fascination of a superhero origin the adrenaline-free, baby-step plotlines just weren't cutting it. Creator Tim Kring actually ended up apologizing to fans for screwing up season 2, promising to get things back on track (a pledge soon thwarted by the writers' strike).