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Fox Cancels 'Past Life': What Went Wrong?

The show about reincarnation never incarnated in the first place


Kate and Price

Psychologist Dr. Kate McGinn (Kelli Giddish, L) and former NYPD detective Price Whatley (Nicholas Bishop, R) in Past Life. Image Gallery

David Moir/FOX

After a sharp falloff in ratings following the pilot, which Fox clearly interpreted as viewers sampling the show and firmly declaring "No, thank you," the new series Past Life has been ended after the airing of only three episodes.

The series, which starred Kelli Giddish and Nicholas Bishop as investigators exploring old mysteries involving the past lives of people they encounter, started out okay: its Feb. 9 debut earned overnight ratings of 9.07 million. The premise, clearly, had a strong curiosity factor. Though Fox was still deeply disappointed: 9 million may be decent numbers for a new paranormal police procedural, but not if it means you dropped most of your lead-in audience (it was on after American Idol).

After that ratings fell off a cliff: 5.31 million for the second episode Feb. 11, and then just 3.49 million on Feb. 18. In Nielsen terms, Past Life posted a 1.1 rating and 3 share among adults 18-49 on Thursday night, placing it fourth among broadcasters in the hour and toward the very bottom of broadcast network shows for the week.

Remaining Episodes Held Back

Fox ordered only 7 regular episodes of the series to begin with; the remainder will be burned off later in the season, most likely during the summer. The 9 p.m. Thursday slot will be filled by episodes of Kitchen Nightmares for a few weeks, then reruns of Bones and Fringe.

The show's origins lie in the novel The Reincarnationist and related books by M. J. Rose. The show itself, however, is a very loose adaptation of the book, which is part crime thriller, part supernatural love story. (The books are just now coming out in paperback: compare prices.)

Creator David Hudgins had strong credentials going in: although this was his first outing as a showrunner, he was associated as a key writer and producer on two bona fide hits, Everwood and Friday Night Lights. But given the frankly amateurish writing and lackluster execution, either Hudgins forgot everything he ever learned about television, or Skippy the Mail Boy was in charge.

Post Mortem: Failure to Launch

So what went wrong? It wasn't the premise. Strange premises are a given in television. (We have a new live-in maid! And it's Sinbad!) The basic problem is that the show did not sell its premise. Look at the two dramas that are replacing it. On Bones, Temperance Brennan and her team come up with reams of information from looking really closely at the knuckle from some dead guy's left thumb. And Fringe should have been laughed off the screen the minute Olivia got into a tank of epsom salts to psychically communicate with her mostly-dead partner.

But those shows sold their premise and made their oddball central characters believable and endearing. Hudgins, Giddish, and Bishop simply could not manage that here, with a flat show and cardboard characterizations. They also did not get past the superficiality of the attractiveness of the leads, and the obvious boy-girl set-up of their working together. I mean, Anna Torv and Emily Deschanel are both beautiful women, but their characters are not about that at all.

Ultimately, the show simply did not come alive. As an entry in the CBS Late Night Crime Time after Prime Time, it might have worked, but Past Life was really a tragic waste of a promising set-up.

The critics back me up here. The kindest reviews said things like "It's hooey. But it's fairly well done hooey" (Chicago Sun-Times).

Stunted Development

In an interview with iFMagazine, Hudgins discussed some of the development process. "We tried to come up with the coolest, weirdest, most interesting things we could for stories," he said. "I remember one day in the [writers'] room, we were talking about, 'What if somebody was getting divorced, and the wife and the husband were really pissed off at each other, but you could come up with some past life reason for the behavior?' That's just an example."

So ... "the coolest, weirdest, most interesting things" they could think of started with everyday suburban marital discord? Now, yes, there's a way to make that interesting, even fascinating, but Past Life didn't do it. Here was a show that started out with a Fringe-like premise and then, unlike its Fox brandmate, stayed firmly inside the box and thought as small as possible.

There's room for this kind of material on television. Look at Medium and Ghost Whisperer, which have survived half a decade trading in what in the everyday world is regularly called preposterous. In fact, most shows have ludicrous premises. Look at Royal Pains. An emergency room doctor loses everything, only to fall backwards into being a constantly-in-demand medico in the ultra-exclusive Hamptons? And then he wakes up, right?

Here's a classic lesson for future producers, then: the idea isn't enough.

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