Thursday, March 03, 2011

Culture Shock 03.03.11: 'Fringe' surviving (for now) the Friday death slot

Fox has a long history of canceling my favorite TV shows, strangling some newborn in the cradle and cutting others short just as they start to reach their prime.

No. I'm still not over the cancellations of "Firefly" and "Arrested Development." Thanks for asking. Although I am amazed "Arrested Development" got a whole 2½ seasons from the notoriously trigger-happy network. And that second season of "Dollhouse" was a pleasant surprise, especially since a lot of series creator Joss Whedon's fans even had trouble warming up to it.

But it may be about to happen again, so I want to be on the record in advance.

If Fox cancels "Fringe," it will be canceling the best show on television and, apart from "House" — now there's one show Fox isn't threatening to ax — my only must-see TV this season.

As a science-fiction series on Fox, "Fringe" has already beaten the odds. It's now in its third season. But in January, Fox moved "Fringe" to Friday nights, otherwise known as the "Friday night death slot," which, according to its Wikipedia entry, has been killing TV shows since the original "Star Trek."

In the 1980s, Friday nights were the domain of ratings juggernauts like "Dallas" and "Miami Vice," which dispatched all would-be competitors the way Crockett and Tubbs dispatched speedboats full of cocaine — explosively and without remorse. Another groundbreaking sci-fi series, "Max Headroom," fell prey to the death slot in 1988, lasting only 14 episodes.

Now, however, Friday night is a virtual death sentence for any show, simply because not enough people are home to watch, and the major broadcast networks still give less weight to viewers who watch later on DVR. (They know we fast-forward through the commercials.)

For now, "Fringe" is holding its own, drawing 4 million viewers and a 1.5 rating among adults age 18 to 49 for its most recent episode.

That's down from the 1.9 rating the series earned during its first two weeks on Friday nights, but up from a couple of weeks ago. So, with any luck, "Fringe" will trend back up as it nears its season finale.

Yet even that may not be enough.

"Fringe" is fighting for dwindling space on Fox's fall lineup. Bill Gorman of has run the numbers, and with all of the pilots it has ordered and plus returning shows, Fox is quickly running out of room on its schedule, leaving "Fringe" competing with freshman cop drama "The Chicago Code" for what could be the last seat in the lifeboat.

Personally, I'd just as soon see "The Chicago Code" sent to the morgue. That's the Chicago way. Besides, who is going to miss yet another cop show?

Science fiction television, meanwhile, is an endangered species. Sure, you can find fantasy and paranormal romance aplenty across the dial, but you have to search to find real, honest SF, even on the cable channel — which shall remain nameless — formerly devoted to it. Hint: The channel's name is still pronounced sci-fi.

Admittedly, "Fringe" demands a lot of its viewers, which is exactly why it's such great television. The show frequently shifts its focus to an alternate Earth, where we're confronted with different versions of familiar characters — versions who are not necessarily nice. That alternate universe also has given us a love triangle involving two versions of the same character. And if two Earths aren't enough, Fringe sometimes shifts in time. Last week's episode was a flashback set in 1985, and the two lead actors didn't even appear.

It's great storytelling, but it's anything but typical, comfortable TV viewing. So, I should probably just be happy "Fringe" has had three good seasons.

But I'd rather know how the story ends.

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