Right now, ABC Family is touting “The Final Episodes” of Kyle XY, apparently to encourage you to tune in for the last weeks of one of TV’s most original and fascinating programs, for which they have decided they have no further use. In other words, first slaughter the lamb, then drain every drop of blood from it that you can get. Kyle XY has dropped off to a “mere” 1.5 million viewers this season. There are shows on cable TV that would love to be watched by an audience of “merely” 1.5 million. For instance, we have Mad Men over on AMC (the former American Movie Classics). Recently, in accepting an award for this series, its star, Jon Hamm, thanked the “dozens of viewers” who have tuned in for it. He wasn’t exaggerating by much; the audience for Mad Men isn’t even as large as the reduced numbers for this season of Kyle. But Mad Men will be back next season and Kyle won’t. (This is nothing against Mad Men, by the way; it is a fascinating and involving, albeit disturbing and perverse, show.)
Really, I have loved Kyle XY from the first week. And there has been everything to love about it, starting with its star, Matt Dallas. I mean, look at the kid. He’s a “teen idol” with substance. Young Matt plays Kyle, an artificially gestated boy with superhuman intelligence and advanced powers over mind, body, and energy. (The series title literally means “Kyle, a Boy”.) Kyle is sweet and pure-hearted, a total innocent, wanting nothing more than the bonds of a family, good friends, the chance to help others, and someone to love. Oh yes, and not to be exploited or turned into a weapon by the sinister scientific think tank that created him. In the weeks that this show has left, if you haven’t seen it yet, I defy you to look into the sweet, soulful eyes of Kyle and not be on his side. He is one of TV’s most appealing characters. But soon you’ll be able to see him only on DVD. (Actually, if series executive producer Julie Plec has her way, one of those DVDs will be an original story tying up all the loose threads of the show. This is something to root for.)
As I resign myself to saying farewell to Kyle, I also find myself looking back to the beginning of the previous decade, and the time when I very nearly gave up on innovative, creative, quality television.
At the beginning of the 1990s, I decided that I had really had it with TV’s treatment of the shows that make the best use of the medium of television: shows that are literate, artistic, and imaginative; shows that take creative risks and try to do things that are intelligent and different, and think “outside of the box”. A few years ago, a reader wrote in to TV Guide suggesting that CBS ought to stand for Cancelled Before Seen, NBC for Now Being Cancelled, and ABC for Already Been Cancelled. At the same time that I wanted to see the programmers of NBC tarred and feathered for the premature cancellation of their African-American-themed daytime soap, Generations, I would have welcomed the same fate for the fools in their prime time division who sacrificed the superb revival of another soap, Dark Shadows. If you never got to see the second coming of Dark Shadows, you really ought to get the DVD set of it. This was an excellent production from top to bottom, produced once again by the late Dan Curtis, who created the original series, and with music by original series composer Robert Cobert. The outstanding cast included Jean Simmons as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, Ben Cross as romantic vampire Barnabas, brunette beauty Joanna Going as nanny Victoria Winters, Roy Thinnes (David Vincent on the 1960s UFO show, The Invaders) as Roger Collins, and mega-hunk Michael T. Weiss (later The Pretender) as Joe Haskell. The all-new Dark Shadows effectively recaptured and updated the eerie, macabre romanticism of the old one, and should have run five seasons. NBC put the stake in it after thirteen weeks.
At the same time, CBS had launched one of the finest adaptations of a comic book ever produced, The Flash. This TV treatment of the red-suited speedster of DC Comics starred another superhumanly beautiful leading man, John Wesley Shipp, in the title role. It skillfully melded a quasi-noir sensibility with the colorful adventures of the super-fast hero, and even used actual villains from the comic books: Mark Hamill as the Trickster, David Cassidy as Mirror Master! Too bad the only thing the Flash couldn’t outrun was the folly of the network that broadcast his show; CBS did the same thing it did with the second Twilight Zone, burying The Flash in inopportune time slots and giving itself an excuse to send a premature cancellation notice.
This was the same season that Beauty and the Beast came to an end, but that was as much from an internal problem with the show as it was short-sightedness on CBS’s part. Linda Hamilton had quit the series, leaving the Beast without his original Beauty (Catherine was killed off), and CBS had altered the show’s format to stress action over romance. It just wasn’t the same thing, and I found it hard to watch. The cancellation of Beauty and the Beast in its third season actually felt like a mercy killing.
But by this time, I had decided that after losing Generations, Dark Shadows, and The Flash all in one season, I’d had enough. I wasn’t going to take this any more. I was tired of falling in love with truly creative and innovative shows that put the medium of TV to its best possible use, and watching them die an unjust, premature death. It just wasn’t worth the grief. After that season, I swore, I wasn’t going to start watching any more high-quality series. (And as someone who doesn’t just passively watch TV, I know them when I see them.) If they were to die, as I knew they must, they’d die without me.
The following season I picked out two series from the Fall Preview TV Guide that I could tell reeked of excellence and literacy. They were both period dramas. I knew they were goners and I wasn’t about to tune in and see them be abused. So it was that I did not watch NBC’s I’ll Fly Away, a thoughtful and engrossing drama about a black maid and the white family that she worked for in the South, in the days before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. Nor did I bother tuning in to ABC’s even more fascinating Homefront, the story of an Ohio town at the end of World War II, when the soldiers came home and everyone either had to resume their pre-war roles (which was especially tough on some of the women, who’d grown accustomed to working and being independent, and the blacks, who found it was back to business as usual) or try to invent new lives for themselves. (Homefront, by the way, was the show that introduced the world to Kyle Chandler, another thing for which it is to be commended.) No, I thought, I can tell these shows are too good and I know what’s going to happen to them.
It was a piece of music that ultimately forced me to relent.
Homefront, you see, had an exceptional opening title. I would rank it easily among the five all-time best TV series openings, right up there with Mary Tyler Moore and The Outer Limits. The theme for Homefront was a rousing, finger-snapping, dance-inducing jazz number, a rendition of “Accentuate the Positive” by Jack Sheldon. (You may not know Jack Sheldon’s name, but I’ll bet you know his most famous work. On the Saturday morning Schoolhouse Rock cartoons, Jack Sheldon was one of the composer/performers. You hear him in “I’m Just a Bill” and the all-time favorite, “Conjunction Junction, What’s Your Function?” Trekkers, you’ve seen Mr. Sheldon also, in the Next Generation episode “11001001”. He’s the piano player in the Holodeck jazz club with Will Riker and Minuet.) Well, one fine week I just happened to catch the opening of Homefront and it completely charmed my socks off. I couldn’t help but think, Any show that has the class to open up like that deserves to be seen. I’m watching this puppy!
Watch the opening title for Homefront here:
Anyway, I’ll Fly Away and Homefront were both promoted to second seasons (and I had to watch most of their first seasons in reruns) before the thing I knew was going to happen, happened. Homefront was last seen on Lifetime Cable, from which the reruns of its two seasons eventually disappeared. I’ll Fly Away flew away completely, except for a special on PBS that tied up its loose threads. (Two things are noteworthy about that special: the teenage son, originally played by Jeremy London, was played here by his twin brother Jason. And the younger of the two sons, who was always quiet, thoughtful, and sensitive, was mentioned to have died of “an illness” when he grew up. That was all that needed to be said, in a discreet Southern way. If you remembered the character, you knew at once what it was alluding to.)
So, yes, eventually I did break down and start risking attachment to quality TV series again. To an extent, TV has become friendlier to innovative shows since then. But only to an extent. There have still been outstanding shows that should have run for five seasons at least, that were cut down before their time. I’m still smarting over Remember WENN, the utterly charming period sitcom about a 1940s radio station that ran on AMC when it still was American Movie Classics. Remember WENN was yanked from the network just at its most interesting point. There was the second animated season of The Fantastic Four on Marvel Action Universe, which stands as the single best adaptation of “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” ever produced. Too bad this show couldn’t recover the audience that fled from the absolutely wretched first season; there are a lot of great FF adventures that I would have loved to see done to the standard of the second year.
Now and Again, on CBS, was one of the best adventure shows of the 90s, a kind of science fiction take on the premise of Damn Yankees in which John Goodman gets hit by a train and finds that a secret government agency has placed his brain in a superhuman body played by Eric Close. The Adonis-like superman just wants to return to being a pitifully ordinary guy with his wife and daughter, but now he’s Federal property to be deployed as government scientist Dennis Haysbert sees fit. This show had it all: a fascinating premise, an intriguing dilemma with the formerly fat, common Everyman whose makeover into enhanced perfection is more of a prison than a blessing, and truly clever scripts. But CBS didn’t care, and after one season Now and Again became “Never Again”. And before the sensation of Heroes, there was USA’s The 4400 starring Joel Gretsch. In this series, 4400 people from time periods dating back to the 1940s are abducted to the future, given super-powers, and sent back to present-day Seattle, where they must deal with their powers and the world must deal with them. The 4400 had storylines and characters that kept you coming back for more and was one of USA’s biggest hits. It should have had one more season in it beyond its fourth. The cancellation, which has left plots and cliffhangers forever unresolved (much like the eternal cliffhangers at the end of the fourth season of Soap), was truly maddening.
And now the latest casualty of network short-sightedness is Kyle XY. Each week I tune in, knowing it’s one week closer to an ending that’s coming too soon. (Over on the ABC broadcast network, three more of the best shows on the air have already been sacrificed in the same manner; we’ll talk about them in our next post.) And each week I think of the piece that recently ran in TV Guide, saying that the last episode of Kyle will sum up and shed important light on all the relationships on the show. But I wish someone could shed a light on some of the myopic thinking at TV networks to which excellence doesn’t count, quality is too often not valued, and viewer loyalty goes unrewarded unless it comes in certain numbers.