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Adalian Column: Despite Quality, It Might Be Time to Spike ‘Friday Night Lights’

Sometimes Less Is More—We’re Talking to You, Dick Wolf

“Friday Night Lights” remains, by most accounts, one of the finest shows on TV. So maybe it’s time for it to die.

Friday Night Lights

Before you Panther fans start pelting me with manure-covered footballs, hear me out.

Like any card-carrying member of the Television Critics Association, I’ve been a supporter of underdog TV series since the days of ABC’s “My So-Called Life.” I will never miss the chance to give a shoutout to “Swingtown,” “The Class,” “Undeclared” or dozens of other shows that short-sighted network executives have canceled prematurely (that includes “The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.” and “Now and Again”).

“Friday Night Lights” certainly fits with the aforementioned series in terms of quality; in fact, it’s probably better than most of them.

But underdog? Never got a chance? That’s not “Friday Night Lights.”

The show has aired for three seasons now, and on two different outlets (NBC and its current main home, DirecTV). And yet, rather than build its fan base, ratings or pop culture relevance, the show seems to have gone in the opposite direction.

If NBC were a healthier network with a large stable of hits, keeping “FNL” on the air would make sense—and I would be arguing strenuously in favor of it. Branding is important for any network, and having a show of “FNL’s” caliber on your air helps balance out all of the lesser lights that networks need to program in order to survive in 2009. (How ya doin’, “Howie Do It”?)

But NBC is in fourth place during a time of unique economic stress. It needs to spend every last dime in its limited programming budget on projects that still have potential upside, both for profit and for buzz.

Like “Chuck,” a mass-with-class crowd-pleaser if ever there was one, which has struggled this season because it’s stuck in one of the most competitive timeslots on television.

Chuck

Or “Kings,” a fascinating and ambitious soap opera that could turn into a sort of sci-fi “The West Wing” if given the chance to find its groove. Despite an ambitious marketing campaign, I worry early ratings could disappoint due to the show’s unconventional setup.

Sadly, unlike “Kings” or “Chuck,” there’s virtually no chance that “FNL” will ever break out, either commercially or as a buzz magnet. So even with the considerable coin DirecTV is contributing to the equation, I just don’t see how continuing with the show makes sense for NBC.

Fortunately for fans, some inside the Peacock disagree. Entertainment Weekly’s Web site recently reported that NBC and DirecTV are in talks on a deal that would bring “FNL” back for two more seasons. (According to people familiar with the talks, those two "seasons" would actually likely be cable-style seasons of between 12 and 14 episodes each, for a total of no more than 28 episodes.)

In any case, such a pickup would give NBC Universal and Imagine Television enough episodes to syndicate the show to a cable network such as ABC Family. The show's existence in that case would be based purely on long-term financial factors.

But if “FNL” did return, I wouldn’t be surprised if it did so with a smaller production budget. That would mean some cast members might depart; some writers also could be lost.

Letting “FNL” go now would allow the show to exit while it’s still nearly universally adored (at least within the small universe of folks who watch the show). It also would free up the numerous talents on the series, both in front of and behind the camera, to pursue the fame and fortune that will never find them as long as they continue toiling on the fictional football fields of Panther country.

Arrested Development

That’s what happened with the gang from “Arrested Development.” I cursed Fox for months when the network put a bullet in the Bluths, but in retrospect, I’m glad the network let the show go when it did. Moving on allowed Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Michael Cera to become very much in-demand movie stars, while creator Mitch Hurwitz now appears to be producing roughly 50% of all comedy pilots.

It’s always easy to cast network suits as bad guys when good shows are put out to pasture prematurely. But in the case of “Friday Night Lights,” NBC can’t be blamed if it decides it’s time to declare “game over.”

Continuing with this week’s Dr. Phil-style tough-love theme, here are a few other bubble shows that deserve to be popped:

—“Law & Order: SVU” and “Law & Order: CI” (NBC): I hope Dick Wolf will not declare jihad on me just for thinking this. And I understand that logically, there’s no reason to cancel “SVU”; it’s easily the strongest of the three “L&O” series.

But after two decades of unhalting growth, it’s time to downsize “L&O,” at least temporarily. Why not simply collapse all three shows back into the mothership, using the best cast members and writers from all three to produce the absolute best shows? Let Neal Baer serve as showrunner and produce enough episodes to stay in originals virtually every week of the year.

After a year or two of just one “L&O”-branded series on NBC, who knows: Maybe Mr. Wolf will be ready to unveil a new spinoff (or two). And by keeping alive the main “L&O” rather than “SVU” or “CI,” Mr. Wolf can continue chasing “Gunsmoke’s” longevity record.

CSI:NY

—“CSI: NY” (CBS): This won’t happen, since CBS owns the right to this franchise, and annoying the “CSI” brain trust would just be stupid. But CBS needs to make room on its schedule for new shows. Rather than kill off the still viable brands of “Without a Trace” and “Cold Case”—both of which could easily be reinvigorated with new cast members or a format twist—why not shrink the “CSI” franchise to a more manageable two editions (see “Law & Order,” above, for another reason why)? Maybe Gary Sinise could end up transferring to Las Vegas or Miami in the process.

—“Scrubs” (ABC): Actually, I think it’s pretty much assumed that this is, in fact, the final season for this fine medical comedy. Any attempts to revive the patient—a spinoff, sequel, online webisodes—will immediately be met with scorn. You’ve had a great run, “Scrubs.” It’s time to pull the plug.

Comments (9)

steve:

FNL is one of my favorite programs, despite the odd direction the plot is going at the end of this run (I have DirecTV so I have already seen the full season). I am not sure the new plot will work but I love the program and I will be loyal to the end.

Carol:

The reason L&O is so successful is because it is so good. If it weren't good it wouldn't have so many spinoffs, such as the ones you mentioned above. At least they give you something different to watch instead of the cookie stamp shows they're all doing at the same time!

As much as your point about ending FNL on top is completely valid, Coach and Tami Taylor will always have a special place in my heart and on my DVR/PVR for as long as NBC/DirecTV want to produce it.

Tracy:

If FNL goes away, I for one will definitely be sad. It's my favorite show on television. What a sad comment it says about this country that so many would rather watch programs like "Rock of Love" instead of this great show.

Jim:

They aren't watching "Rock of Love" instead of FNL. Even on it's best day, "Rock" doesn't pull the numbers FNL can pull. It's just that 2M for a cable show is a big hit. 4M for a broadcast show is a failure.

I don't know why the everyone keeps declaring a cable series a hit with numbers that would barely make the bottom ten on broadcast. Mad Men is one of my favorite series, but the 1.5M viewers that watch each week wouldn't be near enough to keep it on the air for more than 3 episodes on NBC.

I really love Burn Notice. Move it over to NBC and let's see what happens.

Fred:

'Chuck' will never catch on. It's had its chance, it had a 3-D episode, it had a Heroes-in-its-prime-ratings adjacent timeslot, and its had it crticial adoration. It's expensive.

Keep 'FNL'.

Steve:

It's difficult to cancel successful shows like the L&O's and CSI's (they work - period). Frankly, Without A Trace has seen better days in terms of plotlines, and Cold Case has already jumped the shark more than once or twice. Were I a CBS programmer, I'd let one of these go before I even considered dropping any member of the CSI franchise. Their time to expire has not yet arrived.

ranger99:

I hate to disagree but the reason that FNL is being considered for renewal is because it is one of the most innovative productions in television. Each episode is filmed in 6 days and requires very little studio time. Production costs are some of the best in the industry and with the partnership with DirecTv, NBC has little at stake. Check out the facts!

Elyse:

It's hard to watch a show end before its time when it's still good & has much potential, but it's worse to watch a show die a slow, miserable death. I'd say keep CSI: NY, ditch Miami, which is so far into soap opera territory now it's not funny. As for L&O; keep 'em all. I like the variety of when there's nothing on I can switch to a cable channel and find any one of them playing.

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