Sad news for those hyping a "Canadian Invasion" of locally produced series into the US market. As of late Wednesday, writers and stars of the CTV series "The Bridge" were informing their fans of a notice from CBS that future American broadcasts of the show had been cancelled.
The cancellation comes after the 2 hour pilot and 2nd episode both played to dismally small audiences in a Summer Saturday night slot traditionally reserved for titles that a network has little faith will find or sustain a viable number of viewers.
Often a cancellation is no fault of the show itself. It's simply been put into a time and day where its audience can't find it. That happens. There's only so much shelf space. And as Steven Bochco once remarked after one of his creations went down, "Sometimes, it's just your turn in the barrel."
So, while this isn't any death blow to the Canadian industry, where other series are already tooling up to take their shot at the Holy Grail of foreign TV sales, it still hurts --- and it didn't have to happen.
I've been openly critical of "The Bridge" since it debuted. I didn't like the show when it started. And I was positively disgusted by it as it drew to a close. Those opinions are subjective, of course. But since the audience has now also voted against "The Bridge", maybe there are objective lessons to be gleaned.
I know absolutely nothing about what went on in the boardrooms, network suites and production offices as "The Bridge" was developed and produced. But there are readable clues in the finished product and the manner in which the show was handled by its more experienced American broadcast partner (as well as tidbits that slipped out following the cancellation) that point to what caused it to fail.
My own experience tells me that the fatal flaw was there from the start in the person and personality of Craig Bromell, the former Toronto Police Union head on whose career the series was based.
Bromell was always a thorn in the side of police management in Toronto, a guy some called a thug who fought for the "little guy" or more accurately the rank and file uniform cops of the force.
There's no doubt he brought a potentially valuable insider's perspective to the creation of the series. There's also no doubt he represented a mindset where his perspective was always the correct one.
But a guy who knows what makes a police union tick isn't necessarily able to take the pulse of a much more diverse demographic -- the viewing public.
There's nothing wrong with having a showbiz outsider, even a maverick one, executive producing your series. But his strengths and weaknesses need to be equally balanced by somebody else on the production team who knows what an audience will embrace. And that somebody needs to be able to go toe to toe with the maverick to make sure it's the audience and not some other ego or agenda that is being served.
Recent TV hits like "The Shield", "Dexter", "Deadwood" and "The Wire" have all showcased dysfunctional heroes. What made them different from "The Bridge" is that they all espoused a specific moral code which the audience could either embrace or question.
They never implied that you should just sit down and shut the fuck up because you weren't a cop and didn't know what it was really like out there.
Without somebody willing to say, "Ya know, Craig, we gotta find some way to make an audience see things your way." neither the series nor Bromell's unique point of view had a chance.
And I'd be the last to suggest those conversations would have happened without some fireworks.
Yet, despite the fact that drama is based in conflict, Canadian networks are traditionally averse to any friction within their executive suites. They like everybody to get along -- and maybe also buy their suits at the same store -- that's always a nice touch.
But this attempt to assure a harmonious work environment often results in the loudest or most shameless voice taking over and winning the day. Too many of our series have failed because good taste or sober second thought lost out to intimidation or what somebody needed to make themselves or their company or their network look good.
I'm not saying that a strong showrunner needs to be constantly at loggerheads with anyone. That's as much a recipe for disaster as allowing someone who's never run a television series make the ultimate calls. But you do need a showrunner willing to pick their battles and win enough of them to keep the ship on course.
If you need to see this process in operation, seek out the PBS documentary "Anatomy of a Homicide" which chronicles the making of a single episode of "Homicide: Life on the Street". Watching Tom Fontana navigate network and production shoals while cajoling his writers and producers to trade personal wants for what's best for the show is an object lesson in when to chill and when to go in with guns blazing.
I once dropped in on a showrunner the afternoon the studio had dictated his star to him. The choice was manifestly wrong. I knew it and more importantly so did he. He also knew that if he lost this skirmish, the rest of production would be an uphill battle in order to get the show that had been envisioned. But he also suspected that giving in on this one issue might smooth the rest of the path.
I told him he had to stick to his guns.
The path only got rougher. And the show was gone after a handful of episodes.
There's a reason that the top business schools teach the ruminations of warriors like Sun-Tzu, Attila the Hun, Hannibal and Mithradates. Every great ancient general knew he wouldn't win every battle. But most importantly, they knew which ones they absolutely could not lose.
Throughout the produced episodes of "The Bridge" you can see bad writing, bad directorial choices, weird casting and other elements that immediately ring false on a conscious level for those of us who make television and simultaneously resonate in an unconscious way to propel the casual viewers away.
They are like a forensic trail denoting every "Aw, fuck it! Who cares.", each "Just give him/them what they want." and tragic "We'll live with it"s that gradually drained away any chance "The Bridge" might have had.
In John McFetridge's explanation of how his episode evolved, it's clear that the series was being re-envisioned and reformulated while in production. Sometimes that sort of thing can't be avoided. But here it seems what CTV green-lit was not what CBS felt would work for them. And no series can serve two masters with differing requirements.
If the network doesn't have its shit together and KNOW what it wants, no amount of creative energy is going to make up for that lack of focus. A network needs to know what it is selling. It can't succeed by hoping the audience finds something worthy in whatever they fling at the wall.
But it seems whatever was going on down on the stage was either ignored or beyond the comprehension of those in the CTV executive offices.
While they hyped the program and played up their concept of "Reverse Simultaneous Substitution" implying that the branch plant student had suddenly outsmarted his Hollywood teacher, prefacing a new Golden Age of Canadian helmed production -- the Mr. Miyagis at CBS were trying to diplomatically handle the ill-formed turd that ended up being dropped in their lap.
The post-production handling of "The Bridge" by its American partner speaks volumes about the lack of a shared vision between they and CTV.
No broadcaster sits on any program it thinks has even the slimmest of chances. So when "The Bridge" repeatedly failed to make an appearance on the CBS schedule, it became obvious that somebody was having second thoughts. But that didn't stop CTV from going full speed ahead with a post-Olympics launch on its own.
When CBS finally selected the worst spot on their schedule for "The Bridge" and spent next to nothing on promotion, anyone who keeps track of the television world knew they were burying it.
In announcing the cancellation to his fans, the series' star, Aaron Douglas, however, reveals that CBS had an even lower opinion of the show than had previously been made public. According to Douglas, CBS never intended to broadcast more than 7 hours of the 13 produced. For one reason or another they had chucked half of the production slate into the trash, in the process killing any ongoing story lines and serialized elements.
American producers with that kind of production record seldom get another show and the execs who supervised them are searching the Want Ads. Yet, back in Canada, the same folks who green-lit "The Bridge" and stood idly by as its debut numbers diminished week after week were still around to proudly announce last month that it was returning to the CTV schedule.
Maybe there was nothing wrong with that. Maybe, unbeknownst to the rest of us, they'd come up with a plan to retool the series and get it back on track.
If they have, that plan had better include the possibility of wholesale cast changes. Because a commenter on Douglas' site includes facts the star previously twittered stating that during the current hiatus all of the actor contracts have been allowed to lapse.
Now who goes into a major series without locking up their leading players for the run of the show? Perhaps the more pointed question is, "Who renews a show before being certain they can put it into production?"
Without the CBS portion of the budget giving "The Bridge" the production values the audience have come to expect is going to a whole lot more difficult. Without a familiar cast, it might not be recognizable as the same show at all.
How could all this happen?
Well, quite simply, there's a desperation for success and a desire to generate good news in this country that often jumps up to bite us on the ass. It sparks us into seizing the day when we've still got our hands full with undeveloped story ideas. It tries to build on momentum when bodies are not yet in motion.
Did CTV decide to go ahead with a show it knew wasn't ready because it didn't want the "Flashpoint" success to look like a lucky fluke?
Did they approve handing the reins to a producer who'd never done anything before because they honestly didn't see his shortcomings, or because they needed some immediate Cancon and didn't have anything else even close to ready?
Did the desire to be "edgy" and "dangerous" take precedent over knowing what their audience was searching for?
Did anybody involved think about who that audience might even be?
These are all questions everyone associated with "The Bridge" should be asking.
They're questions all of us who want to see a successful television industry here should be asking as well. It's questioning we never do because we're all so worried a showrunner we query might not hire us or a network we question won't welcome us to pitch.
But like that aforementioned aversion to mixing it up a little, those fears are what holds us back.
There will be a lot of self-satisfied snickering in Hollywood this morning over the cancellation of "The Bridge". More proof that those Canadians aren't as smart or as talented as they thought they were.
And we'll kind of shrug and say "Sorry" and go back to our silent plodding and hoping things will get better tomorrow -- or the day after -- or the day after that.
Instead, we should be getting angry and figuring out how to make sure it doesn't happen again. Every one of those great generals won their wars after crushing defeats. But they learned from those defeats and stopped losing.