The End of a Seasonal Affair

Some women have a history of getting mixed up with loser guys. I get involved with loser TV shows.

Year after year, I flirt with the season’s critically acclaimed new prospects until I fall madly, deeply for one of them. Soon I’m planning my teaching schedule around the show, declining social invitations in order to watch it, feeling giddy two days before the next episode airs. Meanwhile, the viewing public treats my show like it’s a C-SPAN2 airing of “Proposed Patent Office Budget Hearing.” I beg my friends to give my show a chance, to really get to know it. Inevitably, they ignore me, the ratings tank, the program gets cancelled, and I am bereft.

This sad story has been repeating itself for a decade. Remember Brooklyn South? I didn’t think so. I was one of about 12 Americans who regularly tuned into this absorbing 1997 Stephen Bochco drama about a sweet, burly desk sergeant and his crew of beat cops. Critics hailed South as the second coming of Hill Street Blues. The public avoided it like the plague.

Or how about ABC’s I’ll Fly Away? This tender 1991 drama, set in a small Georgia town in the 1950s, starred Sam Waterston as an attorney raising his three children with the help of a black nanny, played by Regina Taylor. The show dealt smartly and subtly with racial issues and was touted by one critic as “the finest dramatic series ever to run on network television.” It was cancelled after two seasons and my heart was broken. PBS picked up the show for a two-hour series finale, but watching it felt like having sex with your ex: momentary pleasure, but you still knew it was over.

Remarkably, the shows I love get cancelled prematurely while the shows that no longer capture my heart continue on. Once I was such an Ally McBeal fan that I got a speeding ticket in a mad dash home to watch it. But that show has long since degenerated into derivative dreck. And yet, Ally survives. (Don’t even get me started on The Practice.)

If you’re a long-suffering sports fan, you might think you feel my pain. You do not. Even if the Chicago Cubs were to lose 162 consecutive games, the team would still exist. Heck, even the lowly Montreal Expos -- with the average 2001 attendance record of a Gary Condit fundraiser -- managed to escape cancellation this year. But there is no mercy for loser TV shows.

All of this brings me to the current TV season, in which FOUR of my beloved shows have been dumped. Frankly, I do not know any TV watcher who has suffered as I have.

The first of my shows to get the heave-ho was CBS’ Citizen Baines. This gem starred James Cromwell as a longtime U.S. Senator who loses an election and is forced to face life as an ordinary citizen back home in Seattle, where his three daughters have done fine without him. The show was novel: The star had thinning, gray hair, and not a single character lived in a $3,000-a-month apartment despite no visible means of support.

Of course, since Citizen Baines aired at 9 p.m. on Saturdays, I was the show’s lone viewer outside of the 70-89 demographic. But I was grateful for the time slot. Baines debuted at a time when I had a string of very slow Saturday nights. The only guy I was seeing regularly was Raul, the cashier at the local Mexican takeout joint. I didn’t just love Citizen Baines; I needed it. The show was cancelled after six episodes.

I attempted to recover from the Baines affair with a time-tested strategy: a rebound TV show. I pledged to have a little frivolous fun with a show that wasn’t really my type. I tried ABC’s police comedy The Job. The fling lasted less than one episode. I hadn’t heard such lame sex jokes since I taught a class of fifth-grade boys who pelted me with chalk and repeatedly yelled “penis.” The Job was the dregs.

Soon I moved on, as one does, to something more meaningful -- this time, A&E’s fine, no-frills courthouse drama, 100 Centre St. The show featured characters who were both flawed and endearing, including a conservative black lesbian judge and her liberal Jewish counterpart. The show was neither preachy nor heartwarming nor action-packed. It was sometimes surprising, sometimes dull, always real. It was like life. In February, it was consigned to the scrap heap.

This cancellation hit me particularly hard, and not just because I’d already lost Citizen Baines this season. I was also reeling from the announced demise of the WB’s Felicity, with whom I’d shared a wonderful, if difficult, four years. Once, in a single-handed attempt to boost ratings, I went to a Halloween party dressed as Felicity herself -- wearing her signature Converse high tops and a New York University ID card I’d made at Kinko’s. I stuck with Felicity, even through that wretched second season when she chopped off her hair and lost her way.

Still, much as I’ll miss Felicity, I’ll concede that the show may have run its course. The same cannot be said for ABC’s Once & Again, the messy, delicate family drama that has been lauded by critics and dismissed by viewers. This show is so good, I wish it were on five days a week. Yet O&A has been disposed of, too, despite a grassroots e-mail campaign to persuade the network otherwise. (I demanded that all my friends join the campaign as penance for not watching in the first place. This time they complied, but it was too late.)

All of these cancellations leave me with a fine conundrum: What to watch now? I could, as a defense mechanism, avoid future TV dramas of substance. I could stick with shallow, sexy shows like Law & Order and CSI -- with their ripped-from-the-headlines plots and story lines that are neatly wrapped up in an hour. Watching these shows is like having a series of one-night stands with the same fun guy: You have a good time but wouldn’t be devastated if it all ended. But that isn’t my style. It’s only a matter of time before I latch onto another critically acclaimed, pathetically rated ensemble drama.

Ah, but perhaps my luck is changing. Last season I fell hard for HBO’s Six Feet Under. Here’s how hard: While I was on vacation last summer in Arctic Russia, weather problems left me stranded in a remote town with no restaurants, no hot water and no TV other than a government-owned station that aired Brazilian soap operas dubbed in Russian. Remarkably, my group located a resident who had rigged up Internet access, and I managed to send an e-mail to my family: “Am safe but stuck indefinitely. Pls. record Six Feet Under.”

I’m deeply invested in this show and would be devastated if Six Feet got deep-sixed. But a miracle seems to have occurred: This critic favorite has actually become a ratings sensation. Maybe, finally, things will work out for me.

A contributing editor to Shape magazine, Suzanne Schlosberg is the author of Fitness for Travelers and co-author of Fitness for Dummies and has written for Health magazine, the Los Angeles Times and the travel Web site worldhum.com.

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