SyFy Series: Development Failures and Missed Opportunities

Somewhere between savant and Peter Principle lies Bill McGoldrick’s genius and success. 

From assistant to executive in less than ten years, he began at USA in 1998, left for Spike TV in 2004 and returned to USA in 2009 first as SVP of Original Scripted Programming then EVP in 2014. To the outsider, his older and female boss seemed better poised for this success. Jackie de Crinis joined USA as SVP of Scripted Series, in 2000; she has overseen the development of hits Burn Notice, Royal Pains, White Collar, Covert Affairs and Monk. While McGoldrick oversaw the development of fledgling shows Necessary Roughness, Fairly Legal, Common Law and Political Animals.

In 2016 NBCU Cable Entertainment chairman Bonnie Hammer said, “Bill and Jackie both have uncanny instincts about quality content that resonates with audiences, and are incredibly brand savvy.” Though Hammer praised both, it was McGoldrick who became Howe’s ally at SyFy and in 2016 was promoted to  EVP of Scripted Content for the NBCU Cable Entertainment. Of course, de Crinis may not have been interested in the fast track McGoldrick obviously chased, as she spent nearly five years (2009-13) in Hawaii focused on current programs instead of development. But her development success is undeniably great and quite consistent. Can this be said for McGoldrick?

Like SyFy President Dave Howe, Bill McGoldrick had big goals for SyFy as the new EVP of Original Content. In 2014 he set out to evolutionize the network’s content. However, he resorted to the action most new leaders take upon arrival; he unsheathed his sword and commenced to slicing, dicing and remixing SyFy’s content. He lead swift and seemingly unstudied  changes at the network. McGoldrick’s content development changes were rife with missteps and missed opportunities, but hindsight is easily read!

He began by cancelling eleven shows, and a twelfth is circling the cancellation drain (click image). Many of the cancelled shows originated at the Canadian Channel Showcase and the majority of them ran for two years or less; this of course excludes Being Human, Lost Girl and Haven which were all long past their story arcs. Surprisingly, only one of the cancelled shows was developed and produced by SyFy, Defiance. Several of the cancelled shows were very good and with the network’s commitment they could have grown a significant following. 

Defiance (2013-15) and Dominion (2014-15) were very different shows, but both were engaging or must see tv, to borrow another networks tagline. Conceptually Defiance was in the vein of Star Trek and Dominion was a supernatural show based on the movie Legion. Like Alphas (2011-2), these shows premiered to good ratings, but declined steadily. This is a recurring problem for the network. 

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Defiance was tied to a multiplayer online video game. The entire Defiance endeavor had a $100 million price tag. Syfy president Dave Howe told The Hollywood Reporter that the project would be given time to succeed.

Good shows die on SyFy; this is not a tagline Howe or McGoldrick want! They have not been shy about calling their competitors sci-fi light and aiming for a diverse audience and a multi-season hit that would be profitable. Their aspirations are not outrageous; it may even be commendable. However, the network’s  unrealistic profit expectations  has resulted in a risk-averse approach that lacks commitment to shows on the rating and critical bubble. 

McGoldrick also initiated immediate and long term content development plans. In late 2013/early 2014 he greenlit six shows, often bypassing the pilot stage. The list included Childhood’s End, Dominion,  Ascension, The Expanse, 12 Monkeys and Killjoys. Childhood’s End can be excluded as it was a mini-series and it actually fared well. However, Dominion and Ascension have already been cancelled. The future of the remaining three shows is a lot more complicated. 12 Monkeys and Killjoys were successful in their first season and have been renewed, so their test is on the horizon. Will the network abandon these shows if their ratings fall? More importantly, given the clear data, what has the network done to address their rating issues aside from releasing a couple episodes at the beginning of the season to entice viewers?

Of the six green-lit shows, the network’s promotion and pride in The Expanse is most problematic. The show illustrates a lack of understanding of their audience and even the genre. McGoldrick positioned it to draw-in Star Wars 7 fans, but the show was universally panned and its ratings have been steadily declining. It is unfortunate that this is the show the network has chosen to commit; it has already been renewed for a second season. 

The Expanse is like white noise, constant meaningless sounds, lacking any distinct or unique imprint. Much like its poster, the show uses all too familiar themes (too many) and its delivery is lackluster. It is unnecessarily dark, figuratively and literally. Its pacing is off, particularly when you consider the disparate stories that have to merge for the space opera to culminate in war. While it is no Sharknado, because of the high-level production, we don’t really care about the characters or their plights; they are just short of caricatures and the dialogue is often bloated. None of the actors is strong enough to sell the story. There is a flatness to the performances. It is unclear if the network wants to telegraph the message that in the future our humanity is truncated to the point that we take on the flat affect of the depressed. Though the world is thirty billion years in the future and humans have colonized the solar system, The Expanses’ world is limited to three perspectives, which fails to give us any insight to how the colonization occurred or what it really looks like beyond dark shadowy streets and futuristic apartments and offices. The Expanses‘ goal this season will be to help the viewers connect with the characters and the world they are fighting to save, so far they are failing.

The dynamic duo were banking on The Expanse being a juggernaut hit. They declared it, shared how much they spent on it, promoted it as their Star Wars, but the fans rejected all of the noise. Fans don’t care how much a show costs. Telling fans or industry outlets this, is akin to having a belief that money equals quality or better yet good viewing. As Masanobu Rakayanagi, the cinematographer for Spotlight, recently shared on the Hollywood Reporter Roundtable the budget is irrelevant; the job is to come-up with ways to serve the story, using skill and creativity to meet the end goal. However, nothing could have salvaged Olympus‘ poor production and storytelling short of returning to the beginning of the development cycle. While B movies and tv shows can be fun escapism when done right, when they fail they are excruciating. This was McGoldrick’s worst development effort, though it obviously was not a costly one and veered far away from traditional sci-fi.

X-files has come (1993) and gone (2002) and returned (2016) and SyFy is still relying heavily on space operas for its existence. Of the seven new scripted shows (including The Magician) in 2015, three were space shows with pending wars, space opera: Dark Matter, Killjoys and The Expanse. The network left the sci-fi geek imaginative world for a dark depressing sci-fi fantasy world no wants to inhabit for long. It is not surprising that the network’s better shows are the ones that are more unique whether they are set in space or not: The Magicians, 12 Monkeys, Z Nation, and The Killjoys

McGoldrick has not yet elevated the genre, but the content and production at SyFy has improved.  Z Nation is a pure fun zombie show; it is unique in its ability to kill major characters and use varied storylines from nuclear outbreak to a Spanish cartel. It balances the gore and fun of zombie movies. On the other end of the spectrum is 12 Monkeys, which is more thoughtful and complex than the rest of SyFy’s scripted programming. This show is the antidote to multitasking. It requires and rewards your attention!  However, the most interesting and unique show on the network is The Magicians. It focuses on the supernatural with really cool special effects and the fictitous world of Fillory and Further. While the cast isn’t really diverse, at least the characters are not mere sketches; they are more developed than expected and may anchor the show to success for the network.

But the most intriguing science fiction shows of 2015 was Humans (AMC) and Mr. Robots (USA). These shows were tremendous critical and commercial success. Mr. Robots even won TV Series Drama and Supporting actor in a TV series, limited series or TV movie Christian Slater. More importantly they demonstrated the networks’ commitment and ability to take risks. Neither show strictly adheres to its network’s programming focus, yet the shows found audiences. While Humans is clearly science fiction with its ‘Synths’ – a highly-developed robotic servant – Mr. Robot has been categorized as a drama and a technology or psychological thriller. However, it is science fiction and either show would have been excellent additions to SyFy.

Science Fiction is works of fiction that use scientific discoveries or advanced technologyeither actual or imaginaryas part of their plot. –The American Heritage

Star Trek, Star Wars, and SyFy have warped our understanding and expectations for science fiction. The majority of science fiction in theaters and on tv frequently portray space or time travel and life on other planets but that is not all science fiction is or can be. If the network is to succeed in the genre, it must expand and elevate our notions of sci-fi beyond space operas and sci-fi fantasy to inventive, imaginative storytelling not restricted by genre. Though McGoldrick is attempting to do this, his development efforts have swung the pendulum too far without defining the network’s voice. The network has gone from Eureka (2006-12) and Warehouse 13 (2009-14) to Z Nation (2014-), 12 Monkeys (2015-) and The Magician (2016-). Is SyFy positioning itself as a competitor to Freeform (formerly ABC Family) or AMC? McGoldrick has taken SyFy from a one note dish to a stew which has not quite become the savory dish that it can be. 

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For More on This Series, SyFy Series

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