Don't look now, but TV networks are about to learn the wrong lessons about wackiness.
If you measure your wackiness -- or "nuttiness" or "lunacy" or whatever -- by quantity, rather than quality, we're in a Golden Age of Goofiness this midseason.
NBC's "Do No Harm" had a dude experiencing dissociative identity disorder at regularly partitioned daily intervals, a very expensive sex doll and a sneering psychotic warning a small child with a stuffed animal that monkeys have been known to eat their young.
That was wacky.
ABC's "Zero Hour," with its Nazis, Rosicrucians, demon babies, doppelgangers, underground clockmakers and ice-bound submarines, made "Do No Harm" look milquetoast and rational.
Of course, "Do No Harm" was cancelled after only two airings, which is what happens if you premiere with the lowest in-season numbers for any drama in the history of network television.
And although "Zero Hour" launched last week to more robust ratings than "Do No Harm," it was still the worst start for an in-season ABC drama series, again, in history. Figure in an inevitable Week 2 plunge and the clock is ticking for "Zero Hour." [Yes. I hate myself for that.]
[Due to its modicum of superficial prestige, I've exempted FOX's dreadful "The Following" from my survey of midseason wackiness, though its sadistic shower threesomes, rudimentary literary analysis and gasoline-wielding Romantic poets are more than enough to qualify. "The Following" also warrants temporary exemption because of its initial success for FOX, though ratings have settled more into the "qualified hit" range than "breakout smash."]
It would be wrong to say that "Do No Harm" and "Zero Hour" weren't relatively large swings by NBC and ABC, but they were also relatively large misses. I'll continue to insist that the version of "Do No Harm" that aired was much cleaner and saner than the pilot that NBC initially sent to series, but "saner" is short of a compliment (and may even be an insult in this context). And I'll also continue to insist that "Zero Hour" nearly delivered enough craziness to compensate for its overall awfulness, but "nearly" is short of a compliment as well. That's two strikes.
The third strike for balls-to-the-wall wackiness premieres on Tuesday (February 19) on The CW. Airing after the soothingly conventional and programmatic quirkiness of "Hart of Dixie" -- those things sound like criticisms, but "Hart of Dixie" has become an admirable plate of comfort food in its second season -- "Cult" has almost no chance of success, though thanks to "The L.A. Complex," The CW has an astoundingly low bar for in-season record lows and I wouldn't expect it to fail that badly. But even before it fails with audiences, "Cult" fails creatively. An ill-conceived, poorly scripted, woodenly acted mess, "Cult" is watchably crazy, but that's the highest praise I can give it.
When "Cult" joins "Do No Harm" and "Zero Hour" on the quickly-forgotten scrap-heap, I fear networks will decide this is a sign that audiences hate wackiness, as opposed to a sign that audiences are able to sniff out when wacky shows are bad. "Lost" was a wacky show. "The Walking Dead" is a wacky show. Heck, this season's greatest rags-to-riches network success story is the second season of "Scandal" and there are few shows on network TV wackier than "Scandal." Blame these midseason failures for being dreadful, not for being difficult-to-categorize or creatively unhinged.
"Do No Harm," "Zero Hour" and now "Cult" are examples of shows that are wacky without any grounding, that attempt to string viewers along with unmoored weirdness rather than compelling characters or grounded drama. I'm sure there are versions of all three shows that would have been more successful and a version of all three shows that might have been good (probably different versions). These shows failed because they were bad. I'd still rather have "Do No Harm," "Zero Hour" and "Cult" than "Formulaic CBS Procedural X." Better to try something big and fail spectacularly than to try nothing and still probably fail.
And that was my brief-ish manifesto on failed wackiness. The actual review of "Cult" is after the break.