Last week, the first two episodes of Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome went online, and we all remembered our love affair with BSG. This show was thought-provoking, powerful, and obsessively mysterious. And we can't help wondering: Why hasn't Syfy had a show like that since?
It seems like at any moment on television, there are a handful of shows that are viewed as Important. Shows that have a cast of award-quality actors, and writing that makes you ask important questions and obsess over weird mysteries. Whenever people write articles marveling that television is becoming smarter and more interesting than movies, these are the shows that get singled out as evidence.
We're lucky to have one genre show right now that falls into that category: Game of Thrones. And maybe Walking Dead. (American Horror Story seems to want to be such a show, but hasn't yet sold enough people on the idea.) Past examples of this sort of show include The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The West Wing — usually, but not always, on cable TV, where the per-episode budget is higher and the content restrictions are looser. I'm not sure why there are only ever a few such TV shows at any one time, but we're probably lucky to have that many. (Update: The per-episode budget is only higher on some premium channels. See below.)
In any case, Syfy hasn't had a show like that since BSG. And while HBO and AMC, in particular, have both made bids to establish an identity as networks that regularly have that sort of programming, Syfy has created a very different brand identity. (AMC currently has Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Walking Dead. HBO currently has Game of Thrones, plus Boardwalk Empire and a few other possible contenders.)
Syfy's had some bona fide hits since Battlestar Galactica — notably Warehouse 13, as well as some of its reality TV. The channel regularly puts out press releases announcing record Nielsen ratings. And there's no question that a lot of Syfy's scripted shows are good television, that takes chances. Warehouse 13 has an openly gay character, plus a pretty openly acknowledged lesbian romance. Alphas manages to touch on some neat ethical questions and feature a morally gray protagonist. Haven has been getting better and better, and the Canadian import Lost Girl features a bisexual heroine and some bold world-building.
If you showed any of Syfy's current programming to someone from the early 1990s, they would be blown away by how daring these shows are. And even today, they're not entirely safe or tame.
But still, it's kind of sad that Syfy is never mentioned in the same breath as HBO or AMC as the home of really stab-in-the-gut, thought-provoking programming. Because, after all, science fiction is the genre of big ideas, and it's a genre that allows for huge, sweeping storylines and extreme situations — the perfect canvas for intense, dark acting and writing. Syfy really ought to be the channel of television with literary aspirations.
So what happened? A couple things come to mind:
Even Battlestar Galactica couldn't be Battlestar Galactica for longer than a few years. By halfway through the third season, the cracks are pretty apparent, as the show detours into romance subplots. The writers start throwing out curveballs like randomly selected Cylons and Starbuck's inexplicable (and unexplained) resurrection. By the time the show ended, its mystique was somewhat tarnished, and its ending remains controversial to this day.
After BSG, Syfy did make some attempts to create another show along the same lines — but in retrospect, the network made a crucial error. In the case of both Caprica and Stargate Universe, Syfy tried to take one of its longstanding franchises and convert it into a "new BSG."
We've said this before — but Caprica probably would have been a much better show if it hadn't been a BSG prequel. Originally, producer Remi Aubuchon pitched Caprica as a new standalone show about artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Syfy liked the idea, but wanted to turn it into a spinoff of BSG, thus bringing in the Cylons and the Adama family, and lots of heavy continuity. Paradoxically, forcing Caprica to be a Battlestar Galactica prequel may have prevented it from being a new Battlestar Galactica.
And when Syfy cancelled Stargate Atlantis and rolled out Stargate Universe, it was clearly intended as an attempt to replace BSG with a new, "dark" space opera. And a ton of people still love the result — but as with Caprica, Syfy was attempting to take one of its existing brands and make it into a replacement for BSG. In the case of Stargate, the existing brand was something like, "fun space adventure with resourceful buddies." Which, arguably, meshed with "dark existential nightmares in space" in a weird way. Again, SGU may have come with too much baggage to establish a clear new identity, the way the BSG reboot did in 2003. SGU finally found a happy place, thematically, in its final episodes — but by then, it was too late.
And since then? Syfy hasn't really even tried to go back to the BSG well. To the point where, now, Syfy doesn't really feel like the home of that kind of programming.
And meanwhile, Syfy went through a major rebranding in 2009, which we've written about extensively before. The channel's name changed from SciFi to Syfy, but it also got a new image — gone was the planet logo, and the promos featuring weird alien creatures. Instead, Syfy's logo and branding has seemed to emphasize soft curves. And I can't look at its logo without hearing the tinkly piano music in my head.
Syfy's rebranding coincided with a slight shift in its programming — as a press release said at the time, "the new brand broadens perceptions and embraces a wider and more diverse range of imagination-based entertainment including fantasy, paranormal, reality, mystery, action and adventure, as well as science fiction." There's definitely been a rise in reality TV programming since then, but also a subtle shift in the direction of paranormal romance and soap opera, with shows like the Being Human remake and the imported Lost Girl.
But also, Syfy's scripted programming has come to occupy a pretty distinct niche, as what I'd call "spicy comfort food."
There's a comforting warmth and friendliness about all of Syfy's offerings, even the "darker" shows like Alphas. The characters are mostly likable and solid, even if they go off the rails from time to time. The stories are reasonably straightforward, and the bad guys are generally worse than the good guys. It's not that different from the sort of stuff you'd see on Syfy's sister channel USA, home of Suits, Burn Notice and Psych.
And there have been some pretty high-profile departures from Syfy's biggest shows lately — after season one of Alphas, Ira Steven Behr (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) left as showrunner, for reasons that remain unclear. Behr was replaced by Bruce Miller (Eureka) who pushed the show in a somewhat different direction than Behr had probably intended — the notion of the Alphas becoming public knowledge was barely dealt with in season two, for example. (Although I wound up enjoying season two quite a bit.)
And meanwhile, Syfy's upcoming post-apocalyptic show/MMO Defiance was originally announced as the creation of Farscape's Rockne S. O'Bannon, in 2011. But more recent press releases, such as this July 2012 one, don't even mention O'Bannon's name at all. Instead, the new showrunner is Kevin Murphy (Desperate Housewives, Hellcats), who was also brought in as showrunner of Caprica halfway through the first season.
I'm a big fan of a lot of Syfy's current offerings, but the channel's image seems to be somewhat at odds with the notion of the "big sprawling maze" style of storytelling that the most acclaimed shows are aspiring to. Let's hope that Syfy has enough successful shows, from a ratings standpoint, to give someone with "auteur" aspirations a chance to invent (or reinvent, as was the case with BSG) a challenging new saga. After all, the channel that represents the genre of Kurt Vonnegut, Samuel Delany and Ursula K. Le Guin really owes us another big hefty novel on television.
Update: Syfy's Craig Engler tweeted a response to this article, and my claim that cable TV shows seem to have a higher per-episode budget (which still may be true of some premium cable shows):