ABC has cancelled the drama series The Last Resort by not giving it a "back 9" order after its initial 13 episodes.
It's a shame, because the show had good people working on it both in front of and behind the camera, but I had a nagging feeling that it wasn't going to last right from the moment I first heard about it.
The business pundits are saying the show didn't catch on because of its time slot, because of its very masculine style and ABC's very feminine demographics, but I think the show's demise can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the concept of the mystery.
Specifically the fact that the series' premise was built around a mystery.
If you haven't seen the show it's about the captain and crew of a nuclear submarine who get mysterious orders from a questionable source to fire their nuclear missiles. When the captain calls headquarters for confirmation, they get fired upon by their own ships while someone else nukes their proposed target.
The crew then sail to a remote pacific island and take it over, making it into the world's smallest nuclear power while they, and others, try to clear their names and find out what the hell is going on.
That's where I think the problem arose.
Lots of shows are built around mysteries. Police procedural shows deal with a fresh mystery every week, and other shows, some even successful, have mysteries that extend through the whole run of the show.
So why did Last Resort fail while the others survive?
Because Last Resort had no reason to exist if the central mystery was solved.
If they exposed the conspiracy that made them into fugitives, they'd probably go home, and that would be that. There was no way to solve the mystery without completely deflating the premise's reason to exist.
Recently there was a short lived series called Missing, where Ashley Judd played a retired spy who scours Europe looking for her missing son.
While many thought Judd's return to show-biz playing a kick-ass secret agent running around exotic locations was a guaranteed hit.
Audiences thought differently, and the show fizzled out after one season.
If you're presenting the audience a show based around a central mystery there must a way for that show to operate without that central mystery being involved in every episode. Because if there isn't, then the vast amorphous mass-mind known as the television audience gets a buzz on their bullshit meter.
It means that their questions will not be answered, ever, so why bother getting emotionally and intellectually invested in the show. ABC's show Lost tried to beat that by piling on mysteries like toppings on a stoner's pizza order, but even then had to deal with flagging ratings and a audience that was greatly disappointed by the fact that the writers behind the show were going to a lot of trouble to distract them from the fact that they had no answers to give them.
So here's the deal, if your show idea has a mystery at the heart of its premise, then you must structure it in a way that tells the audience that not only will the central mystery be solved, but that the show can operate after it's solved chasing new mysteries.
Then you might be able to survive.