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After just three episodes, Fox cancelled its most promising new show of the fall season. Skin, which made its debut during a very popular World Series, was pulled from the schedule last week after disappointing network execs with its dismal ratings.
To be fair, the numbers stank. Six million people tuned into the much-hyped premiere, and the show steadily lost about a million viewers in each successive outing. Other networks would have canceled the show, too.
Created by Jerry Bruckheimer, who also produces CSI, the most watched show on TV, Skin was smart, sexy and luscious to watch. A modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet, it focused on two impossibly gorgeous teenagers: Adam (D.J. Cotrona) and Jewel (Olivia Wilde), who meet at a party in downtown Los Angeles. The affair turns messy when we learn that Adam is the son of an ambitious district attorney (Kevin Anderson) and Jewel is the daughter of a porn mogul (Ron Silver). Adam’s dad spends his days trying to send Jewel’s dad to the slammer.
But that doesn’t stop our star-crossed lovers. Impulsive and reckless, the couple embarks on a secret romance, skipping class and sneaking out of bedroom windows late at night. Edited in a rapid-fire MTV style, Skin produced a sense of energy and urgency. The bleached-out love scenes between the lustful Adam and Jewel evoked an almost ethereal glow, capturing the very essence of teenaged infatuation.
The true daring of Skin was that it had the courage to tackle the seamy issues of sexual politics — power, exploitation, betrayal and, yes, love. How very un-Fox of them. And how very unfortunate.
By portraying the porn mogul as sympathetic (he gives $80 million to a breast cancer clinic) and giving the D.A. human flaws (he sleeps around on his wife), Skin challenged our typical American assumptions about sex, its good guys and bad guys.
Throw in the mogul’s millions and the prosecutor’s upcoming election, and it’s a combustible mix. After just three hours, the show had set in a motion an impending collision of values that reminded one of the atom smashing they do at the Fermilab. Skin has so much to say and so many places to go.
Yet it was snuffed out because it couldn’t learn to walk in 180 minutes. Never mind the reviews: “the most satisfying new drama of the season” (Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel), “slick, cleverly written and absorbingly entertaining” (Fort Worth Star-Telegram). Even the Washington Post‘s cranky Tom Shales liked it: “a heady mixture of lust and the lust for power — a saga of desire that, ironically and wickedly enough, leaves little to be desired.”
The problem with television today is that everybody wants instant success — huge numbers out of the starting gate — just like in film. Hollywood is always chasing its next boffo blockbuster, the picture that’s going to set new Memorial or Labor Day box office records.
Television doesn’t work that way. By definition, programs — especially hour-long dramas — take time to find and build an audience. Shows like these ask viewers to stick around for nine months. To do that, they need to slowly build characters, plot lines and map it over a story arc that can sustain an audience of millions through the fall, winter and spring — and then bring them back next September.
Television history is full of shows that started off as duds but grew to achieve enormous popularity. Sadly, that history is also filled with a list of titles killed too early, victims of the rush-rush ethos that rules the television production business and spoils its product for countless viewers.
Fox intends to replace Skin with original episodes of Joe Millionaire 2, a reality show in which a penniless cowboy woos a bevy of European beauties with faked fortunes. The conceit is insulting, the outcome a bore, but Joe will be the Monday night anchor in Fox’s November sweeps strategy. How very, very Fox of them.
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