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Tuned In: 'Farscape' ~ The blame goes around

Friday, January 10, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

HOLLYWOOD -- Sci Fi Channel president Bonnie Hammer didn't want to talk about the network's cancellation of critically acclaimed series "Farscape" (8 tonight) during her network's press conference this week, but hooting TV critics forced her to discuss the much-criticized decision.

"We wanted to do 13 new episodes, to end it the way we felt it should be ended properly. The bottom line was we couldn't come out with the financial deal that made sense," Hammer said. "We wanted to continue it in '03, we didn't feel it was appropriate to bring it into '04. The series had softened in the ratings. ... We tried to take the high road, we didn't go out to the press and tell them what was going on."

Hammer said Sci Fi tried to negotiate 13 episodes rather than the 22 they'd been contracted for, but a deal didn't happen.

Though fans continue to target Sci Fi for the show's cancellation, there's plenty of blame to go around. The Jim Henson Company, one of the show's production partners, has been in severe financial distress. And though fans -- and this TV critic -- have taken Sci Fi to task for reneging on its announced two-year commitment to seasons four and five, after the press conference Hammer said that when the deal was made, Sci Fi had no choice but to announce a two-year renewal.

"We did do a two-year pick-up that also had built into it something we call the 'kill fee,' because they wouldn't commit to even one more year unless we committed to two years when we did that deal," Hammer said. "We had always built in the possibility that if it didn't continue to do well in the ratings or for other circumstances that we would stop the series."

Surely the show's producers knew that when plotting story arcs, yet they still chose to write a cliffhanger that will give the show no closure when it airs for the final time in March. They gambled and lost.

Series star Ben Browder, back in Los Angeles from Australia where the show was filmed, said every year "Farscape" hung in the balance, so there was no reason to write this year's last episode as anything other than the traditional "Farscape" cliffhanger.

"We were lucky to be able to continue, to have the outlet we had with Sci Fi. I don't know if anyone else was going to give us the opportunity to do what we do," Browder said. "As angry as I know people are and as disappointed as I know people were with the cancellation of the show, I still think we need to recognize the fact that it would not have existed without Bonnie Hammer and a lot of people making a choice for the creative and to do something different."

Browder was pragmatic about the cliffhanger ending.

"That's the major source of audience disappointment, because there was the expectation of season five," he said. "But if you know anything about Hollywood, anything about filmmaking, anything about making television, nothing is a foregone conclusion until the check is cashed and in the bank."

Series creator Rockne S. O'Bannon said it's a miracle "Farscape" ever got on the air, let alone survived to tell four seasons' worth of stories, but he said fans are right to blame Sci Fi.

"Even though there were all these financial difficulties, there wasn't a passion for the show [anymore]," O'Bannon said. "Regimes change at networks, it's a fact of life, and in the most recent regime change, those people weren't really fans of the show. Bonnie and [former network executives] Stephen Chao and Rod Perth were all great champions of the show, but Bonnie found the people she had to face across the table were people who were less excited about the passionate fan base and critical response to the show than they were the dollars-and-cents aspect."

Still, when your series has been renewed for two seasons, is it really smart to make it incomprehensible, even to those who watch loyally? That's what "Farscape" became at the start of its fourth season.

"The show got too narrow, it became serialized, and serialized television doesn't work very well unless it's [short-run] like 'Taken,' " Hammer said.

There are plenty of successful series to disprove that point, but Hammer's right that by becoming so convoluted, the show's producers share some blame for "Farscape's" demise.

"It was brilliantly written and brilliantly produced, but for an outside person or casual viewer, somebody who wants to tune in every second or third episode, which you also need, they cannot follow the series anymore. Even I, who read every script, had trouble if I missed one. I would get lost, and I know that series better than anybody."

Browder said he didn't find "Farscape" as difficult to follow as it's been painted.

"Certainly you won't get all the nuances if you don't watch it from beginning to end," he said. "Some episodes I find arcane even if you do know. It's actually not that difficult if you start to watch and take it for what it's worth."

The eclectic nature of "Farscape" episodes made the series unique, but even as Browder said the series wasn't hard to follow, he articulated why it never caught on with a larger audience.

"We're in a society that -- Boom! -- they check it once, hate it or love it, move on or expect the same thing every week," he said. "People like the same cereal. Every morning they get up and have Peanut Butter Cap'n Crunch and that's what they like and want to have it seven days a week. That, as much as anything, may be difficult for the broader audience."

Hammer said both Sci Fi Channel and Henson had discussions with producers about ways to "open the series in season four" with little success.

"A series takes on a tone very early in its run and it's very hard one day to switch gears and say, 'In the next episode we're going to broaden everything out.' In fairness to everybody, I'm not sure if everything went perfectly and everyone was in agreement [that] it could even be done."

O'Bannon doesn't think current Sci Fi Channel executives wanted to change "Farscape." They just wanted it gone. "They didn't create it, it wasn't a huge hit and they looked at the balance sheet and saw they were throwing a lot of money at it."

But Browder indicated there were suggestions to broaden the show's appeal.

"How do you adjust it mid-course to make it more palatable and acceptable? I don't know if we knew how to do that down in Australia," he said. "Obviously somebody thought they knew how to do it. But from where I sit in Australia with [executive producer] David Kemper, we simply continued telling the story that made creative sense to us and, for the most part, made creative sense to our audience."

Hammer said Sci Fi looked into the possibility of making a miniseries or movie to end the saga, but that didn't make financial sense either.

"The cost attached to doing a two-hour or four-hour was almost the same as the difference between [making] 13 and 22 episodes," Hammer said. "It was enormous because you still need all the cast, the set."

Hammer didn't rule out another return to the "Farscape" galaxy and expressed an interest to work with the show's production team again. O'Bannon said Henson executives have talked of continuing "Farscape" as an anime series, but any decision about the show's future is on hold because of the sale of the Henson Company.

"Bonnie has taken the high road in how she's graciously dealt with everyone being in her face about this," O'Bannon said, "but there's too much dust in the air. We need to let things settle."


Even as Browder and O'Bannon discussed the end of "Farscape" Wednesday afternoon in a hotel restaurant, another former genre star sat at the next booth.

Andrea Thompson, the actress who starred in the sci-fi series "Babylon 5" before moving to "NYPD Blue" and later CNN Headline News as an anchorwoman, commiserated with executives from her new employer, Court TV.

Earlier in the day at a Court TV press conference, Thompson said a no-compete clause kept her from working at another news network after CNN. Instead, she's hosting documentaries and a Saturday night block of programming for Court TV.

"One of the things that was frustrating for me at CNN Headline News is we were taking subjects like suitcase bombs and biological attacks, and trying to fit them into a 2 1/2-minute interview," Thompson said. "Basically, you just give the viewer enough to scare the hell out of them and not any real valuable information. We saw so much of that after Sept. 11 that I thought was, frankly, irresponsible."


In "America's Prince: The John F. Kennedy Jr. Story" (8 p.m. Sunday, TBS), Portia de Rossi ("Ally McBeal") plays Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, her first portrayal of a real-life person, also one she actually met.

At a White House correspondents dinner, wearing her hair in a long ponytail, de Rossi felt a tug on her hair. It turned out to be Bessette.

"What are you trying to look like? Me?" Bessette Kennedy asked.

"She was a big fan of 'Ally McBeal,' so I got to talk to her for about an hour that night, and again, on a different occasion, we got to talk again," de Rossi said. "She's just such an elegant, beautiful woman. I think my ego accepted the role before I really thought about it."

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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