If you work in TV, you know that it’s pretty damn hard to get a show on the air. You’re just a guy with an idea, and they are an entire army of producers, development execs, network VPs, presidents, directors, and chairmen all trained to wring out all the joy, wit, and excitement from your idea.
And that’s only if they actually buy it. In most cases, they won’t because it’s not subversive enough, it’s too subversive, it won’t attract talent, it won’t fit into their schedule gaps, it’s too procedural, it’s not procedural enough, the premise is too similar to another show that didn’t do well a few years ago on another network, or — my personal favorite — it’s “execution dependent.” I’m still waiting for someone to show me the series they bought that is so brilliant that even bad execution can’t derail it.
Getting an actual show through the selling process and then through the painful development process — which is the industry equivalent of natural childbirth with about a dozen or so midwives presiding — is nothing short of a miracle. When you do manage to get a show on the air, as I was fortunate enough to do, you never cease having these moments where you stop what you’re doing and say, “Holy shit, I have a show on the air!”
My show is called Banshee, which has aired for three seasons on Cinemax, garnering critical praise, a vocal and passionate fan base, and record ratings for our network. The show is the saga of Lucas Hood (not his real name), a criminal who gets out of prison after 15 years, steals an identity, and becomes the sheriff of a small Pennsylvania town. This coming January we will air our fourth and final season, which we are still shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as I write this.
The recent announcement that our show would be coming to an end confounded our fans and media alike. Why would Cinemax cancel their flagship show at the height of its popularity? The answer is even more confounding. They didn’t. I did, in consultation with Banshee’s creative team.
Like most creators of television, I am a lifelong TV watcher. I don’t think there are any writers’ rooms in which the writers don’t reference other shows as a matter of daily routine. We all stand on the stooped shoulders of the shows that came before us, while trying our damndest to be original. I am acutely aware of all the shows that I have loved, as well as the shows that wore out their welcome, tried my patience, and let me down — shows that stayed past their expiration date simply because of the not-insignificant revenues that flowed through them. I’m not going to get specific, but we all know the signs: stunt casting, trips to exotic locales, weddings, Mulder leaving, etc. We all know that feeling of helpless frustration when a good show gets left out too long and goes stale.
I was determined from the start not to let that happen to Banshee. Banshee’s premise, by its very implausible nature, was always one with a somewhat limited shelf life. How long can anyone really pull off being a fake sheriff? We always felt that, under the best of circumstances, the show had a five-season arc. And we could have easily done that fifth season. We had the ratings, we had the fans, we had the passion.
But as Season 4 took shape in the writers’ room, I started to feel two things simultaneously. The first was excitement — we were taking the show in an exciting new direction that I knew our fans would love. The second, though, was a growing sense of unease about what came next. I was a novelist before I ever wrote for television, and as a novelist, I work under the principle that every story has a beginning and an end. Though we had no shortage of new ideas, I gradually found myself realizing that the story of Lucas Hood was reaching an end.
I talked about it with the other executive producers and with our execs at Cinemax. We brainstormed a number of plotlines that would extend the show, some of which showed real promise. But they all required a contrived divergence from our original raison d’être. I was haunted by the notion of becoming that show that hung around too long, of sullying the memory of four organic seasons with that potentially shark-jumping fifth one.
So we all talked about it, and then talked about it some more, and then took a break and talked about it again. But we were all just circling the truth, coming to it in our own time. The story, as it was originally conceived, was over. Whatever we did next came with the risk of dilution to something potentially mediocre. Mediocrity can pay the bills, but it comes at a price none of us was willing to pay. I was proud of us for being creatively honest. I was proud of Cinemax for allowing us to make the call. And in my heart, I know it was the right one.
But it still sucks.
Those moments — the ones I mentioned above, where you stop what you’re doing and say “Holy shit! I have a show on the air!” are going to be replaced with moments where I stop what I’m doing and say “Holy shit! I had a show and I let it go!” There will be guilt. There will be self-loathing. There will be second-guessing. And there will be the fear that courses through the veins of all unemployed TV writers wondering about their next gig.
Will I ever again get to that hallowed place where an army of trained professionals moves in unison to make real the stuff I dream up in my boxer shorts? Where absurdly good-looking people speak the words I write, while bright young PAs speak into those little shoulder radios to make sure I have a cold Cherry Coke Zero and a chair with my name on it? Where network big shots take my calls? Or will I fade into oblivion, a Wikipedia footnote in the history of television?
It’s going to be in those moments, during the long, dark teatime of this self-imposed hiatus, where I wonder if Lucas Hood getting married just as his evil twin arrives in town to open a bed-and-breakfast wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
Jonathan Tropper (@Jtropper) is a New York Times best-selling author and the co-creator and executive producer of Cinemax’s Banshee.