Two unusual things happened with Syfy’s decision to cancel “Caprica,” effective immediately: First, we had a cable channel pulling a show off its schedule before its current run of episodes had finished (though the remaining five are supposed to air sometime next year). Second, rather than try to downplay the news – say, by sending out a schedule update press release that briefly mentions at the end that Cheap Filler Program X is replacing the previously-scheduled Canceled Show Y – Syfy put out a press release putting the cancellation upfront, complete with a frustrated quote from executive Mark Stern, who noted, “Unfortunately, despite its obvious quality, ‘Caprica” has not been able to build the audience necessary to justify a second season.”
Neither move is unprecedented, but both are unusual. Their convergence at the same event speaks both to how much Syfy wanted “Caprica” to succeed, and to how badly the show failed. This was a continuation of the channel’s prestigious (if not always highly-rated) “Battlestar Galactica” franchise, and the most obvious symbol of the channel’s new “science fiction doesn’t mean spaceships” ethos, and its ratings were so poor that they couldn’t even stick with it for an extra five weeks.
So what went wrong?
Among the possibilities:
The roll-out schedule was odd. The “Caprica” pilot was released as a standalone DVD in April of 2009, only a few weeks after “BSG” ended, but the series proper didn’t launch on Syfy until January of 2010. Ten episodes aired in winter and early spring, and then the show wasn’t scheduled to come back until January 2011. Someone at Syfy realized that perhaps the waits were getting too extreme, even by cable standards, and in September the return was moved up to early October, which gave “Caprica” the benefit of a good timeslot (after “Stargate Universe”) but the detriment of little advance promotion.
Those long and/or irregular gaps in the schedule certainly didn’t help the show gain traction, but I don’t think it was a major factor.
“BSG” fans were bitter about that show’s finale. Reaction to the “Lost” finale was mild compared to some of the vitriol aimed at Ronald D. Moore and the other “BSG” producers (many of whom moved on to work on “Caprica”) after a finale that was heavy on spirituality and light on concrete explanations to various pieces of the show’s mythology. As with the “Lost” finale, not all fans hated it – maybe not even most of them – but the “BSG” audience was so small to begin with(*) that even if, say, a third of the viewers bitterly swore off the franchise, “Caprica” was already starting in a hole that may have been too deep to climb out of.
(*) And given that, I’m going to be making some audience generalizations in the next couple of theories. I’m not suggesting all viewers feel this way, but when you start with such a small base, it doesn’t take a lot to push things in the direction of cancellation.
Sci-fi fans don’t necessarily want to watch soap opera. Moore’s initial pitch for the show was, “It’s a sci-fi version of ‘Dallas,'” and while the finished product moved quite a bit off of that, there were still plenty of elements – marital discord, corporate intrigue, teen angst/rebellion – that may not have played well to viewers who don’t like so much overlap between their genres. (The mix also included a whole lot of theology, which is essential to the origin of the “BSG” universe but, based on reaction to the “BSG” finale, not everyone’s favorite subject.)
Of course, “BSG” did plenty of genre cross-pollination – it was as much a political drama as a hardcore sci-fi show – but it always had the spaceships and killer robots (the same genre staples Syfy execs said they wanted to move away from) to make the purists feel comfortable. “Caprica” had a killer robot, but it was one with the mind and soul of a teenage girl. For some, that’s icky.
Soap opera fans don’t necessarily want to watch sci-fi. And here was perhaps the bigger miscalculation. Syfy envisioned “Caprica” as a show with a broader audience base than “BSG.” They saw the spaceships and other hardware as a turn-off to viewers who might have enjoyed the political allegory or character drama. But a planet-bound incarnation of “Battlestar Galactica” isn’t enough of a break for that sort of hypothetical viewer. If you’re not going to watch sci-fi, you’re not going to watch sci-fi; it’s not a matter of degree or number of shots of the vacuum of space. Some viewers just won’t watch shows with certain subjects.
(That’s a problem that’s always plagued “Friday Night Lights.” Many soap fans won’t watch because of the football; many football fans won’t watch because of the soap operatics.)
It wasn’t very good. This, really, is what it comes down to. “Caprica” didn’t get off to a great start in the ratings earlier this year, owing to the previous reasons, but if it had held that number or increased a bit over time, Syfy would have given it a longer leash. But many viewers who came into “Caprica” without prejudices about genre or the “BSG” ending still didn’t like what they saw. It was a series with some interesting individual pieces that never cohered into a whole.
The most compelling and/or sympathetic character was Zoe Graystone (Alessandra Torresani), and she was the aforementioned teenage girl’s soul stuck inside a killer robot. The writers kept losing the thread on ostensible leads Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz) and Joseph Adama (Esai Morales), and had even less idea what to do with Graystone’s wife Amanda (Paula Malcomson) or bumbling schemer Sister Clarice (Polly Walker).
The show returned from hiatus trying to reshape its various problematic characters – Clarice was much less inept, Joseph stopped whining and embraced his family’s gangster roots, etc. – but there was still a lack of clear storytelling direction, and I kept having to convince myself to watch the episodes that were sitting on my DVR.
That won’t be necessary now. In broad strokes, we know how the story of “Caprica” ends – the killer robots multiply and wipe out most of humanity, while Adama’s delinquent son Willie will grow up to be the leader of the few thousand survivors – but that’s decades in the future for these characters. Their specific stories won’t get to finish. Syfy is going to retreat to safer territory for another prequel: “Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome,” about Bill Adama’s early military career, and featuring all the spaceships and other elements that Syfy was so afraid of a couple of years ago.
I liked the idea of “Caprica” very much. I enjoy space battles as much as the next fanboy, but there should be room on television for science fiction that doesn’t have to lean on the hardware, and can lean on the futuristic trappings to tell great stories about ideas and characters. “Caprica” just wasn’t that show.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org