I don’t think I’m breaking any new ground here by suggesting this, but J.J. Abrams has not had a great run of late with his television projects. He has, however, perfected the art of selling a pilot — according to EW, he just sold “an action-packed buddy cop show to Fox that’s set in the near future, when all Los Angeles police officers are partnered with highly evolved human-like androids” — but a man’s name means nothing without his direct creative input. Over the course of his career, Abrams have been involved with 10 aired television projects. The difference between the ones that have succeeded and the ones that have failed has everything to do with how involved Abrams is.
Let’s take a look.
1. Felicity — His first series was actually a pretty great look at college life, save for the last four episodes in which a weird supernatural Groundhog Day element reset the last half of the final season. He actually stuck around on Felicity for quite a while, writing many of the episodes during the first two seasons, although he only wrote two in the third season and one in the last.
2. Alias — Another limited success, Alias was only good while Abrams was heavily involved. The last episode he wrote was the opener of season three. It was right after that the Alias fell off a cliff, quality-wise. I’m not sure who was the actual showrunner, although I think Jeff Pinkner ran much of it post season two.
3. What About Brian — Not a good show, but Abrams was only attached as a co-producer (Dana Stevens ran the show).
4. Six Degrees — Again, a bad show, but Abrams only served as one of the executive producers in his capacity as the head of Bad Robot Productions.
5. Lost — Abrams wrote the first two episodes, and stayed heavily involved in the first season, then handed it off to Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof. The final episode notwithstanding, Lost has to be considered a huge success.
6. Fringe — A limited success, Abrams was heavily involved with the first season, wrote the second-season premiere, and then skedaddled, leaving Jeff Pinkner to run the show.
7. Undercovers — This is where things started to fall apart for Abrams as a television guy. He directed the pilot and wrote the first three episodes, and though the pilot was OK, the show’s quality fell precipitously thereafter.
8. Alcatraz — Abrams was only an exec producer, so can’t take any credit for the show’s creative dearth.
9. Person of Interest — Again, Abrams only served as executive producer, and while the show does get solid ratings, the few episodes I’ve seen suggests a fairly rote procedural.
10. Revolution — Again, a terrible pilot (here’s my review), but again, despite the fact that his name is all over it, Abrams only served as executive producer.
So, what can we glean from this? That J.J. Abrams is actually great when he’s creatively involved and hands off the reins to competent people (see Fringe, Lost, Felicity and the first two seasons of Alias), except for the underwhelming Undercovers. In that capacity, he has an 80 percent success rate. However, “Executive Producer J.J. Abrams” alone is tantamount to the kiss of death (see What About Brian, Alcatraz, Six Degrees and Revolution). In that capacity, he has a 20 percent success rate (Persons of Interest being the outlier).
What inference can we then draw from J.J. Abrams’ robot cop pilot? He’s only the executive producer, while J.H. Wyman serves as the showrunner. Therefore, there’s an 80 percent chance it will blow. The parallels to Robocop won’t help.