FX cancels ‘Terriers,’ take 3: Interviewing creator Ted Griffin

Though everyone ultimately agreed that the name of “Terriers” didn’t help the show attract viewers during its single, glorious, extremely low-rated season, the show’s creator Ted Griffin – the one who takes full credit/blame for the title – couldn’t help sticking with dog metaphors when he called me up to discuss the show’s cancellation.

“It’s like putting a dog down,” he said moments after I picked up the phone. “I knew it was limping, I knew it wasn’t in good health, but it was still really tough to euthanize it. But in dog years, our show lasted seven seasons.”

After the jump, a transcript of the rest of our conversation, including Griffin’s perspective on the meeting he and fellow producers Shawn Ryan and Tim Minear had with FX president John Landgraf on Friday (I have Landgraf’s own take on the cancellation here), when they knew the cancellation writing was on the wall, advice from frequent cancellation victim Minear, and even a few stray thoughts on where the show might have gone in its second (and even third!) season.

I just did the conference call with John (Landgraf), and he talked about the meeting he had with you and Shawn and Tim on Friday. How was that?

It was very nice. It was nice because he was obviously in so much pain about it. I sort of consider John to be as much a creative partner in this show as Tim, Shawn, Donal, Michael, etc. I don’t think this thing would’ve been nearly as good were it not John Landgraf. We all had the same dog being put down. He went through in a lot of detail. My proudest moment was I said, “It’s fine by me if we stop doing the autopsy and start doing the wake.” He was showing how the pulse was dead, it wasn’t breathing… It was the most amicable breakup of my life. And we kind of knew. The writing had been on the wall.

So what went wrong, in your opinion? Why couldn’t this show get an audience?

I think marketing, like TV show making, is an inexact science. You can conjecture whether it was the title or the poster of the lack of a high concept to the very idea of the show that failed to hook an initial audience. That was our sole failure: hooking an initial audience. We launched horribly. That’s my heartbreak. Given that it’s television, I had hoped we would have more time than a movie does for word of mouth to take over. We got great word of mouth, but it didn’t come on strong like I hoped it would. I can’t blame an audience. I’ve never in my life watched a TV show in its first season. I always have to wait several seasons for someone to say, ‘You have to see this.’ That’s how I discovered “The Wire” and “The Shield.” I don’t know the secret to getting people to watch a show in its first season.

Landgraf said he could see the writing on the wall after he did those focus groups following the third or fourth episode. When did you guys start to realize what was going to happen?

The reality settled in at the same time. Being newer to television, Michael Raymond-James and I kept on being really hopeful. Never-say-die Donal shared that hope with us. It was a unique situation where we had a group of people who really liked each other and liked working with each other. Everything was going right except one thing. (Laughs) That’s the one thing that felled us. The two big downers of the cancellation are it’s a real nice family breaking up, and I will miss those characters. I would have liked to watch them do more stuff. I knew we were 99 percent sunk for a while, but I still for a while sort of thought, “Everybody wants it to succeed so badly that maybe there’s a chance.”

Well, when you say you would have liked to see those characters do more stuff, I’m sure you had some ideas in your head for a second season. Any you’d feel comfortable sharing?

I will only share this: that if you don’t know which way that truck turns or doesn’t turn at the end, you don’t know Britt. He goes straight. The one thing, if there’s anything to tie up from season one, is that in the first episode of season two, Katie would’ve come to Britt in prison with the paternity results, still unopened, and said, “If you really don’t want to know, then you tear it up.” The last scene of episode one was Britt taking that letter into the prison yard and opening it, and in a wide shot, we see him sort of punch the air in triumph. He’s the dad.

Would Cutshaw (the big villain played by Neal McDonough) have come back?

Neal McDonough and I had talked about it, depending on what was going on in his life, we could always have him come back, if not in season two, then season three.

“Season three”? Wow. Kind of hurts just to hear that phrase.

Boy, when we finished that season, we had no idea.

Well, it’s funny: you finished the season long before you had any idea that this is what would happen, and yet that final scene really does feel like the work of a man who knows his show is ending.

The title was even “Hail Mary.” We had no idea. It might be that I come from a movie background, where you tie things up, that I’m not accustomed to ending on a cliffhanger. Maybe that was the influence. I do really admire television now for being sort of the new novel. Each season of the really best shows are a complete novel in some sense. We started this novel with the guys in the truck shooting the shit, and dealing with how to be free but how to be men. How to be irresponsible but not to waste their lives, and then at the end of the novel being at the same crossroads, but really not. They’ve both traveled a good distance, but no, they’re not taking the left turn.

And they really can’t. If Britt goes back to Mexico, he’s wanted for stealing the drugs out of the police station.

Yeah, you lose track of things sometime when you’re doing this many episodes. When I watched “Agua Caliente” (the episode with the Mexico trip), it struck me, “Oh, fuck, they can’t go down to Mexico (after the finale). He’s screwed down there.” It’s the difference between doing a two-hour movie and a 13-episode TV show.

Well, what else did you learn about doing TV over these 13?

It’s a lot more work, and you get to fix mistakes episode to episode. It’s a much deeper form, much richer than movies. There’s a very boring cliche about how film is a collaborative medium. Sometimes, and sometimes not, but in TV, you’ll never survive unless there are four or five big pairs of shoulders carrying water. If those shows that really seem like singular vision shows, if those are singular vision, I don’t know how they sleep.

You worked very closely with Tim on this, and Tim has been through (cancellation) a lot. Did he have any words of wisdom for you?

No, but what I appreciate about Tim is that he’s been through this so often and he’s not blase about it. I read some quote of his where he said, “This is both the most painful and painless cancellation, because you really like the show and hate to see it go, but it was such a great time.” It was actually much more than we hoped it would be creatively. A Nielsen rating, which is something that I still don’t quite get why it’s the barometer in this technological age, that that didn’t go our way is no reflection on us. Tim deserves more credit for this show. Every time I read something it’s just Shawn’s name or mine, Tim should have been on the first end credit.

When you say it was more than you hoped it would be – at what point did you realize, “Hey, we maybe have something special here”?

I don’t think we ever got that arrogant, and if we did, we deserve this cancellation. But around, I think, the Olivia Williams episode, and definitely by “Fustercluck,” we thought, “This is something that’s a lot of fun, and this is working.” We knew we had something good by then. And then it was trying to keep up to that. Television’s weird, because half the time you’re fighting the lure of just turning something in and getting a B and being done with it. And that was the great thing about working with Tim and Shawn, is if anyone was turning in a B, someone would call him out on it.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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