Why you should be watching ‘Terriers’ – and why FX should save it

I am too damn old and too damn cynical to get my heart broken by another brilliant-but-canceled TV show. But dammit if FX’s “Terriers” isn’t on the verge of doing just that.

The buddy detective series heads into the home stretch of its first season tonight at 10 with its 11th out of 13 episodes. Based on the absolutely embarrassing ratings – most recent episodes have averaged around half a million viewers, which is bad even by basic cable standards (in that same period, FX’s biggest hit, “Sons of Anarchy,” has averaged well over 3 million) – I would in no way be surprised if these are the last three episodes of the series ever made.

And I’m not ready for that to happen yet. “Terriers” is too good – the best new series in what’s been an  incredible year for new series (see also “Boardwalk Empire,” “Treme,” “Rubicon” and FX’s own “Justified” and “Louie,” to name just a handful) and a sparkling blend of wit and atmosphere and chemistry and gut-punching emotion – to be gone that quickly.

It started off good, riding on the alchemy between stars Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James, real-life pals playing best friend PIs in a dingy seaside SoCal town. It got even better, with a deft mix of standalone and serialized stories. Some weeks, we got simple cases that could make you laugh and gasp in the space of an hour. Other weeks, the guys got in way over their heads in a dark, knotty and never dull story involving the best kind of villains for any good PI story: rich and powerful men doing wicked and mysterious things, little imagining that low-rent little guys can do anything to stop them. And throughout that mix, we’ve gotten great heart-on-sleeve acting by Logue and Raymond-James as each deeply flawed hero struggled to do right by the women they loved (and in some cases, were done wrong by those women).

So “Terriers” has gotten better and better as it’s gone along, and these last three episodes are a cut above what’s come before.

Tonight’s episode, written by producer Tim Minear (who knows from one-and-done heartbreak from his work on shows like “Firefly,” “Wonderfalls” and “Drive”), is an extended flashback to the last days on the police force for Logue’s alcoholic Hank, and to how he and ex-thief Britt (Raymond-James) met. Like so many episodes this year, it’s a fantastic showcase for Logue, an actor who’s been around forever doing good work in both straight comedy (“Grounded for Life”) and serio-comedy (“The Tao of Steve”), but who’s never been able to demonstrate the range or depth of feeling he has here. Hank is both incredibly charming and incredibly self-destructive – both his ex-partner (Rockmond Dunbar) and ex-wife (Kimberly Quinn) enjoy his company immensely, but neither much trusts him – and again and again throughout the season Logue has shown you why everyone keeps falling for Hank. As someone who has destroyed everything good in his life – sometimes more than once – he has a tremendous capacity for empathy, and there are scenes on this show that would feel entirely routine elsewhere but are ridiculously powerful because of how Logue plays Hank’s reaction to other people’s pain. It’s an award-worthy performance on the kind of show that unfortunately doesn’t tend to get awards recognition.

The two after that are tying up the big season-long mystery about a shady land deal, and the shadier lawyer (Michael Gaston, oozing casual menace) orchestrating it all, and they do so almost perfectly. There are a lot of moving pieces in these last two – not just the mystery itself, but personal story arcs for Hank and Britt, and for their exes (Laura Allen has done some very strong work as Britt’s girlfriend), as well as some commentary on the town of Ocean Beach itself – and all of them come together at the end. Endings for TV seasons/series are hard, whether you’re a big hit (the “Lost” ending didn’t/couldn’t satisfy everyone) or a boutique drama (AMC’s “Rubicon,” which was recently canceled for ratings on par with what “Terriers” gets, failed to wrap up its conspiracy story well), but “Terriers” pulls it off as well as any show of recent vintage. It helps that one of the showrunners is Shawn Ryan, whose conclusion to “The Shield” was a masterclass in how to go out on a high note, while the other is Ted Griffin, whose “Ocean’s Eleven” script was as well-constructed as you’ll find for a big-budget all-star vehicle.

Things end so satisfyingly, in fact, that in some ways the final scene works better as a series-ender than a season-ender. (You’ll understand when you see it.) I’ve heard friends say that they don’t want to catch up on “Terriers” – or start it at all – because they don’t want to get too attached to another short-lived series. But if FX does pull the plug, you will have gotten a great 13-episode ride with a clear beginning, middle and end. (As Fienberg put it on our podcast this week, would you not read a really satisfying book – or go to a great movie – just because you know there’d be no sequel?)

But just because the final scene works so well as a series-ender doesn’t mean I want it to be one. “Terriers” is too good to go away so quickly – and unlike a “Firefly” or “Freaks and Geeks” or any of a number of other one-and-done shows whose cancellations made me sad, this is one that I think had the potential to do better, and still has that potential.

This is not a glacially-paced, cerebral drama like “Rubicon.” It’s not a weekly hour of mortification like “Freaks and Geeks.” It’s not a mash-up of two genres that are each a tough sell on their own like “Firefly.” It is a loose and funny buddy show, starring two absurdly likable actors you buy instantly as friends. It’s just standalone enough to be accessible to newcomers (my wife, who doesn’t have the TV-watching time I do, dipped in and out of the season but understood and loved all the episodes she saw) yet rich and complicated enough to appeal to those FX viewers who were complaining that “Justified” spent too much time telling disposable stories in its early episodes.

It’s been stuck with an unfortunate name, one that makes sense if you’ve seen the show (Hank and Britt are scrappy and won’t let go of a problem once they get their teeth into it) but does a poor job explaining what it is to outsiders. Ryan said on our podcast that many people thought it was a reality show about dog-fighting, and that perception wasn’t helped by an odd marketing campaign that for a long time wouldn’t show any footage of Logue and Raymond-James, and instead just featured shots of an angry dog.

Mid-stream title changes are hard for networks to justify (“Cougar Town” is stuck with an even worse moniker, and that show’s producers have taken to making fun of it in their opening credit sequence each week), but even something as simple as rechristening the show “Terriers: PI” would help a hypothetical second season. A new marketing campaign that put the two leads front and center from the beginning would do even more so.

I don’t know how much either would help, as the show is starting from a deep, deep hole. (Even doubling this season’s ratings might not keep the show around for a third.) I recognize that TV is a business, not a charity, that FX is home to many other fine shows (almost all with better ratings) and therefore can’t be accused of not caring about quality if they cancel it.

But here’s why, if I’m FX president John Landgraf, I’m considering it, even if the numbers don’t tick up at all in these last few weeks:

The FX identity that Ryan created with “The Shield” has been a mix of risk-taking and quality. You notice FX’s shows because they’re edgy and usually don’t feel like anything else on television, but you stay with them because they’re really, really good. (Sometimes, they’re so good at first that you stay with them long after they’ve stopped being good; see “Nip/Tuck” or “Rescue Me.”) The FX brand needs good shows – good dramas, especially – and really it needs at least one great drama at all times. For a long time, it had “The Shield,” and then that show’s final season overlapped with the uneven but promising debut for “Sons,” and then “Sons” had a beloved second season. So even leaving other FX dramas like “Damages” aside, the channel has had some kind of standard-bearer for a very long time now. But “Sons” is in the midst of a problematic third season. The ratings are fine, and many fans have enjoyed it, but many haven’t, whereas the praise for season two was near-universal. Maybe it’s a bump in the road, or maybe “Sons” isn’t a show that can sustain itself creatively. It’ll still be a hit and a money-maker for a good long while, but in terms of the FX brand? We’ll see.

And if “Sons” doesn’t return to brilliance, what takes over the torch? “Justified” had a mostly strong debut season, but not a perfect one. I liked the pilot for the upcoming boxing drama “Lights Out” quite a bit, but don’t know if it will sustain that quality, or if viewers will take to it. (The “Terriers” audience is comically small but fierce in its loyalty; if you want to show that loyalty, Ryan is suggesting people e-mail user@fxnetworks.com and/or try to download episodes from iTunes, as FX is said to be tracking both.) “Rescue Me” is over the hill and going away. There are other shows in the pipeline (including another SoCal detective show, which ain’t a good sign for “Terriers”), but they’re a ways away and no one knows yet if they’re any good.

We know that “Terriers” is good – that it’s great. We know that the ratings right now aren’t commercially viable. But if FX wants to be able to say that they have an identity and stand for something – and the conversations I’ve had with Landgraf and many other FX execs, past and present, suggests that this is the rare channel with a real sense of mission in this regard – then bringing back “Terriers” as a kind of loss-leader isn’t such a terrible thing.

You try tweaking the name, and the marketing, and maybe even figure out a way to piggyback it onto a more successful show (though the problem there is that FX shows are too raunchy to air before 10, and it’s hard to start a drama at 11) and you say, “We are a business, and we obviously care about ratings, but we also care about quality, and we stand for this. This is a great show, a show that represents many of the things we aspire to, and we have enough other hits on the air that we can carry this one just a little longer,” and you see what happens. If it doesn’t work, people understand, but you’ve bought yourself a lot of good publicity and karma and you’ve maybe helped some of your other shows skate by if they have creative bumps.

The show’s tagline was “Too small to fail.” Are you going to make a liar out of a tagline, FX?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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