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Finale may be all that can save 'Dark Angel'

Shifting TV lineups dampen ratings for many shows, including this sci-fi series featuring the exotic Jessica Alba.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 2, 2002


You don't have to tell Rene Echevarria how tough this year's TV season has been.

Echevarria, a 1980 graduate of St. Petersburg Catholic High School, is an executive producer on Fox's once-hot sci-fi/adventure series Dark Angel -- following stints on the CBS program Now and Again and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, among others.

Developed and co-produced by Titanic director James Cameron, Dark Angel debuted in fall 2000 with Next Big Thing-level buzz -- powered by exotic, athletic star Jessica Alba (playing a genetically enhanced woman fleeing the military scientists who created her) and a Tuesday time slot that guaranteed visibility.

But then Fox moved the show to 8 p.m. Fridays this season -- when the program's young, mostly male audience would likely be elsewhere. Later, the network nudged the show back to 9 p.m. (making room for its misguided and quickly canceled game show, The Chamber), and Dark Angel's already shrinking audience vanished.

These days, the show is ranked about 123rd among all prime time series, just behind UPN's WWF Smackdown! and just ahead of CBS' long-ago canceled comedy Danny.

Industry experts give Dark Angel a 50-50 chance of survival. Producers can only hope Friday's 90-minute season finale, directed by Cameron himself, may push Fox into giving the show another year.

And Echevarria's not the only producer waiting for a sign; shows such as CBS' The Education of Max Bickford, NBC's Leap of Faith, the WB's Dawson's Creek and ABC's Dharma and Greg haven't yet gotten the green light for next season, either. Some won't know for sure until the networks begin announcing their lineups for next fall in mid-May.

"Watching the ratings was a whole new thing for me. . . . In the real world of TV, you basically wrap up your season and sit on pins and needles for a month," said Echevarria, who left the guaranteed viewership of a Star Trek series for Now and Again, which was canceled by CBS after its final episode aired in early 2000.

"(Recently), our lead-in shows have been sitcom reruns, so people tune in and say, 'I've seen this,' and they assume the show after it is going to be a rerun, too," added the producer, who serves as Dark Angel's top writer. "I have to say, my own 16-year-old niece doesn't catch the show anymore. It's on Friday nights, and she's out."

Experts say such problems are typical across the TV dial these days, the result of networks showing less patience with series and more willingness to eliminate programs that don't click immediately.

ABC gave Sally Field's Supreme Court drama The Court three airings before yanking it -- broadcasting promos touting the series on the same day they announced it would go on hiatus. Similarly, shows such as The American Embassy, Under One Roof, The Wayne Brady Show, As If, The Random Years and My Guide to Being a Rock Star all were canceled after four airings or fewer.

The result for viewers: Mounting confusion as shows are shifted one way and another. For example, fans of ABC's new legal drama Philly saw it pre-empted for three weeks to make room for The Court, then hurriedly returned to the Tuesday schedule so quickly, many magazine and newspaper TV schedules didn't reflect the change.

It's enough to make you yearn for the days where series such as M*A*S*H, All in the Family and Hill Street Blues were given entire seasons to find success with viewers.

"In my perspective, this is the worst mid season we've ever seen in the history of television," said Marc Berman, an analyst for Mediaweek magazine. "Normally, you think back to shows that started in mid season, you think All in the Family, Good Times, Laverne and Shirley, Malcolm in the Middle. But what's worth saving this mid season? Baby Bob? The Bachelor? There really is nothing going on."

And the mounting failure among mid season shows also hurts established series such as Dark Angel, which are still struggling to find footing with viewers.

"Fox basically destroyed Dark Angel. . . . Friday was the last night it should be on," Berman added. "The way you program a network is you pick the shows, you find the best time period, you leave it there and promote it like crazy. But (with Dark Angel), Fox took something that was promising, and they killed it."

Indeed, though ABC has received the most bruising press coverage -- thanks to high-profile problems regarding the faltering hit Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and a failed attempt to woo David Letterman from CBS -- Fox has also seen its fortunes plummet this season.

Two of its signature series -- the urban dramedy Ally McBeal and the sci-fi thriller The X-Files -- were canceled this year due to low ratings. As the financial picture grew bleaker, producers on some shows were asked to tighten their budgets by 2 percent -- a significant amount for TV producers already pinching pennies (Dark Angel, for example, films in Vancouver, British Columbia, where the difference in currency value adds about 30 percent buying power).

And though Fox drew critical praise for the creative quality and risk-taking of its new shows, just two series -- The Bernie Mac Show and the real-time action series 24 -- are considered successes among 10 new programs that debuted in 2001-02.

Of course, such instability could work well for Echevarria and Dark Angel; with holes to plug on Sunday, Monday and Thursdays, the network may be less willing to also make big changes on Fridays.

This critic would love to see 24 move to The X-Files' 9 p.m. Sunday time slot (possibly with a new format in which each episode would take place over a 24-hour period), and Dark Angel moved back to 9 p.m. Tuesdays.

But Echevarria's too smart to make any such predictions or pleas. "It's not like you can just drop the price and sell more widgets. . . . It's not that simple a business," he said, noting that the weakness of shows such as X-Files and Ally meant advertisements on those shows promoting Dark Angel also reached fewer viewers.

The series has faced its own creative hurdles. Initially focused on the smoldering chemistry between Alba and co-star Michael Weatherly, the show's scope changed when Alba and Weatherly made plans to marry just as their characters were developing a romantic relationship on screen. ("Fans always want a love affair to be consummated, and when you do it, they lose interest," Echevarria said, laughing).

These days, Dark Angel is focused on the plight of many other "transgenic" people like Alba's Max, turning up the show's sci-fi quotient (and possibly making it harder for casual viewers to follow the story). Cameron's finale, produced with a bigger budget and more effects than a typical episode, centers on a showdown between the transgenics and regular people, who now fear them.

As a producer, Echevarria can only hope that this season's instability doesn't prompt networks to play it safe this fall -- watering down new and returning series to avoid repelling viewers.

"One of the tough things about TV is that a lot of people tune in expecting and wanting a variation on something they've already seen," said Echevarria.

"There's enormous pressure lately for stand-alone franchises that sell themselves -- like (CBS') C.S.I. -- things that are branded and you don't need to know anything about before you watch them," he added. "I just hope the lessons (network executives) take from this season aren't, 'Let's not take risks.' Hopefully, they won't feel burned."

AT A GLANCE: Dark Angel's 90-minute season finale airs at 8:30 p.m. Friday on WTVT-Ch. 13.

-- To reach Eric Deggans call (727) 893-8521, e-mail deggans@sptimes.com or see the St. Petersburg Times Web site at www.sptimes.com.

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