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Endgame vs. King (Part 1)
...One lives, one dies…and the fan factor


Word has apparently come down from on high (well, the top brass at Showcase) that of that TV station’s two new crime dramas, Endgame has been cancelled, but King has been renewed. Usually when that happens, fans of the cancelled show gnash their teeth and swear never to watch TV again, and professional critics shrug and move on -- the show is dead, so why waste ink? (Though some fans are mounting a Save Endgame campaign). But as I’ve often stated before, sometimes a little post-game analysis of Canadian movies and TV can be a healthy thing.

Indeed, a problem with entertainment coverage is how the press quickly moves on to the next big shiny toy. Doing a cursory google search on King, now that the eight episode season has run its course, most of the articles and references I found were all written when the series premiered, with little since. And what makes that curious is that most of the reviews (as I recall) were favourable, so the reviewers had no agenda to bury the series. Yet one can imagine if you missed the initial flurry of articles, you wouldn’t even be aware there was a series called King airing! The same is true with Endgame -- though at least, now that it’s been cancelled, there seems to be a little more reporting on it…now that it’s most likely too late (although I applaud the enthusiasm of the Save Endgame campaigners…I think Canadian programmers are even less sensitive to viewers’ pleas than US networks).

Anyway, so in the interest of doing my part to keep the spotlight on a little longer, I’m actually going to try and write about them with a two-part piece.

I have no great insider knowledge as to the whims and decisions made on Canadian TV -- but I’ve read enough articles and interviews to realize that no one does…not even those in the biz! (Often producers will claim to be just as blind-sided by a programmer’s decision as anyone).

Endgame and King are both crime/mystery series -- the latter a straight forward police drama, the former belonging to the quirky amateur detective genre. Both have humour and drama, both tell mysteries of the week yet have on going character/soap opera aspects, too. Rating-wise, both had erratic numbers that seemed to bob up and down, but were, at various times, within spitting distance of each other. All of which put them effectively on “the bubble”. In the case of King, the bubble held, in the case of Endgame, it was popped. One could well imagine that the network decision came down to “either/or”. Neither was necessarily a clear winner in the ratings race, but the brass was willing to gamble that one could build an audience.

That’s assuming they follow through -- Canadian TV has a history of executives announcing a series’ renewal (presumably to “prove” their commitment to Canadian programs)…and then (once the press have been distracted by the next shiny toy) never actually following through. I guess I’ll believe King’s been renewed when I actually see a second season!

To give a further illustration of how capricious is Canadian programming decisions, consider Showcase’s other hour long drama, the spy thriller XIII. Based on ratings I saw posted for a recent episode (assuming it wasn’t a typo) you could double XIII’s audience and still barely reach the bottom dip of King and Endgame’s numbers. Yet -- at the posting of this essay -- Showcase still hasn’t decided to cancel it. XIII is an international co-production, so there are other partners involved. But it does seem bizarre that Showcase cancels one series while still mulling over the fate of another series with significantly lower ratings!

Anyway, back to King and Endgame.

Actually, an interesting anecdote is that I was doing a little survey among a (small) group of people and found that far more had heard of Endgame (though hadn’t watched) than had heard of King. The size of my test group wasn’t large enough to really draw any broad conclusions but if we were to extrapolate from that -- it could be seen as a factor in King’s favour. It could be argued the audience hadn’t rejected King…merely they didn’t know it existed, and so it still has the potential to build an audience.

Looking at the Internet Movie Database (whatever that “proves”) is interesting. Endgame had the slightly higher fan rating, though King’s was perfectly respectable (and apparently the IMDB “weights“ the raw data to avoid tampering, which is just a fancy way of saying the posted rating average is actually lower than the true mathematical average, for both series). What’s more interesting is the amount of comments. Endgame viewers had posted a number of reviews, and various message board comments. At the writing of this, King had no posted reviews, and about one third the number of message board comments. The Endgame comments were generally enthusiastic. The King comments were mixed -- sometimes oddly so. I mean, not simply “this didn’t work for me” but veering into that “hate-for-hate’s-sake” thing that seems to happen on the internet, including bizarre comments about how “gross”-looking star Amy Price-Francis is. I mean, if you don’t find Price-Francis pretty, fine, to each his own -- but to suggest that you literally can’t watch the show because of it is, um, I literally can’t find the word for it. Deranged? Misogynistic? I’m hard pressed to think of anyone -- man or woman -- so repulsive that their appearance alone would prevent me from watching something they were in. Besides, neither King nor Endgame are Baywatch -- the attractiveness of the stars is a pleasant plus, but not really the crux of the characters or the drama.

Based on the message boards, the Endgame commentators seemed a little more civil, more erudite. Granted, because the commentators were generally in agreement, there was less opportunity for things to degenerate into name calling. But that may also relate to the nature of the shows. With its high concept premise, Endgame screams out for a cult fandom, the sort of people who tune in because they read/heard the premise and it piqued their interest, already pre-disposing them to be interested. King, being a more generic cop drama, is more likely to attract a more generic audience, warts and all, tuning in just because it’s another cop drama -- rather than because anything in the description specifically attracted them -- and therefore more likely to attack it because it isn’t like whatever cop drama (fill in the blank) they (individually) tend to like. The irony about the calibre of the comments is that I would actually suggest King is the edgier, more sophisticated series. I don’t mean that as a dig at Endgame. Endgame is, inherently, a “lighter” series -- albeit certainly veering into dark and provocative areas-- while King is a “mean streets” drama touching on social issues and human frailty. Consider: I like Castle and The Good Wife both, but I certainly wouldn’t see it as a criticism of Castle if someone were to say The Good Wife was more sophisticated.

Now although having a more devoted fan base might seem like a good thing, it’s not necessarily the clinching factor from a programmer’s point of view. There are lots of series that have been cancelled over the years because, though they had a fervent, devoted fan base…it just wasn’t a very large fan base.

I liked Endgame. But to be brutal…I think King is the better series. To put it succinctly: I didn’t like Endgame as much as I wanted to…and I liked King more than I expected to.

Of the two, Endgame was the more “high concept” and off-beat -- a series about a Russian chess grandmaster, Arkady Balagan, confined to the grounds of a fancy hotel due to severe agoraphobia, solving puzzling crimes. King, on the other hand, is just a police drama -- even the fact that the lead is a woman isn’t particularly unusual. In Canada alone we can point to past female-led cop dramas like Cold Squad and Blue Murder. So, as far as gimmicky premises are concerned, Endgame beat King -- and I applaud gimmicky premises.

Still, is it better to be off-beat and original in concept, even if uneven in execution, or to be a well put together production…of a fairly standard premise? Obviously, there’s no right or wrong answer to that. And that’s looking at it superficially, since originality can arise in the details. I mean, even though I suggest there’s nothing that original about King being a woman…the way the series uses her femaleness (with the sub-plot about her wanting to start a family, and asking herself whether she can “have it all” -- career, motherhood) I‘m not sure has been explored as much in other female-led cop shows where most of the scenes could’ve been re-written for a male lead without much effort.

Although King and Endgame belong to different sub-genres of the mystery milieu, making comparing them like comparing apples to oranges -- or at least apples to pears -- the two leads have some similarities, both meant to be the smartest character in the room (King isn’t just about a squad of middling-to-bright detectives methodically gathering evidence, like most cop procedurals -- Jessica King infers what others don’t). And in both cases, the hero carries him/herself with a certain arrogance that can ruffle the feathers around them, even as it entertains the viewer at home. Arkady Balagan and Jessica King aren’t just self-confident -- they're cocky. Yet it’s an arrogance tempered with compassion, and they do have friends among the regular cast of characters.

Interestingly, I could well imagine Jessica King being a character that would have more of an uphill battle to win fans than Arkady Balagan -- based simply on reactions I’ve seen to other female characters over the years. To chauvinistic males (and some females) they probably won’t like King because she’s smart, self-confident to the point of cocky, tough, flinty, and a bit of a “ball buster” -- in short, they would characterize her as a bit of a bitch. Yet I could equally imagine feminists dismissing her because she has emotional “girly” moments, a vulnerable interior beneath her tough shell, and because she has feet of clay. Her people skills could use work and though her professional behaviour is generally above board, her personal actions can be questionable. Like when her husband storms out on her, so she ends up falling into bed with a co-worker who has been crushing on her for many episodes -- and then brushes off said co-worker as she tries to patch things with her husband. Not exactly exemplary behaviour, nor treating either man fairly (though we can sympathize a little -- her husband was being a bit of an S.O.B.).

But that’s what makes Jessica King an interesting character, this mix of virtues and flaws. I often get the impression that audiences are more tolerant of feet-of-clay male heroes than feet-of-clay female ones, whereas I tend to go the opposite. I probably tolerate transgressions and vulnerabilities from a heroine (well, yes, a pretty heroine) I wouldn’t as much from a male hero. I mean, if a male hero had cheated on his wife, while taking advantage of a co-worker who had a long time crush on him, would he still retain my sympathy as a troubled hero…or would I just think he was a pig? Of course if it was a man, the writers might not have intended it as a character flaw -- in the TV series The Bridge, the hero was two-timing his girl friend, and I’m not sure the writers saw it as anything more than a vicarious fantasy!

Speaking of pretty…that’s another thought relating to female heroes. Yes, I’ll admit, I find Amy Price-Francis pretty -- granted, she’s rather, um, willowy, but I’m not suggesting they put out a Girls of King Swimsuit Calendar. I’m saying in the context of the show, my eyes stay riveted on her -- how much that’s her looks, making me like her performance, and how much it’s her performance, her delivery, making her attractive is the old chicken and egg debate that can never really be answered. But as mentioned earlier, some detractors were describing her as “gross” and ungainly and being unable to watch the series because of it. In other words, apparently such commentators feel a woman’s right to star in a TV series is directly related to how much they want to jump her bones -- not a factor, I assume, in their decision to watch a series with a male lead (though, maybe it is!) Now I’ll be perfectly honest -- I like a pretty face, and I can be aware that my enthusiasm for a production can be mitigated depending on whether I find the heroine attractive (though there have been many series where I start out finding an actress unattractive then, after a few more episodes, grooving to her performance and her character, I do start finding her attractive). But though it might tip the scale on a production I’m already waffling on, I certainly wouldn’t see it as the deciding factor. Nor, given how subjective such a thing as “looks” are, would I generally see it as a valid criticism of a production.

Still, such comments -- even if, hopefully, in the minority -- remind you there’s still a double standard for actresses and actors. Although, it could also play in an actress’ favour, too. With Endgame and King both on the bubble, maybe the Showcase executives -- assuming they were mainly male -- decided they’d rather spend another season looking at Amy Price-Francis than at Shawn Doyle! And sex appeal can be a factor with either gender -- certainly some of the favourable comments about Endgame seemed to be from female fans rather smitten with Doyle.

Still, that’s just looking at some of the surrounding fandom (and anti-fandom) for both shows. Endgame certainly seemed to have more fans, and more enthusiastic fans, than King -- though what that “proves” is unclear. Maybe King fans just don’t feel an inclination to go on-line and discuss it. And, as I say, some of the negativity toward King seemed a bit…bizarre (possibly even "Trollish", to use internet-speak). Sadly, I could well imagine the cancellation of Endgame will exacerbate that, as disenfranchised Endgame fans will see King as the villain responsible for the cancellation of their show.

The more fervent Endgame fandom is interesting because, personally, though I admired Endgame’s more individualistic premise, and I certainly think it’s a shame it was cancelled (and would be happy if the Save Endgame campaign succeeds) -- I liked King better and I thought it was more compelling. If only one can survive to a second season…I’m glad it’s King.

And next time, I want to delve into the two series themselves.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

July 24, 2011

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