Dawn of the Dead

Sci Fi's brilliant good vs. evil is a corpse in search of a burial

May 10, 2000 at 4:00 am
This was to be a column extolling the daring and inventiveness of a very groovy Sci Fi Network television show called good vs. evil, in which two dead men, a fro-sporting, cool-spouting brutha and his pale-faced partner, try to save the souls of those who have made Faustian deals with the devil's minions, among them Emmanuel "Webster" Lewis and LeAnn Rimes. This was to be a column exhorting viewers to tune in on Friday nights, to catch the last remaining must-see show of the 1999-2000 season, lest it suffer the same fate as Freaks and Geeks and Action and Wonderland, all aborted by their respective networks long before those shows had run out of episodes to air. Right now, good vs. evil garners one million viewers a week, barely enough people to keep a commercial on the air for long.

Instead, this will be a column lamenting the death of that very same television program. This Friday the final new episode of good vs. evil will air. The show -- a loving, hysterical, intelligently goofy homage-parody of 1970s cop shows and supernatural thrillers that looks like Starsky and Hutch, sounds like Shaft and feels like Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- will then disappear without an epitaph or a tombstone or even a little hug. It will bid a shrug of a farewell before viewers even have a chance to say hello. The demons have had their way: The good guys are dead.

Or perhaps not. It seems no one associated with the show, from network execs to the show's creators to its stars, can agree on what is to become of good vs. evil. A publicist at Sci Fi insists the show has not yet been canceled, that its fate "is still up in the air" -- to be determined, she says, by the network's programming executives. Jonas Pate, an indie filmmaker who created the show with his 30-year-old twin brother, Josh, says he will know if Sci Fi is going to order more episodes of good vs. evil "within the next two weeks" when the networks, big and small, announce their fall lineups. Call back on May 15, he says, and there oughta be an answer.

All of this comes as news to Clayton Rohner, who plays the late journalist Chandler Smythe, one half of good vs. evil's undead-cop duo. (His partner is Henry McNeil, played by Richard Brooks, better known as Assistant District Attorney Paul Robinette on Law & Order during its first three seasons.) When told the show allegedly is not yet buried, Rohner can't decide whether to laugh or cringe. So he does both.

"We're canceled," he says -- or, actually, moans. "We've been canceled for weeks. I don't understand what that's about. I don't know why they're all holding on to this hope. I feel really weird telling you this, because I don't understand why they're maintaining this posture that the show might be picked up. But I've been released. I've been told to look for other work. So has everybody else." Rohner, during this interview, is playing the stock market in his Hollywood home. For now, that's how he pays the bills.

Rohner wants to make it clear that he is not bitter about the fate of the show; business is business, after all. He respects Sci Fi for even airing the show, adores the Pates and hopes to continue working with them, and insists good vs. evil was the best experience of his professional life, which has included stints on ABC's Murder One, Hill Street Blues and the 1985 teenybopper movie Just One of the Boys. Rohner says he loved the show so much, he filmed the pilot for a lousy 50 bucks.

But he is operating under the assumption that Sci Fi has decided not to order more than the 22 episodes already in the can. Fans of good vs. evil, a show Jonas Pate describes as riding the line between "lowbrow and highbrow," are also mourning its premature demise. One Web site, www.cleya.com, maintained by a 29-year-old Maryland schoolteacher who has cultivated friendships with the show's actors, bears this notice: "I have just received word that GvsE/good vs. evil is not to be renewed. While not completely official yet, my source is 99.99 percent sure." It's probably a good bet, since Sci Fi has already torn down the show's sets.

"Maybe I'm fired from the show, and nobody wants to tell you," Rohner says. "Hey, nobody hopes this show gets picked up more than little ol' me. Boy, I sure hope we come back, because my girlfriend wants me to build a new addition to the house, and I can't afford it otherwise, so I am prayin', prayin', prayin'."

So is his partner. "Right now, I think we need a miracle," says Brooks, who recalls that Law & Order wasn't a hit on NBC until the A&E network began airing reruns. "We need people to get behind it. It's a weird thing, because being on Sci Fi, you almost need to advertise on networks. Letting people know about the show is really the big thing. Twenty-two episodes isn't enough. This show needs more time, because you're not just trying to find an audience, but you're trying to get people used to discovering new shows."

It may be too late for that.

If the show is indeed a goner, it's simply one more nail in the coffin that is watchable television. The naive among us have long assumed that since the Big Four networks (CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox) no longer care about presenting us with smart, challenging programming, we would find our pleasures elsewhere -- say, among the 170 channels on satellite, where art allegedly is less susceptible to the evils of commerce. After all, the best shows on television exist on HBO (The Sopranos), Comedy Central (The Daily Show, South Park), the Food Network (Iron Chef), the Cartoon Network (Powerpuff Girls) and Bravo (The Awful Truth). Take off Friends, King of the Hill and The Late Show with David Letterman, and the Big Four might as well air nothing but static and a laugh track. People would still watch.

But as it turns out, not even the fringes can provide a safe haven for the artistically ambitious. Sci Fi is owned by USA Cable, which, in turn, is run by Barry Diller, the former Paramount and Fox exec who launched the Home Shopping Network before becoming chairman of USA in 1998. And one source close to good vs. evil says Diller was never a very big fan of the show and that his attitude toward the show led to its demise, even though Stephen Chao, president of USA Cable, is an enormous fan. Indeed, Chao took the show from Sci Fi, where it was supposed to debut last summer, and made it the flagship show on USA Network, another of USA Cable's properties. But when Diller's disdain for the show became apparent, the network's execs (who couldn't be reached for comment) tanked it by moving it around with little promotion. If nothing else, killing off the low-rated show would save the network, which owns good vs. evil, a hell of a lot of money -- $800,000 an episode, to be precise.

When the show debuted on USA Network on July 18, 1999 -- after WWF's Sunday Night Heat, no less -- it garnered the network's highest-ever ratings for a brand-new program: a 2.7 rating, or about 2.6 million viewers. But the ratings fell steadily, and USA executives panicked, fearing that the wrestling audience had tuned in for a couple of weeks and decided they hated the show (presumably because it was in English). The network then moved the show out of its 7 p.m. Central time slot and moved it to 9 p.m. -- without warning, otherwise known as killing a show without having to pull the plug. USA ran 13 episodes of the critically adored show, originally titled GvsE, then suddenly stopped.

The fact is, good vs. evil has already been canceled once. In December, when USA yanked the show from its lineup, the network claimed it was "on hiatus," which is like saying an overdosed actor is in the hospital suffering "from dehydration." In January, the network announced it was moving the show back to Sci Fi and that it would "debut" the series by airing the nine episodes that never showed up on USA. But when good vs. evil relaunched on March 11 with a new name and nine more episodes, it did so with no fanfare. Those who found the show on Sci Fi most likely did so by accident.

"The show was originally for Sci Fi, and then when they saw the first couple of episodes, they decided they were going to push it on USA and make it more of a flagship show for them, more than we ever conceived it as," says Jonas "Jay" Pate. "We always thought it was a cult show that aired at 11 p.m. on Sci Fi. I think it's a little bit of an acquired taste. You don't want to present it as your bread and butter. You have to let the audience find it. So in a way, I feel like it's now where it always should have been in the first place. I'm happy it moved, and I wish we had never gone to USA. I feel like it's just a different audience than one that watches wrestling and Walker, Texas Ranger."

Yeah -- one that speaks in grunts, and one that speaks in complete sentences.

"I didn't want to say it," Pate says, softly.

If the show is indeed banished from the airwaves, it makes little sense for several reasons, foremost among them, Sci Fi actually owns good vs. evil, which is a bargain to produce (most hour-long network series run in the millions per episode; a single ER runs NBC $8 million to $9 million). Sci Fi leases the rest of its lineup -- which features foreign productions (Lexx, about a female sex slave trapped on a penis-shaped spaceship) and mediocre syndicated fare (Xena, Hercules, Friday the 13th) -- for an average of only $150,000 per episode. That means Sci Fi and USA could run the hell out of good vs. evil without having to worry about spending extra money; it could schedule the show every day in hopes of finding its audience. But the network airs the show at the worst possible time: Friday nights at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. Central time, meaning the audience it hopes to attract probably ain't home to see it.

Worse, says Pate, is the fact USA Network "spent no money on marketing the show at all." He adds, "Our hope would be something like the South Park phenomenon in the very beginning -- we could just spark something that would catch on. And that's their thought, too, so that's why they won't spend any money on marketing. They think any lightning that it will strike will strike on its own."

But Pate isn't resentful; quite the opposite. He and his brother are itching to get back to making features, and even if the show does return, they will hand over its day-to-day operations to another producer. And the brothers are waiting to get the go-ahead from Sci Fi for another series, one that "might have a better shot at attracting a wider audience than good vs. evil," Jonas says. Perhaps he and his brother are resigned to the inevitable. Henry and Chandler may have returned from the hereafter, but their show likely will not.

"I just want to know what will we do if this show is really canceled, which I can't get a definitive answer to," Rohner says. "You can get a definitive "we don't know.' That's the question: Is it canceled? Is it not canceled? It's like asking someone, "Do you like me?' and having them say, "Well, I don't hate you.' What does that mean?"

Son, that means you're probably dead.