There are worlds, somewhere within this infinite multiverse, where genre television doesn’t get consigned to the Friday night death slot. Worlds where the most enjoyable shows don’t automatically receive critical acclaim and deadly low ratings. Worlds where promising and inventive genre television shows are allowed to find their legs and build an audience, rather than finding their fates determined by three episodes aired on two different nights of the week.
Those worlds are not this one. But, oh, if only they were.
In many of these alternate timelines, the fate of genre television diverged from that in our world decades ago. Somewhere, the original Star Trek wasn’t cancelled in 1969; there, the show ran an additional three and a half seasons until a tragic fire on the set killed William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. (The internet of that world is rife with conspiracy theories about that, by the way. The name “Leonard Nimoy” is to genre fans of that world what “Brandon Lee” is to the genre-flavored conspiracy fringe of this world.)
But I’m not interested in the worlds that diverged in the 50s, 60s, 70s, or 80s. I’m interested in the alternate timelines much closer to our own.
In our world, one genre show in the 90s managed to transcend the Friday night death slot and went on to become a major hit. The result, unfortunately, is that The X-Files cast a long shadow for many years. And that shadow is littered with the dessicated corpses of genre television shows that attempted to follow The X-Files programming formula, and which were executed for failing to catch the same lightning in the same bottle.
But what if network programming executives had recognized the success of The X-Files for what it was– a nonrepeatable fluke? What if they hadn’t spent years flinging genre shows at Friday night like a drunken knife thrower giving one last, wobbly performance on a skeevy carnival midway? What if the landscape of television ratings had never morphed into the razor-edged deathmatch it is today?
Let’s look at one world that diverged from ours in the early 1990s. In that world Friday night became a garden for good television, rather than the charnel house it became in our world.
1993 – 1999
The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. proves the perfect pairing for The X-Files. Together the shows dominate Friday night and genre television for two years. Brisco County grows successful enough to stand on its own, and thus it is moved to Tuesday nights in order to free up that precious hour prior to The X-Files. Brisco County, Jr. doesn’t perform quite as well in its new timeslot, but it still hangs on for two more satisfying seasons, finally closing in 1997 for a total run of 81 episodes.
(Unfortunately, the first and last Brisco County, Jr. convention is spectacularly unsuccessful owing to the unfortunate yet stubborn decision to call it “BrisCon”. The convention organizers lose their shirts.)
Strange Luck debuts in 1995. The quirky show is a confusing change for many regular viewers of the Friday night lineup, which makes for shaky ratings at first. But the audience grows (bolstered, of course, by the lead-in to The X-Files) to the extent that a second season becomes viable. However, the 1996-1997 season recasts the male lead away from D. B. Sweeney, by focusing on the adventures of Chance Harper’s long-lost brother. Strange Luck lasts another two seasons on Friday night before succumbing to cancellation in 1998 after 54 episodes It never achieves the kind of ratings needed to stand apart from The X-Files, but it does achieve a lasting form of pop-cultural relevance: the phrase “jelly canoe” improbably becomes a fixture in contemporary slang.
When Chris Carter’s next show, Millennium, debuts in 1996, programming executives are wary of breaking up the X-Files/Strange Luck combination on Friday night. (At the time, execs continue to look on Strange Luck as something with the potential to grow.) Instead, they choose to make a bid for control of the other side of the weekend. Millennium premieres on a Sunday night, and stays there for the rest of its three-season run.
Unlike the version of this show in our world, the tone and storyline of Millennium don’t undergo an abrupt shift at the top of the third season. Instead, the third season builds upon the bio-apocalypse witnessed at the end of the second season. This makes for a much more satisfying story arc for viewers invested in the supernatural underpinnings of Frank Black’s adventures. It does, however, make for a profoundly dark third season. Television audiences who squeamishly tuned in to Millennium‘s notoriously dark premiere season, and who hung around through the more disturbing twists of the second season, are finally turned away when the show becomes a supernatural, conspiracy-laden post-apocalyptic survival story.
The X-Files never moves to Sunday nights, even after the death of Millennium.
Carter’s next project, Harsh Realm, never gets off the ground after the creators of the eponymous comic book series threaten to sue Fox for development credit. They settle for an undisclosed sum. The amount of the settlement remains a closely guarded secret, but Carter’s development deal with Fox falters after the Harsh Realm incident.
2000 – 2008
The X-Files wraps in 2001 at the end of its eighth season. The series had begun to limp after the departure of David Duchovny, but its finale is regarded as a tour de force.
In September of 2002, the SciFi Channel (which, incidentally, never changes its name to SyFy in this alternate universe, nor does it ever air professional wrestling) issues no announcement about suddenly opting to withdraw funding for the fifth season of Farscape. The much beloved Australian-muppets-guns show lives on to a fifth and sixth season before coming to a bittersweet conclusion in 2005.
That same month sees the debut of Joss Whedon’s Firefly. The space western inherits the Friday night slot from the X-Files, and quickly becomes the 2000s’ answer to that show’s domination of 90s genre television. Ratings are strong from the pilot episode onward, helped possibly by genre fans missing their Friday night fix. The episodes of Firefly‘s first season are broadcast in the intended order. As a result, the viewing audience grows significantly over the course of the season.
Firefly runs for a total of 6 seasons, from 2002 to 2008. Christina Hendricks, whose character Saffron appears in two episodes of the first season and a pivotal four-episode arc in the second season, becomes popular enough to become a regular castmember in the third and fourth seasons. Hendricks’s spinoff series, Saffron, lasts for three seasons. Much as Angel spun off from Buffy, it starts strong but falters when the show never quite achieves the strength and originality of its progenitor.
Dead Like Me gets another 15 episodes for a third season in 2005, and 7 more episodes in 2006, for a total run of 51 episodes. The later seasons explore George’s relationship to the gravelings, and expands the role of Crystal, the Happy Time receptionist with special forces training on her résumé. No direct-to-DVD movies are ever made from the Dead Like Me franchise.
Journeyman debuts in 2007 and runs for 41 episodes over two seasons. Its modest success spurs nostalgia in time-travel television shows, thus leading to the release in 2009 of a deluxe boxed set of the entire Quantum Leap series on digitially remastered DVDs. That same nostalgia also leads to reruns of The Time Tunnel on late-night cable, but few people tune in.