Why nobody watched Terriers

There's one reason I'm smiling and you're not.

I've watched the next three episodes of Terriers. I've watched tonight's episode, by the always incredible Tim Minear. (It's the episode Donal Logue hyped excitedly to me months ago.) I've watched next week's episode, which delivers a "Oh holy sh--" moment that will leave you scrambling for the pause button, just to let it sink in. And I've watched the finale. I could have watched the finale in an oxygen-free environment, because I held my breath the entire time.

And while Shawn Ryan's series finale of The Shield was the best series finale I've ever seen, Terriers brings itself to a close in that vintage Shawn Ryan way: satisfying, gut-wrenching, and perfectly poetic.

All said, Terriers is the best new show that aired this fall. It may be the best show that aired this fall, period.

And yet, the season finale, in all likelihood will be a series finale. The ratings just aren't there. The American public, at large, has not been watching Terriers. Rather than calling the American public names for not enjoying Terriers enough, though, I decided to figure out why, exactly, this show never became a hit.

I ruminated on it, asked various critics on Twitter, listened to what stars Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James had to say when they swung by Gonzaga University earlier this year, and these are the conclusions I came to:

1) The Name

You hear the word Terriers. You learn that it's a TV show. You don't know what the show is. If you had to take a wild guess, you'd guess that it was a quirky comedy about dog-catchers. The name is the first thing you hear about a show when you see it on the TV guide or in advertisement. A name should make you say hmmm... in other words. Not whaaaattt? ---

The notion, supposedly, is that a terrier is a small, scrappy, tenacious dog that will dig and dig and dig. Just like our small, scrappy, tenacious protagonists. But that connection is only alluded to in the show itself. The viewer is left confused, exactly, about what the show is about. A problem that was only further muddied by....

2) The Marketing

If you have a counter-intuitive title, that's okay — you can run AGAINST that title. "The Sopranos" was a counter-intuitive title. But Sopranos, brilliantly, turned the "R" in its title into a gun. Instant connection with violence.

The first teasers for Terriers, however, featured, well, a terrier. A terrier that isn't even in the show. Congratulations, Terriers. You've done exactly what any effective ad campaign would have been running away from.

When we sat down at the Davenport when Terriers began its run, Donal Logue (who plays Hank) expressed frustration with the marketing. He was careful to say he trusts the FX marketers — after all, they've produced some pretty effective ad campaigns. But Terriers is not one of these. It began with a confusing campaign Terriers may never recover from.

Kurt Sutter, of Sons of Anarchy, suggests relaunching the show next year under a completely different name and a new ad campaign. That's a pretty risky move. But the show is good enough that it just might work. The fans that like Terriers will watch it, no matter the name.

3) The serialization was put too far on the backburner

Serialization — having ongoing plots that go from episode to episode — can hurt a casually viewed show on a broadcast network. But on cable shows, especially FX shows, it's something that many viewers crave. They want to know the story is ongoing. They want to know that there's something more substantive, something worth following.

But watch the Terriers pilot. Then watch the second episode. There are seeds of serialization, but the casual viewer has no way of knowing if they'll ever truly bloom. The true strength of Terriers was not the overarching crime plots — Terriers never did that as strongly as The Shield. No, it was in the serialization for the characters. It was how Hank struggled with seeing his ex-wife — whom he still loved — marry another man. It was Britt's heart break when he finds out his fiancee cheated on him. Those all sound like cheesy plot-points when they're reduced to text. But they way they are played was intimate, raw and powerful.

4) It's about poor people

TV is the land of the wealthy. It's about lawyers in swanky suits. It's about doctors with large egos and large checkbooks. It's about New York journalists who somehow manage to live in luxurious penthouses. Even the cops and detectives — who should be poorer than they're portrayed — have nicer houses and clothes than they would have in real life. When they're not rich, they're upper middle class. 

There are poor people sure. They're the criminals. Or, in My Name is Earl, the punchline.

The O.C. and Gossip Girl got pretty decent ratings, while Friday Night Lights floundered, partly because we care about the gossipy drama of the rich more than the poor.

But Britt and Hank, in Terriers, don't just receive lower-middle class wages — they act like they do. They wear flannel and motocross shirts. They drive a beat-up pickup truck and eat at a crappy diner. They look a little itchy in a suit and tie.

Maybe it's just that we, as a society, think the rich have more at stake than the poor. And thus, make for more compelling drama.

5) It started too light for an FX show

Most FX shows start badly for our protagonists, and then get worse. Most USA shows, by contrast, begin in a light and silly place, and get even sillier. But Terriers began in a place that was shaggy and groovy. And things went dramatically downhill from there. 

That's a fantastic strength to the show. Tragedy for our characters is so much more compelling if they have something to lose. There's a true arc to the show. It starts comic and light, and goes gut-wrenchingly dark. It sets up the status quo, and then obliterates it.

But TV viewers don't want to sit through a so-so status quo. We saw that with Dollhouse. And we saw that with Terriers.

In a time where TV families flocked around Columbo and other shaggy detective stories, and on a network where those were expected, Terriers would have been a show that started out as popular, and then stunned audiences — in a good way — when things got depressing and serious. But now, it's a show that, by the time it got great, nobody was watching.

6) Americans like their protagonists off-white or dark, dark gray, not light gray

The protagonists of Terriers aren't villainous, like Vic Mackey or the Sons of Anarchy or Walter White or Tony Soprano. And they're not white-hatted heroes who occasionally break the rules for the greater good, like Jack Bauer or Michael Westen. Worse, the chaps from Terriers are losers.

We don't mind a classy scoundrel. We love Don Draper. We don't mind a successful misanthrope. We love Dr. House.

But a guy that stalks his ex? A guy who's struggled with alcoholism but is now uncool enough that he got sober? That's not criminally cool. That's criminally pathetic.

Terriers makes the very risky choice to ask you to root for two characters not because they're perfect or super-cool or ruthlessly badass, but because they're two decent-hearted people who sometimes screw up. They ask you to root for the cast of Terriers like you root for your struggling friends, instead of how you root for sexy doctors or grizzled action stars.

Television shows that do that — like Terriers, like Friday Night Lights — will always struggle in the ratings.

Because of all this, Terriers probably won't get renewed. But it certainly deserves to.

Follow @danieltwalters on Twitter for constant streams of TV opinions and angry ranting when his favorite shows get canceled. Damn you, ABC Family! 

Previous Inlander Terriers Coverage: 

Our review of the first episode

Inlander, Gonzaga host Terriers TV stars

Terriers Unleashed: How Spokane became the first stop on two TV stars’ quest to save their show

Spokane is the first stop of the Terriers Pickup Truck Tour