I’m committed to my Rule of Three. It’s a rule I installed where I don’t quit after a miserable pilot. Instead, I watch 3 episodes before judging a show. This way, I can sufficiently observe a show’s improvement or mediocrity. I don’t often break that rule. Well, until this past week.
Kicking & Screaming premiered to dismal numbers. Surprising…no one (Photo Credit: ScreenerTV / FOX)FOX premiered reality series Kicking & Screaming this week. 20 survivalists (from war heroes to man-vs-nature types) are paired with 20 precarious individuals (from pretentious housewives to privileged artists) to guide them through amateur summer camp activities, which would only be challenging to remotely incapable human beings. The first challenge had contestants overcoming their fear of…fish. By the 30-minute mark, the highly-functional survivalists had to deal with partners who had brought all white clothing (who brings white clothing to a camping trip?), tripped over dirt, and got a stick up their butt.
Yes. Someone got a stick up their butt. And needed help removing it. That’s just Day 1, people.
Not long ago, FOX was the best place to watch reality TV. You know American Idol, and you know X Factor. Remember Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? So You Think You Can Dance? Masterchef? Kitchen Nightmares? These reality series killed, or at least lasted a long time. But it wasn’t just the big shows making a name for FOX, but the crazy premises which accompanied them. Joe Millionaire pops to mind right away: a Bachelor-like show about a millionaire looking for love among the contestants…only to reveal at the end he’s the exact opposite of a millionaire. I Wanna Marry Harry and My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé: these were terrible premises you could not look away from. They were crazy, they were gutsy, and they were the definitive FOX brand. No one else created shows this adventurous. Sure, some series didn’t land, but some paid off big: Joe Millionaire’s finale was the most-watched episode of 2003 at the time. And freaking Survivor was on the air.Frankly, the only reason to watch this show is when host Hannah Simone (Cece from New Girl) gives an aside comment about the contestants, which almost make the show worthwhile. Then you see a girl get a stick up her butt. And then you start questioning. No, not the bad choice of contestants. A far more curious, important question: What the hell happened to FOX?
FOX landing reality shows for the general and the niche audience was a strategy largely thanks to Mike Darnell, FOX’s then-President of Alternative Programming. Known as a legend in the industry, his reality shows had a flair and flash desired across demographics. In Darnell’s final three seasons of his tenure, Darnell turned out X Factor, Mobbed (creating different types of flash mobs), and Does Someone Have To Go (about low-level employees deciding who to fire among themselves). But since Darnell left, FOX turned out American Grit (America Ninja Warrior with emotions), Masterchef Junior, Coupled (Tinder: The Dating Show), Riot! (the worst version of Whose Line?), My Kitchen Rules (Masterchef with paired celebrities), and Kicking and Screaming (Survivor with no stakes). Darnell’s strategy was giving audiences both a great reality series and a series you could not see anywhere else. But lately, FOX has been producing reality series we’ve literally seen everywhere.
Perhaps FOX saw something to the familiar. For years, networks tried to remake popular shows. From Friends, the best networks could do was How I Met Your Mother. From Seinfeld then came Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO) or It’s Always Sunny (FXX). Walking Dead (AMC) came Z Nation (SyFy), Doctor Who (BBC) came The Librarians (TNT). Heck, House of Cards (UK) came House of Cards (US).
But FOX was always different from the other networks, and thrived from shaking things up. They shocked the TV industry by outbidding CBS for their NFL rights in 1993, a program CBS had for 50 years. They single-handedly changed the landscape of the network comedy with fresh content like Married…with Children, The Simpsons, and Frankie in the Middle. It was the fresh perspective which put MADtv on the air, place Late Night hosts at 10pm, and gave way to FOX’s distinctly unique reality TV tone they were known for in the 2000s.
But today, FOX over-promotes its own sports network, commits to their aging comedies, and create safe reality TV shows. FOX has lost its identity, and audiences have taken notice. FOX finished 3rd last year for the 2015-16 Primetime TV Season, barely squeaking by ABC. The season before, FOX was dead last, even with the freshmen success of Empire. FOX would have been 3rd again for the 2013-14 season if not for the Super Bowl bolstering dismal numbers.
Low numbers and a lost identify has hindered FOX over the years. But there is some hope. Barely, but some.
Last week, FOX released a trailer for their newest reality TV show: You the Jury. While we’re unsure for now whether the cases are real, the show will let real-life prosecutors and defendants tackle a high-end issue in front of a real judge. Then, America votes for which side won the argument. Two sides arguing a point is nothing new, but this type of show taps into the zip the network once had. It’s different. It’s controversial. It’s exactly what’s missing from the FOX brand.
Watching Kicking and Screaming say goodbye to the eliminated Atlanta truck driver, part of me was hoping I was also saying goodbye to FOX’s lack of alternative creativity. With new hire Rob Wade becoming FOX’s first President of Alternative Programming since Mike Darnell left 3 years ago, perhaps Wade can usher back the unique, the catchy, and the irreverent FOX we want and desperately need.
Because I’d honestly take a stick in the butt over another episode of Kicking & Screaming.