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Why ''Wonderland'' is the latest TV programming miscue

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Why ”Wonderland” is the latest TV programming miscue

Two weeks ago, ”Wonderland”’s second episode crumbled in the ratings against a new episode of ”ER,” and ABC did what any supportive owner would do: It canceled the show. You have to wonder what ABC execs expected to happen when they pitted the complex, dark series against the No. 1 drama on television. Did the network think it was going to be an instant smash? That’s like pitting Verne Troyer against Mike Tyson and being surprised when Troyer’s head rolls out of the ring into your lap.

It defies logic that the networks repeatedly seem surprised when unique shows don’t do well instantly, and then panic and axe them posthaste. Why do they produce remotely edgy programming at all? If you’re going to be a chicken, do it all the way! Just put on all cheap crap all the time and nobody will miss it when it’s gone. But, dear networks, if you’re going to attempt to try something different, have the courage of your convictions and give these shows a chance, moving them if need be.

Last fall, Fox yanked ”Harsh Realm” after three airings when it suffered on Fridays. The network must have known it was a risky venture — it was complicated and serialized, so if you came late you might be hopelessly confused — but went ahead with it anyway, then gave up as soon as the ratings faltered. And while Fox gave its caustically clever ”Action” a whopping nine weeks, it was on Thursdays at 9:30 p.m., a time when people are trapped on NBC by Must See TV inertia. Why didn’t Fox try pairing it with ”The Simpsons,” which has an equally smart audience? And ”Freaks and Geeks,” while getting 11 episodes in two time slots on NBC, was never given the promotion or the chance to appeal to everyone’s inner outcast.

I’m not saying television has to be a charity case for quality; shows should be canceled if they’ve been given a fair air and still can’t find an audience. I will miss ”Sports Night,” but I respect ABC putting it on near-permanent hiatus after nearly two years with no ratings improvement: It’s not in the business of making sure an intimate group of Aaron Sorkin fans are kept entertained for life.

And there are situations where immediate cancelation has its benefits: ”The Mike O’Malley Show” was killed this fall after 2 episodes, which felt like 46 in bad-show years. And the fact that ”Daddio” has made it past two airings qualifies as a hate crime against audiences. (But why these shows got on in the first place is a different issue.)

But lame sitcoms aside, the quick slaughter of creatively unconventional shows has to stop, for the networks’ good as well as ours. Audiences are going to get tired of the old bait-and-switch as intriguing programs quickly vanish in favor of garbage, and they’ll jump to cable for good, leaving the networks feeling joyless and depressed. Maybe then they’ll know what it’s like to sit through ”Daddio.”

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