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Why the Middle Ground is Now a Cemetery: The Cautionary Tale of NBC's 'Crisis'

Photo of Liz Shannon Miller By Liz Shannon Miller | Indiewire July 7, 2014 at 3:21PM

Some TV shows burn brightly for a moment. Some enjoy a slow rise to infamy. And some just don't permeate the aether. NBC's "Crisis," which just quietly completed its first and only season, falls into that final category. But why?
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Vivian Zink/NBC Gillian Anderson and Rachael Taylor in NBC's "Crisis."

[Spoilers for "Crisis" through to the series finale follow. (Though you may not care.)]

Dearly beloved, we gather here today to remember a show that very few people have heard of, and fewer still watched. Some TV shows burn brightly for a moment. Some enjoy a slow rise to infamy. And some just don't permeate the aether. NBC's "Crisis," which just quietly completed its first and only season, falls into that final category. 

Of course, it's weird to say goodbye to a show that never really got a hello. Created by Rand Ravich and premiering this March, the series aimed itself at the sweet spot created by Fox's "24" in 2001 -- adult-leaning high-stakes drama, with decent action and plenty of plot twists. In theory, "Crisis" had a decent shot at being compelling television. Instead, by the end of its run, it'd become a bit of a sad punchline -- that is, if you'd heard of it all.  

There are plenty of reasons why you might not have heard about "Crisis" -- its Sunday night time slot was hugely competitive, and NBC never went full force with its promotion. However, the fact is that "Crisis" was not a terribly good show, trying to ape the current trend of complex cable dramas with the sensibility of broadcast television. 

But it was an awful lot of fun to explain to people, thanks to its extreme high concept and unique plot twists. After all, "24," despite the gimmick of its real-time format, was a relatively simple show to pitch: Someone's trying to assassinate a politician. Kiefer Sutherland has to stop them. (For flavor, add moles, nuclear bombs and hacksaws.) 

"Crisis," meanwhile, was layers more complex. Ostensibly focusing on a schoolbus full of teenagers, who are kidnapped because their parents include some of the most important people in the world, meant that most of the show's plot revolved around what those parents would do to save their kids. 

Elizabeth Sisson/NBC Jonathan Adams and Fredric Lehne in NBC's "Crisis."

But there was also some sort of conspiracy involving the military creation of super-soldiers, the uncertain involvement of Gillian Anderson's tough CEO character in said conspiracy, the CW-esque soap opera occurring amongst the kidnapped kids... It's the rare show that pairs a teen girl's need to cut herself with a near-war between China and the United States, but "Crisis" attempted to make it happen. 

"Crisis" didn't lack for talent on or off-screen -- Ravich had previously found interesting ways to tweak the cop procedural format with the well-made 2007 series "Life," and is thus also partially responsible for turning Damian Lewis from "that guy who was in 'Band of Brothers' and 'Dreamcatcher'" into "future Emmy-winning star of 'Homeland'." 

In addition, Anderson and Dermot "Needs a Better Haircut" Mulroney know how to lead a production, and the ensemble cast included a few teenagers who weren't terrible at acting. Conceptually, it's a package you can see working, though it turned out that people (especially the over-40 set who make up an increasingly large percentage of broadcast television's audience these days) aren't necessarily interested in a show that literally points guns at the heads of children. Every week. 

READ MORE: Why Gillian Anderson Is TV's Reigning Queen, Balancing Three Series

When "Crisis" premiered last March, only about 6.5 million tuned in, tying it with its lead-in, "Believe," whose only real star power was new Oscar winner Alfonso Cuaron. In retrospect, it's hard to say which show had the more difficult premise to explain -- "Believe" involved secret organizations and a little girl with psychic powers. But at least "Believe" focused on a man trying to protect the little girl. Its child fatality rate was much lower. 

The combination was an audacious experiment in simultaneously boring and confusing an audience.

If you didn't have children, watching "Crisis" wasn't emotionally damaging; in fact, for the right kind of person, it was kind of fun. Why? Because it wasn't a show you could easily write off as good or bad -- not campy enough to inspire giggles, not smart enough to engage higher brain function. "Crisis" was low-brow entertainment that had a lofty pedigree; it balanced an obsession with cliche and a complete lack of fear about the ridiculous. The combination was an audacious experiment in simultaneously boring and confusing an audience; I personally tuned into each episode largely to see what would happen next -- though not necessarily in a good way. 

(Fun fact: If you post enough about "Crisis" on Facebook, at least one friend will assume that you are engaged in a complicated form of performance art. That friend might not, technically, be wrong about that.)

Most of "Crisis"'s most compelling twists lacked any real emotional engagement, as they tended to come from the afore-mentioned super-solider conspiracy plot line, which proved too improbable to engage with. Meanwhile, the most shocking moment of the season, by far, came at the end of Episode 9, "You Do Not Know War," when one of the kidnapped teens is killed. And in a television environment where someone can be fed the meat of their own legs, or have their head crushed like a grapefruit, shooting a teenage kid in the back just isn't going to build any buzz. 

Also, the shock value of that moment honestly originated more from the fact that after dancing around the implicit threat of the show's premise for over half the season, the kidnappers had made good on their promises. The entire season, there'd been some effort to make the kidnappers vaguely sympathetic -- which is where we get to the real heart of the problem. 


Elizabeth Sisson/NBC Stevie Lynn Jones and Dermot Mulroney in NBC's "Crisis."


The relationship between Thomas Gibson (Dermot Mulroney) -- who secretly organized the kidnapping, while posing as a chaperone caught up in the crisis -- and his estranged daughter Beth Ann (Stevie Lynn Jones) was clearly meant to be a focal point of the show. All season long, Beth Ann is kept in the dark about the fact that her father is behind the kidnapping that's made captives of her and her friends, because the scheme is not just a way for Gibson to act out his own agenda, but reconnect with his daughter. 

It turns out, there's a difference between being a sympathetic anti-hero and being wishy-washy. After Gibson shoots Jin Liao (Rammel Chan) when his parents fail to cooperate with his schemes, he's then overtly distraught about how Jin's parents "made him do it." When Walter White says something like that, you don't believe him but you're not expected to; when Gibson tries to justify his actions, the only suitable response is an eyeroll.  

It's a final scene between Gibson and his daughter that provides the dramatic climax for the series finale; one that makes you realize how, in the long run, "Crisis" had set out to be a show about parents and children and the complications of that relationship. However, what could have been an intriguing emotional core got buried under too many complications; there may just not be a middle ground between teen romance and government conspiracies and family drama and high-stakes action.  

There are plenty of shows that somehow manage to survive without ever penetrating the mainstream. NBC just renewed recent summer launch "The Night Shift" for a second season; TNT and TBS and USA have no shortage of original series that have been on the air for years. ("Falling Skies," the Noah Wyle-vs.-the-aliens show? Season 4 just premiered.) There's no real telling what will and won't find enough of an audience to be seen as sustainable to a network. But as "Crisis" now slips out of the public memory, its episodes on Hulu quietly expiring, it remains an example of what happens when you try too much, but not hard enough.  

This article is related to: NBC , NBC, Crisis, Gillian Anderson, Dermot Mulroney, Dermot Mulroney