ABC just premiered its latest twist on the cop procedural format — a pretty fun show starring Jack Cutmore-Scott as Cameron Black, a stage magician who decides to use his talents to help the FBI solve crimes while also investigating a mystery of his own.
A magician doing illusions to solve crime is a fresh twist on the genre, Cutmore-Scott is a charming lead, the supporting cast is fantastic, and the magic seen in the pilot is really cool. But what’s this show titled? “Deception.”
That’s right, “Deception” — not to be mistaken for the 1946 film starring Bette Davis and Claude Reine, the 2008 film starring Ewan McGregor and Hugh Jackman, the 2013 NBC series about a lady detective investigating her childhood best friend’s murder, or countless other low-budget films over the years. “Deception” is a one-word title so generic and bland that by the end of this sentence, you’ll be re-reading the beginning of it to refresh your memory as to what the show is called.
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The generic one-word title is a disease that has infected more broadcast dramas in recent years — a bit surprising given the networks’ desire to cut through a saturated landscape filled with like-minded shows. To be fair, plenty of shows have succeeded under punchy monikers like “Lost,” “Revenge,” or “Scandal,” but that was perhaps in spite of their lukewarm titles. For every one of those hits, there are a half-dozen others that died on the vine. Remember “Notorious”? “The Evidence”? “Betrayal”? All of those shows aired on ABC in the last 10 years, and none of them made to a second season.
ABC is not the only offender here — in recent years we have also seen single-noun titles NBC’s “Awake” and “Allegiance,” Fox’s “Justice,” “Drive,” “Touch,” and “Vanished,” and CBS’s “Doubt” and “Intelligence.” (And among the pilots in the works for next season, CBS even has perhaps the most generic title of them all: “Murder.”) None of these shows were necessarily bad — in fact, many of them had a lot of promise. But it’s time for networks to acknowledge a simple truth: Audiences might have an easier time discovering shows if they were given something more to remember them than just a simple word.
Titles are surprisingly hard to come up with, and even catchy ones come with some risk — “The Good Wife,” for example, was memorable, but CBS execs lamented that it may have limited the show’s male audience. Meanwhile, “Cougar Town” creator Bill Lawrence famously beat himself up for that show’s name.
More recently at ABC, the network and producers couldn’t settle on a title for their “Grey’s Anatomy” spinoff until almost the last minute. (It’s now called “Station 19.”) “The truth of the matter is coming up with a title is one of the most challenging things that we do,” ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey told reporters in January. “When I was a young executive and we were about to launch ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ that was a show that famously didn’t have a title until literally right before the air.”
What’s frustrating about “Deception” is that many of the elements that are a part of the show would easily lend themselves to more interesting titles. Just consider the word “magic”! Dan Fienberg at The Hollywood Reporter has pitched the alternate title “Magic Castle,” which works on a number of levels but may ultimately be too meta to play. It is however better than IndieWire’s humble suggestion of “Magic Cop: The Cop Who Solves Crimes With Magic”… Seriously, we’re not saying we’ve got better ideas.
But what we do feel confident saying is that as critics swimming through a seemingly endless sea of new shows, anything that can help a show float to the surface is most welcome. “Magic Cop” is not a good title for a show, but at least IMDB.com registers it as relatively unique.
This is a problem that is very specific to the current state of television, where hundreds of shows compete for attention on a regular basis — blink, and Netflix will drop four new seasons of dramas for your consideration. So it’s not that a series can’t survive with a single-word label, but for god’s sake, creators, give your shows some help. Have fun with your titles! Maybe even dare to stretch to two words, if not three.
Coming soon from CBS is “Instinct,” which at least has the considerable charms of Alan Cumming working in its favor. Not working in its favor: The fact that it’s preceded by the 1999 Anthony Hopkins thriller “Instinct,” or the 2016 French drama “Instinct,” or countless short films and TV episodes.
Both “Instinct” and “Deception” are launching in the uneasy space of midseason, and godspeed to them. Because in a year’s time, we may struggle to remember not the shows were, but what we called them. Because titles do matter.