By Cory Barker and Chris Roof
Test Pilot #62: The Nine
Debut date: October 4, 2006
Series legacy: One of ABC’s big-time post-Lost bombs
Hey there party people. Test Pilot is back with the fourth in our post-Lost failures series. If you happen to need a little refresher of what we’re doing in this theme:
Over the next few editions of this feature, my guests and I will discuss some of the shows that debuted in the aftermath of Lost with hopes of becoming The Next Lost. ABC’s 2004 island-based drama interjected life into broadcast television with a sprawling story with a large cast, flashbacks, mystery, and a grand narrative with hints of the supernatural around the edges. We know that television is a copy-cat business, and by the next television season, the networks were trying to replicate Lost‘s success with a slew of shows heavy on the mystery that hooked some Lost viewers, but mostly light in their focus on the characters and emotional stories that appealed to even more Lost fans (especially in the first season). Every season, there’s at least one show that tries to tap into some of the magic that made Lost such a big hit from the jump, and with few exceptions (the first chunk of Heroes episodes), viewers don’t buy it. But were all those shows actually as bad as the viewer and/or critical resistance made it seem? Or were we all just too close to Lost that it was hard for any other show to share a similar function?
We’ve finally moved on from that disastrous 2005-2006 season and into the next year with ABC’s second attempt to put a compelling serialized mystery show behind Lost, The Nine. This is, thankfully, our first pilot that’s not about an alien invasion, but that doesn’t mean The Nine is any less full of questions and confusing glances. Created by Hank and KJ Steinberg, The Nine presents us with the beginnings and the immediate aftermath of a 52-hour bank robbery gone awry. The show asks viewers to sympathize with the nine people directly involved in the ordeal as they try to put their lives back together, providing snippet flashbacks to the actual robbery to fill in some of the blanks and explain current behaviors. It’s a compelling idea in theory and critics were receptive to early episodes of The Nine. Unfortunately, viewers were not. Just seven episodes aired in that supposedly-comfy post-Lost timeslot and the others were burned off in summer, and eventually online. 2005-2006 showed us that viewers didn’t care about alien invasion stories with Lost-like elements; what did The Nine‘s failure show us?
Joining me today is Chris Roof. You can find Chris on Twitter and see some of his work at Voice of TV. He’s going to start us off because he actually remembers his original Nine viewing experience, unlike yours truly.
Chris: Let’s start out with a bit of full disclosure: I wasn’t a fan of Lost. I watched Lost from the beginning – the previews showed me a real life Survivor, where survivors had to find a way to survive and figure a way off this island. The show went on and when they started running from a cloud of smoke, I was out. I need some sort of realism in my shows and this was just too much.
Another disclaimer: the actors matter to me, in any and all shows. It is hard to get me interested in a show with a completely unknown, at least to me, cast. It’s also hard for me to hate shows that feature actors that I really like. Luckily for me, I don’t believe The Nine is a show that I “should” hate. The creators of The Nine tried hard to follow Lost’s casting direction: Party of Five alum: check; racially diverse cast: check. The draw for me was Boston Public’s Chi McBride, Raise Your Voice’s Dana Davis, and Prison Break’s Camille Guaty. I was in at the start since I am a big fan of crime-mystery stories. With this said, know that I was a fan of The Nine when it aired and re-watching the pilot made me want to binge right on through the series again.
If you read Noel’s part of the Test Pilot on Surface, he says that the reason Lost worked “was the characters and their pasts and those interactions that made the show interesting.” I honestly think that The Nine hit this aspect square out of the park. We get bits and pieces of backstory, but nothing is given away. We also have some preexisting relationships among the nine hostages: father-daughter, a couple, and sisters. The pilot skips over the 52 hours they were held hostage and go straight to the aftermath. A blown hostage negotiation. A death. A hero. Someone who can’t remember the past 48 hours. It’s all there and it is gripping.
The interesting thing here is not how the relationships change during the 52 hours, but why the change. The couple leaves questioning themselves after “just one moment,” supposedly talking about something that went on inside, now leading to Scott Wolf’s Jeremy kissing another hostage. Peter Billingsley’s Egan, who was planning on committing suicide that day, finds new life after being called a hero by reporters and co-workers. However, the pilot offers very little about the robbers’ plan. Is there a larger conspiracy at work? We know that the police want something covered up, since they offer one of their own that was a hostage (Tim Daly) a promotion if he keeps his thoughts to himself. Again no answers.
The show moves forward with flashbacks to the 52 hours inside the bank to tell the different stories of the hostages and why they are affected the way they are. I don’t hate the idea and it plays into what worked well for Lost. The difference is that Lost used pre-meeting flashbacks, were we are probably only going to get views from the time they were held inside the bank.
The pilot ends with the hostages meeting in a diner – a new ritual they started as a way to get through this together. Only one missing is Dana Davis’ Felicia, who we see visiting on of the robbers in prison before the episode ends. Is she connected to the crime? Does she just want answers for the 48 hours she doesn’t remember? It gripped me back then and it griped me again now.
As for why the show didn’t become anything close to a Lost-size hit is beyond me. As a fan of the “entire” run of the series, I was always intrigued with getting the answers, but the show did end up falling apart trying to keep the suspense and twists coming. I think that it had a lot of the central elements and structure that made Lost work and the pilot did a great job of getting you interested in the characters and story without giving really anything away.
The pilot did what it was supposed to do: set up a story in an intriguing subject matter and get viewers to talk about it, and ultimately come back for more. It did that and attracted 11.9 million viewers to the post-Lost premiere episode. While the story started to waver, as did the viewers and ABC ultimately pulled the show after seven original airings, leaving six unaired. It’s always a shame when shows with an idea and premise aren’t allowed to tell their story and now we’ll never know what happened to The Nine.
Cory: Every pilot brings its own problems to the air. Invasion, Threshold, and Surface ranged in quality and suffered because they came to be at the exact same time. However, one thing we can say about all three is that you could gauge what the show would be after watching the pilot. In some alternate universe, all three shows ran for multiple seasons, slowly unspooling different variations on the contemporary alien invasion story, complete with government conspiracies and all the body snatching we could want. At the pilot stage, The Nine is better than all three of those shows. It confidently breezes through an introduction of its principals and the actors do a fine job of embodying the PTSD of the robbery aftermath in the episode’s second half. The recognizable people in the cast are doing the things we recognize them for: Tim Daly is so Tim Daly, Scott Wolf is at his Scott Wolfiest, and Chi McBride’s hair is a thing of beauty. The pilot spends the right amount of time teasing the audience about what happened during the robbery without being smarmy about the secrecy of it all.
But what kind of show is The Nine? The flashback structure allowed the show to continuously cut back to little moments of the bank robbery, giving the audience tiny nuggets of info as to why characters had changed. That’s one of the more direct lifts from Lost that we’ve seen across the series in this theme. However, Lost had adult characters’ whole lives to flashback to (even if the show didn’t choose to); The Nine was almost exclusively interested in the 52-hour robbery. That’s a slim amount of time, and it shoots the level of difficulty up pretty high. In the post-pilot episodes, the show didn’t offer too many flashbacks into the robbery timeline. Part of that was obviously intended to keep up the mystery of what happened, but only so many things could have happened. Thus, The Nine offered a great hook with short-term dividends, but it almost immediately stopped being that interesting. They painted themselves into a corner with the premise.
In that regard, this feels like the first “true” Lost riff that we’ve watched over the last handful of weeks. Whereas those earlier alien invasion shows borrowed some moderate-sized elements, The Nine is more of a piece, especially on paper. The formula is there: Group of mostly strangers + big event * mystery/suspense + flashbacks = profit, or something. But the differences in the respective premises (location and genre mostly) meant that Lost always had the opportunity to go big, and weird. The island was immediately a massive space where all kinds of things could happen. The Nine offered us a single bank in the “real” world. Again, not the biggest canvas to play with. This show reminded us that big ideas don’t always work in the long-term, and sometimes they don’t even work after episode four of five.
Another thing The Nine taught us is that Lost fans simply didn’t care about other Lost-like shows. There’s no way to tell which Lost viewers tried out the alien invasion shows in the previous year, but a good chunk of them likely sampled The Nine in the early weeks and most of them were gone by November sweeps. ABC hoped that the lukewarm reception for Invasion was based on the show, not indicative of a larger fan disinterest in watching something else immediately after Lost. They were wrong, and they continued to be wrong even after The Nine was long-dead. In fact, ABC and The Nine lost out in 2006-2007 because Heroes grew into the first real post-Lost competitor, mostly because it avoided the air of suspense that was, at that time, obnoxious to fans frustrated with Lost‘s pace. As a result, The Nine seemed especially lame: its mysteries weren’t as compelling as Lost‘s, and there was this other shiny new thing that provided answers and did so in a fairly entertaining fashion.
Ultimately, The Nine probably would have worked as a miniseries. Yet, despite its problems, it was a total victim of wrong place, wrong time. It came on the air at the exact time that viewers had grown annoyed with Lost‘s lack of answers and perceived stalling tactics, and happened to air right after Lost. The comparisons were inevitable, and even more than the alien invasion shows, The Nine was hurt by its proximity to Lost. Of course it didn’t help that the show wasn’t good enough to overcome any of those comparisons, unfair or not.
Conclusions on legacy: Great pilot that set up a problematic, forgettable series
Previously on Test Pilot: Surface