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Puzzling demise of promising ‘Thief’

Times Staff Writer

Andre Braugher has been racking his brain, trying to figure out where “Thief” went wrong.

The 43-year-old actor won some of the best reviews of his career playing Nick Atwater, the slick, emotionally conflicted New Orleans con man in FX’s heist drama, which wraps its six-episode run Tuesday night. FX, home of such hits as “The Shield” and “Nip/Tuck,” heavily promoted the show. Test audiences raved about the pilot, Braugher said.

And yet “Thief” tanked anyway. As soon as he glimpsed the ratings for the second episode early last month, “I entered the grieving process,” Braugher said by phone last week.

Those who try to parse failure or success in Hollywood are reminded of screenwriter William Goldman’s famous dictum: “Nobody knows anything.” But given its many virtues, “Thief” has been an especially puzzling flop.

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Just 2.5 million viewers showed up for the March 28 premiere, according to data from Nielsen Media Research. That was a far lower figure than the debut numbers for “The Shield” (4.8 million), “Nip/Tuck” (3.7 million) and even last summer’s Iraq drama “Over There” (4.1 million), itself a disappointment. Then “Thief” shed nearly half its audience by the second episode.

What happened? Braugher and others close to the show have their own speculations. (Was there not enough action? Were Nick’s problems with Chinese mobsters adequately explained? Were viewers turned off by Nick’s ambivalent morality?) But some industry veterans wonder whether deeper forces are at work -- ones that might spell trouble for cable’s headlong push into scripted programming.

When FX’s gritty cop drama, “The Shield,” debuted in 2002, original series were still few and far between on basic cable (HBO’s push began in the late 1990s, with “Sex and the City”). But now, in a bid for higher ratings and increased fees from cable operators, nearly two dozen basic-cable networks have original series in some stage of development or production.

TNT, for example, is bringing back its hit cop drama, “The Closer,” in June, and USA Network has found some success with series such as “Monk” and “The 4400.” And then there are splashy, loudly publicized broadcast series: NBC premiered its own “Ocean’s 11"-style caper, “Heist,” the week before “Thief’s” debut. “Heist” bombed too.

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The sheer number of new shows makes it tough for even the good ones to stand out.

“The overabundance of scripted programming on broadcast and cable networks has made audiences mostly numb to it,” said Ted Harbert, president and chief executive of E! Networks, which today is announcing a slate of new shows that includes a reality series about Nick Carter, formerly of the Backstreet Boys.

Despite the glut, even Harbert is considering taking the plunge, mostly in hopes of adding a title that would help build buzz for E!'s reality lineup. “I’d love to have that special show like [HBO’s] ‘Entourage,’ ” Harbert said.

“I think we’re going to see more and more [ratings] erosion of the larger cable networks,” said Jack Myers, a longtime TV analyst and editor and publisher of the website Mediavillage.com. “Even the smaller networks are investing more money in programming.... Everyone is ramping up the game and competing with broadcast-type budgets.”

It’s not uncommon for dramatic series on cable these days to cost well more than $1 million per episode, Myers said, approaching the $2 million-plus price tags often seen on broadcast dramas.

That type of environment makes it easy for even highly acclaimed shows to slip through the cracks. Consider, for example, HBO’s “The Wire,” which despite endless hosannas from critics has never grown beyond its cult fan base.

Of course, none of that consoles the people who worked on “Thief.” FX executives and the producers have spent the past few weeks trading ideas about what happened. Executive producer and writer Norman Morrill called the show’s failure “heartbreaking.”

“Essentially, [viewers] didn’t like it,” Braugher theorized. “The audience saw something on pilot night that let them know they didn’t want to come back.”

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In fact, the audience was divided, at least according to comments posted on Internet message boards. Although reviewers mostly loved the series -- San Francisco Chronicle critic Tim Goodman included it on his list of “Best Shows You’re Not Watching” -- some viewers have complained that the storytelling has been confusing, especially a subplot involving a crooked cop, memorably played by Michael Rooker.

It’s worth noting, though, that a number of hit dramas, including HBO’s “The Sopranos” and ABC’s “Lost,” have occasionally faced similar accusations from frustrated viewers. Braugher has a different view. “ ‘Complicated’ is good, in my opinion,” he said.

FX will angle for the Emmy Awards with a lavish trade ad campaign focusing on Braugher’s performance and the fine reviews “Thief” received.

Meanwhile, Braugher, perhaps best known for his role as a detective on the mid-'90s cop drama “Homicide: Life on the Street,” is still looking for that breakout role as a series lead (his medical drama “Gideon’s Crossing” lasted one season on ABC). And he’s been reminded of the folly of asking the unanswerable.

“I’ve thought long and hard,” he said about “Thief’s” failure. “I’m still baffled.”


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