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Farewell Night Sky

I finished watching Night Sky on Amazon—the eight-episode first season—and I mean finished. The show was canceled before I even started watching.

This left me wary as I became invested in the characters—knowing how frustrated I would be at the finale. And sure enough, it was a cool cliffhanger and yeah, I’m hurt. (Spoilers over at screen rant.)

Counterpart—also starring J.K. Simmons—was one of my favorite shows of the last 10 years, and it got canceled, although at least after two seasons. It was so smart, but also so emotionally frosty, that I could see that one coming.

Raised by Wolves was fascinating, albeit kind of confounding, but truly had a vision—one we’ll never get to experience. (Farewell, wacky planet! Sayonara, robot parents!)

There was a really cool Netflix show called I’m Not Okay With This. It was so sharp and entertaining that it was quickly renewed—and then during the pandemic Netflix said, “Just fooling, it’s canceled.”

So yeah, I feel burned.

And I know this happens a lot in pop culture.

When I was watching Night Sky, I did a bit of “blaming the victim”—looking for areas where the show was deficient, and deserved to be canceled.

By the end I was glad I had watched it, and genuinely disappointed I will never be able see more of it. It was beautifully and tastefully made. Farewell, Irene and Frank!

My wife asked, “Why was this canceled?” And I don’t know, exactly, but it was probably too expensive for the viewers it brought in.

Why didn’t it bring in more viewers?

That I think I can answer.

First, the show set up a super cool concept: a mysterious chamber that can teleport you to another world. Great—aliens! And executed in a really grounded, graspable way.

But the show didn’t lean into the aliens. It was about the elderly couple—played by national treasures Sissy Spacek and J.K. Simmons—who found the chamber in their backyard two decades ago, and periodically use it as they grieve the death of their adult son.

So we wanted to se more about the aliens—but the writing and acting with the elderly couple was so sensitive, it was easy to get invested in their lives...even though the tone seemed to imply this was going to be taking its sweet time to get back to the aliens. But, okay.

Then, in the second episode, we meet a mother and her teenager daughter in Argentina.

This starts the show’s narrative engine: the mother and daughter are part of a secret society having to do with the teleportation chambers. There is an “apostate,” who they have to hunt down and kill, and he has taken refuge with the old couple. (What I just told you took at least three episodes for the show to make clear.)

So now we’re not doing the alien stuff, or even the elderly couple, really—but a secret-society show: good guys, bad guys, abductions, searches and assassinations.

But it wasn’t 24. It was really...really...slow.

Still, it was so grounded, it was theoretically workable. Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul takes its time to do anything, but is so finely observed, we’re happy to watch somebody scrub a fridge for five minutes. (At least, I am.)

But Night Sky committed a cardinal sin which I wrote about last week: it withheld crucial pieces of information from the viewer.

When we watch a detective story, we follow the detective. We know what he knows. We want what he wants—to find the answers. And because he’s investigating what we want to find out, doggedly overcoming obstacles on our behalf, we’re with him.

But if the detective withholds information from the audience...well, there is precisely one movie that gets away with this: Presumed Innocent.

That was a miraculous case where a story worked with a passive protagonist: one who withheld the fact that he had been having an affair with the victim (!).

It worked because it was so original—and so brilliantly written. The “voice” was so strong.

And it also emulated the way we, the audience, were like jurors in a trial—first we got one side of the story, then the other. We had to judge for ourselves what really happened.

Needless to say, this was a major thematic connection to A STORY THAT WAS ABOUT A MURDER TRIAL.

In Night Sky, there are multiple characters who we are clearly meant to follow, but they withhold—to a preposterous degree—who they actually are or what they want.

So you’re sort of invested in them, but you’re kept at a distance. You’re left parsing these little bread crumbs—and it’s frustrating.

Why do writers do this? Probably because it’s a cheap and easy way to gin-up suspense. (There is a lot of suspense when you don’t understand why anything is happening.)

But it’s the wrong kind of suspense.

Maybe the origin of this in television was Mad Men? It was a huge surprise, and one of the show’s main narrative engines, that the protagonist, Don Draper, wasn’t who we thought he was or claimed to be.

But Don was so repressed, it thematically connected to the show: because of the age in which he lived, Don/Dick was a wreck who was terrified to accept who he really was. That’s what the Mad Men era did to masculinity.

And it, too, was executed with a genius level of “voice.”

So...Night Sky. I really did enjoy it. It was beautifully made. I am disappointed I’ll never get to see more of it.

And, with all due respect, I think it fell 25% short in engaging the audience in order to be renewed.

It’s just a super hard thing to do, write and produce great television—and I sure wish I had the chance. Would I do any better? I don’t know, I would just have to try my best, which I am sure the creators here did.

My congratulations to the cast and crew for a lovely show, and my condolences that it ended far too soon.

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