How a TV Show Escapes Cancellation

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Feb. 19 2013 8:15 AM

How To Save Your Own Show’s Life

The producers of ABC’s Body of Proof had a choice: Change the series or get cancelled.

Dana Delany as Megan Hunt in Body of Proof
Dana Delany as Megan Hunt in Body of Proof

Courtesy of ABC

Warning: This story spoils plot points and casting details for the season premiere of Body of Proof.

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

When ABC’s medical-examiner drama Body of Proof returns for its third season Tuesday night, it will look very different from the program that went off the air 10 months earlier. Like NBC’s Smash, which undertook some high-profile hirings and firings between seasons, it has been retooled. Though Body of Proof’s behind-the-scenes drama hasn’t been quite as over-the-top as on that show, an interview with executive producer Matthew Gross demonstrates the lengths that producers will go to save a show on the brink of cancellation.

The first 17 episodes of Season 2 earned solid but unremarkable ratings. Then, according to Gross, the network gave the show’s creative team an ultimatum: “They said: ‘We’ve changed your lead-in five times this year. Now you’re going to be behind Dancing With the Stars. These next three episodes are what we’re going to use to gauge whether we pick you up.’ ” Setting out to end Season 2 with a bang, Gross and his team came up with “Contagion,” a two-parter in which an eco-terrorist unleashed a deadly virus on Philadelphia, and “Mind Games,” a nail-biter of a finale in which a serial killer targeted the show’s lead, Medical Examiner Megan Hunt (Dana Delany).

Those tense, action-oriented episodes (and the Dancing lead-in) provided the boost the network was looking for: Each drew around 10 million viewers, compared with the 7 million or so earlier episodes had pulled in, including significantly more of the 18-to-49-year-olds that advertisers crave. Body of Proof was renewed, but with a condition. Gross says the network told his team, “You’ve got to do more of what you did in those last three episodes.” So they set out to re-invent the show.

Only one thing was off limits: Dana Delany’s character, former neurosurgeon Megan Hunt. Not only is Delany Body of Proof’s most marketable TV star, without Megan’s complicated back story, it is just another cops and docs show. When Body of Proof premiered in 2011, it was a medical-legal procedural with a side order of working-woman angst. In her new job at the medical examiner’s office, imperious, arrogant Megan had to learn to become a team player, and after hours, she struggled to reconnect with the teenage daughter she lost custody of during her high-flying days.

Over the course of two seasons, the writers failed to find a suitable romantic partner for the rich, driven doctor. They tried an FBI agent (Cliff Curtis) and a landscaper (Jamie Bamber, who is 17 years Delany’s junior, though they made a scorching-hot couple); and there were intimations of a mutual attraction between Megan and her closest co-worker, medicolegal investigator Peter Dunlop (Nicholas Bishop). But nothing stuck.

Finding a solution to that problem set all the other changes in motion. “We wanted to bring in a love interest for Megan, and it became very clear that he could not be subordinate to her,” Gross says. If it couldn’t be someone she bosses around at the medical examiner’s office, it had to be a cop. Neither of the show’s primary detectives, played by The Wire’s Sonja Sohn and Norm Gunderson from Fargo, John Carroll Lynch—would work, so the writers created a new character, Tommy Sullivan (Mark Valley), an old flame who broke Megan’s heart 20 years ago and has now moved to Philadelphia in hopes of rekindling their relationship. Tommy’s partner, played by British import Elyes Gabel, also brings a much-needed younger presence to a show heavy on middle-age talent.

But adding new cast members meant that some familiar faces had to go: “As an actor, John Carroll Lynch would not want to be second banana to the new guy. It changes the dynamic radically; it’s a different role,” Gross told me. Sohn, too, left the series. “It wasn’t recasting,” Gross insists. “It was that those characters had run their course. We had to reinvigorate the dynamics of the show.”

With more focus shifting to the new police detectives, medicolegal investigator Peter Dunlop’s role would be de-emphasized, so Bishop also exited the cast. The Season 2 finale ended on a dramatic cliffhanger, with Megan cradling a badly injured Peter in her arms. “When we wrote and shot that, we had every intention of bringing Nick Bishop back,” says Gross. But when Season 3 begins, Peter’s sudden and brutal death provides a credible explanation for many of the reboot’s changes: Megan has convincing psychological reasons for keeping Peter’s replacement at arm’s length—which means it isn’t too jarring when the job that was once the show’s second most important role dwindles in significance.

There were changes off-screen, too. The creative team concluded that those final episodes of Season 2 succeeded because the scientists’ brilliant deductions were supplemented with fights and ticking time bombs, and because beloved characters were placed in mortal danger. Enter Evan Katz, who spent seven seasons on 24, as a writer and executive producer.

Judging from the first two-part adventure of Season 3, whose story lines include kidnappings, political intrigue, and domestic terrorism, Body of Proof is moving in a direction that’s closer to 24 than to Quincy, M.E. (Although the situation is very far from Kim Bauer in a cougar trap, Megan is even called upon to rescue her daughter.)

As much as I miss some familiar faces, none of the departed actors could have pulled off the action sequences as convincingly as Mark Valley. Body of Proof is still Dana Delany’s show, but her bristly, brilliant lead now has a bull-headed, hypercompetent peer to spar with. As the show lingers less in autopsy suites and interrogation rooms and spends more time chasing down killers, Megan gets in on the action, too. Megan Hunt once restricted herself to solving the mysteries of the dead. Now she’s also in the business of saving lives. It remains to be seen whether Gross and the rest of the creative team can save the life of Body of Proof, but if they don’t, it won’t be for lack of trying.