Secret Societies Make Great TV Fodder

There's a secret cabal that really knows what's going on.

It's an underlying conceit for a host of television shows, ranging from Get Smart and "The Man from UNCLE" to "The Prisoner," and even the new "Dollhouse." Even "The X-Files" folowed the same premise, though from the outside rather than inside the secret organization. Most of these shows first appeared in the wake of the 'spy craze' of the nineteen-sixties that grew out of the James Bond phenomenon.

One explanation for the recurring popularity of these shows is that it's all part of the innate human desire for order. We want things to make sense, and when they don't it bothers us. Secret organizations are an attempt to impose order on the chaos based on the idea that everything does make sense so long as you have the big picture.

As an idea it's very successful, but how successful is it as TV? Is it like the crime genre where shows like "Law and Order" can run for two decades and spawn multiple spin-offs or do these shows develop more of a cult following without the same commercial success?

Let's look at some examples: "The Prisoner" ran seventeen episodes in the late sixties, and a six-episode miniseries has just finished filming for broadcast in 2009. "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." is probably the biggest success (unless you count "Get Smart which really deserves its own category), running over a hundred episodes in four seasons. While that's better than most new shows do, it's nothing in comparison to most successful sitcoms, which often run anywhere up to a decade or more.

So does that make them cancelled cult hits?

Not necessarily. While there's a debate as to why "The Prisoner" only ran seventeen episodes, it had always been intended to be a limited series as is fairly common on British television. Even so, no one can deny that it has been extremely influential. It's not simply that it has spun off into other media itself, but also the number of other productions that have in one way or another been inspired by "The Prisoner." So, while it may be a cult classic, it's not one that was cancelled long before its time.

What about other such shows, like "Dark Angel?"

It only lasted two seasons, and was followed up by three novels, but is that enough to make a cult classic? I don't think so. "The Prisoner" is deserving of the status, but that doesn't mean every other cancelled show in the same genre deserves it.

The problem is that all these shows tend to feature lots of action and require big budgets, which make them much more likely to get cancelled, than cheap sitcoms or reality TV. However when you look at the subgenre as a whole it maintains a pretty constant presence. Some shows become cult classics, while other shows just follow the normal life-cycle of any hour-long action show. They last a few years, then get shuffled off and are eventually replaced by another similar show. It's just a factor of the relationship between the cost of the product and the size of the market.


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