On your mark… Get set… Gone!

Drive felt specific–it’s a secret cross-country road race with regular people–but it’s also incredibly broad.  Is it a comedy?  Is it action?  Is it a thriller?  Is is a drama?  Is it a melodrama?  Is it Magnolia?  Is it North by Northwest?  My feeling was that it was all those things.  It could be all those things because each of these little cars were worlds unto themselves, which would be pinging off of each other in the landscape of the larger concept.  That’s what appealed to me about it.”
–Tim Minear, co-creator of Drive

If you weren’t watching TV over just nine days in April of 2007, you missed the chance to see one of the most original dramatic television series ever… a series that never got the opportunity to reach the finish line.  Drive told the story of a highly illegal road race that started from the tip of Florida and was headed to unknown checkpoints across the country.  There were over a dozen regular and recurring characters, racing for a first-place prize of $32 million dollars.  Yet for many of the participants, it wasn’t the money that made them take to the highways.  There were other considerations.  Some of them simply had no choice….

Alex and Corinna

For instance, there is Alex Tully (Nathan Fillion).  His wife has been kidnapped, and to “win” her freedom he is told to head immediately from his home in Nebraska to Key West, Florida, the starting line for this unusual race.  He (reluctantly) ends up teaming with Corinna Wiles (Kristin Lehman), a mysterious woman who stows away in Alex’s truck to escape from her armed ex-boyfriend.  (But no one is as they initially appear, and nothing is what it seems.)  All Alex knows is that, in order to see his wife again, he has to find any way possible to finish first, but that also means that his own past secrets might get revealed along the way.  It doesn’t help that the detective on his wife’s kidnapping case suspects Tully of running away from Nebraska due to his apparent guilt.  And the organizers of the race are watching the racers every move, so if Alex (or anyone else) admits the existence of the race to the authorities, the consequences for them could be deadly.

Half-brothers Sean and Winston Salazar

The long reach of the people staging this illegal event  have not only blackmailed entrants into running the race, but the organizers apparently have enough influence to spring them from jail if they wish.  Convicted felon Winston Salazar (Kevin Alejandro) is inexplicably released from prison, and finds a strange cell phone in with his belongs.  A call on the cell phone tells him to head for Key West as well; it turns out that all the racers have been given these cell phones for communication and text riddles about checkpoints and destinations.  As his continued freedom is apparently dependent on winning, Winston shows up at his estranged father’s Miami residence for cash to run with.  In addition to finances, he gets his own partner in half-brother Sean (J.D. Pardo), who wasn’t even aware of Winston’s existence before this.  And another curious team joins the race.

Violet and John Trimble

Other teams include scientist and researcher John Trimble (Dylan Baker) and his daughter Violet (Emma Stone).  She suddenly discovers herself on the adventure of a lifetime, and that statement is more true than it seems; John hasn’t told her yet, but he apparently only has a year to live.

Ellie and Rob Laird

Young married couple Rob and Ellie Laird (Riley Smith and Mircea Monroe) are running pretty much just for the cash prize, although Ellie has hidden from Rob the fact that his military unit has been recalled for another tour of duty in Iraq, leading to him unknowingly being AWOL.  She’s hoping that they’d be safer together running the race than her husband would be in a war zone, but that may not be true, and betrayal sometimes has a very high price to pay.

Wendy, as alone as her son

The Katrina Trio (Leigh, Ivy, and Susan)

Other featured entrants include new mother Wendy Patrakas (Melanie Lynskey), forced into the race to protect her newborn son.  Finishing last in the first leg, she is given a penalty; she is assigned to kill another racer, or be “eliminated” herself.  Another entry is a team of three women from New Orleans who survived Hurricane Katrina.  Led to the race for different reasons, their journey is more about destiny than about competition or secrets (and it turns out that one of them doesn’t know how to drive anyway!)

Good, bad, or just a messenger for those in charge?

The mysterious organization running the race was officially represented by Mr. Bright (Charles Martin Smith), who would be waiting at the end of each leg to provide information, present penalties, or tell those finishing last of their elimination.  He seemed gentle and benign, but the organization had other more threatening operatives around every corner, and the racers could never be sure just who was watching their every move, and who was just another traveler along the way.

“Think of the race aspect of this show as the procedural aspect, the context of the case they are working on this week.  That’s the same thing here.  What’s the leg of the race they’re on this week, and how’s that going to help me metaphorically get to the heart of this character stuff?  Now, it’s not as simple as that, because you’re talking about 10 to 12 characters that all have very specific things that they need, want, that kind of thing.  So, one particular checkpoint may mean something very specific to one of the participants, but not every participant may end up getting to that checkpoint.”
–Tim Minear, on how different writing Drive is from writing any other series

Drive was an unpredictable concept, with a wide variety of stories to tell, and while each episode primarily focused on just a few of these teams, their stories intertwined in strange ways.  By the time of the fourth episode, a great many secrets have been revealed, new ones hinted at, team alliances are both forged and broken, and at least one of these characters dies unexpectedly.  It was a totally different way of telling stories, and an intriguing concept melded with characters that would otherwise never be found interacting with one another.  There was also the overarching mythology of the race itself, and the mystery behind the motives and methods of the organizers.  The unfortunate thing is that not only did none of the teams ever get to the finish, Drive didn’t get that far past the green flag at the start.

Personally, I’m beginning to think that this blog has the wrong name.  Although the time slot of Friday @ 8/7 Central has had a reputation for decades (and even a wikipedia entry) as the “death slot” for television, this is the fourth time in six months that I’ve covered a short-lived show that aired on Monday nights… airing in 2007 alone!  Drive had a two-hour premiere on FOX on a Sunday night, settled into its “permanent” slot the following evening, and aired just one more episode a week later before being canceled.  Four episodes, eight days, and it was yanked from the schedule.  ( I know the show was about speed, but did it really deserve this?)  Why did so many different and unique shows that season end their own race there so quickly?  And why did it happen so often in that particular year?

“We partially sold this concept by saying, ‘This is to The Amazing Race what Lost is to Survivor.'”
–Tim Minear, on the network perspective of the show

The initial reason is why the shows were so different in the first place.  The spectacular success of Lost on TV screens suddenly made every network start looking for the next large-cast mysterious continuing-arc show.  A season full of them failed (Threshold, Surface, Invasion) because they had been rushed to production too quickly and their plots moved too slowly, but the networks still thought the audience was ready for the right version of that style, and many other concepts were tried, from The Black Donnellys to Drive.  Other non-traditional shows were attempted, and I’ve covered Studio 60 and Creature Comforts here as well, but these unusual shows kept going up against the biggest non-Lost hits at the time, Monday night entries Deal or No Deal and Dancing with the Stars.  And while Drive (and the others) had devoted and passionate followings, by 2007 shows like this weren’t going to be given the time to develop those followings into the kinds of numbers the networks were hoping for.  They had to hit that starting line running….

Racing for an audience

It would have helped if the networks could keep track of the race better.  But those networks were panicking as well.  New technologies such as internet delivery of programs and home DVR watching were essentially robbing them not of viewers, but of MEASURABLE viewers.  Networks couldn’t charge advertisers for eyeballs they couldn’t count, and in 2007 there was no system in place for counting people watching shows through the new alternative distribution systems and delayed viewing.  Network numbers were down across the board, especially those of tech savvy younger age viewers in the 18-35 year-old group that advertisers crave.

So, we have a situation where shows had to have high viewer numbers quickly, yet shows were being designed with complex plots that took time to “hook viewers”.  Plus there was no way at the time to measure the most likely viewers to get “hooked” by these shows in the first place.  A recipe for disaster from the point of view of almost any producer of this type of show, and yet this is what they were asked for.  Drive and the others paid the price, as did anyone interested in quality programming that wasn’t run-of-the-mill ordinary.  We can blame the networks, we can blame the systems, we can blame the promotion or the scheduling, but ultimately the audience (whether measured or not) decided their allegiance far too late and in far too few measurable numbers, and shows like Drive barely got their engines started before they were moved to the pit lane.

“It’s sort of like my last three shows on FOX.  People hear rumors, then they download it or buy it on DVDs.”
–Tim Minear

And by “the pit lane,” I actually mean online.  The two unaired episodes of Drive (like unaired episodes of Black Donnellys and Creature Comforts) made their appearance on network websites, and the entire series of Drive is currently available for purchase on both iTunes and the Amazon On Demand service.  Production was halted after six episodes were completed (instead of the ordered 13), but producer Minear has posted online the shooting scripts of the four aired episodes and the two succeeding unaired scripts as well, so you can have a rare look and compare both the produced versions and the original scripts, to see both the similarities and differences in how an action-adventure series like Drive is made.  The online availability of the show also led to the unique opening titles and extended pilot intro being nominated for an Emmy award, even though the full sequence never actually appeared on any episodes (that 3-minute clip can be found here at the end of a brief article about the nomination).  “Online” broadcasts were then counted as “special airings,” and so even though the six-minimum broadcast Emmy eligibility requirement for a series wasn’t reached, the full Drive intro made it into the nominations for “Best Special Effects for a Movie, Miniseries, or Special”.  At least the credit sequence got to some kind of finish line….

NATHAN FILLION (Alex Tully) currently stars on ABC’s Castle.  He was the lead in Firefly, probably the “poster child” series for short-lived shows, and starred in the comedy Two Guys, A Girl, and a Pizza Place.  His first claim to fame was on the soap opera One Life to Live, and he’s also an internet favorite with his role in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.

KRISTIN LEHMAN (Corinna Wiles) has had recurring roles on numerous series, including Kung Fu:  The Legend Continues, Forever Knight, Felicity, Strange World, Century City, and Tilt, and was a regular on the FOX series Killer Instinct.  A native of Ontario, she’s also starred in numerous Canadian productions, and is an accomplished ballet dancer.

KEVIN ALEJANDRO (Winston Salazar) was a regular in the series Sleeper Cell and Shark, and currently appears on both Southland and True Blood.  Recurring roles include performances on Ugly Betty and Weeds.

J.D. PARDO (Sean Salazar) has been featured on television in American Dreams, Clubhouse, and Hidden Palms.  He is best known for his award-winning performance in the Lifetime movie A Girl Like Me:  The Gwen Araujo Story.

DYLAN BAKER (John Trimble) isn’t in the opening credits of Drive (his first appearance there is actually episode six, and the series was canceled by then).  He has an extensive stage career, and was a regular on another short-lived series, NBC’s Kings, as well as ABC’s Murder One.  He’s appeared in the two sequel Spider-Man movies, and received an Emmy nomination for his recent guest role in The Good Wife.

EMMA STONE (Violet Trimble) actually was cast as Laurie Partridge after a reality-show search for a proposed remake of the classic Partridge Family series.  She’s been a popular movie actress, featured in the films Superbad, Easy A, and the comedy Zombieland.  She has numerous movies set to premiere in the next year, including Crazy, Stupid, Love with Steve Carrell and Friends With Benefits with Justin Timberlake.

RILEY SMITH (Rob Laird) has been featured on Freaks and Geeks, season 3 of 24, and Joan of Arcadia.  Guest star parts include series such as Leverage, Ghost Whisperer, Criminal Minds, and The Closer.  He also sings in his own rock band, The Life of Riley.

MIRCEA MONROE (Ellie Laird) guested on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Sons of Anarchy, and Without a Trace.  She’s also been featured in a number of skits on Conan O’ Brien’s Tonight Show, and will appear in next season’s TNT legal series Franklin & Bash.

MELANIE LYNSKEY (Wendy Patrakas) burst onto screen in the movie Heavenly Creatures, gaining widespread critical acclaim.  Best known for playing slightly crazed neighbor Rose on the comedy Two and a Half Men, she’s also appeared in recent movie successes like The Informant and Up in the Air.  A native of New Zealand, she was told at her first American audition that she’d “never work in America… Maybe you can try England.”

ROCHELLE AYTES (Leigh Barnthouse) was recently a regular on The Forgotten with Christian Slater, and was featured in a number of episodes this fall on Detroit 1-8-7.  Her guest star roles included parts on Dark Blue, NCIS, Bones, and CSI:  NY.

TARYN MANNING (Ivy Chitty) can be found acting, singing, and designing her own clothing line.  She turned a one-shot role on Sons of Anarchy into a recurring part, and currently plays McGarrett’s sister Mary on the remake of Hawaii Five-O.  Her rock band is called Boomkat, and she’s also working on a solo album.  Her clothing line is named Born Uniqorn, and she’s written a featured blog at younghollywood.com.

MICHAEL HYATT (Susan Chamblee) appeared on Broadway in the musical Ragtime (if Drive ever wanted to do a musical episode, they sure had the cast for it!)  Featured TV roles included parts on The Wire, The Kill Point, and most recently Glee.  She proudly claims her heritage is “African-British-Jamaican-American”.

CHARLES MARTIN SMITH (Mr. Bright) has an acting career that dates back to the early ’70s and The Brady Bunch.  A much sought after guest star on television (including roles on recent shows such as Psych and Leverage), he’s also been a significant supporting actor in movies like Starman, The Untouchables, and a memorable early performance in American Graffiti.  He also has directed many projects, including episodes of the series Space: Above and Beyond, and the first televised episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The cast of Drive (look in the mirror... they're all being watched....)

“This isn’t just a race of speed.  It’s a game of strategy.  Getting there fast is never going to be enough.  You have to get there smart.”
–Corrina to Alex in the pilot episode

“Try not to be last.  It’s… bad if you’re last.”
–One of the organizer’s men to Wendy when she’s badly behind in the first leg

Both these quotes could just as easily be about the ratings race as much as they are about the cross-country race on Drive.  As a background for a wild variety of stories and people, Drive may not have reached the finish line or achieved the viewership that FOX had hoped for.  But in its brief start as a series it showed there was plenty of power under the hood, and it was more than ready to run a long, long time.  But sometimes, you find out that you thought you were entering a race where the quality of car would be vitally important… when the actual competition ended up being a demolition derby instead.

Vital Stats

4 aired episodes — 2 unaired (all available for purchase online)
FOX Network
First aired episode:  April 15, 2007
Last aired episode:  April 23, 2007
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  I wish, as there would have been less competition, but if Fox was going to yank it this fast in the first place, I highly doubt that any time slot would have been successful.

Comments and suggestions are appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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6 comments
  1. Jeremy said:

    Good article, but it left me wondering… whatever happened to that proposed Partridge Family remake series? I actually watched the competition they had for it on VH-1, and then nothing…

    • Tim Rose said:

      The ratings for the competition series weren’t good enough to make the new series a go… plus the show skewed older than they thought it would (hey, there’s a surprise.. young teens weren’t interested in the reboot of an older show. I’m shocked, I tell ya, just shocked….. They should have done it on TVLand or something.) There’s also that pesky thing about people actually doing a SHOW instead of just a concept, but that’s an article for another time, I’m sure….

  2. jcm said:

    Good article. This looks like my kind of show,I don’t know how I missed it. If I can’t see it on line can I borrow the DVD

  3. Bill said:

    I know I’m one of the few but whatever this Fallon has seems to escape me. I just don’t think the guy is that great.

    • Jaret Morlan said:

      I totally agree! I think Jimmy Fallon is completely overrated and has been since his first day on Saturday Night Live. However, on the topic of Drive, Nathan Fillion is fantastic in everything he does, as I’m sure you’d agree.

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