Hank: “Are you saying we’re small time?”
Britt: “If we grow two sizes we might actually be small-time.”
Hank: “What if we’re actually big time, and just didn’t realize it?”
–Best friends Hank Dalworth and Britt Pollack in Terriers
In my opinion, one of the best shows to come out of cable television over the last couple years is Terriers, which aired on the FX Network in 2010. It sadly didn’t last, but for thirteen wonderful episodes it was one of the most unpredictable dramas viewers could possibly experience, with terrific characters and unique storylines that, like the namesake animals of the series title, grabbed ahold of you and never let go.
Terriers is primarily a buddy comedy with dramatic elements, telling the story of two down-but-not-quite-out best friends and their adventures as private investigators (unlicensed, naturally). Hank Dalworth (Donal Logue) is an ex-cop, drummed out of the force some years back with a dishonorable discharge brought on by his (then) obsessive drinking. While he’s now on the wagon (barely), he’s still trying to scrape together a livelihood and get back in the good graces of his ex-wife Gretchen (Kimberly Quinn). She’s already met someone new after their divorce a year ago, but he’s hanging on, to the point where (after falling into some unexpected cash) he puts a down payment on their old house, because he still wants to life that life.
His best buddy is Britt Pollack (Michael Raymond-James), a former thief who’s also trying to make a better life after living on the wrong side of the tracks, but his previous skills come in handy when trying to make ends meet with Hank. Britt has a girlfriend, Katie Nichols (Laura Allen), who wants to settle down and have a baby at some point, but Britt’s fear of commitment and free-wheeling ways don’t mesh with a traditional idea of home and family. This is especially true when he and Hank stumble upon an old friend who turns up murdered, and a conspiracy much larger than these two small-time buddies ever thought they’d be involved in.
They do have a couple of allies, although their “friends” are also knowledgeable enough about both of them to be wary. Hank’s former police partner Det. Mark Gustafson (Rockmond Dunbar) would love to trust Hank, but sometimes believes the best way to handle his old friend is to lock him up for his own protection, especially with the trouble he keeps finding himself in. And lawyer Maggie Lefferts (Jamie Denbo) is trying to keep Hank and Britt out of the lock-up and throw a bone to the boys occasionally, hiring them to do some of the legwork she can’t do (because she’s going to give birth any day now, and the boys don’t mind getting roughed up anyway, as long as they give as good as they get).
So, in between odd jobs of retrieving pets caught in a messy custody battle and figuring out how to get a house loan with no “actual” job, Hank and Britt end up on the edges of a major conspiracy. It seems to involve a rich land speculator named Lindus and his plans for a new economic development, and that leads to a sex scandal, possible carcinogens in the land, and stolen drugs in Mexico (among other things). Hank and Britt could, at many different junctures, just cut and run, lick their wounds, and save themselves an awful lot of pain and trouble. But despite their lack of money, lack of judgment, and (occasional) lack of common sense, they share one characteristic with the dogs mentioned in the title: like Terriers, they’re loyal to a fault, and they will do their very best (and then some) to take care of their friends.
“I’m going to destroy you, Lindus. I could have walked away from this thing an hour ago eating shit, and Jesus knows I’ve eaten enough in my life. But you killed my friend, so I’m going to destroy you. And I just wanted you to know that.”
So begins a very twisted tale full of unexpected moments of laughter and even more unpredictable plots. At one point, Hank and Britt end up having to help developer Lindus… by stealing a quarter of a million dollars from him! (He actually ASKS them to, and is willing to give them a percentage!) It makes sense in the progression of the plot, but that’s the amazing thing about Terriers. This happens during the thirteen episodes that you wouldn’t even dream of in most television series, but the plot twists occur organically out of the story and characterizations, so that even the outrageous becomes acceptable, to the point where the viewer can’t really imagine any other way. And neither can Hank and Britt, as sometimes their best laid plans turn into their next nightmare, and sometimes their nightmares turn into gold anyway.
Characters designed as heroes are commonplace on television. Even characters who don’t want to be heroes end up that way. But in Terriers, we follow Hank and Britt as they try to overcome their worst enemies: themselves. And we cheer their successes… but we also understand their defeats. Few of us could ever be heroes on television, no matter what we wish. But far too many of us have been burdened with untenable choices, and while they may be a bit magnified as far as the stakes on Terriers, those lives are still far closer to our everyday existence than found on typical cop/lawyer/medical dramas.
Plus, there’s a definite friendship and camaraderie between Hank and Britt, and with all the regulars on the show. You can tell there’s a part of Gretchen that would still love Hank, if only he’d become the man she knows is inside him. Katie loves Britt, and accepts his past, but is a bit unsure of what the future holds with a man so reluctant to take the next step. Det. Gustafson remembers what Hank used to be, and still stands up for him even when Hank himself falls, and lawyer Maggie sees something more in these two than just a handout, and is willing to help where she can. But while Hank and Britt try to move forward, they won’t be able to without letting go of their pasts. And the one thing about Terriers is that they never let go.
“Well, we saved her. Now who’s gonna rescue our asses?”
–Britt, after helping a friend to safety
Hank couldn’t let go of his ex-wife. Britt couldn’t let go of his single “freedom”. Neither could toe the line long enough to find a reasonable job, let alone be successful at it. But when they saw a need to help someone they cared about, they did something. And if that something led to more, then that trail got followed too, no matter where it led or how far in over-their-heads they got. Because that’s who they were and what they did. And whether it led to a Mexican drug cartel, a multi-million dollar conspiracy cover-up, or just making sure a friend’s daughter was safe from trouble, they did it. And occasionally, they fell into some badly needed cash along the way.
What they didn’t fall into, unfortunately, was ratings. Anyone who ever actually saw the show seemed to love it. It was a critical darling, making many reviewers Top 10 lists for the season, and even drawing some early Emmy buzz, especially for Logue as Hank. But it aired on cable, on the less-watched FX Network, and the early advertising (and the name Terriers) did the show no favors. Airing at Wednesdays at 10/9 Central and premiering against more high-powered and better-promoted offerings on traditional networks, a great many people never even knew it was on, and others thought it was a show about dogs. Add to that its adult subject matter and realistic language issues and the family audience was out immediately. Quite simply, viewers in any quantity just missed it completely.
“I can’t blame an audience. I’ve never in my life watched a TV show in its first season. I always have to wait several seasons for someone to say, ‘You have to see this.’ That’s how I discovered The Wire and The Shield. I don’t know the secret to getting people to watch a show in its first season.”
–Creator Ted Griffin
It’s that kind of world these days. Networks have been so callous with new shows, yanking them off so quickly, that some series don’t even last more than a couple of episodes. And viewers have had their collective hearts broken enough times that many shows don’t even get sampled, let alone have people find time to watch consistently. Add to that the troubles of accurately measuring viewers, and the multiple ways for shows to be seen online and time-shifted with DVRs, and viewing numbers simply aren’t what they used to be, and eyeballs aren’t being consistently counted anyway. Terriers was a perfect storm of ineffective promotion, a minor cable network provider, and a changing audience. While that doesn’t stop a great series from existing, it does stop one from continuing.
Although stars Donal Logue and real-life best friend Michael Raymond-James embarked on a cross-country promotional tour for the show, the numbers just weren’t there. The “Never Let Go” attitude was clear from all involved, from Creator to Stars to crew and more. Fans and critics were passionate about the show, but even if the show had earned twice the ratings, it still would have been the lowest-rated series on the FX Network. And yet, FX Network tried long and hard to make the series work for them.
Even in cancellation, Terriers was different. Most shows just fade away, with networks sometimes not even admitting the stoppage of production. Knowing the small but intense number of people who dearly loved Terriers, FX President John Landgraf took the unprecedented move of having a half-hour press call to announce the demise of the show, and to take questions from critics and other reporters about its end. While he lamented the cancellation, and called Terriers a credit to the FX Network, even he was a bit baffled about the lack of audience numbers:
“I don’t think there’s anybody to blame. We wish that there was a perfect intersection between all that is good and all that is successful, but the reality is that there’s a very poor correlation between creative success and commercial success.”
–John Landgraf, President of FX Network
Even the network was heartbroken about the ending of Terriers, let alone all the others involved. One producer said, “This is both the most painful and painless cancellation, because you really like the show and hate to see it go, but it was such a great time.” If you get to watch Terriers, you’ll find that those sentiments weren’t just true for the production of the show, but for the viewing of it as well. Once you find Terriers, you will have something in common with Hank and Britt. You’ll never let go.
DONAL LOGUE (Hank Dolworth) has starred in many series, including Grounded for Life (which ran 5 years), The Knights of Prosperity, and Life (each of which only ran one short-but-critically-acclaimed season). He’s also a writer and producer, creating the independent film Tennis, Anyone?, and will be seen in a new ABC pilot (and prospective series) for next season from Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry called Hallelujah.
MICHAEL JAMES-RAYMOND (Britt Pollack) is best friends with Donal Logue in real life, which contributed significantly to their on-screen chemistry. He’s gone from California in Terriers to Louisiana as a recurring member in True Blood (even though he had never even heard of the books upon which it is based when he got the job).
KIMBERLY QUINN (Gretchen Dolworth) has guested on Ned and Stacey, Suddenly Susan, N.Y.P.D. Blue, Without a Trace, and The Secret Life of an American Teenager. She’s appeared in multiple episodes of Two and a Half Men and House, and has also been seen in numerous commercials over the past decade.
LAURA ALLEN (Katie Nichols) is best known to genre fans as part of the original cast of The 4400, playing Lily Tyler. She later was a regular on the series Dirt, and has guested on Criminal Minds and Grey’s Anatomy. She was also featured with an amazing cast in the movie Mona Lisa Smile, playing a student at Wellesley College, which she graduated from in real life.
ROCKMOND DUNBAR (Detective Mark Gustafson) has been in many series, starting as a recurring character on Earth 2 and Girlfriends. Lead roles in Soul Food and the medical drama Heartland followed, with his role a “C-Note” in Prison Break being his most famous part. Most recently, he’s remained on the FX Network, joining the cast of Sons of Anarchy.
JAMIE DENBO (Maggie Lefferts) specializes in comedy, and was a member of the Upright Citizens Brigade troupe out of New York. Her appearances on television include numerous sketches on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, multiple roles in Reno 911! and Children’s Hospital, and recurring parts in Suburgatory, Weeds, and Brothers. She starred in the short-lived series Happy Hour, and recently sold a script for a movie called Best Buds, which actress Natalie Portman is reportedly going to produce and star in.
Surprisingly for this modern era, Terriers has yet to receive a DVD release, although FX has claimed that the very small original audience is to blame, and that they just can’t make money off the projected sales. There is hope, however, as the show has recently been made available through Netflix Instant, for those who have access to the service, and episodes are also available for purchase and download at iTunes and Amazon. Since it was a critical darling, there are many news websites which talk about its short run and unfortunate demise, using it as a case study in poor marketing, unfortunate scheduling, and just plain bad luck (series star Donal Logue injured his shoulder/arm during the pilot, and it is basically unusable during much of the series… but he’s such a good actor and the production worked around it so well, it’s almost unnoticeable unless you’re actively looking for it).
“We don’t want to stop making this show…”
I don’t want to stop watching, either, and others have felt the same way. But the thirteen produced episodes do complete a story, and while another season was plotted out to some degree, there’s an ending there if you do choose to find it and watch. While Terriers is not for youngsters, it is for those viewers who like character-based drama and comedy, and plots you won’t find on any other show. I find, after going back and reading again what I’ve written above, that it’s difficult to really express how good Terriers actually is, and I can only hope that those with Netflix access can stream the show and discover Hank and Britt, and their constant struggle to find their own versions of happiness.
If I learned nothing else from watching Terriers, it was that the circumstances don’t matter. Yes, they may bring you down, and the choices people make are sometimes not the easiest or the best. But when push comes to shove, I’d like to have Hank and Britt on my side. And even though there may be stumbles every so often, and an occasional fall… I know that they’ll do what they can to be there, loyal to a fault. Because once you have a friendship like that… you never let go.
13 hour-long episodes — none unaired
First aired episode: September 8, 2010
Final aired episode: December 1, 2010
Aired on Friday @ 8/7 Central? No, Wednesday nights at 10/9. But hey, so few people found it (Terriers averaged less than a million viewers per episode) that it may as well have aired in the middle of the night. But it was still worth it.
Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.