FX needed a comeback in 2010. The cable outlet had found hits in The Shield, Nip/Tuck, and Rescue Me in 2002, but, with the exception of 2005’s It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and 2007’s Damages, the remainder of the decade had produced a series of duds. Much of it was bad luck: 2005’s Thief received critical praise, but only lasted a season. Starved premiered alongside Sunny, but didn’t survive its initial seven-episode run. The year 2006 brought the Ice Cube-produced and racially problematic reality show Black. White., which relied on blackface and white ignorance, and was received with a collective shudder. Damages, Dirt, and The Riches arrived in 2007, but despite strong initial showings, the latter two series had their runs shortened by a writers’ strike.
In September 2009—one year after the debut of what became the biggest hit in the channel’s history—FX made an unprecedented move, going six-for-six with pilot-to-series orders. Four of those shows came to define the network: Louie, Justified, Archer, and The League. A fifth, Lights Out, had promise but no audience. The sixth was the lowest-rated program FX ever produced, and one of its most poorly named: Terriers.
“Five years later, I still have not been able to think of a title that works,” Terriers creator Ted Griffin told TV critic Alan Sepinwall in a 2015 interview. “Beach Noir? Dolworth & Pollack, P.I.? Our Brand Is Competence?”
Terriers’ biggest problem is that people struggled to describe it. Most attempts to elucidate the plot provide a series of well-rinsed TV tropes and stumbling qualifiers: “It’s a private investigator show, but it’s also kind of a buddy cop setup—but with an ex-con and an alcoholic former policeman. Yeah, there’s a dog in it, but he’s not integral to the plot. The name’s a metaphor, sort of.”
It’s best to call Terriers neo-noir. Slightly ahead of its time, the series created an entrance into the genre for audiences who would later came to love the darkness of True Detective, or the emotional-yet-comic Fargo. Terriers was the first in a recent wave of crime shows that explore more than the crime: Beyond the surreal interpretation of film noir found in Twin Peaks and a few other short-lived exceptions, broadcasters have largely stuck to the belief that the procedural sates America’s hunger for crime drama, and were unwilling to experiment with longer narratives. But while viewers love watching lawbreakers get thrown in the slammer at the end of each episode, the neo-noir shows of the 2010s prove that they also love tough-to-solve mysteries, unattractive and gritty antiheroes who can crack wise, and ancillary characters who carry hopelessness and cynical outlooks like a badge. It’s not about solving the case or creating a better world, but displaying the mesmerizing complexities of the interior life. Terriers accomplished all of that in 13 episodes, but its failure stems from an audience who wasn’t ready for it and didn’t understand it.
Veronica Mars kept neo-noir on the air in the mid-’00s, but it lacked a certain edge. It’s an excellent show that tackles a number of mature topics—rape, murder, kidnapping, etc.—but its characters still had a shot at reaching maturity. Terriers shows characters stripped of that opportunity. Griffin asks us to follow divorced, alcoholic, disgraced former cop Hank Dolworth (Donal Logue) and his P.I. partner, best friend, and ex-con Britt Pollack (Michael Raymond-James) and explore San Diego through the lens of an Ocean Beach townie.
It doesn’t take long to realize that these men are socially buffoonish, masochistic, whip-smart investigators who will never be happy. In the first episode, Hank buys the house he lived in with his ex-wife, who he still loves, as a sort of perpetual torture device. Britt appears to have pulled his life together, but in the show’s finale he earns a two-year prison sentence for assaulting a man he thought slept with his fiancée. And though they’re sympathetic, they’re never right or worthy of the trust of their loved ones. Hank certainly cares for his wife, but as she tells him in the first episode, his “life bounces” just like his alimony checks. Britt, meanwhile, nearly pummels a guy to death with a gleeful vengeance. The characters surrounding these two men show the normalcy Hank and Britt could’ve had if they were given the chance. But there’s a sense of destiny to their loneliness, especially after they dispose of the body of a man they accidentally helped kill. Terriers is almost as if noir writer Charles Willeford did television, or it’s a story from the old book list of publisher Black Lizard Books. The crime itself is peripheral to the characters and their relationships.
The show bolsters this character development by refusing to simplify to a case-of-the-week pattern—though episodes six through nine demonstrate what that version of the show would look like. Starting with an investigation into a missing ring and ending with the recovery of a teenager’s stolen money, Griffin and the Terriers writers—who included future Walking Dead scribe Angela Kang, Veronica Mars alum Jed Seidel, and Shield creator Shawn Ryan (who also served as executive producer)—indicate that their series could run as a small-time procedural. Those episodes, while compelling, are also jarring, as Terriers momentarily gives up on the season-long mystery it previously established. The remaining nine episodes ask the viewer to figure out why a corporation would attempt to silence people over allegedly poisoned land, a crime that allows for paranoia, class warfare, and obsession.
It sounds intolerably dark, but never hits second-season-of-True Detective bleakness. The difference? Terriers is funny, but it never feels like it’s trying to be. Griffin explained it best in a 2010 interview, saying the jokes weren’t intended for the audience. “I think our one rule is, if they’re being funny or entertaining, they have to be funny or entertaining to each other,” Griffin said. “Hopefully this show is never making a joke. And so if these guys are having fun with each other and cracking each other up, then hopefully the show will also be funny.”
It’s effective and has a larger relevance because Hank trying to get the song “Close To You” stuck in Britt’s head feels human. They can joke about their mediocrity and laugh because there’s an element of truth to it. That makes the other components of the show and its ability to make the audience relate to the troubled leads even more effective. The seams of fiction are hidden, and that’s the difference between ratings-successful crime shows like CSI or NCIS and Terriers.
Another difference is the way the shows were marketed. No one was ever confused what CSI and NCIS were attempting to accomplish, but most people couldn’t tell what the ads for Terriers even related to. Most found the image of a snarling dog with the title card in its mouth ambiguous. Nevertheless, FX president John Landgraf defended the advertising campaign in a phone interview with reporters shortly after he’d cancelled the show. He pointed at the TV promos, which were tested heavily, and said they proved the marketing’s effectiveness. “From my standpoint, the marketing department of FX has taken a little bit of unfair knocks for the lack of performance of the show. I don’t think there is anybody to blame,” Landgraf said.
“If I objectively believed that the reason the show didn’t launch was that we failed to tell viewers what it was about—a scruffy buddy detective show—that we had convinced them that the show was about dog fighting, I would’ve picked it up,” he added. “I love the show. Sometimes there is a poor correlation between creative and commercial success.”
Even if Terriers had doubled its viewers, it would have still been the least-popular freshman show in FX history. But if Hank and Britt were driving around in their crappy sky blue truck today, you’d have to think the viewership would be on par, if not surpassing, shows like True Detective or Fargo. It’s perfect neo-noir for television—a serial drama with the legs of a procedural. As Damon Lindelof, co-creator of Lost and The Leftovers, said in a now-deleted tweet after the death of the show, “Cancellation sucks, but 10 years from now, we’ll still be talking about Terriers.” Five years later, that forecast still looks accurate.
Wonder, weirdo, or wannabe: Wonder