The Pentagon Channel today announced the cancellation of its long-running reality TV series, The Abu Zarqawi Hour, saying tonight's special-effects extravaganza, in which Keifer Sutherland and a team of secret agents trail the terrorist mastermind to his hideout and call in a massive airstrike, would be the show's last.
The show originally piloted in 2003, and found a regular place in the Pentagon Channel's prime-time lineup in February 2004, replacing the widely panned sitcom series Mission Accomplished, now in syndicated reruns on Fox News.
The Abu Zarqawi Hour debuted to generally favorable reviews, with New York Times critic Dexter Filkins praising the show for its "imaginative" storytelling and "gritty" realism. However, ratings declined sharply in 2005, with many viewers complaining that the show's episodes, which frequently featured the death and/or capture of Zarqawi's closest lieutenants, had become repetitive and unimaginative.
Critics reacted particularly negatively to this year's four-hour special, in which Zarqawi had obvious difficulty staying in character, and was unable to properly reload and fire his Kalishnikov rifle.
Although some critics defended the sequence as a daring experiment in Brechtian alienation technique, most panned the performance, saying it made it extremely hard for the audience to believe that Zarqawi was actually a seasoned terrorist leader, instead of a paid actor pretending to be a terrorist.
Doubts about the show's viability deepened in April, after Washington Post TV critic Tom Ricks questioned whether the supposedly spontaneous reality show was actually being scripted by its producers.
Over the next few weeks, insiders say, Pentagon Channel executives determined that while the Zarqawi show still had a dedicated following of hardcore fans who would swallow any plot device, no matter how ludicrous, the series no longer made commercial or artistic sense. It was also believed that a spectacular and upbeat finale might lure viewers away from Haditha, the controversial docudrama now airing on the rival Reality Network.
Network sources say the Pentagon Channel is weighing a possible sequel to the Abu Zarqawi Hour, featuring an identical plot but a completely different cast. The network and Zarqawi have severed their relationship, these sources added, due to "irreconcilable creative differences."
Pentagon Channel officials declined to respond to questions about a possible sequel, saying only that "all options are under consideration. Things related and not."
Mr. Zarqawi was unavailable for comment.