Once the home of the new, fresh and exciting ER, NBC as of about ten years ago has gone stale in the realm of hour long drama. Even the venerable “Must-See-TV” has disintegrated into “Must-See-9:00p.m.-Thursday-TV.” It really seems like the attitude with the entertainment brass is to produce shows that deserve a lot more script tightening. What inevitably happens however is they throw a ton of production budget at an unprepared show, move it around the schedule wildly to see if they can grab an audience and then dump it before it builds anything more than a cult following.
Case in point, Freaks and Geeks. Clearly the network thought is was getting the new Wonder Years. What they got was an edgy, pointedly funny, nerdfest. It was too specific for a large audience to pick up on as quickly as the NBC needed it to, so they axed it. If they had used the same logic with another quirky, specific show we would have lost Seinfeld before the third episode. Only in the second and third season, did Seinfeld get some traction. But that was the old NBC model–wait and give a show with a good script time to prove itself and the ratings will come.
Now lets see where we are this season. We have a show called Knight Rider, which is NBC’s attempt to revive another kitchy show from the early eighties a la Bionic Woman from last season. Both of these shows were favorites of mine when i was growing up and I liked them for their action, yes, but more for their kitch value and suspension of disbelief. They didn’t take themselves too seriously. Ok maybe Hasselhoff did, but that was worth making fun of at least. These remakes however strip the fun from the shows and replace it with too earnest characters in far too many explosion filled action sequences. It doesn’t work. Who is buying it?
Antoher show I was hoping to like was My Own Worst Enemy. This show was greenlit without a pilot, which means that they were relying on the pitch form the producers and the casting of veteran film actor Christian Slater. I wish they had produced the pilot because a lot of the nuance this show lacks would have been discovered in that process, I am sure. Now, this show has some great sequences and a surprisingly good performance from comedian Mike O’Malley as Slater’s colleague, best friend and fellow covert agaent. The glitz that NBC has given this show, has done little to the give heart they also failed to give to the Bionic Woman. What they don’t seem to realize is that what you have to concentrate on are moments. In action dramas it is the poignant moments that pave the way for suspension of disbelief and allow the viewer to forgive plot incongruities. That doesn’t happen in Bionic Woman and as yet hasn’t happen on My Own Worst Enemy. I’m still watching and waiting, but not for long fellas.
Last season, forgotten amid the writers strike, but more likely the schedule juggling was a show that did accomplish this. It was called Journeyman and even though it was another recycled premise, that of Quantum Leap as a man unwillingly transported back and forth in time putting things right, it worked. It worked because it had grit and developed relationships between sympathetic characters. I haven’t seen an episode yet, but ABC has co-opted the premise once more with the new Life On Mars. We’ll see if they give that gripping, but oft canceled premise a chance.
After watching documentaries in class last week about Philo Farnsworth’s invention of television and the development of radio, I started thinking about current or future involvment of “suits” in the creation, production and distribution of television.
I just wonder how this influences the quality of the TV we injest. It seems to me that the noble pursuit of technology, as in Armstrong’s quest to enlighten the populace, gets watered down and homogenized for easy consumption by the masses and quality gets lost or is an afterthought along the way toward the profit margin.
When executives put themselves into the creative mix it is usually the sign that creativity has ended and the business of making the product dance for its supper begins. Like Sarnoff holding FM down with his thumb for ego and bottom-line’s sake, how much good television are we missing from the shows that don’t make the cut after pilot-season.
It doesn’t surprise me anymore when good or great shows are pushed out to make way for reruns of American Gladiator. Sportsnight is a great example of a show that was ritualistically killed off with the old “schedule shuffle.” Similarly, Arrested Development, a quirky and niche-humoured show on Fox was shuffled about and survived only as long as its 3 year run due to intense fan support and critical accolades.
A lesser known show called Action with Jay Mohr of CBS Gary Unmarried ‘s was a stunning and funny look at the undoing of a Hollywood producer. It was biting and clever and should have been given a shot by the Fox network. It lasted, however, only through its initial order of 13 episodes–why? There was a great cast and good writing, but it was controversial and off-color, so it got canned for not appealing to a lower common denominator. Now on cable there is a show with a very similar theme that has become a huge critical and commercial success. Its called Entourage.
Maybe with a generational shift and awareness of past mistakes in programming, executive influence will be seen by the networks as stunting. Evidence of that can be seen in the hands-off approach NBC’s The Office has gotten. Ultimately, I think we will get less quality when there is a bottom-line, pencil-pusher sitting there waiting to kill something with an original voice that might alienate the ad-revenue guy sitting next to him if that guy starts rolling his eyes. Then CBS Chairman, Les Moonves, can just give another horrible, base show like Big Brother to his wife, Julie Chen.