For the next couple of weeks, TV critics from around the country and Canada are gathered in Los Angeles to view the new crop of midseason-replacement shows–most of which, just like the programs they’re replacing, will be cancelled and usually deserve it. But while it’s easy to make fun of “the vast wasteland,” as former FCC chief Newton Minow famously described it landscape in the ’60s, maybe we expect too much of TV. Maybe, as the old Nichols and May routine put it, we should pause to appreciate the unsung drones of the TV business, those writers who faithfully work away in obscurity–quietly, steadily putting out garbage.
Still, there are talented writers working on unsuccessful shows as well as hits. So what goes wrong?
“Promising shows are cancelled immediately if they don’t get good numbers,” a TV writer friend, who’s currently employed on a successful network drama, griped to me when I asked about this, “never getting the chance to find their voice and audience, as Cheers, Hill Street Blues did under [former NBC programming chief] Brandon Tartikoff, largely because he was in last place then and had little to lose. Sadly, these days even a last-place network has itchy trigger fingers, so thick is the fear in the business today.”
Then there is the problem of how pilot season works. “Network/studio development is such a long-shot business,” my friend continued, “that writer/show runners necessarily spread themselves thin, working on as many different pilot projects as they can, to maximize the chances of getting on the air. As a result, no one project ever gets the care it needs to make it any good. The irony here is that the networks, by refusing to commit air time up front to ideas and writers they like, guarantee that every project will be written in a rushed and slipshod fashion.”
“Yes, the networks do make commitments to certain show runners,” he added, “but that’s generally a cowardly and defensive move–’Let’s take David E. Kelley or Dick Wolf off the market by promising them Wednesdays at 10 p.m. for their next project,’ or: ‘Let’s do the same with some Seinfeld co-star whose concept and showrunner we don’t even know yet.’ Also, most pilots are cast and shot at the same time, which spreads the acting/directing talent pool ridiculously thin. You’re always looking at your fourth choices. Then the execs look at the finished pilots and wonder why they suck.”
I suppose people involved with these quickly cancelled disasters would agree with my writer friend’s theory about network impatience. Seinfeld is always given as an example of a quirky show the network initially didn’t have high hopes for–NBC’s Brandon Tartikoff initially dismissed it as “too Jewish”–that eventually became one of the biggest mass-market TV successes of all time. Still, I caught the first episode of Seinfeld in reruns the other night, and even though it wasn’t nearly as funny as it eventually became, it did have a definite spark. Goodness knows it was better than, say, Living With Fran, the WB’s upcoming Fran Drescher vehicle that’s so far the worst new midseason sitcom I’ve seen.
Perhaps Seinfeld was allowed to find its audience because Tartikoff–and other larger-than-life programmers of yore like Fred Silverman and William Paley–were strong-willed individuals with the confidence to bet on the unique ideas of individual writers. Today’s media landscape of megacorporations merged with other megacorporations has erased all that.
“It used to be that the buck stopped at the network,” Lionel Chetwynd, a veteran TV writer who these days specializes in historical dramas for cable, told me over lunch. “The decision-making process was discrete and entirely within the building, and would be made by people who lived and worked in the same community you did. But the head of the network is no longer really the head of the network. Now they’re all part of a corporate management structure’s divisional earnings. And slowly but surely, you’re seeing the intensifying, it seems to me, of a kind of corporate risk-aversion.”
This jitteriness about anything offbeat has caused my friend Sandra Tsing Loh, a performance artist and public-radio commentator, to rebuff most invitations from networks to come in and pitch TV ideas. The last straw was a few years ago, when CBS refused to even consider casting her in a small role–”not even a recurring character who comes by occasionally with a cappuccino cart,” as Sandra put it–in a script she wrote based on her own life. She rejected the network’s offer to buy her script and now concentrates on her one-woman stage pieces instead of TV.
“Basically what happens,” Sandra explained to me, “is I do a show, people come to the show, people call the next morning: ‘We love you! We want to do a sitcom based on your life! That’s enough of a premise, ’cause you’re so funny! But…we but we can’t guarantee network approval on the casting.’”
She added, “It’s not like I go in there like Liza Minelli–Me! Me! Me!–and remember, they’re the ones who called in the first place.” Is it because she’s over 40? Because her half Chinese/half German parentage makes her not quite white? Who knows. But she’s begun speculating about a TV influence she calls The Normalator.
“It’s not racism per se but the tyranny of normalcy,” she told me. “Wait a minute, no: the tyranny of attractive normalcy. Which leads to loveable white models who are supposed to be playing ordinary, adorably flawed professionals just like you and me with their brilliant minority friends (with vastly less camera time) who are surgeons. But it’s not just ethnicity. That narrow vision also extends to, say, things like women leads. Women leads have to be good-hearted and nice, with a Slutty Best Friend. The main character can’t be slutty. ‘Cause that’s not attractively normal. Etc.”
Lionel Chetwynd pointed out that the TV business always has been cyclical, but that while executives used to be judged by how quick they were to recognize a new cycle, or to exit a dying one, “now it’s probably who’s smart enough to be the last one off.” In other words, who’s able to squeeze the last drop of profit juice out of that last scrap of garbage. Another TV writer friend of mine (like the first one I quoted, he did not want to be named), who works in one-hour dramas, noted that in recent years a whole new layer of “creative” executives has been added to the development process, whose main function seems to be ironing every last quirky wrinkle out of a script in order to justify their jobs.
“This person is not a writer, or even a network executive,” said my friend, who’s currently working on a new pilot, “but a producer for a production company who’s entire function is to sit there and take notes. I’m not complaining about notes like ‘This is too scary’ or ‘This isn’t right for our demographic’–that I understand. But I’ve been handed notes–literally–where they wanted to know why the word ‘the’ was, or wasn’t, in a particular line of dialogue. Or they don’t have the imagination to picture the hero escaping by climbing up a wall, so they write a note. When they see the scene in storyboards they get it, but by that time you’ve been driven crazy with five rewrites.”
Some of the most talented TV writers have had the least stomach for the business–which now and then has served them well. Years ago, Garry Shandling was a successful sitcom writer on shows like Sanford and Son and Welcome Back, Kotter. But he gave all that up one day at a Three’s Company story meeting. One of the producers had complained, “Well, Chrissie wouldn’t say that.” The thought of a motivation for a shallow character played by Suzanne Somers was too much for Shandling.
“I just locked,” he recalled, speaking at a Museum of Television & Radio tribute to his work. “I said, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ And I stopped right there and went on to perform.”
–Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.