Sunday, April 24, 2011

TV: Why bad TV happens to good viewers

Last week we wrote about Happy Endings because it was such an important TV moment (and if you caught last Wednesday's two episodes, you know the series just keeps getting better). Jim wrote in his note to the readers last week, "Look, they explained, there's a new show that needs to be ripped apart. But even that got put on hold by them. Why? A stereotype got exploded last week and they had already decided that they would be writing about it." There was a new show that needed to be ripped apart. It was an offensive show and it was not a funny show. But the network swore they were sticking by it in one conversation after another two weeks ago.

If we'd known NBC was cancelling the awful show would we still have written about ABC's Happy Endings? Yes, because bad TV is eternal but break through moments often come only once a decade.


The awful show, if you haven't already guessed, starred celebrity Paul Reiser as celebrity Paul Reiser in The Paul Reiser Show. That's three helpings of Paul Reiser and more than enough to make most TV viewers insist they were already full, thank you.

In its debut outing, the show set a record for worst NBC sitcom debut ever. Ever. Nothing has ever done worse in the network's long, long history. Nothing. And this is the network that aired Four Kings, Double Trouble, Hello, Larry, My Mother The Car and The Michael Richards Show. But The Paul Reiser Show got worst ratings than every other NBC sitcom. Ever. We'd already told one vice president at NBC that the show was a turkey before it aired. But after it aired, he wasn't the only one assuring us it would run through May. There was a whole chorus of NBC suits insisting that (a) the show got better as it went along (were they watching the same episodes we were?) and (b) NBC had invested a small fortune in the show.

That was money wasted. That should have been obvious from the start. And that's the reason we're writing about the just cancelled, only two-episode airing series.

Paul Reiser is annoying. He is to be avoided. Ourselves, we figured that, outside of his being caught in a tranny scandal, nothing could make us stop shielding our eyes to avoid him. And, judging by the ratings, our reaction is fairly common across America.

In the industry? He is infamous for his on set tantrums, for his bitchy nature and for never, ever being happy. He is a nightmare to be around and most who have worked with him will tell you that in much saltier language. He began earning his reputation on the set of My Two Dads shortly after he felt the show was secure (it would run three seasons) and he felt Greg Evigan was no longer playing just the dumb 'dad' but also the sexy one. At that point, Paul Reiser taught NBC the meaning of the term "diva." And though NBC tired quickly of the antics, suits convinced themselves that the problem was Reiser was "too creative" to work under others directions. So he went off to develop his own project.

Which he more or less did solo. Danny Jacobson got a credit but -- ask Roseanne -- Danny was really good about getting credits that others didn't feel he'd earned. As originally developed, Mad About You was all Reiser. And that may seem like a compliment to some people. People with memory trouble or who never saw the show or only saw the show after the first season won't get what a problem that actually was.

Mad About You featured no attractive men in the original cast -- or in the cast at all (guest stars would sometimes be the exception). That's because Diva Reiser wasn't about to have another show where he competed with an Evigan (it was known as the "No Pretty Boy" edict).

"Too pretty" was Reiser's most used phrase when nixing men to play Mark (the role of Paul's best friend) until finally agreeing on Richard Kind.

Mad About You was going to be the story of Paul Buckman. Unlike My Two Dads, there would be no one to steal focus. He wasn't keen even on the idea of Paul having a wife but NBC made it clear that one was needed. Throughout the time it aired and long after it went off the air, My Two Dads was a gold mine for stand up comics who wanted to tell gay jokes or 'jokes.' While that image didn't really stick to Greg Evigan (possibly due to BJ and the Bear or due to the stereotypes we were addressing last week), it did stick to Paul Reiser. And he was informed really quick  that a sister for Paul wasn't going to cut it, the character needed a wife.

A lot of actresses read for the part of Jamie Buckman. Some were hilarious. Helen Hunt was not. Hunt gave a professional, albiet slightly distracted, reading. Not going for the obvious laugh lines was a lucky move on Hunt's part. The women who did were nixed by Reiser who set his sights on Hunt, then primarily known as a dramatic actress -- and a good one at that. Which meant, Reiser thought, that she'd be no competition in the laugh department and Jamie could be straight person and/or butt of the jokes.

For most of the series run, Paul (Reiser) and Jamie (Helen Hunt) didn't have a child. By the time they did, the end was already planned. If it hadn't been, there would have been no child because Reiser didn't want to exchange a dialogue with a child actor. He'd felt upstaged by Staci Keanan (the "my" of My Two Dads) and also didn't like the fact that she and Evigan had a natural connection on air while the Keanan and Reiser connection always felt forced.

All his ducks were in a row, Reiser just knew. But a funny thing happened, Hunt's distracted nature in the reading? It wasn't that she was distracted. It was how she saw Jamie responding to Paul. So she wasn't the nag the scripts were calling for. She was bemused when she was supposed to be a harpy. And Reiser could try the audience's patience as well so they found themselves identifying with Jamie. Jamie was a hit.

At one point, Reiser went to NBC trying to pitch the break up of Paul and Jamie (for good, not just toyed with as what aired did). NBC made it clear that audiences loved Jamie and that the only sitcom where the characters divorced and one disappeared that they knew of was Rhoda and that show (they felt) spent years trying to figure out what it was actually about after Joe was written off the show. Then NBC and Columbia-Tri Star (the studio producing the sitcom) made it clear that Hunt wasn't just staying, she was doing a lot more on the show. At which point, Mad About You got cooking and became a reliably funny show (and, in 1996, four years after the debut, Hunt would finally get a producer credit).

If you think Reiser took comfort in the fact that he was co-starring in a hit show and getting residuals as a co-creator, that he was set for life, you don't know Paul Reiser. He's never happy. And he was unhappy when Helen Hunt won an Emmy for Mad About You. And he was twice as unhappy when she won a second one, and a third one and a fourth one. But what really made him hopping mad was when Hunt became the first sitcom performer to win an Academy Award for lead performance in a film while appearing on a TV series. Nothing made Reiser happy and people took to calling him "Mad About Everything."

That NBC would want to work with Reiser again, let alone spend a ton of money developing a show for him, is only surprising if you don't know that "he would never do that to me" is an industry axiom. The "he" is why it's Paul Reiser whom the networks give more chances to instead of, for example, Roseanne. Men's bad behavior is forever explained away (it's why CBS is still attempting to come to some sort of understanding with Charlie Sheen). So the network that really should have been looking to some of their nineties female comedy stars to see if they wanted to develop a TV show instead went with Reiser.

Mr. Mad About Everything had no career in film (he had a run as a supporting actor that started before Mad About You and more or less ended with Bye-Bye Love) and nothing else to do. And he thought, "Maybe there's a show in that?"

There might have been. But he didn't put his real life up on the small screen. Whose life was that on the screen? Viewers didn't recognize it and we're not sure that if the year was 1952 anyone would have recognized it.

"No Pretty Boys" continued to be a Reiser edict. And, as a result, you got Reiser in a main cast with five other people, four of which were adult males, none of which would be considered a possibility at last call no matter how many shots you did. Reiser and four men. And the network wasn't alarmed?

No. And they insisted that Mad About You needed tinkering after it aired (to beef up Jamie) and that was what was going on here. No, it wasn't what was going on at all. Though underestimated at her audition, Hunt was an incredibly strong actress (in comedy as well as drama) with a long list of credits (she once played Murray Slaughter's daughter on an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show). She was not going to be intimidated or thrown by much of anything.

Reiser didn't want that again. So for The Paul Reiser Show, he cast Amy Landecker as his wife, an actress who would best be termed as "emerging" and not one with a lot of background in comedy or much else. What was she? Twelve years younger than him. Very agreeable in read throughs when Reiser insisted one of her lines didn't work (strange, wasn't it, how at all the table reads, it was Claire's lines that didn't work). We don't know Landecker but a friend who worked on the show swore she was "very nice, too nice, and doesn't even realize what he [Reiser] is doing." What he was doing was keeping his promise to NBC that his sitcom would be a "couple's show" by casting Landecker and then ensuring that the scripts gave her little to do and ensuring that even that got whittled down.

The jokes were supposed to come from, Reiser insisted to any who listened, the fact that, when you have kids, you end up best friends with the parents of your kids' friends -- whether you want to or not. And this, Reiser insisted, not only happens but is universal. If his book output didn't make you question his grip on reality, that observation certainly would. And for many parents -- especially divorced parents -- there was nothing to relate to. (Single parents were never going to relate.) But there was Reiser running with a 'pack' of four other adult men. And we were all supposed to find it charming and cute and funny. Only we didn't, obviously.

We're told that the saddest scene already aired. It aired on Thursday. The script gave Landecker a solid laugh early on about the cat in the backyard that was keeping them up but Reiser weakened it and weakened it. And, after that was out, he further weakened the character. All you were left with was a drip. A drip on the phone to Reiser. A drip asking him to do this. A drip asking him to do that. And you were supposed to feel for Paul and root for Paul but, this being a character played by Paul Reiser, audiences couldn't relate.

The first episode got the worst ratings ever for an NBC sitcom debut, as we noted before. The second episode, the one that got it the axe? It lost half the viewers from the week before. No one could stand the show.

Reiser is attempting to spin the failure and wants everyone to know that he was rushed. The show, he insists, was rushed onto air. He's lying.

A month before it landed on the schedule, he was informed it was airing. But he already knew it was scheduled for a mid-season replacement. He'd known that since late summer 2010. In May 2010, the show got a go and began filming its six episodes. There was nothing rushed about it. And, once it was scheduled, NBC promoted the hell out of it.

Maybe if it were The Helen Hunt Show more people would've tuned in? Maybe if it were The Lisa Kurdrow Show? It's really strange how NBC's male comedy alumni from prime time just keep coming back -- usually in one show that bombs after another. But NBC females end up on other networks. Courtney Cox ended up on ABC with Cougar Town. Julia Louis-Dreyfus ends up on CBS and now HBO. Meanwhile if you think The Paul Reiser Show was bad, you should examine some of the big spend development items that never made it on the schedule. We'd suggest you start with the money forked over to Larry Charles in 2009 for a sitcom that never aired. If you don't see reason to worry or how this applies to you, let us put you wise. Despite the huge bomb that was The Paul Reiser Show, NBC wants to continue their relationship with him. If you thought this one was bad, just try imagining what sort of sitcom can revolve around Reiser and attempt to see that he never gets upstaged. Ourselves, we're seeing him starring in a sitcom with a one-person cast: The Shut In -- about a recluse who sees the 'humor' (cranky observations) in the ever shrinking world around him.

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