Sunday, February 02, 2014

TV: Who gets the green light, who gets the work?

Last fall in "TV: The sewer that is NBC" and "TV: NBC provides the glee," we noted how NBC had presented a new slate of programs but not one program starred a woman.  And there wasn't much to brag about in their returning programs.

Ty informed us of all the positive e-mails that noted "good catch" and wondered why other critics hadn't noticed it.  They didn't notice it because, read their work, they don't value women.


In that way, they're a great deal like NBC, in fact.  Remember, NBC had the chance, in 2012, to greenlight a new Roseanne Barr comedy -- one that would not only find her playing a character similar to her character in the ground breaking and hugely popular Roseanne sitcom but it would also reteam her with John Goodman who played her husband on that sitcom.

How does that not get on the air?

How do you not get behind that?

You are the ratings loser.  You've got a shot at Roseanne's first follow up sitcom since Roseanne left the air in the 90s.  John Goodman will be her co-star. And you can probably count on many other members of the cast of the previous sitcom to guest star.

Roseanne's a stand up comedian who has been doing stand up since the previous sitcom ended.  Why does that matter?  Because she knows funny.

Let's look instead at the last three sitcom stars NBC gave new shows too.

There's Paul Reiser.  That turned out awful.  That was 2011.  Fall 2013 found the network offering two more sitcom stars: Michael J. Fox in The Michael J. Fox Show and Sean Hayes in Sean Will Save The World.

Fox is an actor.  Where is the idea that he knows funny coming from?

There's never been any proof that he knows funny.

He did play a sitcom character.  On Family Ties and Spin City -- one was a hit, one really wasn't -- he played the same character.  Parkinson's meant he made the decision to leave Spin City.  He didn't think he could continue to play the character.  In the time since, he's done some dramatic work and been very effective in those roles (see his guest spots on The Good Wife for an example).  But he can't play Alex Mike Flaherty-Keaton anymore.  The first real star of TV sitcom Lucille Ball couldn't keep playing Lucy as she learned in 1986's Life With Lucy.

Part of the reason that The Michael J. Fox is so awful -- and it's the worst sitcom airing -- is because (a) it's not funny and (b) Fox is trying to play Alex Mike Flaherty Keaton.  If Fox were doing stand up, he might have developed a new persona.  He didn't.  And to watch him struggle -- against age and against his disease -- to play a character he can't pull off -- a quick to the punch smart mouth -- depresses a number of viewers which is why the show is the lowest rated sitcom NBC has had.  Fox could have played a different character and should have.

But he couldn't see that and NBC put him in charge of the show.  The failed film actor.  The sitcomer who had never been in charge of a hit show (Spin City was not a hit and, while they humored his rage -- they confused it with dedication to craft -- he really wasn't in charge of the creation of the show or scripts).

We bring that up for a reason but let's move on to Sean.

Sean actually was a better selection.  He was a star of Will & Grace and was actually funny -- when his part was written smart or when scripts appeared to have no idea who Jack McFarland even was, Sean pulled it off.  He and Todd Milliner run Hazy Mills Productions which is responsible for the hit sitcom Hot In Cleveland as well as for Grimm, The Soul Man and Hollywood Game Night. Hazy Mills produced Sean Saves The World and Sean and Todd were producers.

Sean was their only smart choice of the three.  And Sean did deliver.  The last nine episodes of the show drew higher ratings than The Michael J. Fox Show.  Michael J. Fox has blamed Sean (and Sean being gay) for driving viewers away from his show.  See, Sean Saves The World has been the lead-in for The Michael J. Fox Show.  It really doesn't make sense that Sean's show was driving away viewers if Michael was so popular because wouldn't that mean that Michael would be beating Sean in the ratings?

Tired of hearing Fox's gripes and wanting to shut him up (and see a point), NBC swapped the shows for a week, making Fox the lead-in.  Did Fox's ratings sky rocket?

No.  Without Sean as his lead-in, Fox's show posted it's second worst numbers -- only 2.18 million people watched.  (Sean had 2.58 million.)

The reason for the move, two at NBC explained, was that they hoped Fox would leave the state of denial, or at least come to the border, and admit that Hayes wasn't destroying Fox's show, that the fact was no one wanted to watch the show.

They were gambling Fox would grasp that and announce production was ceasing.

To get Fox, they had to agree that NBC would commit to 22 episodes.

It is NBC's lowest rated sitcom and, last month, became NBC lowest rated sitcom ever -- not just on Thursday nights this year, but the lowest on any night ever for the network.

And they thought switching the programs would finally drive home the point to Fox that not only was no one watching but that he was embarrassing himself by continuing the series.

Never doubt a male actor's vanity.

We told them that last week.  They responded they couldn't believe that he was going to continue with this show, that instead of asking to be released from the contract allowing the show to stop airing.

This is when we brought up Roseanne as we often do to these two execs.  But we weren't bringing up the failure to get behind the repairing Roseanne with Goodman sitcom, we were griping them out for NBC's latest Roseanne stunt.

They took a lot of heat in the industry for passing on Roseanne and Goodman.  So much so that they decided to try again.  They went after Roseanne for a new sitcom.  They wanted her to work with a show runner, Linda Wallem.

Linda Wallem has a lot of talent -- mainly as a writer.  More to the point, mainly as a writer on TV shows other people have created and established the characters of.   Her attempts at creating shows have been awful.  For example, the quickly cancelled That 80s Show and the non-sitcom Nurse Jackie.

And of Nurse Jackie's 56 episodes, Linda only wrote one herself.  (She co-wrote six others.)  She wrote two episodes of Cybill and co-wrote ten episodes and provided the story idea for five more.

Teaming her up with Roseanne didn't have to be a bad idea.  Roseanne knows funny, Roseanne knows characters.  Her groundbreaking sitcom was her stage act.  Because she was new to television, she didn't realize that her characters, created for her stage act, being written into a sitcom meant that she should get credit for that.  She didn't realize she was being ripped off.

On this proposed show, using Linda would be wonderful -- provided you let Roseanne create the characters and then let Linda work on some scripts with Roseanne.

That's not what happened.

Linda had a little -- very little -- contact with Roseanne then went off to write what she'd always planned to write, refusing to include any details and characters Roseanne had come up with.  She didn't even return Roseanne's calls during these weeks and weeks of writing.  She returned with a script that wasn't funny and that wasn't worth filming.

Roseanne sounded off -- and was right to -- and NBC responded by dropping the project.

First off, any TV episode that takes weeks and weeks to write is of no value to anyone, even if it's half-way good.  Why?

You don't get weeks and weeks to write an episode for a weekly TV show.  You need to have it written in a week.  If you can't manage that, you can't manage writing for TV.

Second, the conflict present was NBC's fault and they should have realized that.

Nurse Jackie is not a sitcom and it's not a Roseanne point of view.

Third, Nurse Jackie averaged .7 million viewers in its most recent season -- which was actually up from the previous one.  Is NBC really trying for .7 million viewers?  If that's the goal, why not just announce the renewal of The Michael J. Fox Show for another season?

Now that one stung and they were both hurt and pointed out that we've repeatedly given them grief in person and here in our writing over the failure of NBC to produce sitcoms around any of TV's established female comedy stars such as Courtney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Helen Hunt, etc.  Here, they insisted, they were seriously trying.

No, they weren't.

Paul Reiser, Michael J. Fox and Sean Hayes were all allowed to develop the shows they wanted with the people they wanted to work with.

Roseanne wasn't trusted to develop a show or to choose who she did or didn't want to work with.

And, hate to break it to them, but Roseanne is bigger than any of those three men and funnier than all combined.

Roseanne was the star of her hit show.  On Mad About You, Paul co-starred with Helen Hunt (who made him look so much better than he was).  Michael was only the star of Spin City and that was never a top ten show any year he starred in it.  Family Ties was a top ten show but he and Meredith Baxter headed an ensemble cast.  Sean was a supporting actor to series leads Debra Messing and Eric McCormack.  Mad About You does well today in syndication. Roseanne does better, but Mad About You does well.  Spin City and Family Ties?  Not so good, not so good at all.

So since she's clearly the one with the strongest track record, why weren't her instincts trusted?

"If we were sexists," one immediately responded, "we wouldn't have gone for the pairing with Wallem."

Yeah, they would.  They didn't trust that a female performer could have a larger vision, could envision a show, they wrongly assumed she'd just be counting her lines and worrying about her character's wardrobe and how she looked on camera.

They also feared that she would be hard to control, hence the addition of low key Wallem.

Roseanne does have a reputation of being combative.  She fought for her hit sitcom.

Thing is though, in the industry, Fox and Reiser had similar reputations.  Only their antics, their stunts, weren't about the quality of the scripts.  They were fighting to have people fired (Reiser didn't get Hunt fired despite his  attempts, Fox got an actress fired on Family Ties and one fired on Spin City -- these weren't guest stars.)

Equally true, NBC went out of their way with Fox, Reiser and Hayes.

But with Roseanne, they paired her with Wellam.

Again, Wallem can write a funny script about characters created by others.  The only time she had a hand on a pilot script was That 80s Show and Insatiable -- need we say more?

Equally important is where Wallem hails from:  Carsey-Werner.

Roseanne, like many lead actresses, didn't have pleasant relations with Carsey-Werner.  They flat out lied to Cybill Shephard -- repeatedly. Madeline Kahn found them unresponsive on the first show she worked on them with (Oh, Madeline!) and knew on the second (Cosby) to ask Bill Cosby when an issue arose.  Justine Bateman walked on the then-hit show Men Behaving Badly (it tanked in the second season, after she left) because Carsey-Werner couldn't get their act and supervise the show leading to endless firings and a revolving door of producers. And we could go on and on.

With that for a background, Linda Wallem already had a strike against her.

But to repeat, she'd never been responsible for a pilot except for That 80s Show and Insatiable -- and both times she had co-writers.  That 80s Show is one of the '00s most notorious bombs.  Insatiable was such a bomb that it didn't even earn notoriety for its failure.

They didn't respect Roseanne enough to let her run her own development and then they insisted she be paired with someone who was unqualified to create characters and whose previous work carried baggage that wouldn't mesh well with Roseanne.

"Does it matter!!!!"

There we're quoting the e-mail Ty passed on to us, the only one complaining about our previous reporting of how NBC introduced a slate of new programs last fall and not one of them starred a woman.

"Does it matter!!!!" exclaimed betchamydicksbigger@____.  "I see women all day as I go around.  Just because they don't get to star in a TV show doesn't mean they don't exist.  It just means they're not funny enough to star in sitcoms and they aren't mature and wise enough to carry a procedural."

Does it matter?

We'd argue the opinions of betachmydicksbigger@____ demonstrates that, yes, it does matter.

Last fall, for example, two women of color starred in hour long TV shows (Kerry Washington in Scandal and Maggie Q in Nikita) and a third co-starred (Lucy Liu in Elementary).  While we applaud the work of Washington, Q and Liu and especially the work of writer, producer, show runner Shonda Rhimes (Grey's Anatomy and Scandal), we realize how sad and appalling those figures are.

And we realize how awful its been for all women and how recent the change has been.

Those two promotional photos above ran in the October, 1974 issue of Ms. magazine. Sue Cameron's "Police Drama:  Women Are On The Case" opened with, "Not since Barbara Stanwyck starred in The Big Valley has a woman had the lead in a weekly dramatic series. This year Angie Dickinson and Teresa Graves have hit prime time as the leads of two police stories, Police Woman (NBC) and Get Christie Love (ABC)."  The last new episode of The Big Valley aired in May of 1969.  From then until September 11, 1974, when Get Christy Love debuted, there had been no female star of a TV drama.  (Police Woman debuted September 13th.)

39 years later, NBC thought it was acceptable to unveil a fall season without one show -- sitcom or drama, 30 minutes or hour long -- that starred a woman?

Yeah, it matters.

Ty tells us three people e-mailed objecting to this section of our "TV: Feminism is telling painful truths:"

We don't question  Julia Louis-Dreyfuss' personal feminism.  But, even while we allow that she's amazingly talented, we are bothered by her back sliding professionally.
On her previous show, Kari Lizer was the show runner.  The cast was a balanced cast in terms of gender. Women could also write for the show.  And did.
The New Adventures of Old Christine was easily the finest sitcom CBS has had in the last 20 years.  The Water Cooler Set ignored it.
They love Veep.
Is it just a coincidence that in two seasons not one episode has been written or co-written by a woman?
We love Julia.  But we'd be hard pressed to promote her as an artistic feminist since she could use her star role (and the power that comes with it) to demand that women be allowed to write episodes.
See, feminism isn't 'you-ism.'
It's not good enough for you to 'succeed'  while others' lives remain unchanged.
You need to be bringing others along with you.
Again, we love Julia -- as an actress and as a person.
And we know what we typed will hurt her.
But it's not 'youism.'
It's feminism.
It's a movement, not an individual.
And we need to stop looking at what one woman has done for herself and focusing more on what women are doing for women. 

One wanted us to know that Veep is a new show so we shouldn't judge it the way we would other shows.

First off, two seasons have aired (season three starts in April).  Second, even if this was their first season, what's being suggested here?  That the people in charge have to be given time to get accustomed to women? Our apologies.  We thought show runner Armando Iannucci was from Scotland.  We didn't realize he'd just arrived on earth from a planet that had no female inhabitants.

One wanted to argue that Julia had "paid off her debt with The New Adventures of Old Christine."  Using female writers is a debt?  It's something you can pay off?  Was it like charity work or, more to the point, court-ordered community service?

The third insisted, "HBO is and always has been a network programmed for male viewers.  Of course, they're not going to use female writers.  Entourage is the gold standard for HBO, it's why people watch."

Goodness do we feel stupid and are faces are red.  HBO isn't trying to get female viewers.

We did not know that.  And neither did HBO.

Sex in the City remains HBO's biggest half-hour hit.  In its final season, it average 7.9 million viewers an episode with the series finale being watched by 10.6 million. (Of all of HBO's original programming, only The Sopranos posted more viewers for their series finale: 11.9.)

And Entourage?  It's not in production anymore and its final season saw an average of two million people watching each episode.  It was a much written about TV show by the media, it just wasn't as popular as either The Sopranos or Sex In The City.

Another popular HBO show was The Larry Sanders Show.

Do you know who Rosie Shuster is?

If not, you don't know much about comedy writing.

But in terms of Sanders' show, she, Garry Shandling, Paul Simms and Peter Roaln co-wrote the third episode ("The Spiders Episode"). That was the first of 21 episodes of The Larry Sanders Show to be written or co-written by a woman (the number's higher if we also include those who came up with the story idea).  21 isn't great, especially when you consider the show aired 89 episodes.  But 21 is a hell of a lot better than zero.  15 of True Blood's episodes have been written or co-written by women.  8 of Boardwalk Empire's 48 episodes were written or co-written by women.  4 of Game of Thrones 32  episodes have been written or co-written by women.

This doesn't suggest a men-only policy.  It does suggest that HBO grossly undervalues women.  And no where is that more obvious than with the awful series Girls.  Of the first 28 episodes, men wrote or co-wrote 11.  And  men, just FYI, have directed 11 of the first 28 episodes of this alleged feminist show.

Does it matter who writes?

Yes, it does.

Because real writers bring their own life experiences to a script.  (Pretend writers just re-write movies they've seen.)  We do not believe that men can't write convincing female characters.  But we also don't believe women can't write convincing male characters.  We think both have something worth saying and that when both are utilized, there's a greater chance of saying something worth saying, of having meaning, of having a better laugh or a better cry.

And we think that women have been shut out of the conversation, shut out of the debate, for too long in television.

So, yeah, it does matter.

It matters to viewers who complain of a sameness on television -- gee, how do you get sameness?  By resorting to the same stories told the same way.

Diversity's only an enemy to boredom.  Everyone else should gladly welcome it.

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