By Kathleen Vanesian
By Amy Silverman
By Robrt L. Pela
By Jim Louvau
By Kathleen Vanesian
By Benjamin Leatherman
By New Times
By Becky Bartkowski
This is how Denis Leary got The Jobat ABC: The actor-comedian had a long-standing deal with DreamWorks' television subsidiary to create a show, which DreamWorks would then pitch to a network. Leary and another writer came up with an initial script for The Job, but it went nowhere. At the same time, Tolan had his own deal with ABC, and when The Joblanded at the networks' doorstep, it was decided they should work together -- even though the two barely knew each other. (Tolan says he remembered Leary merely as "the guy who had been on MTV a long time ago.") Leary explained his idea, Tolan fleshed it out, and the two finished the pilot, which ABC bought and decided to put on its schedule during the spring -- to fill in the blanks left by shows that had been introduced the previous fall and summarily dismissed.
Ginsburg Carlson insists ABC had long wanted to produce a show with Leary -- "We'd been pursuing him ourselves," she says -- and that the network was "thrilled" when Tolan and Leary handed in the pilot. Tolan confirms that ABC didn't even make the two tone down the language (in the pilot, Leary refers to another cop as "numbnuts," and the second episode, starring Elizabeth Hurley as herself, contains prodigious use of the words "penis" and "tits") or soften Leary's odious image. What you see next Wednesday (assuming you aren't watching The West Wing) is pretty much what the two wrote and turned in to the network, according to Tolan and Ginsburg Carlson.
The latter insists there's historical precedent for a show like The Job, explaining it's both a familiar cop show (à la NYPD Blue) and a daring comedy with a lead character who's at once loathsome and lovable (Ginsburg Carlson refers to both All in the Familyand M*A*S*H, which is pushing it, but not entirely inaccurate). The networks have had little luck of late promoting shows with obnoxious, or at least complex, lead characters. Just last season, Fox was quick to pull the plug on the laugh-trackless half-hour comedy Action, in which Jay Mohr played a heartless film-studio exec, and ABC killed Sports Night despite its overwhelming critical acclaim. But that hasn't stopped the networks from trying to create a series like The Larry Sanders Show, so who better to turn to than the man who helped launch it in 1992?
"I would say that during the last couple of years, those shows [Actionand Sports Night] have been guinea pigs, and the audiences have gotten used to watching those kind of things," Ginsburg Carlson says. "Even though they didn't succeed, they played an important role in opening our minds as a culture to different kinds of shows."
Perhaps, but the highest-rated shows on the networks still look and smell an awful lot like TV did in the 1950s: medical dramas, hourlong cop shows, courtroom dramas and game shows (even those sold under the rubric of reality TV), and the good ol' suburban sitcoms are what Americans keeps tuning in, even if it's only so they can tune out at the end of a long day. No matter how much the networks know they desperately need to change their content in order to compete with the HBOs and Comedy Centrals of the satellite world, they keep finding themselves flogging the same dinosaurs. Despite its acclaim, Everybody Loves Raymondis nothing more than yet another mundane, disposable sitcom -- The Honeymooners, worn bare from years of recycling.
But the networks aren't entirely to blame; viewers get what they demand, which is too often canned laughs gone sour. Networks would no longer allow Seinfeld or Hill Street Blues or Cheers-- all of which languished at the bottom of the ratings during their first years on the air. They'd be axed by week six . . . or maybe week two. The networks don't know what they need to be: cutting-edge or dull as a butter knife. Audiences insist they want better, but when it's offered, they cry foul and disappear into the shallow end of the kiddy pool.
"You get a message from the American viewership that says, 'You know what? You're losing your audience year after year, because we're not interested in what you're showing us,'" Tolan says. "And so there's the initial idea of, 'We gotta change what we're putting on the air,' but talking about change and actually changing takes a very long time. There's this glacial movement, and that's not a bad thing. That's just the way the business moves -- very slowly. Here's another shot, and if it's too early, then we'll be sunk, God knows.
"There's no such thing as a build for this stuff, especially for a show like this, where it's a risk. You'd better perform early, and perform often, or you're screwed. The guys at ABC, though, they certainly are recognizing they have to do something different. These are the guys who brought you Millionaire and continue to bring it to you ad nauseam at this point, but nevertheless, that was probably the biggest programming decision of the year except for Survivorfor quite a while. Obviously, they recognize they need to do something different, and this is their response. And you know what? They hope, they hope, they hopethat this works."
But if it doesn't, don't be surprised. It just might be your fault.