Binge-watching THE AMERICANS

the_americansWhile my wife is away, I’ve been binging on THE AMERICANS because so many people have told me it’s a great show. I am now at the end of season 3. There are things I like about the series, but I think it has a fatal flaw. The producers are asking the viewers to sympathize with, and root for, a married couple of Russian spies who routinely kill innocent American civilians. I find myself actually rooting for the couple to get caught. One particular storyline in season two had them pursued by a “killer” in the U.S. military … a gay officer blackmailed into betraying his country. He kills a Russian spy who tries to kill him…and, when several innocent Americans are killed as a result of intelligence he provided, he starts murdering Russian spies. As much as the producers tried to portray him as a bad guy who was putting our “heroes” in jeopardy, I actually saw him as the hero…a man who realizes he has made a terrible mistake and seeks justifiable vengeance. I just saw a season 3 episode where the heroine forces a sweet, innocent old lady to kill herself. The heroine sheds a tear over it, but that hardly redeems her character, who has killed so many innocent people that I’ve lost count. What keeps me watching are the storylines involving a decent but tormented FBI agent, but it’s hard to watch a series when you loath the central characters. I’ll finish Season 3 but I’m not sure I will stick around for season 4, which is waiting on my Tivo.

2016-2017 TV Season Review: NOTORIOUS and WESTWORLD

NOTORIOUS - ABC's “Notorious" stars Piper Perabo as Julia and Daniel Sunjata as Jake. (ABC/Kevin Foley)
NOTORIOUS – ABC’s “Notorious” stars Piper Perabo as Julia and Daniel Sunjata as Jake. (ABC/Kevin Foley)

I missed the pilot of NOTORIOUS but I watched episode two… or I should say, I endured 3/4s of the episode before I decided to stop torturing myself.  It’s a show about a TV news show producer (Piper Perabo) and a celebrity lawyer (Daniel Sunjata), and how their two worlds, media and the law, are entwined. The series wants so desperately to be shocking, racy and daring… but it feels like a rehash of the worst elements of SCANDAL, DYNASTY and LA LAW all mixed together in a blender with a book of cliches. It’s all beautiful, cardboard characters in gorgeous clothes in brightly-lit sets being oh-so-naughty…and yet it feels so tame, so forced, so fake. A behind-the-scenes moment with the female newscaster, playing strip poker with a camera man, is just one of the cringe-inducingly-fake situations that make this show so painful in its attempts to be scandalous.  NOTORIOUS is the television equivalent of the fake wood trim that’s supposed to make the interior of a Chevy Impala feel luxurious. The only thing notorious and NOTORIOUS is that it got on the air at all.

After a week or so of slogging through dreck,  I have finally seen one new fall show that’s worth watching. Not surprisingly, it’s on HBO and not one of the broadcast networks. WESTWORLD takes a familiar premise — an amusement park full of robots where nothing can go wrong — and gives it a twist. In this telling, it’s the robots who are the  heroes… and the guests who are the bad guys. Imagine a version of JURASSIC PARK where everybody is rooting for the dinosaurs and that’s the conceit of WESTWORLD (both WESTWORLD and JURASSIC PARK were creations of Michael Crichton). But it’s clear the writers are going for something deeper and richer than simply shifting your rooting interest…and I’m eager to discover what it is. And that they are doing it with WESTWORLD, the 1970s movies that essentially started the “robot amusement park goes wrong” genre, makes it even more subversive.

My only problem with the show is that, at least in the pilot, they’ve tipped those scales too far the other way. All the human characters are unlikeable. They aren’t nuanced at all. The humans are bad, bad, bad…while the robots are tragic, imprisoned figures being horribly, and repeatedly abused in just about every way.

The production values, starting with the stunning main title sequence, are top-notch, so much so that you can almost forget, but not quite, that you’re seeing the same western sets that have been used in dozens of other TV shows and movies.

The cast is exceptional, too, though it’s a shame to see Sidse Babett Knudsen, the wonderful star of BORGEN (one of my favorite series) playing such a one-dimensional baddie. It’s a waste of her considerable talent but a joy to see her again nonetheless. I hope we’ll see her “human” character become less robotic…as the “robots” become more human.

2016-2017 TV Season Review: BULL

Michael Weatherly as Dr. Jason Bull in a drama inspired by the early career of Dr. Phil McGraw. Photo: Patrick Harbron/CBS ©2016 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Weatherly as Dr. Jason Bull in a drama inspired by the early career of Dr. Phil McGraw. Photo: Patrick Harbron/CBS ©2016 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

CBS has been riding high on crime procedurals now for several decades and its getting harder and harder for them to find  fresh franchises that aren’t just new editions of CSI, NCIS or CRIMINAL MINDS in different cities…or reboots of old procedurals. BULL isn’t it. The series, based loosely on the life of Dr. Phil, is about a shrink (Michael Weatherly) who uses psychology, surveillance, investigation, computer hacking, and manipulation to select and influence juries.  The problem, at least in the slickly-produced pilot, is that there’s nobody to root for.  It’s a show about how obscenely rich people can manipulate/game the justice system to get the result they want. And, in the pilot, it’s all about a  smug, obnoxious, rich kid accused of killing a teenage Asian girl, herself a drug dealer, that he had sex with at a party (he hog tied another naked girl in an S&M pose, and posted pictures of her on social media, but didn’t sleep with her). Bull doesn’t know if the kid is innocent or not — his job is just to get the kid off. Everybody involved on the story, including Bull and his TV-perfect team, is either unsympathetic or repugnant…nobody is the least bit likeable. So who are you supposed to root for? Of course Bull discovers late in the game that the kid is just horribly misunderstood, unloved, sexually conflicted and innocent of murder…but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s nobody in the story for the viewer to give a damn about. So what’s the franchise? I assume that each week Bull is hired by someone very rich to influence and manipulate the jury in the criminal trial of someone who may or may not be innocent (but who, of course, will always turn out to be innocent, because our hero can’t be seen using his superpowers to get a bad guy off). Is that a series? Maybe it is. But not one I’m interested in seeing.

2016-2017 TV Season Review: MacGYVER

 Lucas Till. Photo: Annette Brown/CBS ©2016 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Lucas Till. Photo: Annette Brown/CBS ©2016 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved

I don’t think I’ve seen more than a couple episodes of the original MacGYVER, so I went into CBS’ new reboot with a totally open mind and no nostalgic baggage. I could look at it as a new series, rather than comparing it to my memories of a beloved old show. I wasn’t wowed. In fact, it was a battle to keeping watching and not check my email, browse my Facebook feed, or nod off. Without the existing IP to ride on, I doubt this pilot would have sold.

The episode opened with a James Bond-esque action sequence…featuring young, tuxedoed secret agent Angus MacGyver (played charmlessly by Lucas Till) who uses found objects as weapons, tools, etc. and who never seems to take the danger around him seriously. The same could be said for his back-up Jack Dalton, (George Eads from CSI), who presumably is the muscle and the comic relief…though he didn’t offer any muscle and or laughs. He was MacGyver’s ride…driving the boat, or van, or chopper while MacGyver did his heroics. MacGyver’s expositional and cheerleading team also includes the default procedural character: the smoking hot female computer hacker with a criminal past (the other choices for this default computer hacker being 1. a clever kid, 2. a smart ass in a wheelchair or 3. a geeky with no social skills) who can get into any system in a split second. And all three agents have a cold, but thin and attractive, female boss (Sandrine Holt) who is a boss in title only since she takes orders from MacGyver, Dalton and the smoking hot computer hacker…and apparently has no other agents under her command. Her job is to assign the missions, stress the stakes, and then tell them all the things they can’t do, but that they will do anyway, and that she will then agree with, as if she’s under a spell. Come to think of it, the boss seemed to be in an expressionless trance for most of the episode.

The pilot story was simple, and the “twist” obvious, but it worked as a simple springboard for the action sequences that probably read big on paper but somehow played small on screen. It all adds up to the TV equivalent of Captain Crunch. I don’t think I’ll be going back for a second bowl.

BTW, this was actually the second pilot shot for this reboot — the original pilot was entirely scrapped along with everyone in the cast except Till and Eads. That said, the promotional clip from the scrapped pilot looked a lot more entertaining than the episode I saw.

 

2016-2017 TV Season Review: THIS IS US and LETHAL WEAPON

LETHAL WEAPON: L-R: Damon Wayans and Clayne Crawford in LETHAL WEAPON coming soon to FOX. ©2016 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Richard Foreman/FOX
LETHAL WEAPON: L-R: Damon Wayans and Clayne Crawford in LETHAL WEAPON coming soon to FOX. ©2016 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Richard Foreman/FOX

THIS IS US is an unbearably schmaltzy dramedy about–actually, I don’t know what the hell it’s about. The pilot showed us three cardboard characters on their 36th birthdays trying way, way, way too hard to be lovable, thoughtful, tender and sympathetic while dealing with all kinds of cutesy, cliche-ridden, TV-show problems… contrasted with a lovable, thoughtful, tender, and sympathetic couple about to give birth to triplets on the father’s 36th birthday. It’s enough to make you wish the show came with air sickness bags. The big twist at the end of the pilot was obvious from the get-go. This felt like a feature script cut down to 44 minutes, but was too long even at that length. It’s not clear to me where the series is supposed to go from here. All I know is that I won’t be going with it.

LETHAL WEAPON isn’t the worst buddy cop movie-to-TV series adaptation, but it may be one of the dumbest. It’s every bit as watered-down and unmemorable as the TV versions of FOUL PLAY, FREEBIE & THE BEAN, MIDNIGHT RUN and last season’s RUSH HOUR…and nowhere near as good as ALIEN NATION, which actually bested the movie. Clayne Crawford isn’t bad as Martin Riggs, the role originated by Mel Gibson, but he has zero chemistry with Damon Wayons, who is utterly unconvincing as Roger Murtaugh, played in the movies by Danny Glover. Wayons treats the role like he’s in a skit, giving a superficial performance that gives Crawford nothing to work with. That said, neither actor is helped by the lazy script, which does fine with the action scenes but offers a truly lame “mystery” for the cops to solve that undermines the integrity, such as it is, of both characters. Riggs and Murtaugh are presented as two very dumb cops, matched only by the stupidity of their boss and the medical examiner. Audiences today, schooled by decades of CSI and LAW & ORDER, might be willing to suspend their disbelief for a show, but this one requires a frontal lobotomy.

 

 

 

 

2016-2017 TV Season Review: DESIGNATED SURVIVOR

neon_0001_largeI’ve only watched one new show so far among the many debuts that are cramming my Tivo… DESIGNATED SURVIVOR. It’s a great idea, but the execution left me cold. it’s a show about a low-level cabinet member, played by Kiefer Sutherland, who becomes president when the U.S. Capitol is bombed during the State of the Union address. You know he’s unprepared to lead because he wears glasses.

I was intrigued by the politics of the concept but the cliche mad general, the network-required family crap (the perfect wife, the adorable daughter, the the drug dealing son, seemingly all computer generated by screenwriting software), pulled me right out of the show. So did the lame stuff with the hero’s chief of staff,a supporting character who couldn’t get into the White House… and then somehow did in the midst of a nightmare terror scenario. Then she couldn’t see the president…then somehow got into the Oval Office. That’s either sloppy writing or sloppy editing — it’s a toss up which is to blame. I won’t be returning for episode two.

On a side note, it seems to me that we now have a record number of shows about the White House on television — HOUSE OF CARDS, SCANDAL, VEEP, MADAM SECRETARY, 24: REBOOTED, and now DESIGNATED SURVIVOR. (Maybe I’ve even overlooked a couple). I think before THE WEST WING came along, the only network show about the White House was Fox’s short-lived MR. PRESIDENT…but I could be wrong about that.

The Best of the Worst is Back

The Best TV Shows That Never Were by Lee Goldberg

The Best TV Shows That Never Were by Lee GoldbergI’m delighted that my book  The Best TV Shows That Never Were was published this week in slick ebook and trade paperback editions.  But it’s not a new book. It was originally published back in 1991, following the enormous success of my big, fat hardcover Unsold Television Pilots 1955-1989 (which is coming out very soon as an ebook, for the first time ever, and for the first time in a new, single volume trade paperback edition). The original plan by Citadel Press back in ’91 was simply to release that book as a paperback. But when that proved too costly, the publisher decided they wanted a slim “Best Of” edition instead. I thought it was a mistake, but reluctantly went along with the idea, figuring it might be the first in a series of books. A pilot of its own, so-to-speak…

They gave the book the unwieldy and misleading title Unsold TV Pilots: The Almost Complete Guide to Everything You Never Saw on TV, 1955-1990. Even so, the book was a big success and established the format for the two, hour-long network TV specials that would follow: The Greatest Shows You Never Saw on CBS and The Best TV Shows That Never Were on ABC. I figured TV specials made much more sense than book sequels, and were also a lot more lucrative financially, so that was where I focused my energy (that said, the section in this book on TV series revivals did inspire me to write a spin-off book on the subject, which was published in 1993, and that I’ll soon be re-releasing, updated and revised, as Television Fast Forward).

There have been hundreds of great … and truly terrible… unsold pilots in the years since this book was first published, but I haven’t added any of them to this edition, though I’ve added some new information here and there. Perhaps I’ll do a new, sequel volume some day…or, more likely, another TV special. Until then, I hope you enjoy the 300 pilots in this book!

 

A Feast for TV History Buffs

Roy HugginsTwo new books from McFarland & Co. are a feast for TV history buffs.

Roy Huggins by Paul Green explores in great detail the TV career of writer/producer Roy Huggins, creator (or co-creator) of such classic shows as Maverick, The Fugitive, 77 Sunset Strip, Toma, Baretta, The Rockford Files, The Bold Ones: The Lawyers, and Run For Your Life, as well as the driving force behind the creation of the “TV movie.” He also produced many other series, including The Virginian, Cheyenne, Hunter, Kraft Suspense Theater, and Alias Smith and Jones, to name a few. The book is based on dozens of personal interviews, Huggins’ own unpublished memoirs, newspaper & magazine articles, as well as my own, six-hour video interview with Huggins for The Archive of American Television.

It’s a great book, exploring all of the creative issues, production details, political machinations (studio and network), and personnel matters  (his relationships with actors, writers, producers etc), that shaped the weekly series, TV movies, pilots and mini-series that Huggins made as a producer, studio chief, and later as a hired gun. It’s exactly the kind of book that I wish somebody would write about Stephen J. Cannell, Glen A. Larson, Fred Silverman, Steven Bochco, Bruce Geller, Goff & Roberts, Levinson & Link, and so many other TV producers.

Green clearly admires Huggins, but is not so enamored of his subject that he ignores the producer’s faults, mistakes and failures. This is a serious, well-researched, information-packed reference work that is nonetheless an easy and engaging read. You don’t have to be familiar with Huggins’ shows to find the behind-the-scenes stories both fascinating and informative. This book isn’t just for fans of Roy Huggins or his shows — it’s a must-read for students of TV history and anyone interested in a career as a TV series show runner. It’s hands-down one of the best books ever written about a TV producer…or being one.

Everyone knows about George Burns the actor and comic, but few people these days are aware of his influence as a TV producer and head of a successful production company. Much like Desi Arnaz, another major actor/producer/studio chief of the 1950s and 1960s, Burns did ground-breaking work that is still influencing TV writers and producers today. That’s why Richard Irvin’s George Burns Television Productions: The Series and Pilots 1950-1981 is a much overdue and necessary piece of TV scholarship.

George BurnsBurns famously broke the fourth wall with his Burns & Allen Show, about a showbiz couple with a TV show playing a showbiz couple with a TV show. He also produced such series as The Bob Cummings Show and Mr. Ed, and many of the writers, directors and producers that he worked with and supported went on to create huge hit series (like Paul Henning, who went on to create The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres).  Burns and his company refined the art of using episodes as spin-off pilots, though none of the ones he did on Burns and Allen, or on Mr. Ed or The Bob Cummings Show, ever took off.

Irvin’s fine book delves extensively into every business and creative aspect of the Burns & Allen Show, the Bob Cummings Show, and The People’s Choice, as well as every single project that Burns’ production company ever produced…every series, every pilot, and even the stuff that never got made. It’s one of the few books about the history of a TV production company and its a strong one…and for that reason alone, Irvin and McFarland & Co are to be commended. This is clearly a labor of love for author and publisher…because outside of a few diehard TV historians, and TV geeks like me, I can’t imagine there’s much, if any, market for a book with such a narrow focus. Unlike Roy Huggins, this is not a book that is a must-read for scholars or wanna-be TV show runners. You’d have to already be interested in the shows that George Burns produced, or in unsold pilots in general, or in 1950s and 60s TV history, to find this book worthwhile. For me, it was a home run. I loved it.

A note on my biases/possible conflicts of interest: I bought my copy of Roy Huggins, because I have a strong interest in his work. I’ve admired Huggins since I was a kid. I interviewed Huggins many times during my career as a journalist. In fact, I went into this expecting to be disappointed, to find very little “meat,” lots of errors, and to learn little that I didn’t already know. I was very pleased to be wrong. I’ve also worked with Jo Swerling Jr., who is quoted frequently in the book, during my time as a writer/producer at Stephen J. Cannell Productions. And, finally,  I was a writer on Hunter, but several seasons after Huggins produced the show.

I received a review copy of George Burns Television Productions from McFarland & Co, which published my reference books Unsold Television Pilots, Television Series Revivals, and Science Fiction Filmmaking in the 1980s over twenty years ago.

The Back-Door onto PrimeTime

Patricia Arquette, right, stars in CSI: Cyber, a backdoor pilot which aired on CSI, which features Elisabeth Shue (left)
Patricia Arquette, right, stars in CSI: Cyber, a backdoor pilot which aired on CSI, which features Elisabeth Shue (left)

Last week, CBS picked up two series for next fall — CSI: Cyber and NCIS: New Orleans — that were shot as so-called “back-door pilots,” embedded in episodes of existing series. CSI:Cyber aired as an episode of CSI and NCIS: New Orleans aired as an episode of NCIS (which, itself, began as a back-door pilot as an episode of JAG).

A back-door pilot is a way to save money on making a pilot, a sample episode of a proposed TV series. Since standalone pilots that don’t lead to a seires cost millions of dollars, have no commerical value, and will usually never air anywhere, shooting them as an episode of an existing series allows studios to recoup their costs from the syndication revenue of a hit series. It’s a practice that has been going on for fifty years — The Andy Griffith Show began as a back-door pilot episode of The Danny Thomas Show.

The problem is, backdoor pilots usually end up being one of the worst episodes of whatever series is hosting them. That’s because the stars of the host series, by design, have to take a back seat to the stars of the pilot…and let’s face it, people aren’t tuning in to see the pilot characters, they are tuning in to see the characters they already know and love.  Star Trek ended it’s second season with Assignment Earth, a back-door pilot starring Robert Lansing, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended it’s second season with a back-door pilot for a series with Bill Daily. Both pilots failed to sell.

The networks and producers can’t really disguise backdoor pilots — because they can’t function as pilots without being pilots, introducing us to the characters and franchise of the proposed show. But it’s a practice that has worked.

Some of hit shows that began as backdoor pilots (also known, some years back, as “nested spin-offs”) include Diagnosis Murder, NCIS, CSI: Miami, Maude, SWAT, Petticoat Junction, Laverne  & Shirley, Barnaby Jones, Empty Nest, Knots Landing, and Stargate: Atlantis.

The many, many shows that have hosted one or more backdoor pilots include Magnum PI, Cosby, Spenser: For Hire, Star Trek, Vegas, Bones, Married With Children, Gunsmoke, The Practice, Charlie’s Angels, Barnaby Jones, NCIS, Ironside, Criminal Minds, Murder She Wrote, Smallville, House and The Rockford Files (which had four of’em!). Back in the day, anthology shows like Zane Grey Theater, Dick Powell Theater, and Police Story (which begat Police Woman, Joe Forrester and David Cassidy: Man Undercover)  were often used for back-door pilots.

Bill Rabkin and I were the executive producers of Diagnosis Murder with Fred Silverman, the man who once ran CBS, ABC and NBC and was known as the “king of the spin-off.” Since Diagnosis Murder was a nested spinoff of Jake and the Fatman, which itself was a nested spin-off of Matlock, Silverman was a big believer in backdoor pilots and  insisted that we do at least one every season. Diagnosis Murder tried at least six of them that I know of and they all went nowhere.

We personally did three of them, including Whistlers, basically a tame Lethal Weapon with women, and The Chief, starring Fred Dryer as the leader of the LAPD. Here’s  the main title sequence for Whistlers:

and the sales pitch for The Chief:

 

We were very clever with how we structured The Chief as a back-door pilot…and it was the only one of the Diagnosis Murder backdoor pilots that actually had a shot getting picked up.

We wrote it as a tw0-hour, sweeps episode of the series…but crafted it in such a way that we could edit it down to one-hour and cut almost all of the Diagnosis Murder cast out of the show for internal sales purposes

Fred Dryer was great in the part…and newcomer Neal McDonough had real star power (since proven on Band of Brothers, Justified, Desperate Housewives, etc.). We were sure we were on to something. The two-hour movie was one of the highest rated shows of the week, #12 if memory serves, and when we had the one-hour version tested, the scores were among the best Fred Silverman had ever seen. Silverman was convinced we were a lock for the fall schedule.

Unfortunately, this was one of the rare cases where ratings and testing didn’t mean as much to the network as personality…nobody at CBS wanted to work with Fred Dryer (which begs the question, why did CBS let us cast him, and why did they pay the  “pilot breakage” on his salary for the guest shot, if they had no intention of greenlighting a series with him in the lead?).

But Silverman wasn’t concerned. With the numbers and testing we had, and with Dryer’s successful track record with the hit series Hunter, he was convinced we’d have a sale in a matter of weeks with another network.  

We took it to every network and pitched it face-to-face to their presidents (that was the power of working with Silverman), and every one of them had some personal reason for not wanting to be in business with Dryer…and seemed to take great pleasure in passing on the project in the room to his implacable face.

As it turned out, a couple of years later CBS did a very simlar show (The District) with great success and a star reportedly as difficult as Dryer reportedly was (Craig T. Nelson)…and NBC ended up reviving Hunter for six episodes and discovered, or so we heard, that Dryer was even more reportedly difficult than he’d ever reportedly been before.

I guess we dodged a bullet.

These are the Voyages

51ujI2AttuL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_After nearly fifty years, I thought there wasn’t anything more to be said, or any more books that could possibly be mined, from the original Star Trek. Hasn’t that show been talked about, and examined to death, down to every last detail?

You’d think so. But then along came These Are The Voyages: Season One by Marc Cushman and it may be the best book yet about the production of the series and one of the best books ever written about any TV show. It’s a shame the book is presented as yet another fan-written curio for the diehard trekker…because it’s a must-read for students of television, and aspiring TV writers, regardless of whether they watched, or liked, Star Trek.

These Are The Voyages is an exhaustively detailed look at the writing and nuts-and-bolts production of every single episode, from the first, failed pilot onward. Everything in the book, like a TV series, starts with the scripts…and Cushman walks us through every draft and every change, whether they were prompted by creative issues, budgetary concerns, production issues, or network notes.

The author relies on extensive interviews with the show’s surviving writers, producers, directors, and actors (and archival interviews with those who have passed away) and never-before-released memos, budgets, shooting schedules, and other internal documents. Best of all, Cushman manages to remain, with only a few slips, remarkably objective and scholarly about his subject, leaving the book refreshingly free of the kind of cringe-inducing, fannish drool that usually typifies books about “cult” shows and Star Trek in particular.

These Are the Voyages is a treasure trove of information and a fascinating look at how a TV show is written and produced…and all of the forces that shape it. I’m eagerly looking forward to the next two volumes.