Jumping into the Frying Pan

Bryce Zabel gives readers an inside look at the development and production of M.A.N.T.I.S., the first TV series about a black superhero.

Anyway, the deal was, "M.A.N.T.I.S."
had started as a two-hour pilot, written by Sam Hamm (“Batman”) and
directed by Sam Raimi (“Spider-Man”). The two Sams had a disagreement
with Fox about how the series should go, and walked away from their own
project. Fox still wanted to do the series, but somebody needed to make
the changes and run the show. Both Hamm and Raimi were extremely
gracious and understanding in the transition, nothing was made
personal, and the series lived.

For me, that’s a pure TV moment. Bryce mentions it casually…but it’s outrageous and insane. And yet, this kind of thing happens so often in TV, we take it as normal. But think about it: Two guys create, produce and direct a pilot, praying that it will sell…and when it does, they end up walking away from the show. And Fox, who ordered the pilot and bought the show based on their vision, lets them go.  Now the studio and network have to scramble to find someone else… who wasn’t involved with the show before… to take it over and supply a new, creative vision. Fast.  It’s a thankless, no-win situation for the new showrunner but Bryce took it on and made the show his own.  Because he’s a pro.  I’ve been in a similar position two or three times myself (SHE-WOLF OF LONDON, MARTIAL LAW, etc.) and you just dive in, do your best with as much enthusiasm as possible, and try not to think about all the landmines in your path.

10 thoughts on “Jumping into the Frying Pan”

  1. What part of the deal do you think was outrageous: That the changes Fox wanted were enough to make the guys want to walk away, or the guys for not sucking it up and doing what they were told?
    You may be able to think of this when I can’t, but I can’t remember any time I’ve heard of a network butting heads with a show runner, and the result was anything other than a ratings plummet and subsequent cancellation when the network got its way.

  2. I can think of lots of examples. LAW AND ORDER is one… a season or so in, NBC demanded that Dick Wolf bring more women chracters into the regular cast. Wolf was forced to dump Dan Florek and Richard Brooks and replace them with S. Epatha Merkerson and Jill Hennessy…and brought in Carolyn McCormack as a shrink. The ratings almost immediately began going up and demos dramatically improved. At ABC, Fred Silverman told the writer/producers of HAPPY DAYS to focus more of the stories on Fonzie, a secondary character, and the ratings shot up. If I am not mistaken, I believe it was the studio that insisted that Joe Straczynski dump the wooden, dull, utterly boring actor who starred in the first season of BABYLON 5 and replace him with Bruce Boxleitner…
    I could go on and on…
    The network isn’t always wrong…and their notes aren’t always stupid. Sometimes they can see glaring problems or missed opportunities better than the showrunners can. Sometimes altering the focus of the show, or tweaking the franchise a little, or recasting, or bringing a secondary character to the forefront, can turn a failure into a hit.

  3. I remember mantis. Thought the pilot was good. the series when to pot when they started adding beyond the pilot concept.
    Like I enjoyed the flash series in the 90’s. But making him move fast was expensive?
    Can someone translate for me? Seriously. It’s been bugging me.

  4. Thank you for the examples. I thought I might trip myself making the statement I did, but I learned a bit in the process.
    As for B5, JMS said in 94 that it was a mutual decision between himself, Doug Netter and O’Hare, and I don’t think he’s the type of person that would sit idly by while the network pushed him around like that.
    It’s interesting to me, as a person that’s obviously not been in a position to know these kinds of things yet, to see how people react to notes differently. Craig Mazin, at least as far as screenwriting goes, thinks eating bad notes as long as they aren’t deathly bad can do far more good than harm (within reason), and I’ve heard JMS make this same argument but for a different reason. Yet the fight between JMS and TNT over Crusade notes is almost legendary.
    I suppose the lesson is take the notes, try it their way, explain why it’s bad and not working, and save the fights for the big things.

  5. I think this could be a case of, to use William Goldman’s fabulous quote, “NO ONE KNOWS ANYTHING.” It’s impossible to predict accurately what will or won’t work in a movie or series, and I firmly believe it’s ALL a crap shoot. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes you’re right, sometimes someone else is right.
    Most of us have grown up with James Bond. On the special edition DVD, there’s a piece about “The Making of DOCTOR NO”, and one of the most repeated comments from those who were involved in the production of what was supposed to be a medium level thriller (maybe a B+ picture) is “Who knew?” and “No one had any IDEA…”
    On paper, I’m sure ISHTAR looked fantastic. Goldman nailed it. NO ONE KNOWS ANYTHING.

  6. I’ve heard two different stories from JMS about O’Hare leaving at the end of the first season of Babylon 5. I’ve heard it was a mutual decision, but I’ve also heard that the powers that be wanted it. (Whoever they might be since it was syndicated.) I’ve always figured the network pushed for it, but everyone else was already thinking about it.
    Of course, when they brought O’Hare back to close off his arc in season 3, the network loved him again, the ratings were good, and they asked if JMS could work him into the story again. The response was something like “I just sent him back in time 1000 years. I don’t think it’s possible.”

  7. Actually, B5 originally aired on PTEN, the Prime Time Entertainment Network, which ironically is about to resurface as TheCW. (PTEN was a joint venture between Chris Craft’s United, which went on to become the U in UPN, and Warner Bros., which went on to launch TheWB.)
    When PTEN folded, TNT picked up the final season. Cuz they know drama.
    Speaking of drama, then came Crusade – Mark

  8. http://jmsnews.com/msg.aspx?id=1-9044&query=Michael%20o'hare
    His word is definitive as far as the shows production staff is concerned, so unless someone from WB steps up and makes a statement that contradicts this (and as far as I know, they haven’t in over a *decade*, and neither has Michael), I’m going to go with my guy.
    If there is one thing I’ve learned about Joe, it’s that he would not hesitate for a moment to tell people if it wasn’t his choice. He is very vocal about this sort of thing.
    (I apologize Lee, for hijacking your comments with this, I’ll stop now. Thanks again for your response.)

  9. Guilty as charged…
    ..BUT I wouldn’t compare blog posts to writing a script or a novel. No offense to you, my dear readers, but I don’t put that much attention or effort. These are basically unadulterated blatherings on my part… I don’t carefully craft the posts the way I would a book, script or magazine article.


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