Binge-Reading TV Books

12525180-spinning-laughter-smallI love books about television shows, and occasionally movies, and after delivering the manuscript of my latest novel I binged on them. Here are some of the ones that stood out, for better or worse.

Spinning Laughter: Profiles of 111 Proposed Comedy Spin-offs and Sequels that Never Became a Series by Richard Irvin

I fell in love with this book the instant I read the title. It was as if this book was written specifically for me…a guy who once wrote a book on every TV series idea rejected by the networks since the dawn of the medium. I mean, who else would buy a book about 111 sitcom spin-off pilots that went nowhere? Well, you should, my friend. Because if you love television, and if you’re interested in how this crazy business works, this is a must-read. This is virtually a sequel to Irvin’s marvelous Forgotten Laughs, his book about extraordinarily short-lived sitcoms and written with the same breezy style and indepth research, which involves more than just sorting through old TV Guides (as so many writers of TV reference books do). Irvin has gone out and, in many cases, interviewed the key writers, producers and actors involved in the aborted spin-offs. Where else will you learn about the aborted spinoffs from such short-lived failures as It Had to Be You, That’s My Mama, and All American Girl? Or learn about the five, count’em FIVE, intended spin-offs from The Facts of Life (itself a spinoff from Diff’rent Strokes?) You gotta get this book. And, if you are a true student of television, also buy Forgotten Laughs and Irvin’s George Burns TV Productions.

512Y7hFq7fL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_TV Finales FAQ by Stephen Tropiano and Holly Van Buren

This an informative and useful book… despite some clunky writing, poor editing, and puzzling omissions. The writers do a good job giving detailed information on the creative arc of each series leading up to their finales, which are explored in-depth. The critical and “fan” response to the finales is also explored in detail. Series finales aren’t limited to dramas or sitcoms. They cover many genres, including talk shows and soaps. Most of the content appears to be based on personal viewing and quotes lifted from previously published material…other reference books are frequently quoted and cited. Few interviews appears to have been done specifically for this book, which is a weakness and gives the book a “reheated leftovers” feel, as if its simply an accumulation of data already covered by others.. Most of the finales you expect to be discussed in a book about TV finales are discussed (Newhart, Mary Tyler Moore, St. Elsewhere, Sopranos, The Fugitive, etc.  etc)… but, strangely, they also include final episodes that were never intended by the producers as finales (like “The Sharecroppers” episode of Gunsmoke) and finales for shortlived shows like I Married Dora  and Ugly Betty, and yet totally omit the blockbuster final episodes of popular shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation, Law & Order, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Jag, Who’s the Boss  and Star Trek Voyager. It’s not clear what the authors’ criteria for inclusion or exclusion was in their book.

The biggest problem with the book, however, is the clunky writing and terrible editing. The listing for Magnum PI is a perfect example of the editorial problems that plague the book. On page 59, they mention that the original pilot featured a hero who had gadgets, “including a hand glider that doubles as a machine gun.” Hand glider?? That’s a typo, and could be forgiven, if there weren’t so many other editorial problems with the book.

On the same page as that typo, there’s this inane sentence: “Selleck liked Bellisario’s writing as he had read his script for a proposed series entitled Gypsy Warriors (1978) in which Selleck and James Whitmore Jr. played a pair of World War II espionage agents posing as gypsies in France and Germany.” Well duh, OF COURSE Selleck read the script. It would be difficult to star in the pilot film WITHOUT reading the script, wouldn’t it? Lame sentence. An editor would have caught that…assuming the book was edited.

There’s more. On the same page, the authors write about how Bellisario purportedly rewrote Glen A. Larson’s Magnum pilot by using a busted pilot of his own as a starting point: “A few years back, Bellisario had written a script entitled H.H. Flynn about three Vietnam vets: Rick, a club owner who idolizes Humphrey Bogart; TC, a helicopter pilot; and Magnum, a private investigator who lives in a guest house on a Bel Air estate owned by the ‘florist to the stars.'” Really? The hero’s name was Magnum in a pilot called H.H Flynn? C’mon, guys.

The book is rife with bizarre sentences like those and its a shame. Even so, I would still recommend this book for your TV reference library.

512mjlH9VSL._AC_UL320_SR214,320_Bronson’s Loose Again by Paul Talbot

I didn’t think Paul Talbot could top Bronson’s Loose … but he’s managed to do it in Bronson’s Loose Again, his terrific over view of Charles Bronson’s films outside of the Death Wish franchise. It’s full of great interviews and insights into the development, production, and ultimate success (or failure) of his films and TV movies. You don’t have to be a Bronson fan to enjoy this book…it’s a must-read for anyone interested in the business behind how movies get made…and why they don’t. For instance, there’s a fascinating anecdote in the chapter on Love & Bullets about the unfilmed Bronson project Power…based on a rejected script in the Dirty Harry franchise. The movie was later made as Firepower starring James Coburn. And here lies the seed of what could be Paul’s next great book…the inside story on all the films made from rejected Dirty Harry scripts (like Chuck Norris’ Code of Silence and Fred Williamson’s The Big Score).

The World of Shaft by Steve Aldous 

A wonderful, fascinating, well-researched, and extremely detailed look into every permutation of Shaft… from the books, to the feature films, and on through the TV movies. It’s everything a Shaft fan could want, filled with terrific details on the writing and development of the books and films. An excellent resource for anyone interested in Shaft or simply how a franchise is handled — or, perhaps, mishandled — across various mediums. Strongly recommended!!

My Life as a Situation Comedy by Bill Persky

I so, so, so wanted to love this book. I have been a big fan of Persky’s work for decades. I was hoping for a memoir that offered a behind-the-scenes look at the writing and production of his shows. There’s some of that in this book… but for the most part it’s a meandering, rambling, unfocused, and ultimately deeply disappointing, mess. There’s a lot of stuff about Persky’s personal life and not nearly enough about his professional life. That said, even as a personal memoir, it’s a meandering, rambling, unfocused mess. So it doesn’t really work on any level. A real missed opportunuty.

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.

12 TV Shows That Changed Their Theme Song

I love TV themes. The best ones become iconic, part of our cultural fabric… like Hawaii Five-O, Peter Gunn, Star Trek, The Addams Family and The Brady Bunch to name just a few. But several famous shows completed scrapped their opening themes… some early on as they were finding their way and some later in their runs to revitalize the series. Here are 12 examples (three of them shows that I worked on):

Kojak


Bonanza


Lost in Space

Season 1
Season 3

Magnum PI


Land of the Giants
Season 1
Season 2

Simon & Simon


The Avengers


SeaQuest


Space: 1999


Walker Texas Ranger


Monk


Martial Law
Season One
Season Two