Network meddling has never improved a TV show! It’s generally drained it of originality and edge, which can lead to a bland sameness to a lot of television.
Here are a few shows that started out strongly, before running headlong into the network shredder.
This amazing dark comedy on HBO, with Thomas Haden Church and Sarah Jessica Parker, charted the destruction of a marriage and each hilariously awful step in the divorce process, years before A Marriage Story won accolades for doing exactly the same thing with less wit.
Most breathtaking was Parker’s flinty portrayal of Frances, the ambitious, adulterous, selfish and insensitive breadwinner wife. The first season ended with a devastating cliffhanger, an awful twist from which there could be no return. And then … season 2 came along, and everything that had made the show great was gone. A new showrunner, Jenny Bicks, took over, a former writer on Sex and the City. Frances no longer worked in Manhattan, she cut her hours and took a job closer to home to spend more time with the kids, to be a more traditional and relatable mom. Bicks shrugged away the devastating cliffhanger that ended season one, made the more like Sex in the City (single gals looking for love) and revamped the tone. Everything that was great about the show was gone.
Ned and Stacey
This nifty 1990s satire starred Thomas Haden Church and Debra Messing as a couple in a transactional marriage: he needs a wife to advance his career, and she just needs a place to live in an expensive Manhattan while she tries to advance as a reporter. Well, this was pretty cynical! So in season two, the new producer and new writer jettisoned the “marriage of convenience” plot, Stacey moved out, they started dating other people, and everyone hung around in a coffee/muffin stop, a la Friends. A bunch of “friends” hanging around in a coffee shop might have been a terrific but derivative show, but it wasn’t this show.
This show, which premiered in 1987, promised to chart the ups and downs of the relationship between Matthew Laurance and Mary Page Keller as a novelist and a caterer, from the first meeting till whatever fate had in store. It was charming and sometimes heartbreaking. For season two, the show was rebranded as Open House, and the focus shifted to one of the minor characters, best friend and yuppie Alison LaPlaca. Laurance was written out of the show, and Keller’s character was re-envisioned as a comic-relief stupid person. It was quickly canceled. In some other universe, Duet is still on the air, and Laurance and Keller are celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary, or nursing the wounds from a terrible divorce.
The John Larroquette Show
In the dark and edgy season one, John Larroquette played John Hemingway, a recovering alcoholic who worked as the night manager of a rundown bus station in St. Louis, and who lived in a terrible nearby dump of an apartment. The smart, witty season addressed addiction and “rock bottom” with great humor. But it had low ratings, so in season two, John moved to a spiffy new apartment, started dating a new neighbor, changed to a day shift at the bus station, and moved past his alcoholism. “We’re trying to make it more accessible to a broader audience. We’re trying to make it more fun. We’re trying to make it more upbeat,” NBC Entertainment president, Warren Littlefield, explained in 1994, and the show’s new producer, Rob Schiller, later noted, “We wanted to make it a little more mainstream. We wanted to make it a little more inviting.” But that’s not what made the show great. It was canceled after season two.
In this crime drama’s first season, which aired in 1967, Mannix, played by Mike Conners, was a private detective who worked for a large agency called Intertect, which used computers and modern technology to solve crimes, and is run by an edgy character played by the great Joe Campanella. Mannix, who appears at first glance to be staid, conservative and strait-laced, is clearly hiding a shadowy past, from a secret killing in the Korean War to a covert operation in Latin America that went wrong, and the show’s pervasive hippies often recognized a fellow-traveler in deep cover. In season two, Mannix left Intertect, and worked out of his house in Los Angeles on paper-thin cases. The first season today looks prescient and contemporary. The second season looks dated and tired.
The first two seasons of this 1970s sitcom (set in the 1950s) were a single-camera dramedy full of great period atmosphere. In season three, the network insisted on switching to a multi-camera show with a live audience, filled with awful catch phrases (Sit on it, for example) and buffoonish characters, which is how it is remembered today. Not for nothing, the now-ubiquitous expression “jump the shark” was invented just to describe one especially idiotic Happy Days plot.
This was a witty and charming period piece about a co-ed submarine in World War II, based on a film of the same name. The first season starred John Astin Jamie Lee Curtis, who administered the proceedings with a wry and effortless chemistry. Then, suddenly, the network changed the title to The New Operation Petticoat and replaced most of the cast. Instead of Astin and Curtis, the new cast included Randolph Mantooth and Jo Ann Pflug. (Because Jo Ann Pflug was better than Jamie Lee Curtis … according to the network, anyway.) The second season also changed the tone and format of the show, making it more slapstick and episodic. The episodes featured more absurd situations and guest stars, such as a gorilla, a mermaid and our old friend the Japanese soldier who thinks the war is still on, a 1970s TV staple. The show also moved from Hawaii to California for filming, which was cheaper, but improved nothing.
This was a TV series that aired on NBC from 1981 to 1983, which starred Tony Randall as a gay man who shares his apartment with a single mother and her daughter. Except, except, except … while the two-hour series pilot made Sidney’s orientation absolutely clear, the network ultimately bowed to public pressure from sponsors and conservative groups like Jerry Falwell’s odious “Moral Majority” and promised never to mention it again. By the time the show’s first regular episode aired, Sidney had been changed from a gay man to a “confirmed bachelor” (which I thought was a 19th-century euphemism for gay, but whatever). The show was canceled after two seasons and 44 episodes.
We’ve never actually seen the original, brilliant pilot episode, because NBC never aired it. According to Washington Post critic Tom Shales, the show was originally about an intelligent, competent woman who invented a fictitious male boss to run her detective agency, because people wouldn’t accept a woman as a private eye. She then had to deal with a promiscuous playboy who showed up and claimed to be the real Remington Steele. According to Shales, the show had novelty, sex appeal and a healthy revisionism going for it. However, the show was revised and the woman became weaker, the man more dominant. In the new version, the woman ran squealing for help into the man’s arms when she saw a corpse. According to Shales, the show lost its wit and sauciness, and bothered little with character detail, snatching banality from the jaws of originality; NBC sent back sparkling Dom Perignon and ordered up a flat mug of Blatz. Remington Steele made a lot of people happy and launched Pierce Brosnan’s career, but the original concept sounds unique and interesting, and it’s a shame we never had a chance to see it.
This show had two great things going for it, a weird and towering performance by Daniel Benzali as an immensely strange defense attorney, and its premise: a single case that would stretch over an entire season. For the second season, network pressure to make the show more accessible resulted in Benzali’s firing, and a new format. In other words, a different show, a less interesting one. Which was canceled after its second season.
Content and illustration by Oblivioni.