Monday, August 11, 2008

How's this for a writing problem?

In 1996, after completing the first season of ALMOST PERFECT, my partners on the project (David Isaacs and Robin Schiff) were summoned to New York. We had a hunch it wasn’t because CBS loved us so much and wanted to treat us to a few Broadway shows. It probably was to ask for some tweaking before they picked us up for a second year. The show wasn’t a break-out hit but we were getting decent ratings. And over the summer we were moved into Monday night where we were attracting new fans (at least five that I know of).

The premise of the series: Nancy Travis was juggling the career of her life with the relationship of her life, Kevin Kilner.

Much to our surprise, we were told by the network that they wanted us to drop the boyfriend character. They felt Kevin didn’t test well. Actually, that’s not accurate. Kevin did test okay, but everyone else tested higher. The real goal should have been to do more with Kevin so we could get his scores to match the others. But the network didn’t see it that way. And they sort of had control of things.

I must say I disagreed with them for every possible reason. Kevin is a terrific actor and has a special quality – he is very real. We were able to make Nancy’s character more out-there because Kevin grounded the show and their relationship. No, he didn’t get the huge laughs every week but we didn’t give him the huge laughs every week. Yet whatever jokes we gave him he always hit out of the park. It was a total win-win.

Plus, he was the lynchpin of the series. The relationship is what made the show unique in our eyes. Otherwise it’s just Nancy juggling her career and her career.

They weren’t buying it.

In that second season I thought we wrote some very clever episodes but the heart of the series had been taken away. It was never as good.

CBS did offer one concession. We could bring Kevin back for one and do the episode where he and Nancy break-up.

How do you tell an actor he’s fired and then ask him to come back for one more show? To his enormous credit, Kevin Kilner was the ultimate mensch. He accepted the situation and graciously agreed to do the break-up episode. The only time in my life I ever left work to go to a bar and drink in the middle of the day was when I had to have that conversation with Kevin.

When it was announced someone called our office. David answered the phone. The person was irate and railed on and on about the idiot producers who made this stupid move. David said he was the P.A. but would pass along the message.

So here is the writing problem. We ended the last season with them declaring their unending love for each other. How do we suddenly break them up in one episode, making it organic and not just arbitrary? How do we do it so you don’t hate one or both of them? How do we work the other characters into the story? And how do we make the show funny? It will be the season premiere, we don’t want it to be a complete downer. We also don’t want a long argument scene of two talking heads. And this was before LOST so we couldn’t just conveniently kill anybody.

Quite the thorny little problem. I want to hit that bar again just thinking about it.

Tomorrow: what we did.

27 comments:

Hmmm...? said...

A true shame about Sue Herring, so young. Was she ill when writing on Almost Pefect?

Dan Coyle said...

I can see why CBS thought the way they did, but without the grounding of Kilner's character, it was just another zany comedy about a woman and her wacky, wacky co-workers, although they were played by actors I love dearly.

Have you seen an episode or two of Travis' Bill Engvall show?

Kilner got bounced after the first season of Earth Final Conflict as well, but that show seemed to lose an actor or three every season.

KEN LEVINE said...

Thanks for remembering Sue Herring. She was a great lady and so talented.

Her illness was too far along when it was discovered unfortunately.

I miss her dearly.

Scott said...

Abducted by aliens?
Spontaneous combustion?

The only way I could see to do it is that they break up because they want different things, like she wants kids and he doesnt. FRIENDS did that with Monica and Richard. So obviously I would just rip off any other show who had done it semi-successfully before.

Jason said...

I'm going to go hug my boxed sets of The Wire now. If it weren't for HBO's relatively hands-off attitude, I'd probably never watch TV. Come to think of it, before them, I didn't.

sephim said...

Just like how the SciFi channel has left Battlestar Galactica alone.

PPPPPFFFFFWAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!

Speaking of, the story goes that BSG was ONLY going to have four seasons so they could tell the story beginning to end (unlike the original series) and not run out of steam six years down the line and then inevitably cancelled only to have the network inundated with millions of requests from the seven "biggest fans" who let themselves get blinded as to how bad the show was because they felt their beloved writer/producer/director/choreographer/best boy/key grip could do no wrong to make a movie that ignores the majority key points of the series in an attempt to make it interesting and to give false hope for a new series; but instead, they have chosen to split what was to be the last season into two smaller seasons - the bastards.

Believe it or not, there is actually a question involved with the above gibberish - how does a writer know when a show should end? Cheers went for eleven years, Seinfeld went for nine years and Friends went three seasons too long, how do you know when to quit?

sonderangerbot said...

Surely you made the husband go gay during the summer? Or perhaps you played the promotion card, the husband got an offer he couldn't refuse and had to move? This could be funny if he in the show worked for CBS.

DrBear said...

I would have had the Kilmer character break the fourth wall, tell the audience the network thought he wasn't good enough, and plead with them to send letters to the network begging that they let him stay. Tears might be nice.

Granted, you'd never have another show on CBS again, but I think it would have been worth it.

Doktor Frank Doe said...

Well this is another perfect example of no-talent and small egos making change for change' sake. It's the power trip these little people enjoy and if it goes bad there's 100 projects lined up to take the slot anyway. This is why I'm lonnnnnng gone from network TV. Came close to killing one of these little weezles once, just for sport.

ugtv.org said...

As an actor you say, "Hey man, I know it's not you it's the network," hoping that the nice people that hired you will remember you down the line and hire you for something else. And then you go to a bar in the middle of the day and drink. Cursing their names.

Andy said...

Pretending that I'm in the room and we're presented with this issue, here's my pitch:
Make Kilmer freak out that he's made this grand emotional leap. He WANTS to be the perfect loving boyfriend, but now that he has declared his love, he feels like the bar has been set high. So when he screws up, he feels like he's ruining a perfect relationship. So he's miserable because he sees himself as a failure all the time. So he bails on the relationship.

Or, he could get hit by a bus.

Just pitching...
- Andy

Anonymous said...

Whatever you did I hope you gave him a GREAT episode to go out on. Giving him the big laughs and the emotional core, showing what the character could have been if the Network had let him grow instead of canning him. Maybe with the execs names somehow thrown about as evil to boot.

Nancy Fan said...

I've never seen 'Almost Perfect' until I just YouTubed it. Nancy Travis is terrific, but with the greatest respect to Kevin, who is obviously a great actor, he looks kind of retro, like he's stepped into Frasier from the Dick Van Dyke show. I agree that chopping him defeats the premise of the show, but I also think he's wrong for the part. Just my two cents.

Dan Coyle said...

I think season five is a good stopping point, or at least that's where the creators seriously should start plannning a wrap up.

You've made the syndication number, there's gonna be DVDs, so you can just let it ride out.

The first season is usually shaky but shows potential, the second and third seasons are phenomenal, the fourth is fun but the cracks begin to show, and the fifth is usually where things start going very wrong.

D. McEwan said...

On DOCTOR WHO, when the actor's leave the starring role, they "regenerate" into the new actor.

In the late 1980s the BBC fired Colin Baker, who had been playing the 6th Doctor. Admittedly, they were right to do so. He was the worst of the more than 10 actors to have played the role since the show first debuted back in 1963, and he was murdering the ratings.

But then they asked him to come back and do not one episode, but merely one scene, so they could morph him into Sylvaster McCoy (who was a VAST improvement in the role.) Not being Kevin Kilner, Baker told the BBC where they could lodge their request. McCoy had to put on Baker's costume and a Colin Baker wig and lie face down on the floor, and they hit him with special effects before he rolled over.

I've always liked Kilner. Good, solid actor.

elaine said...

I stopped watching after Kevin left.
He was the glue that held the show together (for me)
elaine

Anonymous said...

I could only think of one way, but "wide-stance" jokes just can't last you a whole episode.

Tom Quigley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Quigley said...

Well, of course the solution that every amateur will come up with who thinks they can write for TV but has never even learned script format is that he gets whacked in the head (I still love the final NEWHART where they took that cliche and actually did something with it), can't remember who he is or who she is, and wanders off, only to show up again conveniently during sweeps month to tell her that he suddenly got his memory back but while searching for his identity, he found heavenly peace while undergoing a mystical experience he had when he traveled to the mountains of Macchu Picchu in Peru and has decided to become a monk and live there with the natives. He invites Nancy's character to to return there with him but tells her "I can only afford a plane ticket for myself, so it's up to you, Baby... It's either total infinite eternal transcendental happiness -- or we can chew up those frequent flyer miles of yours on another trip to Vegas...."

Am I anywhere close to what happened? Didn't think so....

Anonymous said...

Did you make him break up with her in such an endearing and heartfelt way that the audience couldn't help but love him, and clamor for his return?

Paul Duca said...

Ken, did that testing have anything to do with what happened to the character of the junior writer on the show? The naif from Iowa--all during the first season he was a clean cut lad in button down and khaki, then on the first episode of year two he's in baggy shorts and white-boy dreadlocks.

KEN LEVINE said...

The dreadlocks will be explained. Stay tuned.

John said...

Having him killed off randomly by a psychotic network executive who smashes his head in with an early 1990s model cellphone because his limo driver wasn't parked out in front of the main entrance at Black Rock was probably out of the question as a plot device, wasn't it?

Anonymous said...

"In the late 1980s the BBC fired Colin Baker, who had been playing the 6th Doctor. Admittedly, they were right to do so. He was the worst of the more than 10 actors to have played the role since the show first debuted back in 1963, and he was murdering the ratings."


Hey now! Don't be running down Colin Baker. Everything I've ever seen or heard about the guy is that he's a perfectly fine actor and a nice person. It's not his fault he was saddled with not only the worst scripts in the history of Doctor Who but some of the worst scripts in the history of televised entertainment. Seriously, forcing someone to watch "The Twin Dilemma" should be considered a crime against humanity.

Mike

DMc said...

Ken,

Thanks for posting that. Wow, I'd always wondered about that. I was quite a fan of Almost Perfect in that first season. I think the ep where Kilner is on back meds is one of the funniest things I've ever seen.

I remember watching this episode when it premiered -- long, long, long before I thought of having a writing career and thinking, "wow, that was good, but... weird."

And I never watched the show again.

It's interesting to find out the real story of why all these years later.

A. Scott said...

I know I'm late to the table, but Kevin Kilner's last appearance is one of my favorite sitcom episodes ever.

Terry said...

My story is the same as DMc. I loved Almost Perfect in the first season. I couldn't believe it when they broke up in season two. Never watched it again.

Kilner has some bad experiences in getting written out of shows. He was the main character in Earth: Final Conflict but got killed off between season one and two. And it hurt that show a lot, as well.