Thursday, February 19, 2009

Why wasn't BECKER a bigger hit?

So for a delightful change, I'm answering a Friday question on Friday.

Monsterbeard asks:

I was looking at the credits for Becker the other day, which is full of some really talented sitcom writers, including yourself. Yet, despite all the pedigree, the show wasn't exactly a huge hit. Do you think it failed? And do you know why it wasn't as big of a hit as the writing credits would suggest?

Well, it did run for 129 episodes and is in syndication so it did a whole lot better than any of my shows. But BECKER should have been a bigger hit. The problem was that CBS, for whatever reason, never believed in the show. I don’t know why. Maybe it wasn’t sexy enough for them. But then why make it and order it in the first place?

BECKER always outperformed the network’s expectations. It did wildly better than a host of darlings that CBS put in that time slot (Monday 9:30). Then the network moved it, put it in an impossible slot to win and it still surprised everyone with its numbers. The reward for that? Cancellation. And the irony of course – CBS would KILL for BECKER’s numbers today.

Happily, once the show got into syndication people seemed to discover it. It’s hard to believe but a highly-rated show on CBS for five years was considered a best-kept secret. I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say, “Hey, I saw your name on this new show, BECKER. It’s really good.” NEW show??

Dave Hackel, the show’s creator, put together a tremendous staff of writers and directors. Matthew Weiner of MAD MEN for one. Andy Ackerman (director of SEINFELD) for another. And although you might not be as familiar with their names, here are a few of the other terrific BECKER writers who I would hire in a second: Ian Gurvitz, Michael Markowitz, Russ Woody, Steve Peterman, Gary Donzig, Kate Angelo, Liz Astrof, Bobby Gaylor, Dana Borkow Klein, Matt Ember, Anne Flett-Giordano, and Chuck Ranberg.

But the show must finally be catching on. Ted Danson says more people now stop him in an airport and mention BECKER than CHEERS.

If you’re up some morning at 2 channel surfing, check it out. It’s a damn good show.

What's your question?


Mike Beckham said...

It is a good show. The last few episodes were the best. The one about the old woman visiting Ground Zero to "visit" her son and needing help getting there made me tear up. No other sitcom has made me do that before.

Wonderful show.

Anonymous said...

I always liked Becker. I watched it when it aired and occasionally still in syndication. I miss shows like it now. There aren't enough comedies on TV now, unless you consider something like Gray's Anatomy a wild farce (when it's really just crap writing).

And...Ted Danson is my age-appropriate crush. (As opposed to my non-age appropriate crushes.)

Sebastian said...

Great timing. I was about to mention Becker here myself - I just saw my old recordings of the german dubbed version again - it started airing 2001.

I saw your name as director on the episode where Linda gets her nosering stuck in her sweater. There are a couple of nice episodes in season 6 though I think the show went downhill after Bob left. Jorge Garcia was never a good replacement for him.

My question would've been if you know anything about how and why Terry Farrel and Saverio Guerra left the show - she dropped out of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine after season 6 and I think it was due to her wanting more money - she was dropped from Becker because of that too I think - is that a fact? Was it the same reason why Guerra left?

To be honest I think the Nancy Travis was a better fit for John Becker anyway. The role of John Becker was a "grownup" role for Ted Danson and I'm really sad that "Help me Help you" didn't catch on either - it was a variation of the same character he played there.

Now he's on Damages and turned into an ass - still better than the doofus he played on Cheers. All in all better than more of Gullivers Travels if you ask me ;-)

This reminds me that I have the first season of Mash sitting here in the shelf - I never watched the show, bought the box because of this blog and I can't force myself to watch it. Somebody tell me again why it's so great. I'll watch it if you guys all watch Becker :-)

Grubber said...

Hi Ken,

As always, thank you for this blog, love it and read it as a nice little bit of relief towards the end of my day, normally on my phone in some remote part of Australia.

During the writers room scenes in Almost Perfect, when the actors used to come in with weird and wonderful requests, were any of those requests inpsired by real life experiences of the writers?
I have always been curious about that.

Many thanks Ken.

Tim W. said...

I couldn't understand why someone would think a series with 129 episodes would be considered a failure, but I think the reason it might not have been a bigher hit was because Ted Danson's character was too different from Sam Malone. I think it was probably too close in time to Cheers and Sam was in everyone's memory. People wanted Sam and Becker was not Sam. Nowadays, Cheers is so long ago (sorry, Ken), that the Sam character has faded from memory for some, and may no even be it for others (which makes me feel old).

Jeffrey L. said...


Speaking of Ted Danson. He and Jane Kasmerick were involved in, what I consider, a very funny sitcom about two years ago called "Help Me, Help You" on ABC. Jane Lynch (who I love) was even on the show. It failed miserably and I don't understand why. It had so much potential. Why would ABC give up on it so quickly?
Jeffrey Leonard

cb said...

Kate Angelo (no D') picky, so forgive me, but I'm a huge fan.

Gridlock said...


Does the concept of Development Hell exist in TV too? Are you aware of any shows currently residing there (or in other opaque statuses) that you'd love to see on-screen?

I tried BECKER once (early on) but we didn't get on - too formulaic for my liking.

A_Homer said...

I watched Becker on German syndication, which helped by distancing me to Danson a bit. But I think he didn't convey too many qualities of this character. I think he's pretty stiff for an actor, and doesn't have enough feeling in his body language, which (pre high defintion) tv needs in a comedy ensemble. You have to see him in medium shots with groups and as he is the star this time, most of the lines go to him. But it seemed more interesting to see him with someone, with the group. I wouldn't say the same with Hawkeye, who could hold his own on the screen alone for the time required, and with ensemble.
It felt like a parts-not-equal-to-the-whole situation. I guess Danson is not really able to hold our attention in the center alone. He needs a Frasier or others around him, and then he is perfect in his less-than-more.

Paul Duca said...

Speaking of hi-def, A_Homer, every Friday the UHD high-definition digital cable channel airs episodes of BECKER all day long.

Griff said...

Well, I found Dr. Becker a truly abrasive character -- actually to the point of unpleasantness much of the time. I mean, irredeemably so. [If I had to choose between being trapped for an hour in a stuck elevator with either Dr. Becker or Archie Bunker, I would happily choose Archie.]

Also -- though I don't mean to sound churlish or humorless in talking about a sitcom -- one episode of BECKER featured a series of gags in which characters intentionally (and almost gleefully) pronounce the disorder Asperger's Syndrome as "Assburger's Syndrome." A cousin of mine has Asperger's; he's constantly mocked and ridiculed. This just wasn't very funny.

blogward said...

Agree with Griff to an extent, but it also crosses my mind that a tall, good-looking doctor doesn't have a lot to be constantly irritable about - maybe if it had been (for example) Danny deVito, Or Becker had had a House-type pain issue? I never felt Ted fitted the part - his anger was too controlled, too scary.

Dave Mackey said...

I really enjoyed watching "Becker" and though it had a terrific ensemble cast - Ted, Terry Farrell, Hattie Winston, Alex Desert, Shawnee Smith, Saverio Guerra. They all meshed so well together. The writing was very smart too.

I could smell the beginning of the end when Nancy Travis joined the show, however.

WV: "Sculari" - former star of "Busum Buddies".

A. Buck Short said...

I could have been watching Herr Becker in German? Jetzt erzählen Sie mir!

Always a fan of the show. But if I were a programmer (and btw, how do you know that I’m not?), I’d think one of the better buys for syndication would be a great show that people might get to discover for the first time, simply by being up against nothing else they’d want to watch, or would have seen before. Or because you might get two more viewings out of it, and maybe only one out of a series that was so popular people would have already seen it once? Isn’t that part of the story behind “summer reruns?” And boy, are you guys missing out! Try not having cable! Or as the great Barney Stinson says about those laughs, “Wait for it…wait for it…wait for it…wait for it.”

...and theres just something about doctors who smoke.

A. Buck Short said...

I could have been watching Herr Becker in German? Jetzt erzählen Sie mir!

Always a fan of the show. But if I were a programmer (and btw, how do you know that I’m not?), I’d think one of the better buys for syndication would be a great show that people might get to discover for the first time, simply by being up against nothing else they’d want to watch, or would have seen before. Or because you might get two more viewings out of it, and maybe only one out of a series that was so popular people would have already seen it once? Isn’t that part of the story behind “summer reruns?” And boy, are you guys missing out! Try not having cable! Or as the great Barney Stinson says about those laughs, “Wait for it…wait for it…wait for it…wait for it.”

...and theres just something about doctors who smoke.

A. Buck Short said...

I don't know how the above happened. But it would have been funnier had it been intentional.

Howie Luvzus said...

Is it just me or did Becker become less of a jerk as the show went on. I liked it when he was cranky and giving his patients a hard time. Also, did he get less political as well? I remember reading something about how there was pressure by the network to make him more likable. Is this true?

Captain Splendid said...

While not a fan of the show, I'm glad Ted Danson's getting recognition for it as he did some great work in that show.

OF course, his work on Damages was even better.

Dave said...

Ken, I have a couple questions:

1] How easy is it for a star to direct himself, e.g. Kelsey Grammer, in an episode in which his character features prominently?

2] I just watched a "Frasier" two-parter ("Shutout in Seattle") written by your partner, Mr. Isaacs. Were you out of the office that week? How often have you guys gone it alone on writing assignments?

Brent McKee said...

I was really enthusiastic about "Becker" when the series began, though I have to say it was largely because I was a huge "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" fan and tuned in "Becker" because I had a huge crush on Terry Farrell. I liked most of the cast in fact with the exception of Saviero Guerra, and that only because I felt the character of Bob was best in occasional small doses. Still for reasons I can't fully explain I lost interest in the show so that by the time Farrell left and Nancy Travis came on as a replacement I wasn't watching. And I hate to say it but replacing Farrell with Travis wasn't exactly going to bring me back - liked her in Almost Perfect but most of the time there's something about her that I somehow find irritating and I don't know why.

samuel.x.killer said...

BECKER has been a guilty pleasure of mine for years. A pleasure because of the writing and Ted Danson, but "guilty" because everyone who ever heard me espouse the Gospel of John Becker deemed me guilty of television fraud. However, after adding to the local DVR, friends would later apologize for their misconceived first impressions, ultimately becoming a BECKER fan like me. Whenever I'm feeling blue like the theme song, I can get a laugh out of that show. Thanks to all who made it what it is!

VP81955 said...

Ted Danson says more people now stop him in an airport and mention BECKER than CHEERS.

They are probably the same folks who primarily remember Paul McCartney for his work with Wings. (That's taking nothing from Danson's work in "Becker," mind you...but "Cheers" was simply iconic.)

wv: "andec" -- that string of mountains in South America, as typed by someone who has difficulty with their left hand.

alan said...

As a fan of Becker I would say it was weak in the beginning and the end of its run. I tried Becker initially and was unimpressed. A year or two later I had left the TV on as I was paying bills and found myself laughing out loud.

But with the removal of Terry Farrell I felt that the show lost its momentum, and the inevitable romance between Danson and Travis felt forced.

Kirk Jusko said...


Gray's Anatomy is a wild farce until somebody gets hurt, and then it turns into a "special episode"

Beth Ciotta said...

I'm not sure how it happened, but I missed BECKER while it was on. Will have to watch for the reruns. You all certainly have me intrigued.

I have a question, Ken. When you catch one of the shows you've written on TV, are you able to enjoy the finished product? Or do you find yourself wanting to rewrite certain lines? Is there any one episode that springs to mind that you wish you had written a bit differently?

As always, thank you for your generosity!

mallet said...

One of my favorite sit-com lines comes from an episode of Becker.

Becker is talking to a prostitute saying he's never been with hooker before and she goes, "What? You mean you've never paid for sex?"

To which Becker responds, "Honey, I've been divorced twice. I'm still paying for sex." Or something to that effect.

Very funny show.

Katie G said...

What you say about Danson being recognized more for Becker than Cheers is interesting. I was actually very young when Cheers ended and don't really remember it at all, but I had watched Becker from nearly day one. When Cheers started on Nick-at-Nite I was going through the channels and ended up watching it because it had "the guy from Becker in it." So now not only am I a big Becker fan, but an even bigger Cheers fan.

Paul said...

I had trouble getting interested in Becker and Wings for the same reason: Their look. They just had that dungy sort of sitcom look that fortunately has gone away since.

Anonymous said...

Becker was a great show. But I always wondered how "The Ditz with T... " could afford the elaborate wordrobe she always wore.

BigTed said...

I started watching late-night syndicated episodes a couple of years ago -- and I have to agree that, while it was a well-written and well-acted show, I never really bought Ted Danson as the put-upon, curmudgeonly doctor. The role needed a genuinely abrasive comedian, someone like Denis Leary. (He would have had to work harder than Danson to bring out the underlying decency of the character, but he would have been a much more natural match.)

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Got the first disc of the first season in my Netflix queue. I've seen a few episodes, particularly when they would air late night on CBS, but never really delved into it.

Devin McCullen said...

I was a big fan of Becker. It always made me laugh, especially Linda.

The one thing about it, though, is that for some people it was the "According to Jim" of its era - when you wanted to mock sitcoms as lame, they would always choose Becker. But then they'd claim they'd never actually seen it. Letterman did that all the time, and so did Bill Simmons. It was very odd.

Buttermilk Sky said...

I still catch the show in pre-dawn syndication, but have to agree with Blogward -- we never figure out why a Harvard researcher would choose to open a family practice in the Bronx, other than to make himself miserable.
Did the writers? Figure it out, I mean.

My favorite line, after a customer refers to the diner as his and his wife's "place": "What's their song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald?"

obipan -- bad review from Ben Kenobi

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

I saw a Becker episode today. What I liked best about the show is that I could always point to him when people told me I was the biggest curmudgeon they knew and say, "Oh yeah?"

I always prefered Reggie to Nancy Travis's character and Shawnee Smith is smoking hot. Is she still around?

robo1936 said...

Well I quite liked Becker when Reggie and Bob were in it but when they left especially Bob I didn,t find it anywhere near as appealing. As regards the comparison between John Becker and Sam Malone give me Sam Malone anyday even if he was a doofus. Becker was too abrasive and always so angry that it became irritating in the end. Cheers was much more enjoyable than Becker not so stressful Shawnee Smith was great is she still around.

jbryant said...

Yeah, Shawnee Smith has had quite a run in the Saw movies, of all things. Would love to see her get back to some comedy.

benson said...

When Becker first came on, it took a bit to adjust to Danson being so negative, but the show really grew on me.

The Harvard researcher moving to the inner city part, well, is that any bigger a stretch than a recovering alcoholic ballplayer running a bar?

wv: olomo...the number who survived the Alamo

Kirk Jusko said...

Or a bigger stretch than the snobby psychiatrist with nothing in common with any of the patrons hanging around long after he broke up with the barmaid, and, in fact, long after the bar maid stopped working there.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

Thanks for the Shawnee Smith info, guys. It must be obvious by now I don't see a lot of movies or whatever Saw is.

WV: Padmonin--what you hear inside a beatnick's apartment when he gets lucky.

j gillespie said...

I thought Shawnee Smith was known in some circles for "The Blob" and "Saw" work the same way Bruce Campbell is always going to be known for "The Evil Dead"- no matter how much "Burn Notice" catches on

Matt said...

I never liked Becker. It's rhythm was too predictable: set up, set up, punch line. That would go on all show. I like a good gag, but you could see most of them coming a mile away. And the cast spent too much time talking at the counter in the diner. I always felt if Ted Danson wanted to keep doing that, they shouldn't have ended Cheers.

wv: unthol--the 7-up of cigarettes

Anonymous said...

I remember before "Becker" came on and Danson was doing interviews for it and he said "Really, just give the show a chance. If you don't like it after five years, then we'll leave."

Laughed my ass off on that one.

WV: trongne -- the djinn of a crappy 80s Disney film.

Brian said...

What actor or actress have you have worked with who you would say was a a "truly nice person"? Not just a professional in the field, learns lines well, etc. but was kind to others and generally pleasant to be around? You know, the complete opposite of Christain Bale?

selection7 said...

Every show has peaks and valleys, sometimes from episode to episode, so maybe I never got invested enough to catch more of the peaks, but I thought the show was adequate though nothing to get excited about. Lots of one-liners. I didn't love (or love to hate) any of the characters. It definitely had character driven laughs though...and it was clearly a huge success since it ran 6 seasons. Of course, so was According to Jim.

Charlie Brown said...

Hi, Mr. Levine. I really like reading your blog. I have a question for you.

I'm a senior in college, and I'm interested in being a research assistant for television show, or some similar position. Do you have any ideas where I could start my search or do you have any references for me?

Leo said...

The show "House" has become a pretty big hit. But watching the show, i see a huge similarity between itself and Becker. If people love "House" so much, what was wrong with "Becker"? It ran for 6 seasons so it cannot be considered a failure, but many people haven't even heard of it. I know that "House" is a drama and "Becker" is a comedy and that they won't necessarily have the same audience, but i think that the idea for "House" was at least somewhat based off of "Becker". Please let me know if anyone has anything to say on this subject because I thought Becker really was a great show with a great premise.

Johnny Walker said...

It seems to me that American TV shows have a real difficulty with anti-heroes, especially sitcoms. Here in the UK, some of our greatest sitcoms are about anti-heroes: BlackAdder, Fawlty Towers, The New Statesman, etc.

American shows have difficulty showing anti-heroes without winking to the audience to let them know they're not "really" bad, and I've often wondered why.

With BlackAdder and Fawlty Towers, the characters never have sentimental moments, they always stay true to their selfish ways.

I'm sure US audiences could enjoy a wholly nasty, but amusing, character.

Portia said...

I loved this show and wanted it to be streamed in from Amazon Prime. They pretend it didnt exist. Not on NetFlix either. Show was just beautifully written with characters that seemed real. Went way down hill when they fired the actress who played the sarcastic bartender. She was great! Nancy Travis utterly ruined the show.

James said...

I saw many of these episodes when the show first ran but I don't think I really fully appreciated what a terrific situation comedy show this was until I began watching reruns and then bought the entire DVD set.

They just don't make good comedy shows like this anymore with great story variations and, for most episodes, a clever and very funny script. This because of a great list of writers who actually know how to write comedy and a talented cast that knows how to deliver it and actually get genuine laughs from the live audience it is recorded with. (No irritating canned fake laughter here).

I'm sure this show would have had a much longer run had the network executives not interfered as they like to do thinking they always know better than the viewers. The Reggie character (definitely a key character in the series) was replaced after S4 (very bad move) and the show was moved to a different time slot. Oh - surprise, surprise the ratings went down for season 5. Don't these people understand that when you have a successful central group of characters that viewers love (who could not really like the Reggie character)you don't change them but add new characters on a revolving basis to keep it fresh. Sometimes a new character introduced works so well you keep them for a while. Very long running successful comedy shows like Frasier and Everybody Loves Raymond never changed their core group of characters and it worked well. Funny that. Remove a likeable key character from a series and it's the same as removing a major piece of track from your railway system and expecting it to work well.

You watch a comedy for a good laugh and you sure get that with Becker. One of the most hilarious that comes to mind was the episode where Becker's staff booked him on an all gay male cruise not realizing their error until much later. The comedy writing and performances on that episode were brilliant. But overall some of the comedy lines the writers came up with (and they could do this fairly consistently) were just hilarious and very clever.

What I also liked about this show was how the writers would fairly consistently give political correctness (and some other subjects) a kick in the backside with their comedy offerings which always provided a good laugh. Sadly this is something that is missing from comedy writers today who offer shows you can sit and watch and if you are lucky they might be able to draw one laugh from you in 22 minutes. If you can find them now they are just so PC and so feminist oriented now it is almost pathetic.

If there is one fault with this situation comedy show it's probably the Becker character being overdone at times - but not so the other characters. At times the writers ran with the extremely angry Becker in too larger doses so that you are mostly delivered just an angry guy rather than a funny annoyed guy which is what the writers were really shooting for. When it's overdone it's mostly just annoying and irritating and it's not that funny.

Yeseye Haveone said...

This is very interesting. I didn't begin watching Becker until they began showing it on Antenna Tv on late nights, so you know, I'd catch it occasionally, and then, one night I realized I was really "hooked" on it. The cast is a perfect blend, and the comic timing is near letter perfect. I liked it SO much I bought the entire series on DVD, and my husband and I like to "Becker Out" on cold, shut in weekends, so much fun. But like others have mentioned, when Terry Farrell (Reggie) and Saverio Guerra (Bob) left the show, it just wasn't the same after that, the lively spark was truly gone...felt like two terrible deaths with no real closure given to either character, such a shame.