Tuesday, June 10, 2014

What killed our series

Reader Tudor Queen had an interesting comment about ALMOST PERFECT from Sunday's post on pilot pitching. She said:

When you mentioned the pitch for "Almost Perfect" I couldn't help remembering how good the first season was, and then the network decided to completely change the premise - she lost the guy - and the show wasn't nearly as good.

As a peek behind the curtain in television, I thought I’d share with you the backstory to that whole sordid concept change.

ALMOST PERFECT was created in 1995 by Robin Schiff, David Isaacs, and myself. The premise very quickly: A young single woman in her 30s is struggling in her career and love life. And then on the day she gets the job of her life she meets the guy of her life, and both are fulltime jobs. How does she juggle both?

We cast Nancy Travis and Kevin Kilner as the couple. When we first brought Kevin to CBS to get him approved, the then-president thanked us for finding him. He was over-the-moon thrilled. As were we.

But during our first season there was a regime change at CBS. You see where this is going.

Our numbers the first year were decent – not spectacular but not Mindy-like either. We were originally on Sunday night, traditionally not a good night for comedy, and then moved to Monday  where we fared much better.

Still, we were a show on the bubble.

So David, Robin, and I flew back to New York when CBS was cobbling together its fall schedule. That’s when we got the mandate to drop Kevin. There was no arguing the point. We fire Kevin or the entire show in cancelled and everybody is fired. And even firing Kevin was no guarantee we’d get a second year pick-up.

The next day the three of us sat in a hotel suite and desperately tried to come up with an alternate direction. Without that central theme, what were we left with? A single working woman is dating. Big whoop. There were dozens of shows with that premise including THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, which did it as well or better than any other show in history.

All day long we bounced around ideas and nothing seemed to gel. It’s like our series became its own spinoff.

Ultimately, we decided to go the dating route for awhile and hope that one of the dates could catch on and we could steer back to our original concept.

Here’s the end result: We did some very inventive and funny episodes, but coming up with each and every story was like emergency root canal in a Cambodian jungle performed by a villager.

We did a dream sequence show paying homage to different movie genres (including a splashy dance number), we had Nancy date a creepy guy who was a Nielson family (her job was running a TV cop show), we did one where Nancy overhears who she thinks is the man of her dreams but all she knows is that he spilled salad dressing on himself so at a big industry party she goes around checking out every man’s crotch. And we did one where she goes to a grief counseling class, doesn’t realize it’s for people who lost pets, shares her story and makes it seem like she had sex with her dog.

Meanwhile, we tried to work in some potential new boyfriends but no one clicked.

Me directing A.P.
First year stories were relatively easy to come by. We just followed the stages of a relationship. What’s it like having to sleep at his place for the first time? How do they negotiate living together? When should they live together? What happens when he learns she makes more money than he does? How do you deal with past lovers? And the heart of the premise -- how do you juggle both personal and professional worlds? In other words, we weren’t starting flatfooted every week.

Again, none of this surprised us. We knew the minute we had to let Kevin go that the series was in trouble because it was no longer ABOUT anything. We not only did the best we could, we wound up working twice as hard, but the end result was understandably disappointing.

The moral here – you need your show to have a theme, a purpose, a fresh point of view. Wacky characters trading zingers is not a series. That's four months of being stuck in the writing room for 20 hours a day/seven days a week, and then getting cancelled. That's satisfying every network and studio note (thus turning it into one big mish-mosh) because you have no strong direction yourself. It’s constant flailing.

In another couple of months the networks will once again open their doors to new pilot pitches. And a crazy high concept idea that’s not about anything may well sell. And get on the air. At that point I pity the poor writer. Because the misery begins promptly with episode two.

UPDATE:  There have been a lot of comments about this post so tomorrow I will do a follow up, answer some of your questions, and fill you in with more stories.   Y'all come back now, ya hear?


Elf said...


Was there ever any justification given for the network demand that Kevin be dropped? Did they not like his performance? Did they have research that showed he scared small children? Did he sleep with one of the network executive's wives?

That's the part that seems to be missing from the story.


chip zien said...

Maybe I'm wrong... But I thought the premise of the show was a devilishly handsome but frustrated overlooked member of a writing team with glasses struggles with lack of respect issues and his inability to meet nice women. There was another concept? What?!

Chip Zien

Aubrey said...


Well put, Ken. Well put, indeed.

Dan Ball said...

You wore a jacket and tie while you directed? I know Hitch and all the old-school directors did that and guys today do it to mimic that, but hey...I think it's a great idea. It's still professional and it still makes you feel like a million bucks and it still makes you want to make something that EARNS YOU a million bucks.

When I worked in TV and tried my hand at writing a few commercials, I always felt like I should wear a suit and tie. Not because I wanted to be Don Draper, but because I wanted to be like a Norm Peterson from the 1940's of TV and advertising. Alas, most days I just resorted to the T-shirt and shorts as cameramen are wont to do.

Bill Jones said...

Excellent story and guidance. However, this part struck me:

"we did one where Nancy overhears who she thinks is the man of her dreams but all she knows is that he spilled salad dressing on himself so at a big industry party she goes around checking out every man’s crotch. And we did one where she goes to a grief counseling class, doesn’t realize it’s for people who lost pets, shares her story and makes it seem like she had sex with her dog."

I'm going to remember this the next time you call out current sitcoms for "too many vagina jokes," etc. Crotch jokes and sex-with-dog jokes aren't exactly highbrow.

Glass houses, etc...

Actually... said...

@Bill Jones

Oh, please. It's all in the execution.

Something tells me those scenes left the dirtiest parts to the viewer's imagination, rather than the Tourette's-like joke construction in vogue nowadays.

Jeff said...

In a situation like this, is it ever worth pushing back and saying, "Nope. Cancel us then. Kevin is essential to the series." What kind of factors go into making a decision like that?

benson said...

Jeff, then you're choosing to put 100 people out work. That's quite a decision.

Andrew said...

The networks' aversion to starting a show with a couple in a relationship makes their choices for this fall all the more confounding.

A TO Z, MANHATTAN LOVE STORY, and MARRY ME all have a couple solidly established by the end of the pilot.

If it didn't work for your show, it will be interesting to both see the ratings for these shows and how much slack the networks will give them.

Arthur said...

I think it was too small of a sample size to know how “Almost Perfect” would have found its footing in the second season, but I thought that after a few tentative episodes after the initial breakup the show had some of their funniest episodes with “Where No Woman Has Gone Before” and “The Law” which had the same elements of farce that were used in some of the funniest Fraser episodes. The absence of the character of Mike meant the focus increased more on her work life and co-workers, but the supporting cast, especially Chip Zion, were always a joy to watch and did some of their best work in the second season. It would have been interesting to see how the rest of the season would have evolved as it was one of my favorite shows at that time.

Anonymous said...

Oops, Chip Zien!

Arthur said...

Oops, Chip Zien I meant.

Pat Quinn said...

It was interesting reading this today after reading an article yesterday about the demise of Lloyd Braun from ABC.

His two bosses walked him onto the plank and made him jump, just because he made the unforgivable mistake of spending so much money on the "Lost" pilot episode.

Who could blame his bosses, considering that the pilot cost close to $2million and the show never had a chance to make it to the second season.

emily said...

Kevin Kilner was almost unrecognizable in the Frasier episode "Roz and the Schnoz."

I still snort about that one.

Some guy from Europe said...

"Without that central theme, what were we left with? A single working woman is dating. Big whoop."

Isn't there anybody in the networks who thinks about such things? I mean... they want to get good numbers, too.

Ken Levine said...


That was the storyline I most identified with as well. You were so great in that part that I've essentially written that character in three other projects, always hearing your voice doing them.

jim said...

It would be nice if CBS/Paramount would actually give us a chance to see Almost Perfect, remastered and uncut on DVD, but apparently those shows have been locked away in a vault somewhere, mouldering in between December Bride and Amos 'n Andy.

Anonymous said...

I guess I read this a little differently than most...what I read was...

You had a show that was essentially going to write itself, then the premise of the show was changed and it suddenly became work to think up new stories every week, with the excuse that everyone had already done everything possible and better than you could ever do in the genre of "single professional woman"

RareWaves said...

My wife and I have a weekly “Forgotten Comedies” night where we watch an episode or two from our VHS and Beta collection of shows we taped. Some of the shows include Almost Perfect, Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, Buffalo Bill, Hope & Gloria, What About Joan, Doctor Doctor, and Maggie (with Ann Cusack). Our two most watched episodes of Almost Perfect are “El Pollo Loco” and “Suites for The Sweet.” We still laugh out loud at those episodes.

While we enjoy most of the episodes from Season 2, it always seemed like you were trying to fix something that maybe wasn’t really broken. I know it’s a very opinionated subject, but did you consider pulling a “Darrin Stephens” and just swapping actors and pretending that nothing changed? What are your thoughts on that tactic? Does the story ALWAYS have to justify an actor change?

Jerry Krull said...

Went to IMDB to get some facts on the actors in your show Almost Perfect. Found 2 movies with the same name and they found twists on the premise. Maybe these would have worked for you and David:

Almost Perfect (2011 Taiwan) Movie synopsis; "A 30-something career woman tries to find the balance between her demanding family and her perfect new boyfriend."

Oh wait, they changed demanding job to demanding family and kept the boyfriend. Ok that doesn't help.

Almost Perfect (2012 Denmark) Movie synopsis; "Anne (37) has given up finding a man, who will fit in to her sensible and controlled life. She has therefore decided to get inseminated with a carefully selected sperm donor..."

This sounds like a winner Ken. Did this idea on changing the theme ever come up? (Yes I'm kidding)

By the way, you have look up this movie on IMDB. The promotional picture for the Denmark movie is real classy.

Scooter Schechtman said...

"Television cannot fail. It can only be failed."
-Some Guy

Klee said...

I watched all episodes during the first season and it was one of my favorite new sitcoms back then. Then when it comes back, "revamped", it was a disappointment since Nancy had such chemistry with Kevin. It reminded me of MTM's Phyllis' second season, it seemed like a different show. Hate when that happens.

Craig Edwards said...

I worked with Kevin Kilner on a CBS movie called Timepiece - he was one of the nicest and most professional actors I ever worked with. CBS did the same thing to another mid 90's series - American Gothic. We squeaked through our one and only season but we knew we weren't coming back.

VP81955 said...

This very much reminds me of what happened to two other series.

First, the Tea Leoni mid-'90s sitcom "The Naked Truth." Its first season was on ABC, where her character played a supermarket tabloid photographer, and featured Holland Taylor and some other fine supporting cast members. Leoni was quite good in it, showing off the physical comedy skills that led many at the time to label her that generation's Lucille Ball (OK, a bit too presumptuous, but the talent definitely was there).

For some reason, ABC declined to carry it for a second season, and it was shifted to NBC -- in the midst of its run as a sitcom factory affecting nearly every show it ran (aside from "Seinfeld" and "Frasier"). In other words, it was converted into a "Suddenly Susan" clone, closely adhering to network formula, and it became a lot less funny, exchanging Holland Taylor and the rest of the cast for George Wendt, who's a fine comedic actor but was given little to do here. (A few years later, Wendt was in similar territory in the late run of "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.") "The Naked Truth" ran a second season, lost its core fan base and meekly expired.

Second, the early 2000s syndicated series "She Spies," starring Natasha Henstridge as one of four ex-cons recruited to handle espionage (one of the others was the actress who portrayed the dimwit blonde White House official on the sitcom parody "That's My Bush!"). It blended detective work with comedy a la "Moonlighting" (though they took entirely different approaches), and the interaction they had with their male, often exasperated boss was among the best things about the series. However, his character was eliminated for the second season and the tone of the show became far more conventional and far less interesting...perhaps one reason it didn't get a third season.

VP81955 said...

Now that I think about it, there were three ex-cons on "She Spies." Perhaps they were trying to emulate the animated "The Powerpuff Girls" or "Totally Spies!"

John said...

Much of the creative team for The Mary Tyler Moore Show suffered a similar problem at the hands of CBS the prior year, when the network ordered a revamp of the Bob Denver show "The Good Guys" for its second season. That didn't work either, and the show was cancelled in the middle of the 1969-70 season (which, if it hadn't, might have resulted in a much different CBS lineup in the fall of 1970...)

Johnny Walker said...

(Cheers-related) Friday questions:

From what I've read, the end of Season 7 had two big complications. Rebecca's sister's episode apparently changed at the last minute from a game-changing (according to the internet) Sam falls in love, to a simpler stand-alone episode. Could you talk about this? I've only heard Cheri Steinkellner mention what a nightmare of an episode it was to break.

The following episode (the finale) was supposed to feature John Cleese who then apparently dropped out without much warning or explanation. After the trouble with the previous episode, the writers must have been pulling their hair out? (Both turned out to be good episodes though!)

Could you talk a little about these struggles?

Greg Ehrbar said...

I know I seem to be one of the few boosters for THE NEIGHBORS, but I mourn its demise. Here was a show that transcended its premise and made several critics retract their knee-jerk responses to the premise rather than the show itself.

But even though the series made it to Season Two, it was clear that there was some behind the scenes tinkering. The fantasy was dialed back and their was an obvious effort to make it more like "Modern Family," right down to the soft guitar and the "lesson learned" at the end.

The series chugged along nevertheless and what developed was an almost fatalistic attitude that actually became funny in itself. There were countless lines that referred to the low ratings, the fact that moving the show to Fridays was a "mercy move," that maybe they might catch a few viewers that thought they were tuning into Tim Allen.

Even with the altered premise, I still loved the show and was hoping it would survive, just as my wife and I did with ALMOST PERFECT, but it was not to be. THE NEIGHBORS was also on the bubble in season two, but clearly the writing was on the wall and the writers just made fun of the situation right there in the script.

Was this exchange between George Takei's Zabvronian master character and Simon Templeman's Larry Bird based on a real ABC meeting?

TAKEI: What have you accomplished this year? If you are going to stay on Earth against my wishes, at least have something to show for it. Take over a small government. Get a tramp stamp.

TEMPLEMAN: We did two musical numbers.

TAKEI: Which almost no one saw!

TEMPLEMAN (under his breath): It got nominated for an Emmy...

Rob said...

Networks tamper with hit shows, too. ABC overhauled "Mork & Mindy" in its second season- and it was a top-rated show. It was a disaster, although it recovered enough to run for two more seasons.

"Angie" got a new set and characters and time slot for its second season and went from 5th place to oblivion within a year.

Do you keep in touch with Nancy Travis?

Charles LaPat said...

I love the fact that shows like "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation" have gone the other way with this ... and succeeded. Both of them celebrate long-term relationships, even with their ups and downs.

I'm sorry the network wasn't secure enough to let you see your concept through!

Carol said...

I don't know if you are going to see this, Chip Zien, but I saw you on Broadway in Into the Woods back in the day, and you were amazing. I watched Almost Perfect because I recognized YOU (sorry Ken) and was excited to see you on television.

You made me cry really hard during that play. Still one of my favorites.

Julian Brown said...

hey ken,

thanks for writing such a fun blog every day. long time fan, occasional commenter.

'The moral here – you need your show to have a theme, a purpose, a fresh point of view.'

this really resonates with me; i'm grinding away at a making an album, and this week i'm trying to determine what it's about.

if you feel like it, i'd be interested in what, if any, process you go thru to get to the bottom of yr premise/story/what have you.

thanks again,

PolyWogg said...

So I've read lots of your posts about AP, and this one where it says "it's not about anything" is the one I have the most trouble with.

After he leaves, isn't that the premise? Going from Almost Perfect in Year 1, starting to plan for having a future together, thinking "hey, maybe I'm never single again" to figuring out how to be single again in Year 2? You were already dealing with the relationship cycle and this could have been just the next stage? How does she get to the next stage or figure out how to let go and be comfortable enough with living single in a coupled world?

Or is that simple too much like real life and not jazz-y enough?


Anonymous said...

Never, or at least very rarely, use "myself."

Patrick in Baltimore

Jesse Porter said...

What killed "Almost Perfect" was it was yet another, stupid, formulaic sitcom that wasn't funny.

"Last Man Standing" is a funny sitcom (coincidentally with Nancy Travis, who I don't prefer, but she's not bad in this show, though still by far the weakest of around 10 characters; her biggest laughs are when she's caught laughing at something Tim Allen said).

"Two and a Half Men" is not a funny sitcom, it's a bunch of bad dirty jokes strung together week after week.

"Mom" is not a funny sitcom, it's yet another, stupid, formulaic show with one or two decent jokes in a half hour.

"8 Simple Rules" was not a funny sitcom, it was yet another stupid, formulaic show without one or two decent jokes in a half hour.

"Big Bang Theory" is a funny sitcom, with some obvious, seemingly easy-to-fix flaws that they never do fix. But the funny parts are funny, and there are more of them than flaws.

Mark Nease said...

Here's one: it wasn't good.

Anonymous said...

Just saw this. Caught a few eps on youtube. Funny series. Bot talented actors. Any chance there might be an almost perfect reunion? I think it would be great! I cant speak for kevin , but i think he would do it (I talk to him on twitter a fair bit). as for nancy i dont know. But i think this idea should be considerd

Heidi O. said...

Another Writer says...

I loved the show. I recorded and watched many episodes while spooning baby food into my baby's (now 16 years old!) mouth. Maybe it's because I, too, am a writer. Maybe it's because every single actor/actress was PERFECT for their part and every show flowed and had wit and was Just. Plain. Funny. My husband and I still recite lines from our favorite episodes and burst out laughing. You had a good thing. Waiting for it go come out on DVD. :)

Laura H said...

Don't know if anyone will see this comment,but I really liked this show. I liked all the actors, especially the ones who played the writers and,of course Nancy Travis is great! I was really pissed when this show was cancelled and from time to time I will find an episode on YouTube and watch it again.Oh well, leave it up to network executives to screw things up.They did the same thing with "Smash". Great first season, networks come in,fire everyone ,hire new writers and kill show. Why do they do this? For God's sake if something Isn't broken----don't fix it!!!!!!!!