Friday, November 26, 2010

Most improved sitcom: PARKS & RECREATION

Friday questions, and I have one for you? Why does ANYBODY shop on this day? You know the crowds are worse than any other day of the year. Why not wait until tomorrow? Or February and just apologize that you're late? Anyway, hope you had a fabulous turkey day, and here are some Friday questions for your leftover pleasure.

404 says:

I agreed with the outstanding post you did a couple of weeks (months?) ago concerning "Outsourced" and why it was a subpar show. However, I think since then it has gotten better and better. It's still not great, but it has improved and is pretty enjoyable now, at least sometimes. I'm curious what shows through the years you originally thought were drivel, only to tune in weeks, months, or even years later only to find that the quality of the show had improved and turned it into a good show worth watching?

PARKS & RECREATION for one. That went from one of the worst to the best.  Others current examples are (in my opinion) THE BIG BANG THEORY, THE OFFICE, and COMMUNITY.

It’s not unusual that it takes a show some time to find its groove. You see what works, what doesn’t, and make changes accordingly. Cast members like Michael J. Fox on FAMILY TIES breakout and you make midcourse corrections. Even classic series like MASH needed a little time to find its sea legs. The first year of MASH is way more shenanigan heavy than it would become.

I would say (again, my opinion) CHEERS’ best season was its first. But that’s very unusual, and even then – watch the first six episodes. There was a lot of experimentation going on. There’s one episode where a bunch of different outside colorful characters come into the bar and we had four or five stories going. It was more like BARNEY MILLER in that regard. What we all discovered was that Sam & Diane were really at the heart of the show and so we wrote to that. And stories centered on our core characters worked better than ones featuring outside characters. But it was a trial & error process.

The key is you have to be open to throwing things out and following the direction the show wants to go in; not necessarily where you want it to go.  Tossing scripts, replacing actors, losing characters -- that's not easy to do and sure not fun.  But sometimes for the good of the series you have to.

The only show I can think of (and I’m sure there are others) that was consistently excellent, almost at the same peak quality, start to finish was FRASIER.

From Wade:

Not sure if you've seen the new TV series "The Walking Dead" yet, but it prompted a Friday question in my brain.

The main setting is the zombie apocalypse, and of course none of the zombies have any spoken dialogue (and if the show stays true to its source material, they never will). So the question is, does this mean there's zero chance any actor playing a zombie will ever get paid beyond "extra" status? If spoken dialogue is the ticket into a big jump in pay, is every one of these shambling corpses out of luck no matter how integral they might be individually in a given episode?

I think in this case they are paying significant salaries to the main cast. You’re not going to get the caliber of actor you want for your series if you’re paying him less than a hundred a day.  Even in this economy, and even if business affairs did try.

Maybe in addition to Actors’ Scale, and Extras’ Scale, there should be Zombies’ Scale. Imagine what that picket line would be like if they ever struck.

Brian Doan has a long question:

Ken, I'm curious about how you are defining "hit" in your response about the popularity of writers. I would not dispute your contention about the respect/fame that writers have in the UK versus the US, but I often think of David Chase, Matt Weiner, and others (like David Simon, or Joss Whedon, or Ron Moore, to name three that fans seem to follow from show to show) as creators of cult programs more than big hits-- they win awards and have great media penetration, but their numbers are smaller compared to "hits" on larger networks.

Yes, a “hit” is a relative term based on expectations. MAD MEN is a big hit on AMC compared to most of its other fare. If MAD MEN were on NBC and drew the same number of viewers it currently has it would be cancelled in two weeks. Same with THE SOPRANOS, THE SHIELD, practically any cable offering. Also, demographics now play a huge role. Shows like BUFFY and DAWSON’S CREEK are targeted for a specific young audience and both delivered nicely. Network execs didn’t expect them to get big overall numbers.

Then there’s the prestige factor. Shows like THE SOPRANOS and MAD MEN do wonders for the image of their networks. It also helps lure other top writers to those networks.

And winning awards doesn’t hurt either. Although awards can only take you so far. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT still got cancelled despite all the Emmys. Awards can buy you time but if ultimately the audience isn’t there, you and your trophies are gone. But the winners of the awards go make bigger deals elsewhere so don’t feel too sorry for them.

Hank asks:

I vaguely recall that when Coach died on Cheers and Woody replaced him, that at first Woody's personality was very different from Coach's, but over time his personality morphed until he basically became a younger version of Coach. Was this my imagination? Is there a behind the scene story here?

I would contend that Woody and the Coach were always different.

The Coach was a little addled because of all the times he had been beaned in baseball. He may have appeared dumb but in fact he was just confused.

By contrast, Woody was an innocent from Indiana. It’s not so much that he was dumb; he was just incredibly na├»ve. And he took everything literally. Woody has a definite logic; it’s just that it’s screwy.

All I can say is that I wrote them very differently.

What’s your question?


Mark B. Spiegel said...

Ken, do you (or anyone else) have a single favorite sit-com scene (from one of your shows or not)? I'm not referring to an entire episode, but rather a single scene (of, say, around three minutes or so) than can stand on its own.

I'll kick it off with my personal favorite, which is from "The Odd Couple":

chalmers said...

I think "Cheers" was immediately strong because so many of the key players had been together already on "Taxi." I think a lot of kinks had already been worked out before production ever started (though, as you noted, some things were tried on early episodes that seem out of place now).

Even several of the actors had done guest shots there (including Ted Danson as the complete opposite of Sam).

The other spots were filled by people with similar high-level experience who didn't need a season to feel out where the humor was.

DwWashburn said...

I hunker down in my man cave on "Black Friday" -- play online poker, catch up on TIVO, start decorating the house. But my sister says that Black Friday shopping makes her feel like Christmas has arrived. I don't understand it either. But then again, I've never understood wanting to be present at championship games (playoffs, World Series etc). The tickets are overpriced, the crowds are terrible, the view from the home TV screen is better, and the game(s) is usually a blow out.

On the subject of shows getting better / worse, I usually avoid pilot episodes liek the plague. If series moved at the speed of most pilots all shows would be cancelled after one episode. And it works both ways. I've heard that Conan O'Brien's first show with Tonight was specatular. But within a week he was phoning it in, which led to his ouster and golden parachute.

JC said...

I usually wait until I hear a show has been picked up before I start watching. I've been disappointed too many times by enjoying a show only to have it yanked off the air with no resolution. There have been quite a few where I felt like if they'd been given more time, they would have found that audience.

David Schwartz said...

I completely agree that the first season of Cheers was magical! It seemed fresh and very real. The relationship between Diane and Sam had an intensity to it, and a "knowingness" of each other (that keep leading to extreme frustration for the characters) that was exhilirating and very funny at the same time.

benson said...

@Mark. DVD show: MTM facing Carl Reiner after she told the nation that Alan Brady is bald.

Frasier had too many to mention, but in the pilot, Roz telling the tale of Lupe Velez. Daphne climbing into the Road Warrior asking Niles for a date. Not because Ken co wrote it, but the three principals facing each other after Niles slept with Lillith. And again, not because he directed it, but I love it when the cast loses it during "Roz and the Schnoz".

From the Odd Couple, the poker buddies in court after Murray busts up the card game. And of course the Password episode.

And you can't leave out the Newhart finale's final scene.

Jon88 said...

A question on behalf of pedants such as me. Is there anyone on the production team responsible for grammar and pronunciation? Is this job description a thing of the past, a victim of current economics? Hardly a week goes by that I don't hear a "you and I" that should be "you and me." On last week's "Terriers," a character referred to a criminal's fiefdom, but made the first syllable rhyme with "life" instead of "thief." (Weirdly, the same thing occurred on the premiere of "Boardwalk Empire," an otherwise immaculate hour.) Are there no standards anymore?

LouOCNY said...

Dick Van Dyke was pretty seamless A-1 from start to finish.

As far as best pilot ever, (although its not a comedy) THE CAGE was so good, that even though it did net not sell STAR TREK at the time, NBC gave Roddenberry a second chance! There are many people (even NON Trekkers)that think that THE CAGE was one of the best sci fi things put on film up to that time. In fact, it did its job as a blueprint for Trek so well, even Abrams' movie still has echos of it.

te said...

Much as I enjoyed Frazier, I have to disagree with the notion that the series was consistently great from start to finish.

Of course, everything has its ups and downs, but Frazier, to me, absolutely hit the skids when the Daphne/Niles romance bloomed, and it never recovered. I am thankful, though, that the show never reached the point when they'd have a baby.

I think that, like you said of Cheers, Frazier was best when sticking to the principal characters. With one (somewhat) recurring exception: Alfred Molina as Daphne's brother.

Again, I'm thankful that the producers didn't run with it and reshape the show. I don't like the way Family Ties became The Michael J. Fox Show, and Big Bang Theory is becoming The Parsons Show, though I have no problem with either actor or character.

jbryant said...

te: Unless my memory is worse than I thought, Anthony LaPaglia played Daphne's brother. Alfred Molina did, however, topline the short-lived BRAM AND ALICE, a sitcom exec-produced by FRASIER alums Joe Keenan and Christopher Lloyd.

Steven said...

I'm a big fan of Everybody Loves Raymond and I know that critics of the show all pointed to Ray and Debra's constant fighting as a reason for not liking the show. I agree that arguing does feature prominently in most of the episodes and was a source of much of the shows humor, however all the episodes that I believe have annoying, excessive arguing between the two of them are all credited to one writer, Tucker Cawley.

If you watch the later seasons Cawley uses the same plot device repeatedly in his scripts where Ray or Robert will say something that one or both of their wives overreact to and this drives the entire plot of the episode. The early episodes that he wrote didn't follow this formula and consequently weren't as funny.

My question is have you ever noticed when a staff writer on a show uses the same plot device repeatedly in the scripts he wrote and the show's quality suffered as a result? In this situation is it more the responsibility if the writer who wrote the initial draft to challenge himself and write something unlike what he's used to, or do the other producers just have to have more of an input on the final draft to ensure it doesn't seem too formulaic to longtime viewers of the show?

Kirk said...

I'm glad you said that about Mash. I feel the show didn't really find its' bearings until the middle of the second season. The pranks that Hawkeye and Trapper John played before then were a little too bizarre for a show that was supposed to be rooted in reality. For instance, we're always told that the 4077 was constantly short of supplies, so where did Hawkeye and Trapper find all the gold paint to convince Frank Burns he'd struck it rich? (Remember, they had enough left over to paint the jeep gold!)

@Mark--There's a lot, but one that immediately comes to mind is Archie Bunker asking Sammy Davis Jr if he'd like some cream in his eye.

Max Clarke said...

My favorite Cheers season is probably five. Yesterday, I watched "Thanksgiving Orphans." Also on season five's DVD is the hilarious farce, "Dinner At Eight-ish."

Season one is outstanding. No episode that year reminded me of another sitcom, great originality, so you never knew what the characters were going to do.

I always chuckle when I think of the lines from Julia Duffy's favorite poem, Another Christmas Of Agony.

"Mischa the dog lies dead in the bog...." Great stuff.

te said...

Apologies to Anthony LaPaglia; what I get for not double-checking.

And thanks, jbryant, for keeping me honest and making sure the right guy receives credit for a great coming performance.

bevo said...

Frasier stayed at the party for about two seasons too long. Barnery Miller was exceptional from start to finish.

Cosby Show took about two seasons to find its legs. Night Court needed Markie Post to join the show before it found a good rhythm.

While I still enjoy Sienfeld, the first season is really ragged. Arrested Development should have been a British comedy because, like Coupling, it stayed at the party long enough.

bevo said...

Mash Question for a Friday. I recently lost some weight rather quickly (it was planned). My clothes are baggy and very loose as a result.

I started thinking about the MASH episode where Charles is convinced that he is gaining weight because his clothes are tight. Who thought of the story? Was it result of the research efforts that have been discussed previously? How did the last line, which is brilliant, come about?

Cap'n Bob said...

Reverend Jim taking the taxi driver's test always cracks me up.

Erika C. said...

Re: The Walking Dead zombies...I heard that they have the same 40 extras who always play the zombies, and they just change their make-up enough times that you can't tell. I'm sure a lot of them are just excited to be on that set.

Larry said...

Frasier "consistently excellent"? I would say consistent, but never excellent. It was well done, but conventional (with bigger words). Winning all those Emmys when better shows were around (Seinfeld, Larry Sanders, The Simpsons, even Friends) showed a lack of imagination on Television Academy's part.

Word Verification: believe it or not, "outie."

Dave said...

1) Humor is the most subjective of things, but I just don't understand how anyone can find "Parks and Rec" to be anything but irritating. It's like a group of people shouting "Aren't we funny?!" in my face for 22 minutes.

2) Best pilot ever? Either "Tenspeed and Brown Shoe" or "Salvage 1." Each so brilliant that the series that followed were never able to live up to the promise.

Erika @ Health and Happiness in LA said...

I definitely agree about Parks and Recreation and Community. Both started out kind of terrible and have turned into two of my favorite shows.

olucy said...

Frasier stayed at the party for about two seasons too long. Barnery Miller was exceptional from start to finish.

What bevo said.

Anonymous said...

Re. excelellence/peak quallity sitcoms: I would say that about The Larry Sanders Show well before the over-awarded Frasier...

Somersby said...

I found Frasier seldom had a spark of anything really new. The same old jokes being rewoven into new episodes. Not a bad show, but I always had the feeling I had seen even the new episodes before.

The first season of Community was fun, but I'm finding the second a tad too out there for my liking. Over the top concepts (ie: a KFC "space capsule"; Aryan trampolines opening doors to altered states of reality) that are cute buy not strong enough to hold an episode. Seems like the writers have challenged themselves to see how far they can push the envelope -- but the concept often ends up sinking the content... Hm. Maybe it's an acquired taste.

Jaded and Cynical said...

It took a few years for Seinfeld to reach the UK. I remember watching the first series in utter disbelief that this was the top comedy in America.

Expectations duly lowered, it seemed even funnier when all the elements fell into place.

kim said...

I loved Frasier from beginning to end - what I didn't like at the end was that often Niles and Frasier woudn't be in the same scenes - while I liked Niles either way, Frasier's character seemed like a pompous assbag without Niles to parry with. I loved the Niles/Daphne relationship and the dad with Wendie Malick - but Frasier didn't have anyone that brought out the funny (to me) there at the end. Great show, great writing. Loved it.

mrswing said...

Frasier was consistently outstanding for the first six seasons. Then fatigue set in and the show really went downhill with the introduction of the Moon family. They were so obnoxious (and the Cranes were so powerless to counter them) it made every episode in which they appeared painful to watch.

There WAS a lot of experimenting in the later seasons, though (the sliding doors episode, the one where they revisited scenes from earlier episodes commenting on how they behaved/what they thought then, etc.). But this exploring the boundaries of the traditional sitcom often didn't really result in a lot of big laughs.

word verification: rerra. What Yogi Berra kicked you in when he got mad at you.

mrswing said...

Community is having problems equalling the unheard-of brilliance of episode 25 (I think) from the first season. So they're going more into genre parody than before and the results are not as strong as in that one case. There's also the danger of them losing the characters a little along the way.

That being said, the conspiracy episode had a fantastic climactic scene, and one of the most enjoyable meta lines ever in a sitcom: 'Jeff Winger NEVER learns!'

lucifervandross said...

The Big Bang Theory has moved onto Sheldon because the Penny/Leonard Dynamic proved to be limiting. I'm not sure if it was the fact that they were in a relationship together at the time, but go back and watch the first season. There is no "winning over" she is interested almost immediately. It's all subtextual, but it is all there too. I mean there aren't too many ways that can go, so you move on to other characters.

That said, my spec BBT is sheldon centric, so i am part of the problem.

Anonymous said...

I thought Cheers was at its best during seasons 4 and 5. Everything was just firing on all cylinders. Season 6 is quite good, too - though not quite as good as the previous two due to Shelley Long's absence.

I liked the first five or six years of Frasier, but it went on way too long. They somewhat redeemed themselves during the last season, though, when Joe Keenan and Chris Lloyd returned to run the show.

Matt Patton said...

I'm an agnostic on FRASIER, but a few moments always stick in my mind:

John Mahoney justifying the presence of his decaying La-Z-Boy in his son's living room: "It's eclectic."

The whole Lupe Velez story (which was true, BTW)

Niles' amazed exclamation "You saw my Maris naked?!" He clearly never had.

VP81955 said...

Finally got a chance to watch "Hot In Cleveland" (yeah, I know I'm late to the party), and loved it. Okay, it's not quite a brilliant series, but it's very well done with a lot of old sitcom pros (including the oldest of all, the wonderful Betty White). Jane Leeves looks a lot sexier (and leggier) than she ever was on "Frasier," and her character must be wearing super-high heels because she's taller than Wendie Malick, who's hardly petite (but still does the egotistical, stuck-up thing to perfection). And Valerie Bertinelli is pretty solid, too.

Kudos to TV Land for a fun series (with an array of great guest stars from Wayne Knight to Carl Reiner). I look forward to the new season in January and hope its sister show, "Retired At 35," is similarly good.

wv: "ourec" -- shorthand for what many football players in Norman elect as a major.

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