THE TV SERIES-FIXER

TVIt happened almost without my awareness, and for reasons I still don’t entirely understand. A few years into my Hollywood career, executives at the TV networks, NBC and CBS in particular, began to perceive me as one of several writers in town who might save troubled series. And for the next three or four seasons they ignored the fact that I couldn’t – and never got on my case for failing. They just kept throwing money at me to keep on trying.

In those days, instead of immediately canceling a first-season show that wasn’t working, they’d often fire the writing staff and hire a couple of writers such as myself in hope of rescuing it – of somehow putting it on the right track. As a strategy, it was about as rational as the thinking that had put these ill-conceived, essentially non-salvageable turkeys on the air in the first place. But with sometimes tens of millions already invested, tossing a few thousand more dollars at them apparently made sense to the bean-counters.

As mentioned I was never able to fix any of these shows. Nonetheless, the network people fervently continued to believe I (and/or the other above-referenced replacement-writers) might pull off a miracle or two. Thus during each of the next several seasons, I was put to work on as many as three different series consecutively. I’d be assigned to one, it would be cancelled within a few weeks, and I’d be on to the next. And occasionally, in less time. With Mike Hammer, four days after I came aboard, with a four week guarantee, the star went to prison in the UK for drug-smuggling/possession

Incredibly, on a number of occasions I’d find myself at another studio the following day, or the next, on yet another troubled series, again vainly trying to make something out of very little. Like so much of my experience in the business, it was educational. First, about the craft of writing, since at the beginning, my fellow staffer was usually a seasoned veteran with a lot more experience than I’d had.

Moreover, though, I learned hands-on what sort of premise works in series TV, which ones usually don’t, and which of them never work. I found it fascinating, too, that the development people at the networks seemed largely oblivious to such criteria. Or, if they were aware, they failed to pass the lessons on to their successors who repeatedly – even today – develop at great cost series that because of their basic concepts, just will not sustain.

Additionally curious, never, prior to my coming aboard for one of these gigs, or during any of their brief runs, was I once contacted by, nor did I meet with, a network or studio exec. Nobody ever asked what I thought the fixes might be, what my take on them was, or what problems – beyond lousy ratings – they thought a show might be having. My only inkling that I was even expected to make changes came from my agent’s occasional, brief explanation – and once or twice from a fellow hire with more experience than I. Usually, I was simply told to report to this or that studio as part of the replacement writing staff on yet another troubled production.

Reflecting on it from this distance, it does take on an oddly comic, slightly surreal quality – as if I was supposed – expected – assumed, really – to somehow know what to do. In a business so famous for the difficulty of separating people from their money, it seems more than a little ironic. And it confirms my ongoing notion that it is indeed a confidence game. Not in a pejorative sense, but rather in that it’s about people acquiring the confidence that you can do what you say you can do. Or, as in this case, about that which I never once claimed I could do. And then – in the face of mounting contrary evidence – their clinging to that belief. A comment, I guess, on the durability of the phenomenon known as “accepted wisdom.”

And, hey – to me – I was being paid for having fun. As we used to say back in New York, “Whatsamatter with that?”


6 thoughts on “THE TV SERIES-FIXER

  • Carla Norton

    Tom, this is fascinating. But now you have to dish. You can’t just tease us with: “I learned hands-on what sort of premise works in series TV, which ones usually don’t, and which of them never work.” What’s the most outlandish premise you’ve come across? And is it a fair guess that cops & docs are the bread & butter of the biz? Lastly, with fingers crossed, is there any chance that the reality show craze is gearing down. Do tell!

    • Thomas B. Sawyer

      Hi, Carla:
      Thanks for the nudge. Okay, in the area of dramatic one-hour crime shows, there are “franchises” that work, wherein the crime-solver has a profession that justifies him/her meddling in other people’s life-or-death problems: Doctor, Lawyer, Cop, Fireman (or other emergency-type), Private Detective. Franchise/professions that don’t work: Hobbyists, Housewives, and especially Reporters. Any of those, along with Airline Pilots, and damned near anyone else, work okay for one-shot movies or novels, but in series form go beyond credibility. Obviously there are exceptions, such as Jessica Fletcher, but even that requires an audiences disbelief-suspension – easy to do if you’re lucky enough to cast it with Angela Lansbury, and put her in a small town where someone gets murdered every week. The one that development executives never seem to wise up about: the Reporter who solves crimes. And every few years they try it again – with invariable failure. In my own experience, back in the early 1980s I was hired on staff of JESSICA NOVACK, a series that had been consciously sold – and bought – as an obvious rip-off of the successful movie, China Syndrome, in the Jane Fonda character was a TV journalist who, with her cameraman and sound guy, saved the world from a nuclear power plant meltdown. The problem: in a one-hour TV series, you can’t come up with a nuclear meltdown every week. Ergo, Jessica Novack quickly became a busybody. I recognized the problem the day I came aboard. The show lasted for 4 or 5 episodes. Audiences are unable to buy the conceit in such concepts, wherein the reporter’s boss doesn’t fire them, and/or the cops don’t forbid their presence at the crime-scene because of interference with their cases.
      And re: reality shows – I hate ‘em too. Problem, and why they’re here to stay: they’re cheap.

      • Norb Vonnegut

        Tom, I really like this idea of a profession that justifies him/her meddling in other people’s life-or-death problems. What about a series like House of Cards? The justification for meddling is there… I guess you could say it’s life or death, but it’s bigger picture than, say, a cop series.

        I ask because I’m curious if the life or death part is more important than the meddling part or the other way around?

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