Wednesday, June 21, 2017

"Tale Of A (Short Lived0 TV Series (And It's Ultimate Consequences)"

Although Best of the West ran for one season, it took two seasons to produce.

Which, like almost anything I can think of, has its good part and its bad part and I could probably do without the “almost.”  (And the “probably.”)
 
After responding to then ABC development executive Tom Werner’s question, ”What show would you most like to create?” with “a comedy western”, with the network’s “Green Lighting” of the idea, during the Pilot Season (in the spring) of 1980 – though it could possibly have been 1981 – I went to work writing, casting and producing (under the supervision of my bosses Ed. Weinberger and Stan Daniels) a Best of the West pilot episode than proved resoundingly successful when filmed in front of the live studio audience.  Werner’s network executive partner, Marcy Carsey, effused that ABC’s only problem would be to decide which night to schedule it on.

When the 1980-81 – or was it the 1981-82 – fall TV schedule was announced, ABC’s ultimate decision was:

None of them.

Instead, based on the undeniable success of the pilot filming, ABC instructed us to make twelve subsequent episodes, bringing, with the addition of the pilot, the half-season series order to the traditional thirteen. 

ABC, who, on that delirious “Pilot Night” had assured us that their only problem was which night to schedule it on, now assured us that Best of the West would be the first midseason (around January) replacement for whatever half-hour comedy series that was unable to make the grade.

Under this odd but encouraging arrangement, we immediately got down to the business of making twelve additional episodes, free from the buffeting intervention of ratings and reviews.  It was an uncharacteristical, dream-like experience, our success coming the hard way – the studio audience was watching a show they had never seen or even heard of and they were having a really good time.  (And that’s without mentioning my “warm-ups.”) 

Midseason arrived, and, with thirteen well received (and artistically rewarding) episodes “in the can”, we were rarin’ to go.  I had been naturally disappointed to be held back half a season, and especially chagrined to have my first show miss inclusion in the TV Guide Fall Preview Edition, issues of which I had personally collected since 1958.   (There may, in fact, have been a TV Guide Midseason Preview Edition but who cares about that?)

Oh, well.  At least we would finally be seen by the televiewing public in the United States and Canada.

Except that we weren’t.

When ABC announced its midseason replacements that year, conspicuously absent on their revised schedule was Best of the West.

ABC explained to us that Best of the West was too highly regarded to be thrown unheralded into the melee, assuring us – as they had assured us on Pilot Night and assured us once again when the fall schedule was announced – that Best of the West would most definitely be on its schedule the following fall.

Passed over twice, Best of the West was a show apparently too good to actually put on the air.

Five months later, ABC’s 1981 (or possibly 1982) fall schedule was announced and, Glory Be!

Best of the West was, in fact, on it.  (And included in the 1981-82, or was it the 1982-83, TV Guide Preview Edition.)

The early ratings were encouraging.  Although we were scheduled against another debuting series, Magnum P.I. (starring ominously charismatic newcomer Tom Selleck), Best of the West did well enough to get picked up for the “back nine” (nine more network-ordered, produced episodes, bringing the annual seasonal complement to 22.) 

Here’s what that “back nine” pick-up meant in practical terms.  By that mid-November pick-up, Best of the West has been out of production for almost a year.  (Note:  Series regulars, though permitted to freelance elsewhere in the interim, are contractually bound to a series for seven years, or its cancellation, whichever comes first.) 

We had exactly nine days to gear up every aspect of production, assemble a new writing staff – unlike actors, writers are not contractually bound to a series – a challenging undertaking as, by mid-November, the most desirable writers were already working elsewhere, and try and remember how exactly we did the show.

We were rusty and we were rushed.  Working under such conditions, well, the “back nine” episodes, I have to admit… something was missing. 

With our ratings dropped (as Magnum’s ratings went up) ABC moved us strategically to a more sheltering time period.  Best of the West was now scheduled against Dallas, the Number One show in the country.  Our ratings understandably dropped even more.

After the nineteenth episode, ABC informed us that we were cancelled.  (This time, they were actually telling the truth.)  We made our final (previously ordered) three episodes after the show was officially over, an eerie Flying Dutchman experience, worthy of a separate installment of its own.

And then we were done.

Those are the skeletal bones of the story, minus the editorializing (aside from my mentioning the continual lying by the network.)  I thought it might be interesting for a change to hear “just the facts”, minus the bloviating subjectivity.

A Single-Sentence Overview:  The Best of the West experience was exhilarating, creatively satisfying, personally eye opening and emotionally bittersweet.

CODA:  My next job as Executive Producer was The Cosby Show, co-owned by erstwhile ABC executives (and continuing Pomerantz supporters) Tom Werner and Marcy Carsey.  My Emmy-winning stint on Cosby led to a lucrative contract at Universal, which resulted in Major Dad, my by-far most successful commercial accomplishment.  (It ran for four seasons.)  

And there you have it.


Best of the West – a two-year, one-season failure that ultimately made my career.

2 comments:

cjdahl60 said...

Great story. As a TV viewer, we don't get exposure to all of the background machinations that go into the making of a show. It's also very interesting to be able to understand some of the issues and hurdles from the viewpoint of the show runner.

Although we viewers see it simply as entertainment, television definitely is a business and includes all of the behind the scenes politics that come along with being business. Thanks for sharing.

JED said...

This line made me laugh out loud (that's LOL to the young people): "Passed over twice, Best of the West was a show apparently too good to actually put on the air."

In another part of the story, you said, "...we immediately got down to the business of making twelve additional episodes, free from the buffeting intervention of ratings and reviews. It was an uncharacteristical, dream-like experience, our success coming the hard way – the studio audience was watching a show they had never seen or even heard of and they were having a really good time." This sounds like a nice way to work and I wonder why it is not done this way more often. But I also wonder if you feel you were as sharp in this situation as you would have been with more pressure on you. You say your success came the hard way but it seems like it was a different hard way.

Thank you for this story.