Monday, May 22, 2017

"No Sure Things"

I am thinking about Bull.  But first, I’ll talk about Phyllis.  Because both reflect, to me, a similar difficulty:

An expected hit series that appears to be missing.

Phyllis was spun off (as was Rhoda) from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  A supercilious know-it-all, Phyllis Lindstrom was extracted from Mary and given a half-hour series of her own. 

Talented actress.  Shining creative auspices – Phyllis was conceived and developed by Emmy-winning producers Ed. Weinberger and Stan Daniels.  I’d bet on those pedigreed bloodlines.  The problem, possibly suspected but rigorously ignored (“Hey, they’re giving us a show!”):

It was a flimsy vehicle for a series. 

A snippity landlady with a successful dermatologist husband is transformed into a financially strapped widow living through the beneficence of her now late husband’s in-laws.  Even the (comedically intended) theme song was a downer, its payoff after an upbeat Mame-type set-up including, “Who charms the clams on Fisherman’s Wharf right out of their shells?” concludes, “Phyllis… it sure isn’t you.”

Compare that with “You’re going to make it after all” and you can immediately see what the show’s up against.

Still… Cloris Leachman, decorated writers, a strong supporting cast (including the wonderful Barbara Colby who was tragically killed early in the show’s production.)  By conventional standards, Phyllis appeared earmarked for success.  But the premise was… what exactly was the premise? 

Unlike Seinfeld, Phyllis was a show about nothing… but not in a good way.

Despite a sparklingly beginning and a necessary mid-course structural adjustment, Phyllis’s ratings trended increasingly downward.  The show was finally cancelled after two seasons – a loudly trumpeted though thinly conceived disappointment.

(Note:  I wrote numerous episodes of Phyllis, creating in the process the character of crusty Senior Citizen “Mother Dexter” which, my random research reveals, purportedly kept the series afloat, until the actress (Judith Lowry) playing the grumpy octogenarian passed away.  I had no idea people held that opinion.) 

Primary Lesson Concerning Phyllis’s Demise:  Downbeat characters should never headline their own shows.  {At least not in 1976.}  Inevitably, the obligation of carrying the storyline exposes their negative, “One Trick Pony” limitations.  Thankfully, and wisely, there was no Seinfeld spinoff called Costanza.)

Which brings me to Bull.

A show I liked at the beginning – as I did Phyllis – but by the end of its first season, I was shaking my head and hollering for the check.

Another projected “sure thing.”  Again, with noteworthy auspices:

Writer Paul Attanasio.  (House, Homicide: Life on the Street, movies like Donnie Brasco and Quiz Show.)  Steven Spielberg (Who requires no parenthetical enhancement.)  Dr. Phil McGraw (on whose early career Bull was ostensibly based.)  Actor Michael Weatherly (NCIS, which I have never seen, but its great popularity –  as with Mary and Cloris Leachman – made Weatherly ripe for promotion to a show-carrying opportunity.)

Bull is about a successful, high tech jury consultant whose firm-provided targeted data and psychological insights create courtroom strategies to help their accused clients win their cases.

I enjoyed the Bull pilot, though I have an ideological antipathy towards jury consultants.  Strategizing an “edge” for your client relates tangentially, if at all, to the achievement of justice.  Plus, you have to be rich to afford one, an indigent defendant provided with an attorney if they cannot afford one, but not provided with a jury consultant. 

But that’s just extraneous blah-blah.  I am talking about the show here, which, as the season progressed, muted my enthusiasm with its noticeable decline.

An early episode involves a female commercial airline pilot accused of negligence whose exoneration is achieved by exposing the jury’s unconscious “gender bias” towards female pilots.

That one was interesting. 

But surprisingly quickly, the show got noticeably “stunty”, the way hit sitcoms like Happy Days and Everybody Loves Raymond went on fancy “vacations.”  The thing is, those shows did that late into their runs, when they were running out of ideas.  The “red flagging” difference is that this was Bull veered precariously from its series template in its debuting season.

Suddenly the trial itself is no longer front and center.  It was like those Scottish engineers on those old-time steam engines, somebody in charge was shouting, “We need more pooer!” 

So now, instead of just cliff-hanging courtroom combat, It’s that Bull’s ex-wife – or nemesis archrival – is a central participant.  Or his assistant’s former mentor.  Or another assistant’s old boyfriend. 

A driverless car runs crazily out of control.  A desperate woman blows up Bull’s facility, taking the trapped cast of series regulars hostage.

A “hostage” show?  That’s like a “Fifth Season” episode.  And they’re doing it “Episode Eleven.”

It’s crazy.  Where the heck have they left to go? 

The plan seemed shortsighted and futile.  How many regulars will have significant people from their past requiring the urgent necessity of a jury consultant? 

Some series get better as they discover their natural “groove.”  To my sensibilities, Bull seemed to be getting progressively worse.  Where’s the depth of characterization?  Where’s the narrative relatability?  Where’s the credible acting?  (Although substandard writing can leave even capable actors vulnerable to embarrassment.  After all, the disheartening dialogue is emerging out of their mouths.)

Still, Bull’s remains a quantifiable success.  (As, at this juncture, was Phyllis.)  Though there are some indications of audience erosion.

I feel worried for the producers.  (Which is the kind of empathetic person I am.)
They have this glorious opportunity.  But their show is demonstrably leaking oil.

And what about that title?  I am starting to wonder.  Is this show subliminally “bull”?

(Vindicating Credibility Note:  I recently had lunch with an hour-show writing acquaintance whose luminous credits include House, The Mentalist and The Good Wife who confided that he had turned down working on Bull, realizing, earlier than I did it, its inescapable stumbling block; namely that it’s shiny balloon filled with camouflagingly hot air.  So forget me.  A certifiable hotshot thinks it’s no good.  I feel eminently vindicated.  Though I take no pleasure in my assessment.) 


Wendy M. Grossman said...

At the risk of denting what I feel sure is by now a beautiful friendship...yeah, I didn't like PHYLLIS, even though I am well aware of the awesome talent that is Cloris Leachman. Not, however,for any of the reasons you mention (although they may have been factors I was unaware of at the time). I just found the character annoying, not least because she seemed to be *stupid*. Maybe she wasn't, but of those three women the one I liked was Rhoda, who was at least funny and sarcastic. Mary, I'm afraid, always seemed terribly "wet" to me. (Also, my *least* favorite character, then and now, in the otherwise wonderful THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW was...yep, Laura Petrie. Loved Rose Marie - she was funny, she had a great job, and she got to crack wise with the boys.) And RHODA had Julie Kavner and Carlton, your doorman.

Many of the shows from that time period have dated badly - shows that milk the social change they're living through will do that. (See also WILL AND GRACE, which will have to be very different in revival.) Phyllis, the character, always seemed out of date to me even at the time. If I remember correctly, and I may not, she was utterly dependent on her husband, and had no skills or great desire to acquire any. Around that time, I was a teenager and my heroine was Diana Rigg's Emma Peel in THE AVENGERS. She was smart, witty, tough, and sophisticated; she had a great car; and she saved Steed's ass as often as he saved hers.

But I'm a very small sammple.


Unknown said...

"Thankfully, and wisely, there was no Seinfeld spinoff called Costanza."

Well, no, not as such. But there was, of course, "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

I always wonder if "Phyllis" might have fared better over the long haul had Ms. Colby survived. Liz Torres is an outstanding actress, but her Julie rarely demonstrated much affection or patience for Phyllis; I don't know if this was her instinctive take on the character or a conscious attempt to distance her portrayal from Ms. Colby's, but to me, it lessened the importance of the characters' relationship and dampened some of the enjoyment of the photography studio scenes. On the other hand, Colby's Julie clearly found a way to appreciate Phyllis in her own way -- often bemused, sometimes annoyed, but never hateful -- and it gave the audience the context it needed to relax and enjoy Phyllis's idiosyncrasies, just as Mary Richards had done. That was a relationship that seemed to have some mileage in it.