By Cory Barker, Les Chappell, Andrew Daglas, and Noel Kirkpatrick
Top of the Rock by Warren Littlefield with T.R. Pearson
Les: So far, Top of the Rock has spent its time on the comedies that NBC built its legacy on, but now we’re moving into more serious territory. A drama — or rather, the drama of the 90s — ER. Looking at the recent failures NBC’s had in that Thursday at 10 timeslot, it’s hard to believe that was once a place that was impossible to challenge for almost a decade.
Andy: They mention that ER had a 40 share at one point. That’s a mind-boggling number to read. Even apart from the fact that NBC, ex-football, may not get a cumulative 40 share in a week. Nothing gets that kind of number anymore. Julianna Marguiles has a great line about how it spoiled her, and she can hardly believe The Good Wife makes the top ten with a 13 share.
Cory: I’m not sure that Community had a 40 share total, in all of season three.
Les: It feels like ER was the last serious network drama before the advent of The Sopranos and the cable juggernauts that followed, in terms of really being part of the conversation.
Noel: It was a time when broadcast TV still meant something. Which is increasingly difficult to grasp these days, I think.
Les: If there’s any show that’s a symbol of how much times have changed, this is it. You couldn’t recreate this on a broadcast network now if you tried—and lord knows the networks have tried.
Cory: NBC tried multiple times: You guys remember Trauma right?
Cory: They’re trying it again this coming season with Chicago Fire.
Les: And that’s sure to fail, because the NBC of today is not the NBC of 1997, as Littlefield’s always quick to mention. Also because I find Jesse Spencer’s Chicago accent beyond hilarious.
Cory: Hey, Chicago Fire is a Dick Wolf production! Meaning, Dick Wolf gets to cash a check for 13 weeks before it’s cancelled in January.
Andy: Even into the 00s, when NBC’s sitcom infrastructure was crumbling, ER was the tentpole show holding the network up for a few more years of blissful mediocrity. If it ran today, they’d franchise the hell out of it, too. ER: Miami. ER: L.A.
Cory: Now I’m just imagining an alternate reality where Noah Wyle thought he was a movie star, left after season one of ER and then came back six years later to do ER: Miami.
Les: What struck me about the early stories of ER is the fact that this is a show that lingered for 20 years, originally a Crichton screenplay from 1974. I had no idea this was a pre-Jurassic Park idea.
Cory: I didn’t either, Les. This was one of my favorite parts of the book. They wrangled up a lot of cast and crew, all of whom were pretty honest about the circumstances of the show’s development and meteoric rise, and it was quite informative. (Maybe because I didn’t know a whole lot about ER before this.)
Les: And like Friends, this is another show that had a meteoric rise to fame, and yet there doesn’t seem to be any bad blood from anyone. Anthony Edwards, Noah Wyle, Eriq La Salle—the gratitude they have for what that show did for them is very refreshing. In that vein, how much ER did you guys watch growing up? My mom was very into the show so I’d watch an episode here and there, but I was never a regular viewer.
Noel: I watched it regularly for a while. I think I stopped sometime around the time Carter got stabbed.
Andy: I do recall Scottie Pippen’s cameo, though. I’m pretty sure the gag was that the tall nurse from Parker Lewis Can’t Lose was the only one who saw him come in, and no one would believe him.
Cory: I have, and this is no exaggeration, never seen more than TWO MINUTES of ER.
Noel: …You’re the worst.
Cory: I know. I was six when ER started, guys.
Noel: I was 10. That’s hardly an excuse.
Andrew: What’s that? Suddenly my vision is very blurry and I think I need my pills.
Les: Oh my back.
Cory: Had I known that Scottie Pippen was on there, I would have watched. But more seriously, reading the ER section really reminded me of the show’s importance. The tidbits about the development process were intriguing. I love when people talk about crafting a shooting and blocking style, for some reason.
Les: I was very intrigued by the pace they had filming the pilot. This was always a show that felt very frantic to me, always on the edge and moving forward, and you can see that was a core part of the show’s DNA.
Andy: Eriq La Salle has some great discussions of the process of developing his character, Benton. And several of the actors discuss the way they supported and challenged one another. It’s fun to read.
Cory: La Salle is a weird, entertaining guy.
Noel: At least he wasn’t bragging about bringing two women up this hotel room.
Cory: That was odd.
Les: That was hilarious.
Cory: I appreciate Wyle’s honesty, and I’m guessing he said it in a humorous fashion, but you can never quite tell. I imagine he gets just as many ladies today by saying, “I am THE LIBRARIAN.” Downfall of the oral history.
Les: I credit the beard he’s rocking on Falling Skies this season.
Noel: I liked that, even though he wasn’t interviewed, how big of a presence Clooney is in the interviews.
Cory: Noel, I agree.
Les: And it’s also nice to be reminded that George Clooney was, once upon a time, showkiller George Clooney, with an estimated 20 failed pilots.
Cory: You knew he wouldn’t take part in the book, but the anecdotes about him were nice. Either he REALLY is one of the best human beings on the planet, or he has naked pictures of everyone in Hollywood. Probably both.
Andy: Anthony Edwards mentions that it was he and Clooney who initiated the idea of a live episode, which is very cool. It came out of an abiding love and respect for the old, theatrical mode of television drama.
Noel: Yeah, I really dug that. And I vaguely remember the live episode, too. It didn’t completely work, but it worked better than more recent live episodes…like…well, I guess 30 Rock…
Andy: How dare you, sir.
Cory: I was surprised to read that little bit about Julianna Margulies being a bit of a diva. I guess she did go off and TRY movies, but I just can’t picture her as anything but lovely Alicia Florrick.
Noel: Yeah, but at least she fessed up that it was a huge mistake and now she’s happy to have had that experience.
Andy: ER‘s pilot really is fantastic, though. Even if you don’t have the time or inclination to kick back for 15 goddamn seasons of it, I’d recommend watching the pilot. Like Lost or Friday Night Lights, it throws you into such a fully realized world and socks you in the gut from the word go.
Noel: I went looking for it on Netflix last night, and was sad it wasn’t there. The chapter actually made me want to start watching the series from the start again.
Cory: Me too.
Les: I enjoyed the anecdote from Preston Beckman that they decided to rerun the ER pilot on New Year’s Day and totally screw over Chicago Hope, a move that lead Mandy Patinkin to argue with Don Ohlmeyer. If Homeland proved anything, Mandy Patinkin is not a man to cross. It’s actually sort of remarkable that ER seems to be out of the consciousness now, for a show that was as long-lived as it was.
Andrew: It’s funny to remember that there was a time when it was a toss-up whether ER or Chicago Hope would win the head-to-head battle of the doctor dramas. It was the “Peyton Manning vs. Ryan Leaf of mid-90s prime time.
Les: Well, not out of consciousness per se, but I feel like it’s not really talked about in the landscape of the big cable dramas. Maybe because it went on too long? (FIFTEEN years. Jesus.)
Cory: Most definitely. I think this book probably paints ER as more of an underdog than it actually was, but it’s always nice to be reminded of the historical footnote that is Chicago Hope. And, Les, you’re right: ER went on for too long, sullying its reputation. And it ended during some really dark years for NBC.
Les: And Wyle even gets to that in the last line, when he talks about how the soundstage was empty and he couldn’t even get in to see it in between auditions.
Andy: Almost as soon as it was off the air it felt like it belonged to another era, the way Hill Street Blues felt by the 90s. By that time, CSI: had eclipsed it as the Big Time Network Drama du jour.
Les: Now that’s depressing. Also, Cory, there’s a Test Pilot idea for you—medical dramas.
Cory: It’s weird, because Law & Order didn’t feel that way. It was timeless in a way.
Les: Well, I think Law & Order was helped by how procedural it was—episodes and cast members could be interchanged at will, but the structure remained the same.
Andy: And half of Law & Order‘s viewership came in syndication.
Les: Whereas with ER, it kept going and noticeably became a different show as different cast members gained prominence.
Noel: Law & Order was helped by how procedural it was, Les, and that it wasn’t really driven by personal stories. But ER is driven by those personal stories, even though (and I loved this) John Wells told Crichton not to ever call it a soap opera out loud. It’s part of the reason why ER, while having success on TNT to a degree, isn’t the syndicated blockbuster that L&O is. ER‘s a soap and we all know those don’t syndicate very well. And when we talk about ER‘s enduring legacy, it is actually impressive that it has stuck in the consciousness of audiences despite not being in popular syndication.
Andy: In keeping with one of this book’s main motifs, we can’t go two chapters without a round of “Let’s bash Don Ohlmeyer.”
Les: Who of course, hated this pilot. Too much blood, too much technical dialogue, too much star fucking. That quote of his, “These feature people don’t respect our medium,” is baffling in today’s day and age, where respected film directors are churning out some of the best pilots on network or cable TV.
Though I will give him credit for this: he didn’t try to force an NBC slogan down Littlefield and company’s throat. He just told them he wanted a label, and gave them free reign to find it.
Noel: The whole “Must See TV” creation thing to me is just kind of nuts, but I also think it speaks to something that’s been nagging at me, and this set of chapters kind of crystallized this for me.
I think that NBC’s rise to success was just extraordinarily lucky. The way Littlefield tells it, the entire thing comes off as a string of really happy accidents, of being in the right place at the right time, and lots small things, like CBS and ABC not picking up contracts or pilots. There very often doesn’t seem to be a dedicated strategy beyond Littlefield’s little mantra of “Getting creative people and then getting out of the way.” I mean, ER had been around since the 70s! That’s just nuts.
Andy: Sure, but Crichton wasn’t a hot property until the mid-90s.
Noel: This is very true.
Cory: I couldn’t agree more, Noel. And I think that’s what I was trying to get at a few weeks ago. I’m not saying NBC’s 1980s and 1990s were entirely flukey. But, they also happened to strike gold with creatives who had failed times before (like David Crane and Marta Kauffman of Friends) and then figured something out. Or they stumbled on something that’d been sitting on the shelf for years, like ER. Et cetera.
Andy: The Must See TV chapter does suggest that, for a while at least, success did beget success. The branding didn’t just register with viewers. Creative talent wanted to be at NBC. They wanted to be where, as Littlefield claims they said, “they get us.”
Cory: Yeah. I think the “getting creative people and then getting out of the way” mantra is/was valid and true. It certainly rubbed off on people, and once the ratings reached a certain point, they weren’t going down (that much). The same kind of the thing is going on with CBS right now.
Les: There’s definitely a feeling of convergence in the way they describe the success of the shows. We had “these people”, and they had “this chemistry” right off the bat. Though, as we’ve seen with Dan Harmon, sometimes that doesn’t work out so well. Well, it works out creatively, but personally, that’s a trickier thing.
Cory: But it’s all a bit serendipitous for my liking. Even the creation of the slogan, Littlefield says just some random dude came up with it. I’m not sure I believe that.
Les: Not some “random dude”—it was Dan Holm. He had a name! Even though his job description was “a guy who worked for us”.
Cory: I DIDN’T MEAN TO BESMIRCH THE HONOR OF DAN HOLM.
Andy: Are you suggesting a conspiracy theory here, Cory? Is the Internet really the place for that sort of thing?
Cory: Not necessarily a conspiracy. That just feels like a book anecdote, not a(n entirely) true story.
Noel: This is what I’m saying. The history we’re getting is very lucky, very clean (apart from that “villain” Ohlmeyer). And while it distracts, entertains, and informs with chats from stars and directors and asides about how funny Littlefield is by having Bob Balaban appear as him at upfronts, it hides the fact that NBC seemed to just get damn lucky.
Les: I think creatively they certainly did, but there’s still a sense that they worked to get the talent they did. They talk about all the hoops they had to jump through to secure the Friends cast, the work Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld did to keep putting the show out week after week. They were a lucky network, but they were also a network who knew how to leverage what they had once they had it.
Andy: They translated it into further successes. Littlefield makes the keen point that well-rated shows like Just Shoot Me! and 3rd Rock from The Sun would’ve been stars on other networks but were in the sixth-man role at NBC.
Les: Weirdly, 3rd Rock from The Sun is a show I think I watched almost every episode of. John Lithgow hamming it up is never not funny.
Cory: I think it’s telling that 3rd Rock and Just Shoot Me! were tacked on at the end of this slogan/branding chapter.
Les: Afterthought is also too kind for how little attention Just Shoot Me! gets—that’s there so Steve Levitan can stick a knife in Jeff Zucker a few more times. Though Just Shoot Me! gets the Wings treatment here: a show that was okay and got good ratings, but that nobody particularly liked and they’re open in saying so here.
Cory: Just that they didn’t get their own chapter, or even a chapter together. Though I’m honestly shocked that Just Shoot Me! was even mentioned. I get it that Levitan now co-runs the biggest comedy on TV, but really? Levitan thinks JSM was good. Because Levitan’s an asshole.
Les: Well, Levitan thinks Modern Family is good. But that’s a discussion for another post.
Cory: Andy, you mentioned how NBC had 3rd Rock and JSM as lower-rung successes, and how they would have been big hits elsewhere. I think it’s probably slightly different: These shows were hits because they were on NBC, whereas if they were elsewhere, they would have failed. Just Shoot Me! was bad. 3rd Rock was fine. But neither belongs next to the other shows addressed in much detail here.
Andy: I disagree. I think that’s the case for your Veronica’s Closets and your Single Guys. But I think Just Shoot Me!, and particularly 3rd Rock, would’ve stood on their own feet elsewhere.
Noel: Poor Single Guy. Nary a mention.
Andy: It comes up a couple times. Mostly in connection to how it led the talent to NBC who would go on to create Will & Grace. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
Les: We’ll have a lot to say about Will & Grace, the end of Seinfeld and the twilight of the Littlefield era in our final discussion of Top of the Rock. See you next week for chapters 13-16.
Once again, a reminder that the next book for our TV Book Club will be Christine Becker’s It’s the Pictures That Got Small: Hollywood Film Stars on 1950s Television. Some of you may know Christine from her various Twitter and web presences, including News For TV Majors and Good TVeets, but if you don’t know her from there, she’s well worth the following. We should start discussing Christine’s book three or four weeks from now, so if you’re planning to get your hands on a copy and read along, look for our first entry around mid-July.