TV Book Club: Top of the Rock, Chapters 13-16

By Cory Barker, Les Chappell, Andrew Daglas, and Noel Kirkpatrick

Top of the Rock by Warren Littlefield with T.R. Pearson
Chapters 13-16

Cory: One of the things that stood out to me about the book’s treatment of Will & Grace is that it seemingly puts the show alongside the likes of Seinfeld, Friends, and ER. We can get into our actual assessments of W&G momentarily, but that sort of surprised me. I mean, Cheers doesn’t get two full chapters. CHEERS. Plus, the content of the Will & Grace chapters are particularly gushing. Jimmy Burrows apparently LOVES Will & Grace. I had forgotten that he directed every episode. Maybe my overall lack of enthusiasm towards the show colors this (okay, it does), but still. Thoughts?

Les: This is probably a case of this being the last show Littlefield developed directly, and the last hit show he had before his unceremonious exit from NBC. Also, this was a show where he could get all four lead actors, the director, and both showrunners to go on at length about the project.

Andy: Littlefield admits straight out at the start of Chapter 13 that it holds a place in his heart. It’s one of the shows that was his. And it was the last of the great Must See sitcoms. It may not have made the same impression on our collective memory banks as those other shows, but it was huge in its time, not least for being pretty socially daring for the late 1990s.

Les: Without question. Will & Grace was certainly a show that was easy to mock for being over-the-top and shrill at times, but it opened doors for a lot of other shows to have gay characters and not have it be a big deal. Not that gay characters hadn’t existed on TV beforehand, but the degree to which it was part of the structure of the show hadn’t been done before, certainly not to the level of success it enjoyed.

Cory: Maybe I’m smarting over the fact that this book only talks about a single drama. I know NBC made its bank on comedies, particularly on Thursday nights, and I guess ER was the one real show to sit there during this era, but that uneven nature bothers—particularly when W&G is involved.

Les: Certainly you’d think SVU should have warranted some time. Hell, anything to the legion of Law & Order spinoffs.

Andy: Well, the focus is pretty tightly on what became the Must See brand, and that almost exclusively revolved around Thursdays. Only one time slot for dramas there, and ER anchored it for a decade and a half. Whereas four sitcoms a week found room.

Cory: Sure.

Les: Very true.

Andy: Cory also resents that “This is my Wings” is cited in this chapter as contemporary slang for a “starter” show for writer-producers.

Les: I loved that. The slaps they give Wings are so naked and unabashed I have to wonder what Thomas Haden Church or Steven Weber would think if they read this book.

Cory: Thomas Haden Church is too busy swimming in that Spider-Man 3 money!

Les: Stop reminding the people that Spider-Man 3 existed. But I suppose crediting it as a stepping stone show is something. Certainly showrunners have to take their lumps before getting the next big thing.

Cory: The worst thing about the Wings digs is that Wings lasted a pretty long time, and was beloved by at least two people I knew in college. There are literally hundreds of NBC shows to trash instead.

Andy: I think it’s less of a dig and more of what Les described—you pay your dues on a show that drifts along, and if you’re good and you’re lucky, it prepares you for something bigger and better (commercially, if not necessarily creatively). It’s interesting that that career path, or the acknowledgment of it, is often off the radar in this era of the showrunner-as-auteur analysis.

Cory: Wait for my dissertation, Daglas. In 14 years.

Andy: So Cory, you’re saying that your master’s thesis was your Wings?  I mean, they do both prominently feature Tony Shalhoub, right?

Cory: Shiiiiiiit.

Les: Getting back to the book…once again, it definitely helps that they can get the two showrunners together, as once again you have the very clear sense that Kohan and Mutchnick were being interviewed at the same time. The dialogue is more honest because you can tell they’re getting the good stories out of each other.

Cory: True. And the cast had a really good rapport, even if they weren’t being interviewed together. Throw in Burrows, and every major participant involved with Will & Grace is present. Except Harry Connick, Jr., I guess.

Les: Well, he wasn’t there at the start. I think he may have come in post-Littlefield.

Andy: Throughout the book we’ve heard a recurring motif about some humorously arbitrary definitions of what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to sexual allusions in a sitcom. Concerns about Paul and Jamie Buchman having sex on the kitchen table at 8 p.m. Whether Friends can show a condom wrapper, while Seinfeld can do an entire episode about masturbation. When you introduce homosexuality into things, you can feel the network’s panic levels kicking up six more notches.

Noel: Burrows talks about it, but then there’s practically zero discussion about Standards & Practices’s response to the show. Instead there’s this sleight of hand bit of them starting on Mondays, and then the sneaky promotion stuff of “They’re not a couple. They’re a couple of friends.” And while it’s interesting, some mention of if the show many other people nervous, beyond Don Ohlmeyer, would’ve been really nice, actually.

Les: Agreed. Littlefield sticks to the praise for the show, like Bob Wright saying “That’s the best thing we’ve ever had our name on.” And they go out of their way to point out people didn’t think of it as a “gay show” at the very start, as Debra Messing cites the testing audience who didn’t get the fact that Will was gay.

Andy: And Eric McCormack mentions how gradually straight male viewers got comfortable owning up to watching it—at first “with my girlfriend,” and eventually on its own merits.

Cory: So Andy, do you think the chapters gloss over what was likely a more-challenging development process? You’d think they’d want to milk the details of the show’s BIG VICTORY making it to air and becoming a success even more.

Noel: That’s true. Perhaps it wasn’t very challenged at a corporate level. Or Littlefield didn’t want his NBC to look like a bunch of bigots (instead that happened when Jeff Zucker took over).

Andy: Littlefield makes it sound like they had to put one over on Ohlmeyer to get it on the air, and then on audiences during the initial show promotions. It’s not surprising, but it is interesting to think how a show with a gay male lead needed such stealth only a decade ago.

Les: Well, given the fact that a big part of their discussion is about how they didn’t politicize or stress the fact, maybe they felt it was… I don’t know… improper to do so?

Cory: Great point.

Les: I think one of the great successes of Will & Grace is that it may have been a big deal to actually get a show with gay people prominently featured on the air, but once it was on the air it stopped being as big of a deal. As happens so often with these issues, once the fighting’s over everyone says, “We were worried about this?”

Cory: Now that we’re discussing final chapters, how much—if any—do we think availability for interviews impacted the book’s shape? It seems that we’ve enjoyed chapters that featured more people whom were crucial to the process.

Noel: Well. I think availability factored in, sure. But consider how overwhelmingly positive everything is. What if there were interviews that weren’t gushy-happy-best-thing-to-ever-happen?

Les: I suspect it wasn’t an accident that Jerry Seinfeld was interviewed and Larry David wasn’t. Or that there’s not a word from Don Ohlmeyer to defend himself—though in the Will & Grace chapters, he does get that nice moment where he gives Messing the gold lighter.

Noel: Exactly. It gets back to this largely pristine idea of NBC’s Must See history.

Andy: It’s tough to say. Cheers or Law & Order may feel shortchanged, relative to some of the other programs, and that could be a factor of not having access to as many “names” associated with either. Or it could be that Littlefield preferred to focus on the shows that rose and fall under the Must See banner (or the shows that didn’t spring from the font of Brandon Tartikoff).

Noel: Or from other networks, à la The Naked Truth.

Les: The latter idea is I think more likely. The whole point of this book isn’t to write a tell-all, it’s Littlefield wanting to tell the stories of the shows that did well and that he was personally proud of. So in that vein, I can’t really blaming it for not being the book it doesn’t want to be.

Cory: Much of this stems from the author as well. If this were an oral history done by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales (the duo that did the SNL and ESPN books), we’d get much more.

Andy: It’s an oral history filtered through memoir, rather than reportage.

Cory:  Absolutely. Great way to put it. And to be fair: I’m not saying this a bad thing. BUT, let’s pretend for a second you could pick one person you wish would have been interviewed. Who would it be?

Andy: Russell Dalrymple. Seriously though, I think if Ted Danson had been available, it could have changed the complexion of the early chapters.

Noel: I don’t know WHO I would’ve wanted, but I know WHAT I would’ve wanted, which would’ve been a more reporting-centric approach, like Andy mentioned, and less of this very self-congratulatory pap we do get.

Les: Anyone from Cheers would have been good. Or anyone from Law & Order beyond Dick Wolf. I also would have liked to see Ohlmeyer’s take on some of these events, where he’s portrayed as, if not the villain, clearly an antagonist.

Cory: Like I said, I think the lack of drama bothers me overall. Which would lead me to want more Law & Order people, but unfortunately, they can’t talk to Jerry Orbach’s ghost. He’s press-averse. I do think that Aaron Sorkin would have been cool. I know Littlefield left in 1998 but there were references to how he helped shepherd West Wing to the air.

Noel: I said I wanted less self-congratulatory pap, Cory. Not more.

Les: West Wing did feel like it was introduced and then suddenly taken out in favor of Littlefield’s firing.

Cory: But Sorkin probably had all sorts of great stories about doing blow with Donny Ohlmeyer…while they told women what was RIGHT and WRONG.

Les: Now THAT’S a party.

Andy: Personally, I don’t feel like I know enough about Aaron Sorkin’s feelings about modern television.

Cory: Or modernity, for that matter.

Les: Or modern politics, or modern news, or modern communication.

Cory: Sports. 

Moving forward, the last two chapters of the book evoke what I think is our biggest problem with the book: An excessive amount of nostalgia.

Noel: Been saying this since Chapter 1. 

Cory: Yeah, for sure. It’s just really prominent at the end. A lot of “THIS WAS SO SAD” and “HOW COULD YOU, ZUCKER-MAN!”

Noel: And some really lazy, but unsurprising, dismissals of reality TV. But none of The Jay Leno Show. Not a single one.

Les: The laundry list of people saying just how good they had it and that they’ve never had it as good since is a bit wearying.

Cory: Which, is fair. But…

Les:  I think the problem with it is that it’s just so formless as a last chapter goes. There’s no real structure, it sort of ping-pongs through Zucker-bashing, wistfulness, thoughts on what parts of current TV keep the Must See TV rose from blooming again.

Noel: Yes, the hopes of Warren Littlefield are pinned entirely on Bob Greenblatt. Poor, poor…well, us.

Les: Smash could do it all for them! You never know! That Karen Cartwright’s the greatest musical superstar since Judy Garland!

Noel: I do think that’s the most interesting takeaway from that chapter, to be honest, was how cable began to, finally, worm its way into the discussion. There’s mention of NBC diversifying by buying cable properties, and Littlefield is thrilled that a cable guy is now coming in to run NBC.

Cory: That final Seinfeld chapter does do a solid job of describing a bit of the negotiation process, though.

Noel: I think that’s just a super-specific case though. I mean, not everyone sits down with Jack Welch and gets handed a piece of paper offering gobs of money.

Les: And I think also—after so much of what we called lucky breaks—it gets to just how hard it can be to launch a hit or keep a hit going.

Noel: And look how good Seinfeld comes off for it. He turns down commerce for the sake of art (and having a life). The entire point of the book summed up right there: Creatives understand TV better than corporates.

Andy: I was struck by the juxtaposition of Seinfeld getting called back for a third chapter devoted to its ending alongside a chapter about the “death knell” of MSTV and NBC thereafter.

Les: The callback was very jarrying, especially given how they’d previously been all about keeping the shows confined to their separate chapters.

Andy: It’s really positioned as a “beginning of the end,” which may be teleological in retrospect, but when Seinfeld faded the 90s faded with it.

Cory: SEINFELD IS THE 90S.

It did kind of bother me that Seinfeld was put on such a pedestal. No question that it had a massive impact on the network’s success. But Friends, ER, Fraiser, etc. all continued for years after that. NBC did okay. It’s not like Seinfeld said “No thanks” and Zucker took over six minutes later.

Noel: And put fat people on TV. Fat people crying. To paraphrase Dick Wolf.

Les: Seinfeld was NBC’s horcrux.

Cory: Littlefield was really dumb to not split them up.

Andy: They tried! They sent Michael Richards to his own show, Julia Louis-Dreyfus to another network, and Jerry Seinfeld to The Marriage Ref.

Cory: HA.

Noel: And then they come together and kind of bash that season of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Les: They barely talk about it, like they’re all embarrassed.

Andy: OK, but seriously: How much stock do you put in their prognosis and diagnosis of NBC post-Must See TV? Is it entirely personal, or are there salient points in there?

Cory: Well, I think the jabs at The Apprentice are misguided. In season one, the show was a big deal. To pretend like it wasn’t now, when it’s a joke, is lame. The trouble with those final few pages is that they’re both ridiculous and true. It’s pretty clear that NBC has screwed the pooch, so when countless creatives and Littlefield are espousing for the MSTV era’s ways, it’s hard not to buy in. I like that Littlefield used some numbers to back up his cut-down. At the same time. It’s a bit much, even for this book.

Andy: You can practically hear the wistful music swelling as the hagiography winds to a close.

Les: The really sad thing about the whole MSTV nostalgia is that there’s no way to recapture it, even if they get lucky as hell again. The audience is far too fragmented. In a perfect world, Parks and Recreation would have Will & Grace‘s audience, and Community would have Seinfeld‘s.

Noel: Which circles back to my earlier point: Cable is oddly existent and nonexistent in this book.

Cory: Yeah. Littlefield paints most of NBC’s problems as internal. Instead of looking a little more outward to the changing media landscape. Zucker and Ben Silverman were complete fools. But some of their decisions were made to combat shifts in the industry.  Just hiring smart people and letting them do their thing doesn’t necessarily work on broadcast in the 21st century. Ask Dan Harmon. Ask Kyle Killen. 

Noel:  And shifts in the economy.

Cory: Yuuup. 

Les: So, we’ve come to the end of our first book, covering a very fertile period of television’s history and many of shows that have earned their place in the TV hall of fame. We’ve talked many of the pros and cons of the book already, so I suppose my last question is: overall, did you each like Top of the Rock?

Cory: I certainly enjoyed the book. It was an easy read, a few of the stories were informative. It was exactly what I thought it was, though. I didn’t have expectations for it to be anything different going in, so in that regard, it worked. 

On a deeper level, I wish it would have been more complex. And I still think it promotes our collective obsession with NBC too much. I’ll never stop asking for my Les Moonves tell-all.

Andy: Overall, it was a fun read for me. But I’m basically the target market for it: I’m a huge TV fan with boundless nostalgia for the 1990s.

Les: Agreed. As I said earlier, I don’t fault the book for not being a tell-all or a technical study of launching a hit show—it was just an engaging discussion of some very well-done shows by a lot of people who worked on those shows. Actually, given all the mention of Burrows’s shows here, I find myself really wanting to read a memoir by him. (Which sadly doens’t exist at this time.)

Cory: A Jimmy Burrows memoir would just be a chronological breakdown of every pilot season, with him magically picking one script and then saying “…and then I made them all millionaires. BURROWS SEAL OF APPROVAL, bitches.”

Les: And lo, Burrows did descend from his golden tower of Emmys, and pick Whitney Cummings’s script from the mire saying, “O LORD, bless this Thy pilot episode that with it Thou mayest blow Thine ratings to great heights, in Thy mercy.”

And the LORD did grin, and the people did feast upon the lambs and sloths and carp and anchovies and orangutans and breakfast cereals, and fruit bats.

“First shalt thou take out the Holy Story Structure manual, then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number of acts thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out.”

Noel: …Okay, Les.

The book is fine for what it is, but what it is is a very selective and very celebratory history of a network. Along the lines of what Cory said, I wanted something much deeper, and probably more wide-ranging. Littlefield talks about the hits, not the middle-of-the-ground shows that get shuffled around, and it just extends that notion of a particular TV canon even more, and I get frustrated by that.

Cory: Me too, Noel.

I’m really happy then that we’re turning to a book that, based on my reading of the first handful of pages, is, well, heavier. Christine Becker’s book is obviously written from an academic perspective—though it’s certainly readable thus far—and I’m really happy that we’ll be able to talk about older, not-as-idolized eras and people.

Les: And also things we may not all be familiar with at first glance.

Andy: I do think it’s weird that this book, too, goes on like a three and a half page rant against Don Ohlmeyer.

Noel: Well, he was really mean to Groucho Marx.

***

We’re going to take a week off between books and recharge a bit. As Cory alluded to, 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. Look for our first entry covering the Introduction and Chapter 1 on July 20.

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