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Serial Showrunners

When I go to the movies, one of two things happens: I order the kid-sized popcorn and get just enough buttery-drenched goodness to leave me wanting more, or I order the standard "small," eat half the anything-but-small bag, then notice that not only does the popcorn now taste like antique styrofoam, I'm sick to my stomach.

Every time I watch Sports Night, I have the popcorn revelation all over again. Half an hour of Aaron Sorkin-scripted television is wonderful; ask him to come up with an hour-and-a-half of programming goodness each week and something suffers.

In this case, both Sports Night and Sorkin get the short end of the stick. Every article profiling the success of The West Wing notes Sorkin's habitual lateness with scripts for both shows, and a damning Washington Post profile revealed that Sorkin regards West Wing and Sports Night as, respectively, a Maserati and a Miata. Sports Night's exile to second place may stem from a variety of things -- difficulties with ABC compared to the red-carpet treatment he's getting from NBC, the urge to nurture the new baby -- but it points to one common problem in television programming today.

The problem: good television producers -- the ones producing fresh and unique programming -- are being stretched too thin. Sorkin's story is hardly unique: former critics' darling David E. Kelley is now forced to hurdle bales of second-guessing articles on his races between the sets of The Practice and Ally McBeal, which, frankly, seems to be appropriate punishment for the man who foisted Snoops on us last fall. Tom Fontana began spreading his attention between the eye-popping and visceral HBO series Oz right around Season 5 of NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street; the NBC show declined noticeably during the next three years. Chris Carter tried to nurture the spooky duo Millennium and X-Files for three years. Millennium never gelled and X-Files meandered off into incomprehensibility. Dick Wolf is famous for keeping Law and Order running on all four cylinders for a decade, but nobody talks about the rocky three-year history of New York Undercover or the even shorter runs of Players,Feds, Swift Justice or The Wright Verdicts.

Sitcom producers aren't immune: Crane/Kaufman/Bright productions clearly didn't notice that Friends took a huge dip in quality right around the time Veronica's Closet was launching, or why else would they court further disaster by offering up the pallid Jesse? Although certain newsgroup denizens would have you believe The Simpsons has been steadily declining in quality since the first episode aired, the show really didn't start showing its age until Matt Groening began working on Futurama.

In fact, the only producer in all of Hollywood who seems immune to the perils of multiple production is Aaron Spelling. This could be due to a number of things: the ability to hire very talented underlings like Darren Starr; the ability to delegate like crazy, the ability to nurture talent over a long-running franchise so it begins to run itself (this explains why nearly every long-term Melrose Place or Beverly Hills, 90210 actor directed the show for which they worked); the fact that none of Spelling's shows aim for the same level of writing or originality as Carter's, Sorkin's or Fontana's; or, perhaps, Spelling once made a deal with someone who lives in a very warm place and eschews the gold standard for another form of currency.

And no, I'm not talking about Bedouins and sheep.

To come back to my original point -- and I do have one -- too much of a good thing diminishes its overall quality. People become overextended, and lose the ability to track details, write fresh dialogue, or generate original ideas. They get overwhelmed and exhausted. They end up inflicting Jon Seda on the same people who have been loyally staying home Friday nights trying to keep the ratings up on their criminally-underwatched show. They give us two years of gobbledygook about killer bees and black gook from outer space, and a "wrap-up episode" wherein nothing makes any sense at all. They turn a formerly dynamic and well-rounded character into a dithering ninny.

Lord knows it would be easy to blame the networks -- the stupid, self-cannibalizing, fraidy-cat networks. Rather than take a risk on an unknown talent, most nets would rather go with a known quantity, carrying those awful pitches -- you know, the ones like "It's Providence, but with a multiethnic sniper squad in L.A." -- to their grimly logical conclusion. Most networks would rather go with a known name and hope to recapture lightning in a bottle than to go with an unknown with unknown results; rolling by a producer's office with a wheelbarrow of unmarked Benjanmins apparently plays as a more solid development strategy than nurturing relative unknowns (like Malcolm in the Middle creator Linwood Boomer, who until recently toiled in relative obscurity) and cultivating their shows.

We could blame the producers. Shouldn't they know when they're overextended? Shouldn't they pass up the chance to begin wearing cloaks woven from residual checks in the interest of nurturing the show what brung them? No, and here's why: producers, as a species, are not laid-back underachievers. Expecting them to pass up lucrative opportunities for a little "me time" is like expecting Jay Leno to pass up a Clinton joke. Producers will make popcorn, dammit, because that's what they like to do. And if it tastes a little stale after a while -- well, what do you want? You asked for the popcorn.

This is why I blame my fellow man. We could all happily nosh on kid-sized bags of popcorn -- one rewarding show to watch per producer -- that leave us thinking about how wonderful the popcorn tastes and how wonderful it is to eat popcorn in the first place. But no. We apparently want the big bag, and we don't care how it tastes halfway down or how it makes us feel afterward. We demand more and we tune in, thus validating the idiot network strategy of driving talent into the ground prematurely. And then we complain vociferously when the decline in quality happens.

We did this to ourselves. Now shut up about Sports Night and finish your freakin' popcorn.


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