A Chronology You Won’t Get Anywhere Else, If You’re Lucky

by Jaime Weinman

After I posted last week about 30 Rock‘s Night Court semi-reunion, I was asked by a couple of people whether Kenneth was right when he said that that show was supposed to end with Harry and Christine getting married, but didn’t because there wasn’t a tenth season (due to the shark-jumping performance of Jenna as were-lawyer Sparky Monroe). I should be embarrassed to be able to answer this, but I’m not. So for all of us who still think it’s awesome that Reinhold Weege and Linwood Boomer had their names on a show at the same time, here’s a chronology of one of the most complete and total creative collapses ever undergone by a good, Emmy-winning show.

(For those who aren’t into this chronology, I’ll use this as an excuse for a question: what is, in your opinion, the worst decline a show has ever undergone — what show went from truly great to truly terrible? I might nominate The Simpsons, one of the greatest shows of all time in its prime, and — based on a viewing of the season 11 DVDs — a genuinely awful show in the mid-point of Mike Scully era. I’m serious. Step By Step had better scripts at that point.)

Chronology of the Decline and Fall of Kenneth The Page’s Favourite Show, Written By Someone Who Watched Nearly Every Episode in the Late ’80s and Early ’90s And Won’t Apologize For It

1989 (after the 6th season): Reinhold Weege, creator and showrunner (formerly a writer-producer on Barney Miller who imported guest stars and even entire Barney Miller plots to the new show), abruptly quits the show due to a dispute with NBC and Warner Brothers television over their failure to pick up another show that he created. Leaving the show with Weege are two other Barney Miller veterans: Tom Reeder, who wrote three or four Night Courts a year, and Jeff Melman, who produced and directed most episodes of Night Court up to that point.

1989-90 (7th season): New showrunners of Night Court are Gary Murphy and Larry Strawther, who were producers and head writers in the sixth season. They try to do the same things they had done in the earlier seasons, but for reasons I’ve never fully understood, the scripts get really bad really fast, making the post-Weege Night Court a byword for the dangers of doing a show without its creator/showrunner (are you listening, Mad Men)? All the characters become bad parodies of themselves, the slapstick is no longer funny, and Markie Post’s new love interest Ray Abruzzo establishes himself as one of the worst semi-regular additions of the era (though Ray Abruzzo himself is just fine by me).

1990-91 (8th season): Murphy and Strawther depart, and NBC goes looking for new showrunners who can save the show from its newfound reputation for sucking. They approach Stu Kreisman and Chris Cluess, two SCTV writers who had worked on Night Court briefly in the second season, but quit because they disapproved of Weege’s over-emphasis on broad humour. Kreisman and Cluess declare that they will make Night Court more sophisticated and less “silly,” eliminating most of the slapstick, making all the characters less wacky, and adding a few boring new characters. The show becomes more respectable than it was in the previous season but still isn’t very good. Told that this will be the final season of the show, Kreisman and Cluess plan a finale where, yes, Harry and Christine will get married. Except that NBC at the last minute decides to renew the show for a 9th season, so the planned finale is scrapped, leading to…

1991-92 (9th season): I don’t even remember what happened in most of this season because I gave up watching once it got into a story arc about Dan haunting the building as “The Phantom of the Courthouse.” However, I did tune in for the finale. Anyway, unlike in the previous season, where a big finale was planned only to be abandoned when the show was unexpectedly renewed, this particular season couldn’t have a big finale because nobody knew if it would be renewed or not; NBC was considering picking it up and Warner Brothers was considering doing more episodes for first-run syndication. The two-part “finale” that finally aired was not a finale at all, but an episode with a few cosmetic alterations that would make it look like a finale. Hence the infamous final scene where aliens show up to take Bull to their planet, and that was actually only the second most-hated scene among fans. (‘Shippers all over America threw stuff at their TV sets when it was Dan and not Harry who decided to follow his true love Christine.) And so ended three of the worst seasons ever logged by a formerly good show.

And no, Jenna Maroney never showed up as Sparky Monroe, the Were-Lawyer, but it would have been better than that damn Ray Abruzzo character.




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A Chronology You Won’t Get Anywhere Else, If You’re Lucky

  1. I vote X-files.

  2. Worst TV show decline?

    M*A*S*H – went from irreverent yet deep to preachy and cloying.

    Honourable mentions…
    Friends (after a while… who cared?)
    Get Smart (the original series lived past it’s material)
    Babylon 5 (from cool, to complex, to confusing)

  3. Friends for me stopped being funny after it’s 5th season.

  4. Never apologize Jaime – it’s so comforting to know we can rely on you for this kind of arcane knowledge :) The first show that came to my mind will get me ridiculed, because I think there’s 2 of us who ever would have called it great in the first place (and I use “great” sort of loosely, but not as loosely as all that) … anyway, here I go apologizing myself. But Ally McBeal went from great-to-me to suckage in about a season. A less shameful example would be The West Wing, which some people thought declined before Aaron Sorkin left, and many thought was rejuvenated in its last years, but to me it felt like pod people had replaced the characters in the post-Sorkin era.

  5. What about Moonlighting? Maddy isn’t there for a season and is replaced by a stupid mixture of Agnes, Herbert and a horrible claymation monstrosity. And then after Glenn Gordon Caron leaves, the dialogue isn’t even any good any more.

  6. I 100% nominate Roseanne. A truly great, under-appreciated show that abandoned all it stood for in its final season.

  7. One of the worst TV show declines for moi was That 70s Show… right at the season that ‘Eric’ decided to spend a year figuring out what he would do with his life post-high school…

    The Simpsons comes close, but it also has had its hills and valleys the last nine or 10 seasons when it shows occassional (dim) flashes of past brilliance (I think the writers were too focussed on the movie…)

  8. Worst recent series decline — Heroes. Somehow, an interesting show with buzz in Season 1 became an unbearable mess in Seasons 2 and 3.

    I’m puzzled by the people who mentioned Friends. The show was resting on its laurels by Season 4, but the show improved dramatically in later seasons, especially since the Chandler-Monica relationship was so much more compelling than the Ross-Rachel nonsense. I seem to recall a lot of TV writers saying the same thing at the time.

  9. ‘The X Files’ and ‘Ally McBeal’ would get my vote.

  10. For me it was Twin Peaks.

    Then Miami Vice.

  11. “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” was a terrific serious spy show with elements of humor in its first and (for the most part) second seasons. After that it was turned into “Batman”-style camp, “The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.” premiered, and it was all downhill from there. They tried to rescue it with a return to serious stories in the fourth (half-)season, but by then it was too late.

    Also, to borrow from your other blog, “Bewitched” was a pretty darn good show in its first two seasons and then declined rapidly thereafter, becoming somewhat pitiful by the time Dick Sargent arrived on the scene and they started recycling scripts.

  12. Agreed, Roseanne. From one of the best sitcomes ever to total trainwreck.

  13. … and of course, I thought about this one right after I hit the ‘post’ button.

    All In the Family, after the Stivics left for California and the Bunkers had the neice (?) move in… and then Edith died.

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