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Creator-Deserter


 

Earl Pomerantz, in the latest of his great posts about his year with Major Dad, says that he envied people like fellow Canadian Bernard Slade, who was able to create shows without having to run them:

Bernie Slade created TV series. That was his whole job. He created the series, but – and herein lies the envy part – he was not required to work on them. He would do the pilot, and if it got picked up as a series, someone else was brought in to run the show. Bernie would then go back to work creating other series. (At least, this how it appeared from the credits: I’d see, Created By: Bernard Slade, but no writing or producing credits on the series.)

I ravenously coveted that job.

I never got it. (The job may actually have disappeared.) When a series I created got picked up, the network required me to run the show myself. This was unfortunate, all around. I had some aptitude for making up series ideas. I was considerably less effective at running shows.

Read the rest of his post, but then come back here while I ruminate on whether that job actually has disappeared.

I guess it probably has; I can’t think of a show running today where the creator of the show has literally no involvement in the series, unless he gets fired from his own show (the way Jon Robin Baitz got fired from Brothers & Sisters). In the ’60s and ’70s, TV production companies were run almost like old-line Hollywood movie studios, production factories where producers, writers and directors were almost interchangeable, and so it was much more common for someone to be assigned to create a pilot and then moved to another project. Slade had a long-term contract with Screen Gems, the powerful TV production arm of Columbia Pictures, and once he demonstrated a knack for creating shows, it probably made more sense to keep him busy writing pilots than tie him down with a staff producing job on one particular show. And anyway, he probably didn’t feel any great sadness at leaving The Flying Nun after writing the pilot. (The only show Slade liked enough to stick with for an entire season was his own favourite creation, Love on a Rooftop, which I’ll be showing you this weekend.)

As the position of “showrunner” started to solidify and it became more important to have one person in charge of all aspects of a show — meaning, in practice, that it had to be someone who could write; many shows used to be controlled by non-writing producers, but the weekly writing aspect became too complicated for that because the shows themselves became more complex — this practice changed. Now the creator of the show was expected to stick with his show, even if he created another one. He at least had to watch and approve the episodes, even if he didn’t run the show day-to-day. Even on a show where the creator doesn’t have enough experience to actually run the show, he will still be involved; Jerry Bruckheimer’s protege Anthony Zuiker created CSI for him, but while they got an experience writer/producer (Carol Mendelsohn) to run it, Zuiker has still been a writer and producer on the franchise.

There is one situation I can think of where the creator doesn’t stay with the show on a full-time basis. It’s where the creator is someone who does not have time to do other episodes after the pilot but the production company wants that person so badly that they’re willing to accept having them write only the pilot. Susan Harris, creator of Soap and the Witt-Thomas-Harris company, called herself “creator-deserter” because after being diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, she had to reduce her role in the shows she created; she came up with The Golden Girls (which has been remade in a Greek version) but did not produce the series and only occasionally returned to write a half-hour (including one about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome). Other times the creator is in demand because he has a career in some other field; the late Michael Crichton created ER, but there was no question of him staying for the long haul.

Actually, most of the created-deserted shows I’ve named turned out pretty well — not only that, but they developed in ways that you would have expected based on the pilot, and they didn’t seem worse off for not having the original creator around to stamp his or her vision on every episode. But, of course, that’s because we remember the hits, rather than the flops. I do remember one show called Easy Street, created by WKRP’s Hugh Wilson during time off from directing movies. Wilson wrote and directed the pilot and then left; the pilot was good, and the series dive-bombed.


 

Creator-Deserter

  1. Two sitcoms from the ’60s sprang to mind while reading this post: Bewitched and Get Smart. Bewitched carried the “created by Sol Saks” label, but, aside from writing the pilot, Saks had nothing to do with the series. In fact, he was such a non-entity that I used to wonder if Sol Saks even really existed, or if he was just a made-up name (a la Pandora Sparks), representing somebody else, possibly William Asher, who was already involved with the show in other capacities. It’s kinda silly to think that, I know, but I did start to wonder about it. You gotta admit, Sol Saks sounds a little like it could be a made-up name.

    And as for Get Smart, Mel Brooks was the co-creator and co-wrote the pilot with Buck Henry, but other than that he didn’t have much impact on the show. He penned two other scripts during the show’s first year, but overall Buck had a good deal more to do with the show than Mel did. And Mel, to his credit, has even acknowledged as much on several occasions.

    Another interesting entry in the “creator-deserter” category is Neal Marlens. He created two shows, Growing Pains and The Wonder Years, that went on to become two long-running hits, and while he didn’t depart the shows after the pilot episodes, he didn’t stick around very long either. He left about mid-way through the first season of Growing Pains, and shortly after the second season of Wonder Years started (and keep in mind Wonder Years only had a six-episode first season). While Growing Pains actually improved some after he left, I’m not quite sure if Wonder Years did. It’s not like it got markedly worse; it stayed very good for a very long time. But I’m not sure if it quite hit those highs as regularly as it did when Marlens was there. Of course, given the very small sample size of episodes Marlens was actually involved with, I’m probably being a little too harsh.

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