New York magazine has a piece on NBC’s disappointment with the new Rockford Files pilot with Dermot Mulroney, written by David Shore and produced by Shore and Steve Carell. I can certainly believe most of what the piece says: that the pilot didn’t turn out well and that the network would have dumped the project already if it wasn’t for the importance of keeping Shore and Carell happy. What seems more dubious is that the anonymous “insiders,” who appear to share Angel Martin’s ability to keep their mouths shut, put most of the blame on the director.
What went wrong? NBC isn’t talking, but two people familiar with the situation said Rockford turned out to be more rehash than reinvention. The insiders place most of the blame on pilot director Michael Watkins (a TV-drama veteran who has helmed episodes of everything from Quantum Leap to NYPD Blue to Justified), saying he severely weakened a solid script with lackluster, even listless direction.
“The pilot looked like it was shot in the seventies,” said one person familiar with NBC’s response, claiming everything from the lighting to the pacing looked dated — and not in a cool, retro way. “You didn’t even know it was the current day until Jim pulled out his cell phone. It looked like Stephen J. Cannell directed it himself.”
Now, I’m not saying that under no circumstances can a director screw up a TV pilot. But it does sound very convenient to place the blame on the member of the team who will not be continuing with the show if it gets picked up, and who NBC isn’t worried about alienating. The tone of the insider comments seems to imply that the writer-producer was an innocent bystander or perhaps even a wronged man (his “solid script” was destroyed by the director) and that he had no influence on the way the show was shot, lit and paced. (Not to mention that the rest of the blame in that piece is given to the lead actor, who was chosen by…) It could happen, but you have to think we’d be hearing different things if the showrunner was someone who wasn’t already producing a very valuable property for the studio. As Jeremy Mongeau put it, “the director is the screenwriter of the television world,” the perfect scapegoat.
By the way, you might notice that the comments section of the New York piece contains an angry comment from Steve Cannell’s loyal right-hand man Jo Swerling, responding to the insiders’ shot at Cannell’s directing abilities. Cannell hasn’t actually directed anything in 30 years, but he did a solid job in the few Rockford episodes he directed himself. Ironically, one of the episodes he directed himself was the Lance White episode, which includes a dead-on parody of the kind of poorly-shot ’70s cop shows that, according to the article, this Rockford pilot resembles.