I mentioned in my Back to You post that Steven Levitan, the co-creator of Back to You, has produced “one flop after another” for Twentieth Century-Fox. But until I took a closer look at his credits, I didn’t quite realize just how long he’s been producing flops for Fox.
Before I start, I want to say, I know it sounds mean to dwell on somebody’s failures. Okay, it is mean; and being mean is what blogging is all about (along with pictures of cats, and I don’t have a cat). But this is not meant to bash Levitan, who is a very talented writer and producer and has actually created a hit show, Just Shoot Me, which is one more hit than most people come up with. That said:
After Just Shoot Me, which was produced by Columbia/Sony, Levitan was signed up by Twentieth Century Fox. This was the late ’90s, the golden age of huge development deals — see the now-bargain-priced “Billion-Dollar Kiss” for the definitive story of those things — and every studio was signing writer-producers to gigantic contracts. (Including many who, unlike Levitan, had never created a hit, or indeed anything at all.) Levitan has been at Fox for 10 years now, and here are the shows he has produced, not counting unsold/unaired pilots:
– Stark Raving Mad, starring Tony Shaloub as a crazed horror writer and Neil Patrick Harris as his uptight editor. One of many, many flop sitcoms with promising casts that NBC aired in the late-’90s early-’00s dark ages. One season.
– Greg the Bunny, a somewhat watered-down version of Dan Milano’s popular puppet character. 13 episodes.
– Oliver Beene, a Wonder-Years-ish nostalgia show narrated (somewhat under protest) by David Cross. Two partial seasons, adding up to one full season.
– Stacked, starring Pamela Anderson. Anderson’s participation in a new sitcom was considered so promising that it touched off a bidding war among several networks; the Fox network won, but the show flopped.
– Back to You, starring Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton. Grammer and Heaton’s participation in a new sitcom was considered so promising that it touched off a bidding war among… well, you get the idea.
Now, did I say Steve Levitan has the worst track record ever or something? I didn’t, because he doesn’t. He actually has a very good track record: one hit followed by five shows picked up to series in ten years, a really good batting average when you consider how few shows get off the ground. Stark Raving Mad was pretty good (I may have been the only person who watched it) and even Stacked wasn’t bad. But it’s an example of how little those big late ’90s development deals really paid off for the studios. Levitan’s deal actually probably worked out better for Fox than most of their deals; he’s at least been able to deliver shows that get on the air, which makes him probably Fox’s top live-action comedy producer. Very few actual hits came out of that time and that round of sign-uppery, though.
As to why Levitan’s shows keep flopping, I agree with a commenter on Ken Levine’s site who said that Levitan’s stuff all has a slightly nasty undertone. It worked for Just Shoot Me because the hint of nastiness was built into the setting and the premise, and because the actors managed to infuse their characters with a certain warmth. But Stacked and Back to You, eagerly-anticipated as they were, not only had the problem of too-high expectations, but too often relied, story-wise, on humiliation and the feeling that these characters really, honestly did not like each other that much. Of course, that kind of humour was more popular in the ’90s than it is now — it was, after all, the age of Seinfeld — so maybe that’s another example of how Levitan is kind of a ’90s sitcom guy in a post-’90s, post-sitcom world.