Ken Levine is doing a series of posts about the second “season” of his show Almost Perfect starring Nancy Travis. (“Season” in quotation marks because CBS didn’t give them a full season and finally pulled the show with several episodes unaired.) The whole premise of the show, the logline if you will, was that Travis’s character gets her dream job — running a television show — at the same time that she meets the man of her dreams, and has to deal with the problems that ensue when the perfect romance and perfect job don’t turn out to be as perfect as expected. (Hence the title.) But as Levine explains, the boyfriend (Kevin Kilner) did not test as well as the rest of the show, and the network’s condition for doing a second season was that they get rid of the boyfriend character. Tomorrow he’ll talk more about how they dealt with the problem of manufacturing a breakup between two characters who were intended to be together for the whole run of the series.
I watched Almost Perfect at the time, and I distinctly remember thinking that the boyfriend character, and Travis’s scenes with him, were not very interesting. The intriguing part of the show was the workplace stuff, a wacky ensemble in a workplace that we hadn’t really seen on TV before. (We’d seen other shows about TV writers, but usually comedy writers, not drama writers — and not with a woman as the boss.) So the network’s demand wasn’t entirely irrational. But it just goes to prove that network executives can have perfectly rational ideas that should not be implemented if the entire production staff of a show is against them; it’s not that networks should never make suggestions, but few shows have ever improved when the writing staff is writing the whole show under protest, and feels that an important part of the show has been cut out.
But it brings up the question that always arises when it comes to making changes in a TV show — changes, I mean, that aren’t necessitated by cast departures or death or other things beyond the writers’ control — when a character isn’t working out that well, is it better to drop that character, or try to write him better? Levine says that in the case of Almost Perfect, the answer should have been not to drop the Kevin Kilner character but “to do more with Kevin so we could get his scores to match the others.” And he’s right. But by the same token, that’s also problematic; once someone is established as having nothing much to do on a show, you don’t often see his part improving, even when the writers insist that they’re going to improve his part. (Anybody remember the time Jane Espenson announced that disgruntled Xander fans should expect Buffy season 5 to be “the year of Xander?” How’d that one work out for us Xander fans, who are still disgruntled after all these years?)
It may be that if a show has one element that’s substantially weaker than the other, and that element is built into the premise, it’s just not destined to be a hit, because anything the show tries to do will come off as an afterthought, an attempt to fix what should have been fixed in the planning stages. The exception is when that element or character is so extraneous to the premise that it can be dropped without really changing the dynamic of the show. This is the “Barney Miller’s Home Life” scenario.