Stephen J. Cannell Dies

Well, this is a really depressing piece of news: TV writer and producer Stephen J. Cannell has died of complications associated with melanoma. He was only 69.

Cannell wore two hats: as a TV writer and a TV mogul. Somewhat unusually, he didn’t give up the former after he took on the second job. Usually when a writer moves into producing a lot of shows, he’ll mostly give up writing individual scripts – Aaron Spelling, Dick Wolf, and so on. But Cannell continued to write scripts for most of his own shows, and he’d continue writing individual episodes for shows into their fourth and fifth seasons sometimes. The reason he picked the famous “typewriter” logo for his company was that he wanted to make it clear that he was still primarily a writer. Just look at the list of individual episodes he wrote, and this list isn’t exactly complete.

And writing was what he was best at. If you watch almost any of his shows except mid-period Rockford Files and some Wiseguy arcs, you’ll find a lot of unevenness. But if you watch an episode written by Stephen J. Cannell, you’re probably in for a good time. Some writers know how to make the most limiting forms seem fresh, and Cannell was one of those writers with an exceptional ability to put a fresh twist on the most basic conventions of episodic network drama. His dialogue was something I always noticed from an early age: it was perfect TV dialogue, never too verbose but not dripping with clichés either, and injecting humor at unexpected times without killing the mood. It’s stylized dialogue in the best sense, punchier and pithier than the way real people talk, but not too “writerly” to make us think of the person typing it out, rather than the character saying it. (One example I always like is from the pilot of Stingray: “You do that on purpose, don’t you? You love these broken-field conversations. I make these diving grabs and come up with grass on my chin and you love it.”) Even if the show wasn’t very good – and, as showrunner, he has to be faulted for that – the actual scripting could be solid coming from him. I remember watching Hunter in syndication, and the first season was generally pretty awful but there was one episode which had much smarter dialogue, a somewhat unusual structural idea (the murderer turns out to be the guy everyone assumes is the murderer) and a genuine sense of humour about itself (Hunter getting his purse stolen and so on). It turned out to be the only episode of the series that Cannell wrote himself. He was just better than most of his staff writers.

The other Stephen J. Cannell trademark is that most of his shows, good and bad, were re-examinations of their own genre; he was one of the first creators of “meta” TV. The Rockford Files was about him trying to create a private detective who did the opposite of what most TV P.I.s did – and to back up the point, he wrote two episodes with Tom Selleck as Lance White, the ultimate spoof of the conventional TV PI. Rockford was a guy who had genuine money problems and wanted to get paid if possible; hurt his hand when he punched somebody; needed a lawyer to get him off when he did something illegal; and couldn’t count on his underworld friend to back him up in a crisis:

(From “Chicken Little Is a Little Chicken,” written by Cannell)

When Cannell started his own studio, most of his shows were like that in one way or another. The Greatest American Hero came from a pitch by ABC, which was looking for a superhero show; Cannell agreed to do it on condition that all the powers were in the suit, the hero is a screw-up, and the superpowers practically ruin his life at times. It’s appropriate that one of the last shows Cannell produced (though he didn’t write it) was Profit, a show that practically subverted network television itself by being about a “hero” who was secretly evil and working to destroy everyone who stood in his way.

And another Cannell trademark is the dysfunctional hero, who succeeds through perseverance and a certain basic moral code rather than through any conventional heroic qualities. The A-Team was about four incredibly dysfunctional heroes — a leader who prefers to do crazy, dangerous things for the sheer pleasure of risking his men’s lives; a man with a crippling fear of flying who is constantly being drugged by his teammates; a good-looking grifter; and a literal mental patient who may be the only sane one in the group. His best shows are often about screw-ups, who win out because the bad guys are also screw-ups but don’t have as strong a work ethic as the heroes.


(From “Pros and Cons,” written by Cannell)

As a mogul, Cannell was also important for two big reasons. One, he was one of the few writers to ever try setting up a studio of his own. Most creators have little production company logos, but the logos are essentially fake: these writers don’t own their work, the studio does. Cannell decided to leave Universal and actually produce and own his own shows. The fact that he managed to do it, and keep it running for over 15 years, was pretty amazing. The shows are often limited by lack of the resources a big studio could have provided — if you’re wondering why there were so many scenes in warehouses, that’s where most of the studio work was actually done. But it was quite a blow for genuine independence among writer/creators.

And the other important thing is that Cannell was one of the first U.S. TV producers to move production to Canada in a big way. I believe he first did this on Stingray, to accommodate star Nick Mancuso, who wanted to work closer to home. But upon discovering that Canada had lower production costs and good studio facilities, Cannell moved a lot of his shows to Vancouver. Other shows soon followed – partly because so many people working as producers and directors on other shows had gotten their start working for Cannell.