One of the oldest Hollywood truisms that everybody knows — even those who don't follow show business that closely — is that script notes from the network or studio executives are frequently, fantastically awful. They just make everything worse. Why can't writers be left alone?
This is especially true in TV, where legions of writers have complained over the years about the dumb network executives who thought they could make things better with their suggestions. More often, they've just made things worse, right?
I would argue that assumption is often wrong. Filmmaking is a collaborative medium, and that means getting input from others. No director or showrunner has all the right answers. Sometimes the right answers come from one of the actors, or someone on the crew, or even somebody in the executive suite.
We often only hear about the bad network notes because they're the ones writers complain about, or they're the ones that used to serve to, say, make sure that if a show had gay characters, they never participated in any sexual activity or even got to kiss.
The good network notes, on the other hand, are so good we usually don't hear about them. Indeed, they often look like these innocuous but smart tweaks director Steven Soderbergh got from Cinemax for his medical drama The Knick.
@moryan @emilynussbaum @tvoti You're welcome! It's super nerdy. Stuff like this: pic.twitter.com/SgpdMHRxd7— Corey Atad (@CoreyAtad) August 28, 2015
Huffington Post TV critic Maureen Ryan got me to thinking about this with an excellent column about how the "hands off" approach Netflix and Amazon apply to their creative personnel (one that is spreading to other networks) has resulted in so many of the listless, uninvolving shows both services program.
I think Netflix and Amazon executives give their creative types a lot of rope, and I’ve often had occasion to wonder is they’re giving them too much rope. It’s common for their dramas to get tangled up and slow down, even at the pilot stage, and in the middle of seasons, Netflix dramas often sag and meander, and they take a long time to work up a head of steam.
So with that in mind, I thought I would point to some of the most famous cases in TV history where a network note didn't just improve a show — it arguably improved TV itself.
1) Lost doesn't kill Jack in the pilot
Is it possible to imagine an engaging version of the desert island drama Lost without its lead, the embattled doctor Jack Shepard (Matthew Fox)? Sure. That show was crammed full of great characters.
But Jack's journey over the course of the series — while occasionally irritating — ended up being one of the most effective, affecting things about it. Jack was probably the best thing about the show's final season, and the way he finally let go of much of his angst in the finale was deeply moving.
However, in their original conception of the show, creators J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof wanted to kill Jack in the series pilot. The network put a kibosh on that idea — and accidentally invented a great character arc. Lost writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach has the complete story in his excellent rundown of his two seasons on the show.
2) The Americans makes the leap from good to great
The Americans, FX's '80s-set spy drama, was a very good show in its first season. But it wasn't yet the great show it would become in its second and third seasons. (The fourth is coming in 2016.) In interviews, co-showrunners Joe Weisberg (who also created the series) and Joel Fields have frequently pointed out tiny tweaks that FX president John Landgraf and fellow executives encouraged them to make, all of which made the show better.
Here's one in particular. Part of what made the second and third seasons so good was that they ditched the "Will the series' central marriage last?" arc that caused much whiplash in the first season. Instead, the show engaged with how dangerous a fake marriage turning into a real, loving marriage could be for two people in such a risky profession. In an interview with me after season two, Weisberg gave Landgraf credit for that initial idea:
I remember John Landgraf talking about that from very early days, how dangerous that would be. Yet I don’t know if we specifically thought [this] would be the moment where that starts to put them in danger. It feels to me that it’s been a much more fluid thing and it sort of happened. That was something that we thought about, and then it kind of burrowed into our unconscious minds.
3) NBC forces Dick Wolf to add women to Law & Order
For its first two seasons, Law & Order was a solid, sensible TV procedural, but not yet the juggernaut it would become. In the third season, NBC executives noticed that an episode featuring a prominent guest-star role for a woman caused a ratings spike — largely from women. Taking that knowledge to network president Warren Littlefield resulted in creator Dick Wolf being given an ultimatum: Add series regular characters played by women to the show or face cancellation.
Wolf capitulated, and the show ran for another 17 seasons — and won an Emmy for Best Drama Series in season seven. Littlefield's ultimatum resulted in great work from actors like Jill Hennessy and S. Epatha Merkerson, along with perhaps the most infamous moment in Law & Order history.
The full story of this shift can be found here.
4) Mary Richards goes from divorcée to jilted girlfriend
Certainly a series about a young woman bouncing back from a terrible divorce could make for a great sitcom. But would it have made for a great version of The Mary Tyler Moore Show?
That was the original plan of creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, as recounted in Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's excellent history of the show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted. CBS executives were nervous that if Moore appeared as a divorcée, viewers would assume she had left Rob Petrie — the husband of Moore's character on the classic Dick Van Dyke Show.
This is one of the more ambiguous cases on this list. Certainly, Burns, Brooks, and Moore could have turned a divorced Mary Richards into a complex, nuanced character. But it's also quite likely CBS executives were right about how closely Moore was associated with her previous character — and about the willingness of 1970 America to follow a divorced woman through a lighthearted sitcom. And without MTM, many of the best sitcoms in history wouldn't have been made. I'll allow it.
5) NBC makes Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld add a woman to Seinfeld
This is the big one, the one that justifies the existence of all network notes for all time, even if they spin into incoherence and stop having any use whatsoever. If you watch the pilot of Seinfeld, you'll notice Julia Louis-Dreyfus isn't in it. And NBC executives, already leery about a show that had tested poorly, worried that it was simply too masculine to attract a broad audience.
They told creators David and Seinfeld to add a woman, the two cast Louis-Dreyfus, and Elaine Benes — one of the greatest sitcom women ever — was born. Louis-Dreyfus proved an essential part of the show's crackerjack ensemble and contributed to many of the best moments in the show's history.
And, look, say what you will about network notes, but do you want to live in a world without this?
No, you do not. Thank you, network notes. You gave us Elaine dancing. That is more than enough.