Tuesday, November 14, 2006

One-Season Wonders That Lasted More Than One Season

Can you think of any long-running TV shows that, in your opinion, were only really good for one season?

My pick is, and long has been, "Sabrina, The Teenage Witch," whose first season is finally going to get a DVD release. This show premiered in the 1996-7 season, the same season that saw the premiere of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," and I honestly couldn't tell you which one was better at the time.

No one really expected it to be good; the comics were never any good (except for the few that Bob Bolling did in the early '80s), and the Filmation TV cartoon was, well, a Filmation TV cartoon. But Disney/ABC made a really smart hire for the live-action TV sitcom version: Nell Scovell, a veteran TV comedy writer who'd worked on shows like "Late Night With David Letterman," "Newhart," and "The Simpsons." Scovell took the basic premise and some of the character names from the comic, but for the most part she made up the whole show from scratch, re-imagining some characters -- Sabrina's aunts, Hilda and Zelda, became a couple of hip, attractive 40-ish women -- and inventing some new characters; she got a "created by" credit for the show, and deserved it.

The setup of the show was your typical fantasy-sitcom setup: every week, Sabrina tries to solve some problem using magic, gets into trouble, and learns some kind of lesson about friendship or responsibility. What made it special was that Scovell's writing was extremely smart and funny -- she and her staff didn't for a moment write down to the young audience, instead doing the same kind of humor that they'd use on "grown-up" shows -- and that the guest casting was highly imaginative and quirky, like a recurring guest role for Scovell's friends Penn and Teller:

Penn Jillette: Very simple story: The producer the first year, the year that it was stunningly good, was Nell Scovell, who's one of the funniest people alive. She wanted us in the show, and she was willing to really work for it, which means she was willing to look at our schedule—we're all over the place—and work with our office to find out what days we could shoot, and then write the whole script based around that. It was really a great deal, because she's a close friend, and she was very conscientious to try and write no lines for the character that she had not heard me say in day-to-day life. Which was really funny, considering that I was playing Satan and there were no line changes from my day-to-day life. [Laughs.] Al Pacino cannot say the same thing.

So what happened in the second season? Scovell left the show. In the wake of Scovell's departure, there were some cast changes: Sabrina's friend Jenny was replaced with a new character, Valerie (who didn't last all that long herself), and Paul Feig -- whom you know as creator of "Freaks and Geeks" -- lost his role as Sabrina's teacher, being replaced by a sullen Martin Mull as a sullen Vice-Principal. Feig wrote about this on his web page:

Yes, you heard correctly, friends. Mr. Pool received a little phone call after the end of the first season from the executive producer of "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" and was informed that the new producers felt that kids wouldn't follow the same teacher for two years in a row and so they gave Mr. Pool and Paul Feig (rumored to be the same guy) his marching orders.

I guess they're right, you know. I remember how boring it got watching that same Mr. Kotter year in and year out. And all that same old group of teachers on "Room 222" season after season. And that dern White Shadow himself, Ken Howard. Oy, if I had to watch him coach those inner-city kids for one more year, I think I might have gone insane. But what did I know?

All I can say is, thank God they changed Darrens halfway through the run of "Bewitched."

There's not much of an ending for this story: "Sabrina" continued to do well for several years, anchoring ABC's TGIF lineup (which, quite honestly, I miss: it was a surprisingly relaxing way to kill a Friday night after a tough week). But it was never anywhere near as good as it had been in that first season with Scovell running it.

No comments: