Saturday, February 17, 2007

Series Abandonment Syndrome

In watching the DVDs of Get Smart, I noticed that -- to me, anyway -- the series took a pronounced dip in quality in the third season. The first two seasons were about as good as they could be, but a lot of the episodes in season 3 seem to have less solid comedy writing and a less solid grasp of the characters and the style. There are a lot fewer good funny spy stories and a lot more of a reliance on parodies of other then-hot shows (The Fugitive) and movies. It's not bad, but it's definitely not as good as the first two seasons. And I think the audiences sensed that, because the show's viewership started to have some trouble around this time (which led, in season 4, to the producers marrying Max and 99 off in order to try and win back the audience).

Initially I chalked this up to the departure of series creator Buck Henry, who was head writer for the first two years (billed as "story editor," back when that title meant something). But it turns out he actually left part of the way through season 2, leaving to create Captain Nice, a superhero equivalent of Get Smart, and there was no noticeable drop-off in the writing of Get Smart.

What actually seems to have happened in season 3 of Get Smart is that the people who ran it were busy with a new project. That was the season when Leonard Stern, the executive producer of Get Smart, created He and She, starring Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin. It was, as anyone who's seen it can tell you, one of the best shows of its time, influenced by The Dick Van Dyke Show but with somewhat more sophisticated writing, presaging The Mary Tyler Moore Show (which had several key people who had worked on He and She). It was a terrible shame that it was canceled after only one season.

But the point that's relevant to this post is that Stern was busy with He and She, and he put a lot of his best Get Smart people on He and She as well. That left Get Smart with what seemed like Stern's "B" team, and the show went through a lot of different writers and producers that year (Jess Oppenheimer, of I Love Lucy, produced the show for about five episodes that season, then left). Almost nobody writing for Get Smart that season had written for the show in the previous two seasons, because the best writers from seasons 1 and 2 were on He and She. The fourth season of Get Smart -- again, in my opinion -- has better writing than the third, because the He and She people all came back to try and save Get Smart.

This is a pretty common dilemma when TV writers and creators do more than one show. From an artistic standpoint, you can't object to someone wanting to do a different kind of show, especially when the result is as good as He and She. But from a business standpoint, it sometimes hurts, because the flagship production -- the one that enabled the production people to do the new shows -- is left in inexperienced hands, and the danger is that within a couple of years they'll be left with no shows at all, as the flagship property fizzles out and the new shows don't succeed with the public.

I suspect that, as I describe this scenario, many of you are thinking of the words Marti Noxon. It's a similar thing, yes.

And why the hell isn't He and She on DVD anyway? Who owns it? Paul Brownstein or somebody needs to be given the DVD rights to this show while all the major participants are still alive.


Anonymous said...

Marti Noxon? Do explain!

mybillcrider said...

You are so right about He and She, a great show. My wife and I still quote lines from it.

Jon88 said...

Well, almost all. Once again you make me miss Jack Cassidy.

Derek Taylor Shayne said...

"Get Smart" set such a high bar for itself from the start, the fact it lasted with the quality it did for five seasons is an accomplishment in itself. Sure, it started to wear thin right along with the Bond-spy craze that inspired it, but even though sired by comedic geniuses Henry and Brooks it was basically a one-trick pony with only so many variations on a theme.
At its best it was brilliant slapstick, satire and Adams the most perfect casting in the history of television (especially when you consider Tom Poston was said to have been first choice for the role, and with all props to Tom, whom I adore, certainly would have shed a whole new light on Maxwell Smart and IMO not necessarily for the best) all rolled into one.
Almost twenty years later, the 1989 TV movie "Get Smart, Again" showed the spark was still there.
Despite the advancement in technological gadgets that figured so prominently in the spy genre, "Get Smart's" comedy is timeless. And, that's all that counts.
Excellent site, Jaime!

Yeldarb86 said...

I've never seen Get Smart, but I do know what you mean.

In some cases, a TV show suffers when it loses most of its original creative staff after it initally ended.

When Rugrats ended in 1994, Paul Germain, and a whole bunch of writers left Klasky-Csupo, and a few years later created Recess for Disney. Recess had a lot of the same creative sensibilites as the original Rugrats, but by the time that made its debut, Rugrats re-started with an all new development team, which needless to say, was vastly inferior to the original team. While Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo were still in charge of Rugrats, it was quite apparent that Paul Germain was the true creative wheel behind the original show.

Anonymous said...

If you want a modern equivalent every bit as good then check out last year's French hit OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies. Its basic premise, gormless yet smooth secret agent saved by his slick assistant, is exactly that of Get Smart. Sadly it was only ever released properly in France, and in French, although Canadians are fortunately able to buy an English subtitled DVD.

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, I agree that Season 3 was a dip from the first two years, but I thought the writing for Season 4 was a step back up (yes, even with the wedding gimmick being part of the year), as they were able to get more comedy out of the secondary characters, such as Sigfreid and Starker and Larabee, while introducing William Schallert's Admiral Hargrave. Mel Brooks and some of the other original writers also returned to doing scripts, but the decline in ratings that set in the previous year wasn't stopped, and NBC let the show go to CBS at the end of that year.

Anonymous said...

I did think "Marti Noxon" as I was reading you article, but I also thought of the words "Matt Greoning". However, when Futurama was stupidly cancelled, the Simpsons still remained terrible. Is this because Greoning had lost all faith in everything?