'Work It,' The 'Friends' Mafia, And TV's Misplaced Faith In Writers As Showrunners
Next month, a new sitcom called "Work It," about two out-of-work salesmen who dress up as women to get jobs, will make its debut on ABC. There's nothing new about the premise -- Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari covered the same ground on the early-80s sitcom "Bosom Buddies" -- and the tone isn't exactly novel either. The stars of the show, Ben Koldyke and Amaury Nolasco, are operating in the prevailing frat-boy mode perfected by Bradley Cooper and Seann William Scott.
In May, an 84-second trailer of "Work It" hit the Internet, instantly attracting more blogger rage than most shows accumulate over the course of several seasons. Gobsmacked by the very fact that "This got made! And is going to series!", The Futon Critic lambasted the show's "limp attempts at misogyny," "groan worthy madcappery" and "Mrs. Doubtfire hijinx."
The Best Week Ever blog took special umbrage at the network's attempt to position the series as "high concept": "Holy moly, ABC. If you're going to put a terrible show on the air, the least you could do is not try to make two bumbling fools dressed up like women for cheap laughs a 'high concept' in which the guys become moral compasses. It's not the iconic Louie poker scene, for heavens sake." The Dallas Transgender Activists Alliance launched a petition to keep "Work It" off the air, and a blogger for the Gay Voices section of The Huffington Post predicted that the series would face summary cancelation, "not because the content is offensive to queers, but because the show itself is just bad." (ABC did not respond to requests for comment.)
The setup is stale, the jokes are groan-inducing, there's not a major star anywhere near it, and yet one of America's major broadcast networks has spent millions to bring "Work It" to the air. How did this happen? The answer may lie not in what's on the screen, but in what's off it -- the writers who created "Work It," Andrew Reich and Ted Cohen, also happen to be veterans of a little show called "Friends," long the staple of NBC's once-dominant Thursday-night block of comedies. The last episode of "Friends" aired on May 6, 2004, and since then the members of its famous writers room have brought one new show after another to the market. And one after another, those new shows have fizzled, failing to recapture even a trace of the original comedy's hip, youthful, era-defining essence.
But still the members of the "Friends" Mafia return. "That show gave them a get-out-of-development-hell-free card," says one TV writer, who, like most of the people HuffPost spoke to for this article, declined to be identified for fear of retribution.
"Work It" follows two failures from this season in which Mafia members played leading roles: CBS's "How To Be a Gentleman," from executive producer Adam Chase, and NBC's "Free Agents," of which Alexa Junge briefly served as co-executive producer. (Another, Fox's "I Hate My Teenage Daughter," headed by Sherry Bilsing, remains on the air.) And the list of disappointments from previous seasons is even more impressive. A partial sampling, ranked in descending order of episodes aired in the U.S.: "Melissa and Joey" (41), "Gary Unmarried" (37), "Joey" (36), "Jonas" (34), "Love Inc." (22), "Life on a Stick" (21), "The Class" (19), "The Weber Show" (17), "Kath and Kim" (17), "Worst Week" (16), "Hot Properties" (13), "Perfect Couples" (13), "Courting Alex" (12), "Romantically Challenged" (6), "Clone" (6), "The Men's Room" (4), "Come to Papa" (4), and "Three" (just a pilot). (The group has also scored some middling successes, including "Episodes," "My Boys," "Eight Simple Rules for Dating my Daughter," "What I Like About You" and "The United States of Tara.")
Tradition holds that Hollywood runs on the "What have you done for me lately?" principle, suggesting that members of the "Friends" Mafia would have lost their golden halos long ago. But some hits are so gigantic that their aura lasts for years -- seven and counting, in the case of "Friends." In its time, the "Friends" phenomenon rained gold on all who came near it. Over 10 seasons and 236 episodes, "Friends" held steady at or near the top of the ratings pile. No sitcom has occupied the year's No. 1 ratings slot since "Friends" last did so in 2001.
During the final season of "Friends," the show's six stars were each paid an astounding $1 million per episode, and by the end, NBC was paying Warner Bros. Studios, which produced "Friends," a record-holding $10 million per episode. Even in its afterlife, "Friends" continues to print money, earning Warner Bros. approximately $944 million to date in syndication rights, according to Variety magazine.
"When you have a big hit show, the writers on that show tend to be the big writers for the next 10 years, and you can ride that for a pretty long time," says Ken Levine, a veteran TV writer and producer of shows such as "M*A*S*H" and "Cheers," who now blogs about the TV industry.
In fairness to the members of the "Friends" Mafia, it should be noted that blame for the failure of any given show is notoriously difficult to assign. What with all of the meddling network executives, high-maintenance stars and competing creative visions, it's a wonder anyone ever manages to get the chemistry right. And the vast majority of writers working in the sitcom world have experienced far more failures than successes in the past decades, as network comedies have gone down like cannon fodder. It's also true that Schadenfreude, the official religion of the entertainment industry, accounts for at least some measure of the sniping that writers direct against the "Friends" diaspora. (Hollywood being a place where none dare risk offending, not one of the detractors wished to be quoted for attribution here.)
Still, after nearly a decade of misfires, there is some evidence that the "Friends" veterans offer living proof of the Peter Principle, which holds that "in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to the level of his incompetence." Certainly, given Hollywood's reflexive impulse to reward the writers from successful shows with franchises of their own, it's worth asking whether the training that these young apprentices received as writers prepared them for careers as showrunners.
In its day, the "Friends" room was known for being young and unusually democratic. Eager to establish authenticity for their youthful characters, the creators of "Friends" -- Marta Kauffman and David Crane-- and executive producer Kevin Bright brought in a crew of younger writers to staff the show. Most stayed with the series until the very end, in defiance of the revolving-door logic that dominates much of the business. And while many shows of the period were dominated by high-profile showrunners (Larry David of "Seinfeld," Phil Rosenthal of "Everybody Loves Raymond," Michael Patrick King of "Sex and the City"), Kauffman, Crane and Bright were content to let their younger charges take the spotlight.
"Friends was about 20-somethings, so the 20-somethings who wrote for it got the credit," says one of their peers. As a result, an insular group of writers, hired at the very beginning of their careers, left the show a decade later armed with reputations as titans of comedy.
Lost in the chorus of hosannas for the victorious staff was the distinction between the showrunners and the rank-and-file writers who worked for them. First among writers, the showrunner is also the person responsible for every aspect of a television program -- overseeing the staff, supervising the final edits, ensuring that the jokes are funny and the characters and story lines are coherent. The individual writers are cogs in the showrunner's machine.
"There's a lot of talent by association," Peter Mehlman, a long-time TV writer and producer who served on the "Seinfeld" team, says of Hollywood's flawed method for assigning credit. "If you're on 'Friends,' even though you're spending 98 percent of your time in a room with eight other people shouting out jokes at each other at 4 a.m., somehow they assume you can run your own show."
Ultimately, Mehlman says, the writing work on a show like "Friends" is so collaborative that it is very hard to know who did what. "If you were credited as writing an episode of 'Friends,' it doesn't guarantee you wrote any of the plot lines."
The trajectory of Adam Chase offers a cautionary example of what can happen when success in the writing room is assumed to predict success in the showrunner's chair. After leaving "Friends" with an executive producer title in 2000, Chase received the same role on a new series, "The Weber Show," a vehicle for "Wings" star Steven Weber. Since then, he has created one flop -- "Clone" (6 episodes) -- and served as showrunner or heavy-hitter consulting producer for six more: "Life on a Stick" (12 episodes), "Love, Inc." (22 episodes), "Sons of Tucson" (12 episodes), "Better With You" (21 episodes), and the recently canceled "How to Be a Gentleman" (5 episodes).
Chase did not respond to a request for comment and CBS declined to comment.
Among writers who have been less lavishly rewarded -- and who, perhaps not coincidentally, have enjoyed fewer opportunities to fail -- there is a sense that some hidden hand must be at work, sending low-average batters like Chase to the plate again and again despite his past performance. For them, the explanation is simple: "Executives take comfort in what was successful, so if [a new project fails] they can just point and say, 'Well, they were on 'Friends.'"
Meanwhile, as the networks continue their search for the new "Friends," the shows that come closest to capturing the same youthful energy seem to be originating not among TV veterans, but among refugees from the world of feature films. Fox's "New Girl," one of this fall's biggest hits, for instance, was created by "No Strings Attached" screenwriter Liz Meriwether. And "Happy Endings," which comes closer than any series in years to replicating the "Friends" formula of young, urban, middle-of-the-road comedy, is the brainchild of David Caspe, a new-in-town former art student/feature writer whose only previous credit was the script for a soon-to-be-released Adam Sandler/Andy Samberg project titled "I Hate You, Dad."
Like many Americans in this age of digital upheaval, the "Friends" writers vaulted themselves onto a time-honored path to success and riches, only to find that the rules had been hopelessly scrambled. The long leash networks once gave to character-driven programs has been reduced to a choke chain. If you don't connect with an audience in a matter of weeks, you're through. Of the 27 shows to debut this past September, eight have already been canceled, and at least that many more hang in limbo. In the new media universe, where only the Superbowl and the Academy Awards command the kind of ratings "Friends" regularly drew, there just isn't enough money to finance a series while it searches for its rhythm.
Under the old model, "If you were on 'Friends' and you were well-liked there, you certainly would keep getting jobs," Mehlman says. "In those days, they used to hand out development deals like M&M's."
"The world has changed," adds veteran TV writer Ken Levine, speaking generally about trends in the industry. "There are fewer development deals these days, and studios are getting smart to the fact that just because a writer works on these shows -- and it's not just 'Friends' but any long-lasting hit, like 'Frasier' or 'Raymond' -- doesn't mean he's a good writer.
"Studios have been burned by making really bad deals and not doing their due diligence and finding out there are some writers on a staff who were really great and contribute a lot and others who were tagging along and didn't do that much."
In a world of loose budgets and easy deals, there would be no time and no cause to complain about the "Friends" Mafia. Their contemporaries would have scripts of their own to churn out, and deals of their own to negotiate. But the networks' struggle to shrink down for the 21st century seems to have only just begun, and there's every reason to believe that Schadenfreude will continue to haunt these once-promising writers until one of them -- any of them -- produces a hit worthy of the industry's investment in their careers.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story indicated that Alexa Junge was the showrunner of "Free Agents." The actual showrunner was John Enbom. An earlier version of this story indicated that Kevin Bright was a created of "Friends." He was an executive producer.