Why The Paul Reiser Show Never Could Have Worked
Making a network TV show is hard, often thankless work. It’s a constant struggle between maintaining one’s vision and satisfying a committee of executives whose jobs involve questioning and challenging that vision at every opportunity. But once in a very rare while, lightning strikes, and every creative element intersects and explodes in a blinding supernova known as a “hit.”
The Paul Reiser Show was definitely not a hit. The NBC comedy, which brought the former Mad About You star out of cold storage (he said he decided it was time to go back to work after his son asked what to put down on a school form under “father’s occupation”) was yanked from the network's schedule on Friday, one day after the second episode had aired. I had only watched the premiere, and that was plenty. The show was a mess, and beyond retooling—it was basically a hackneyed ripoff of Curb Your Enthusiasm, except scripted, toothless, and unfunny. It’s asking a lot of an audience to play along with a bored, rich Hollywood guy playing a version of himself. Larry David succeeds (for the most part) in doing this because Larry David is a comic genius, and with his Curb alter ego he’s crafted a character who would be as miserable driving around LA in his Prius as he would be slogging through the fields of Black Plague-ravaged medieval Europe in a donkey cart. The guy is just in a constant state of misery, and hilarious conflict lies around every corner and every innocuous social interaction.
Paul Reiser, meanwhile, trades in a different kind of comedy altogether. It’s the same genus—the Jewish-American point-of-view—but Reiser’s persona is far happier that David’s (or at least on the road to happiness). He wants people to get along. He wants things to run smoothly. He wants his son to be proud of him, and know what his dad does for a living. He basically wants you to like him. And that’s where the show’s set-up failed, because watching a guy search for self-fulfillment amid the trappings of obnoxious Hollywood wealth is not compelling. It’s the opposite of compelling—it’s off-putting, particularly when so many American families are living through their worst financial nightmares right now. (Did you see that 60 Minutes piece on Florida families who've been kicked out of their homes and are living with neighbors and in motel rooms? It’s heartbreaking!) Reiser’s show couldn’t have been more out of touch. And while I suppose the argument could be made that, with strong-enough writing, any set-up can be made funny, The Paul Reiser Show did not have that writing.
And so it tanked, breaking modest records, in fact, with its low ratings. (It was NBC’s lowest-rated, “in-season” sitcom premiere ever, whatever that means.) Reiser had recently hinted that things may have been a little underbaked, when he mentioned a truncated development schedule for the show, saying, “This was the shortest ramp-up in the history of television. Literally 20 days ago [NBC] said, ‘We’re putting you up,’ and we said, ‘Okay, great.’” But who cares, really? Is that our problem? No. We just show up on our couches with our pints of ice cream, and want to see something worthwhile. That’s the law of the TV jungle.
NBC execs clearly hadn’t anticipated they’d be pulling the plug so quickly when they scheduled Reiser to appear on last night’s The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. But they did, and Reiser fulfilled the booking, using the stage to take some shots at the network that just humiliated him.
"NBC, to my knowledge, they don't traditionally make bad decisions,” he said. “Listen, when you're the last-place network, you don't want to jeopardize that.” Okay, Paul Reiser. I get it. You’re the new Leno. Or Conan. Or whatever. You’re NBC’s punching bag and now you’re giving a few right hooks back. Except, for once, NBC seemed to make the right call here. (Well, the right call would have been not to rush this show onto the schedule in the first place, but baby steps.) But you can’t blame the guy for being bitter. You’ll rue this one, NBC! This ratings disaster was your one shot at turning that ship around, I guess? What do I know. I’m no network scheduling maven.
So what lies ahead for Reiser? His son still needs something to put in the “father's occupation” field of those school forms! Will he just return to the oblivion from which he just came, or will he come back harder, faster, funnier than ever, Rocky montage-style? I know The Office is looking for a new boss. And there’s that Alien pre-boot. A Mad About You reunion? Whatever the case, don’t count him out just yet. If Hollywood loves anything more than a comeback, it’s second second chances.
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