Must-read of must-see TV
RICHARD ROEP E R May 29, 2012 9:06PM
Ted Danson and Shelly Long in "Cheers."
Updated: July 3, 2012 12:58PM
In Warren Littlefield’s engrossing and lively “Top of the Rock,” the former NBC entertainment chief enlists the voices of many of the actors and creative forces behind such hits as “Seinfeld,” “Will & Grace,” “Cheers” and “ER” to help him chronicle the glory days of “Must See TV.”
Similar in structure to the addictive oral histories about “Saturday Night Live” and ESPN, “Top of the Rock” is filled with memories from key players as well as Littlefield’s memories of telling moments. One minute Jennifer Aniston is a struggling, audition-weary unknown who runs into Littlefield at a gas station on the Sunset Strip and wonders if it’s ever going to happen for her; the next minute she’s on a show that will make her crushingly famous for the rest of her life.
We’re also reminded that even when entertainers are on top of the world, they remain intensely competitive. Littlefield recalls how upset Jerry Seinfeld was when Tim Allen was enjoying a media victory lap as supposedly the highest paid actor in all of television. Seinfeld contacted Littlefield and told him he was going to call Allen. “I want to know if he really thinks that the co-creator, executive producer and star of the number one comedy on the number one network on the number one night makes less money than he does,” Seinfeld explained.
Littlefield convinced Jerry not to make the call.
Where everybody knows your name
Then there’s the tale of Shelley Long, who went from hosting a local Chicago magazine show called ‘Sorting it Out” to starring as Diane Chambers on “Cheers.” Five years into one of the most successful runs a TV sitcom has ever enjoyed, Long was determined to exit. She wasn’t holding out for more riches or asking for more Diane-centric story lines — it was all about becoming a movie star.
Long was convinced she had a career in feature films, and at the time there was no doubt about the hierarchy. Movies were better than TV. Movie stars were bigger than TV stars. The quality of work was better. Television was for promising young actors on the way up, medium talents who were never going to make the leap — and former film stars past their prime. At the time of Long’s departure from “Cheers,” it seemed like the logical career leap of faith. If you were on TV and you had the chance to do movies, you took it.
And indeed, Long did have a shot at movie stardom — but that chance turned to dust after such failures as “Outrageous Fortune,” “Hello, Again” and “Troop Beverly Hills.”
Meanwhile, Kirstie Alley joined the cast of “Cheers,” which continued on for more seasons without Long than with her, invigorated by Alley’s Rebecca Howe character. As Littlefield puts it, Long’s departure was the best thing that ever happened to the show.
From TV to movies to TV
Cut to Memorial Day weekend, 2012. The slick and entertaining and big-budget “Men in Black III” has dethroned the even slicker and more entertaining and bigger-budgeted “Marvel’s The Avengers” at the box office. Per usual this time of year, the multiplex is bulging with terrific blockbusters such as “The Avengers,” dopey romantic comedies such as “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” and shiny crap such as “Battleship.” In most cases, the special effects and the 3-D glasses are just as important if not more so than the stars, the director and oh yeah, the script.
Meanwhile, on television, there is greatness. The epic thrills of “Game of Thrones.” The brilliantly insightful slice of young-adult-life titled “Girls.” The laugh-out-loud sly farce of “Veep.”
And best of all, the period piece masterpiece that is “Mad Men.”
While paper-walled theaters pulsated with the sounds of aliens doing battle with soldiers and heroes, and the bleating noise of over-the-top actresses in birthing scenes, it was the small(ish) screen that was delivering the goods. (SPOILER ALERT.) Last Sunday night’s climactic cross-cutting of scenes on “Mad Men,” with Don Draper pitching Jaguar while Joan mortgaged her body and a piece of her soul, was like a short story by Cheever or Updike. The writing was so rich and nuanced, the tone so perfectly sharp and melancholy, it made you smile in appreciation even as your heart felt heavy.
To be sure, there’s still magnificent writing and acting at your local movie theater. Take a chance on “Moonrise Kingdom” or “Bernie” for evidence of that. And there’s still a boatload of junk on TV, from the umpteenth talent show to the obscenely crass “Bachelorette” to myriad reality programs featuring human nightmares cheerfully humiliating themselves.
But for actors, the old equation of movies over TV is a thing of the past. If you’re a Jon Hamm or a Bryan Cranston or an Amy Poehler or a Julianna Marguiles, sure, you’ll take a feature role if it fits into the schedule.
But chances are neither the role nor the story is going to be as good as the stuff you’re doing on TV.