A scheduled post about scheduling
Thoughts on 'Fleishman Is In Trouble,' 'Abbott Elementary,' the end of an era in network television, and the possible end of Twitter (TV and otherwise).
Welcome to another installment of the What's Alan Watching? newsletter, coming up just as soon as I enroll in the St. Louis University of Technology...
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Only one online story this week, as I'm deep in the weeds for a few longform projects for both the magazine and the website. But it's a good one: an interview with journalist-turned-novelist-turned-showrunner Taffy Brodesser-Akner about her FX on Hulu(*) adaptation of her book Fleishman Is In Trouble. Since Taffy was so used to interviewing celebrities for her various acclaimed profiles, it was fun to put her on the other side of things.
(*) Yes, I know that tab on Hulu is no longer called FX on Hulu. But it seems the easiest way to convey that a show has been developed by FX but streams only on Hulu (see also The Bear, Reservation Dogs, etc), and to differentiate them from Hulu shows like Candy that weren't developed by that reliable FX team.
I did not formally review Fleishman, and Taffy and I have become friendly in the years since the book was published, so take this with a grain of salt, but I think it's terrific. There are four wonderful lead performances: Jesse Eisenberg being alternately sympathetic and self-righteously prickly, Claire Danes going to emotional places only she can, and Adam Brody finding maybe the best adult role of his post-O.C. career. (It's this or The Kid Detective.) Lizzy Caplan in particular is given a seemingly impossible task, playing the author's stand-in, and delivering a metric ton of voiceover narration, some of which is meant to represent Eisenberg's inner monologue and some her own. And she manages to make all these pieces simultaneously distinct and yet clearly part of the same performance.
The Sudden Departure of Twitter?
As news broke last night of mass resignations from Twitter, and suggestions from former engineers that the site would break in the near future, with nobody left who has the knowledge or ability to fix it, I got very sad about the potentially imminent end of both TV Twitter and Twitter as a whole. There’s been so much badness about Twitter, but also so many good things, including my ability to connect with so many of you, so many of my TV critic peers, and so many of the people who make and/or act in the shows I love. There are other social media networks — as a reminder, I’m on Instagram, Facebook, and, now Mastodon — but for the moment, none of them provide quite what we could do “on the Twitter,” as Carrie Coon once put it to me.
And speaking of which, I realize that my longstanding commitment to tweeting Leftovers memes has finally paid off, given the notion that Twitter could just vanish while our backs are turned. Reports that a bunch of employees were trapped in the company parking lot because their badges had been deactivated, for instance, gave me the excuse to bust out one of my favorite Nora Durst gifs:
Regardless of what happens, I’m glad I got this newsletter up and running so at least a portion of that community can still exist in the comments. And who knows? Maybe at some point I’ll figure out how this Substack Chat feature works? But in the meantime, let’s all hold hands and watch what’s happening on the bird app:
Anyway, back to actual TV talk!
My stint at Rolling Stone frequently makes me feel that I am unstuck in time, like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five. The deadlines for the print edition mean I'm frequently watching shows that won't debut for a couple of months. This can wreak havoc on my ability to answer the "So what's good on TV right now?" question everyone asks when they meet me. And there are times when I have few additional assignments that cut into the time I could be spending watching TV that is on right this second. In this case, one of those assignments involves lots of older shows, which means I'm spending much more time in the past and future than I am in the present.
All of which is to say that, other than Andor (which I'll be writing about next week) and White Lotus (which I already watched in advance and had mixed feelings about), the only current TV show I'm up to date on is Abbott Elementary. I think this has been a really strong second season, in the way that you always hope for from the good ensemble comedies. Quinta Brunson and the other writers have by now figured out what makes each character and/or actor specifically funny, and they are leaning into those strengths. They know, for instance, that a cutaway to a reaction from Gregory will always get a laugh(*), and the same with Melissa making even an oblique reference to doing crimes. And in the same way that The Office understood that we had to occasionally see Michael be competent, Abbott has figured out exactly when and how often to show Ava not being a completely useless narcissist, like her advice to Barbara in this week's episode.
(*) Hot take and/or recency bias: Tyler James Williams' reactions are on the whole funnier and more versatile than their obvious inspiration, John Krasinski as Jim Halpert.
The one concern I have is pretty minor (not to be confused with this week's guest star, Jerry Minor): there are a lot of episodes where the A-story involves Janine being determined to do something that everyone else calls a fool's errand, and ultimately realizing that they're right. That is a complicated needle to thread. On the one hand, Janine's relentless optimism in the face of the harsh realities of urban public schools is the whole idea behind the show. But if you go to that specific well too often, it makes your main character look bad after a while. Parks and Rec, for instance, figured out relatively quickly that Leslie's can-do spirit had to bring her wins at least as often as she failed. And Brooklyn Nine-Nine really came into its own midway through its first season, when it stopped building every episode around the idea of Jake refusing to listen to Captain Holt's advice, only to be proven wrong.
I'm sure they'll figure out that balance. It's otherwise a hugely satisfying show right now, and one that's clearly aware of its strengths.
It's the timeslots, stupid
Finally, I want to talk a bit about a TV news development that may make many of you shrug. Kelly Kahl is out at CBS, where he's served as president of entertainment since 2017, and where he's worked since 1996. (He started there basically at the same time as I started covering TV for The Star-Ledger.)
I know, I know. Broadcast network television is yesterday's news. I barely watch any of it anymore, save for Abbott and some of the Fox animated comedies. The only CBS show I've watched even occasionally the last few years was Ghosts, and even that never quite grabbed me the way it has some of my TV critic peers.
So why bother with this? Because it's still an end of an era in several ways.
First, Kahl was the last president of one of the classic Big Three broadcast networks whose focus first and foremost was on the network itself. Everyone at NBC and ABC is part of a larger corporate ecosystem, running studios and/or streamers at the same time they're programming the good old-fashioned network. CBS is not exactly a mom and pop shop, and some shows like Ghosts have benefited from also streaming on Paramount+. But decisions are primarily made based on what serves the needs of CBS in primetime. You can argue about how interesting it is to have so many FBI and NCIS spinoffs, but they exist because viewers watch them either live or not long after on DVRs or On Demand. (And the same could be said about NBC’s reliance on Law & Order and Chicago shows) Maybe Kahl's replacement, Amy Reisenbach, will stick with that, or maybe this is the first step towards folding CBS more directly into the larger Paramount business model.
The second is that Kahl traveled to the top job via an unusual route. Usually, entertainment presidents ascend from series development, like when Jamie Tarses got to run ABC for a few years in the late Nineties (their "TV Is Good" period) because she had helped develop Friends at NBC. Once Kahl arrived at CBS from Warner Bros., though, he worked in scheduling, moving shows from night to night, timeslot to timeslot, trying to find the right place for each show to succeed, based on what else CBS had around it, and also on what the other networks were doing.
The idea of scheduling may seem nearly as outmoded as the broadcast networks themselves. Whether you are a streaming-only cord-cutter or a DVR power user, odds are you rarely watch anything but sports or big event shows like Succession (if that) exactly when they first air. Everyone is now their own scheduler, mixing shows from different services, and even different eras, into whatever order they want.
But there was a real art to scheduling in the before times, and Kahl made a couple of big big moves that would help make CBS the most-watched network on television for a long time. NBC had owned Thursday nights forever, dating back to the mid-Eighties lineup featuring Cheers, Family Ties, Night Court, and a sitcom we don't need to talk about right now. By the start of the 2000-01 TV season, CBS had basically given up on the night, pairing its newsmagazine 48 Hours with City of Angels (a Steven Bochco hospital drama that had already flopped the previous spring) and the final season of Diagnosis: Murder. They weren't even trying, even though Thursday was the most lucrative night of the week, because movie studios paid big money to promote that weekend's new releases.
Then two things happened that would eventually, with Kahl's help, dramatically reorient the primetime landscape. The first was that over the summer of 2000, CBS had a huge hit with the first season of Survivor. The second was that in the first few months of the fall, CBS had another unexpected success on Friday nights with a new-fashioned cop drama called CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Nobody in the TV business had thought highly of CSI. Disney gave up on it twice — first dropping it from development as a show for ABC, then giving up its ownership stake — and Kahl and every other CBS exec from that era will tell you that the big Friday hit they were banking on that fall was a reboot of The Fugitive with Tim Daly. Instead, CSI struck a chord, and suddenly CBS not only had two successes, but two that appealed to a younger demographic than the ones watching Touched by an Angel and JAG.
In the summer, Survivor had aired on Wednesdays. CSI was doing darned well for itself on Fridays. The CBS scheduling team could have very easily left well enough alone. Instead, they took both of these chips and placed a heavy bet on Thursday nights, pitting Survivor: The Australian Outback and CSI against NBC's Must-See TV lineup. And it paid off. Friends and Will & Grace didn't exactly suffer in the ratings, but CBS' fortunes on the night rose exponentially, creating new Thursday night network TV viewers out of thin air, in a kind of "If you build it, they will come" scenario. Clever scheduling can’t save a show that the audience just isn’t interested in — even on Thursdays that spring, CBS got crushed at 10 p.m. with the short-lived, largely inscrutable David Milch cop show Big Apple — but the Survivor/CSI double-feature buoyed CBS on the week's most important night, and eventually throughout the week.
Scheduling isn't an entirely dead art. HBO still brings viewers in on Sunday nights at 9 for House of the Dragon, and even streamers like Pluto now offer regularly-scheduled "channels" for viewers who would rather browse whatever is on rather than having to pick a specific show or movie themselves. Even Netflix execs occasionally broach the idea of doing the same. As Dennis Duffy liked to say, technology’s cyclical.
But it definitely matters much less than it did back when Kahl decided to pair these two unconventional new shows on a night where CBS previously had no hope whatsoever.
That’s it for this week! Despite the holiday, there should be a newsletter next Friday, if only to talk about one of the aforementioned big projects, which should be publishing around Thanksgiving. In the meantime, feel free to share this post, tell your friends about What’s Alan Watching?, and all the usual things newsletter writers and/or podcasters ask you to do.
I really admire the network schedulers of yore. Such a fascinating job. Sometimes I wish I could hire them to manage my TV schedule! I have a set of shows I am watching but sometimes I sit down and don’t know what to watch. A hard nosed scheduler telling me it’s Thursday and you will be sitting down at 8 PM to watch X would cure the paralysis of choice!
So far I absolutely love The White Lotus but we’ll see how I feel by the end.
Really enjoying the newsletter, Alan. A definite silver lining of the potential destruction of the bird app is getting to hear a few more of your longish-form thoughts on TV on a regular basis.