Friday, May 25, 2012

What if...Larry David was fired after Seinfeld's season three?

Last weekend was a wild one for fans of the Greendale Seven.

NBC is bringing Community back for an Arrested Development-topping fourth season. Yay!

Community's creator and show-runner Dan Harmon was fired. Wait...what the heck?!?

If you've read my sports blog, you know I'm an optimist. With that mindset, I quickly calculated the odds of Harmon's firing being a mistake to only 33%. My reasoning: there are three possible outcomes to this decision. 1. The show could get worse. 2. The show could get better. 3. The show could maintain it's quality. I'd be fine with two of those three outcomes. Therefore...33% failure rate. Good move NBC! Or Sony Pictures (who owns Community). Or whoever is behind this.

Of course, closer analysts of the television industry are more cynical. Taken together, the two moves just don't make sense. If you're going to renew Community why dump Dan Harmon? If you're going to dump Dan Harmon (as rumors suggested would happen long before NBC announced it was renewing Community), why renew Community?

I'm not the biggest television industry follower out there. I am, however, possibly more engrossed in Seinfeld than anyone else on the planet at this moment. It's possible. So I started to think about what would happen if Seinfeld's co-creator and producer Larry David was fired after season three. Here's what I came up with...

CONTEXT: The Men - Larry David and Dan Harmon
If you know anything about Dan Harmon, you know he's difficult to work with. This has manifested into a feud with his most difficult cast member, Chevy Chase. Apparently, he was a pain for network and studio executives as well.

Depending on how realistic you think his character is on Curb Your Enthusiasm, you might expect a similar story about Larry David. I think you'd be wrong. Yes, David could be combative with NBC executives. In his own admission, he was always ready for a fight if NBC tried to squelch any of Seinfeld's scripts, for issues of form or content. Indeed, he went to war for some of his ground-breaking scripts in the early years. And he usually won. His anticipation of network concerns probably influenced his writing more than even he would admit, so his scripts came out palatable to NBC often despite his fears. Plus, his respectful relationship with partner and friend Jerry Seinfeld also helped keep him inline. (According to the main figures in the cast and crew, Seinfeld was one of the easiest network stars to work with, and deserves much of the credit for the on-set camaraderie amongst the show's Big Four.) Far from feuding with his own cast, David, through Jerry, had healthy working relationships with the cast and crew. He was always pleased to let the actors explore their characters. Comedy, not Larry David, ruled. If they could come up with a line that got more laughs than the one he had written, he was all in favor of going with it.

NBC's choice of David to run Seinfeld was extremely bold, and certainly crucial for the fresh direction the show eventually staked out. In 1990, David was a moderately successful professional standup comedian whose previous television experience consisted of being a cast member on Friday's, ABC's Saturday Night Live knockoff, and being a writer for one unhappy season on SNL. By their own admission, David and Seinfeld knew next to nothing about how a television show was supposed to operate. Even more incredibly, NBC more or less allowed David and Seinfeld to operate with minimal network interference. They mostly ignored any notes the network gave them and always got away with it. They made the show they wanted to make, and NBC's gamble to let them do this paid off as handsomely as any network decision in television history.

CONTEXT: The Network
NBC is in bad shape. If Fox was struggling with its comedies ten years ago to the extent NBC is now, Arrested Development might have stuck around. Community was renewed despite its dismal ratings in part because of critical acclaim and in part because NBC just can't come up with anything better to fill its comedy schedule.

By the end of Seinfeld's third season (1991-92), it was gaining some traction in the ratings but was still no hit. Like Community, it was beloved by critics. But this was a different era, a time when networks still dominated; even though Seinfeld earned about 10 times as many viewers as Community does now, that was not always enough to guarantee another season. Besides the critical acclaim, it's demographics were strong so NBC stuck with it. In the middle of season four, Seinfeld was moved from Wednesday nights to Thursday nights. Following Cheers, it started to gain viewers on its famous lead-in. That was the first time any show managed to grown the audience after Cheers since the early 1980s. In season five, Cheers was finished and Seinfeld took it's spot, finally becoming a true juggernaut.

Let's toss the seven-sided die. It's not inconceivable that after season three, with no great sitcom replacement for Cheers on its schedule, NBC might have decided to steer Seinfeld in a more mainstream direction by firing Larry David.

IMMEDIATE FALLOUT
Larry David's last written episode would have been "The Parking Space," when George gets into an argument over a spot outside Jerry's apartment. Larry Charles wrote the season finale, "The Keys," which end on a cliffhanger as Kramer, upset about Jerry demanding his apartment keys back, leaves for Los Angeles. The L.A. storyline concludes in the two-part season four premiere, "The Trip: Parts I and II." Maybe Larry Charles sticks around to wrap up that storyline. It's hard to know if Charles and Peter Mehlman, the only other two established writers at Seinfeld by the end of season three would stick around, or if they would scatter like Harmon's loyal staff has from Community. Charles might be a logical replacement as show runner, but not if NBC wants to steer Seinfeld back to the mainstream. So Charles leaves, but Mehlman stays.

Would Jerry Seinfeld stay? Perhaps his star power was always David's shield. Obviously, there's no Seinfeld with Jerry Seinfeld, so for the sake of this exercise, let's imagine he does stick around.

With Mehlman leading the writing team, Seinfeld gets more Mehlman-ian episodes. Here are the episodes he wrote through season four:

Season 2 - "The Apartment"
Season 3 - "The Nose Job" and "The Good Samaritan"
Season 4 - "The Virgin," "The Visa," and "The Implant"

Gone is Larry David's comedy of the banal. Gone are the quirky, dark ideas of Larry Charles. What these episodes do have in common is the introduction of interesting and/or relatively normal outsiders to the Seinfeld foursome. Babu, The Virgin, Teri Hatcher, and other characters intersect with the gangs' lives for an episode before making a hasty retreat, always departing disgusted with the group, if not personally damaged from their interaction. It's interesting and still a little different, but Mehlman was no David or Charles. He could write a great episode (and would down the road, such as season eight's "The Yada Yada"), but he was never steering the show into amazing new directions.

LONGTERM LEGACY
Maybe Seinfeld still becomes a hit on the strength of its cast, as well as the characters David created. But there is no way it becomes arguably the greatest show of all time. Besides personally writing many classic episodes before and after season four, David was behind the show's season-long arcs, such as season four's NBC pilot story and George's engagement in season seven. The writing staff changed and grew beginning in season five, so David and Charles were responsible for less of the classic episodes after season three, but if the show moves in a more mainstream direction, it's hard to imagine episodes like "The Soup Nazi" (written by Spike Feresten) or "The Bizarro Jerry" (by Peter Mandel) ever getting made. Many argue that Seinfeld suffered in David's absence (not me), but there's no question it rode the momentum he had created for the two seasons after he left. Seinfeld would not have become an all-timer if David was removed after season three.

Would Curb Your Enthusiasm ever happen? Actually, it, or something like it, might have happened sooner. It would have been no disgrace to be fired as a show runner after three seasons. David had built up enough of a legacy to get another shot with a television show somewhere else. The question isn't whether another network would take him on; it's whether David would want to get back into the television-creating experience that he has said, then and now, to be more of a burden than a labor of love.

CONCLUSION
I think, in this alternate reality, Seinfeld would have lasted through season five. I think ratings would have started to slide rather than grow in seasons four and five. I think Jerry Seinfeld would have grown disinterested in the show by then, and returned to the domain he is truly master of - the standup circuit. In other words, Seinfeld's legacy would have been more like Moonlighting, another television show that pushed the envelope of its genre for a little while before bogging down under tension between network and creator. Moonlighting ended after five seasons.


What does this mean for Community? It's not a bold prediction, but I suspect next season will be the show's last. It will come up short of the 100 episode mark, but it is still enough for Sony Pictures to get a good syndication deal on top of solid DVD sales to the show's loyal audience. Legacy-wise, it will follow Arrested Development as a show that critics and fans loved, but never got the numbers the network wanted. Because of the community college premise, it's harder to imagine an Arrested Development-like comeback ten years down the road. But who knows?

Finally, the reverse question: what if Dan Harmon wasn't fired? The lesson from Seinfeld is sometimes it takes several seasons for a show to hit its stride. Eventually, the talent of David et al clicked in and Seinfeld took off. But that didn't happen until the end of season four or even the middle of season five. The ratings Seinfeld was earning by that point will never be seen again on scripts network television, but maybe the audience for a Dan Harmon-led Community still had some growing to do.

As for Dan Harmon, fans can hope he turns up on a cable network, where 1 million viewers is enough to keep a show around, and networks are happier giving proven creators a free hand to work their magic. A Dan Harmon HBO show might make a good pairing with Curb Your Enthusiasm.

2 comments:

  1. While I love Community, I'm not overly upset that it's going out at Season 4. Some shows take several seasons to really come into its own, sure, but more shows start out strong and start spinning its wheels after a few seasons and become pale imitations of their former selves.

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  2. That's a good point. There's a lot to love about British shows, which stick around for just a few seasons before disappearing. I just finished the first season of the BBC's Sherlock, and that consisted of three 90 minute episodes!

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