Feb 11, 2002  •  Post A Comment

You can pull all the stops out, till they call the cops out, Grind your behind till you’re banned, But you gotta get a gimmick if you wanna get a hand. -Stephen Sondheim, “Gypsy”
Early last year, Linda Bloodworth thought she had found the gimmick that would give her another prime-time piece de resistance: Emeril Lagasse, the immensely popular “Kick it up another notch” franchise chef of the Food Network.
Ms. Bloodworth was quite clear that she was in need of a gimmick. Her biggest successes, “Designing Women” and “Evening Shade,” ended their network runs in the mid-1990s.
“I would not have come up with [“Emeril”] if I had not had to,” she candidly told the press during last summer’s gathering of the Television Critic’s Association in Pasadena, Calif. “If I had been given a famous actor as I had been so often in the past, I’m sure I would have done that.”
But as she found out, gimmicks don’t necessarily lead to successful TV shows-those with long memories in this business still remember the one-season wonder “My Mother the Car.”
“Emeril,” produced by Ms. Bloodworth and her husband, Harry Thomason, debuted last fall on NBC Tuesday nights at 8 p.m. (ET), was shelved for the November sweeps, and then returned briefly but struggled against poor ratings and adverse critical opinion. The network aired seven of 11 produced episodes before officially pulling the plug at the end of December.
What happened? How did three proven talents, Ms. Bloodworth, Mr. Thomason and Mr. Lagasse, as well as a major network known for sophisticated comedy, NBC, find themselves in a kitchen where, figuratively speaking, none of the burners worked and the spice rack was empty?
Saw it coming
“Virtually all of us in the buying community laughed out loud at the silliness of it,” says media buyer Gary Carr, formerly with MediaVest and now head of his own company. “We all [thought] that it would be the first show canceled. I mean, women like watching him, but the guy’s not an actor. He’s a fucking cook!”
A cook indeed, but a cook in whom producer Ms. Bloodworth saw elements of Jackie Gleason and Ricky Ricardo. “There have been a lot of people on television who are not actors,” she said at TCA. “I think he’s so unique. I think this show is a hybrid, [the] kind that hasn’t been seen before.”
On the network end, insiders said, the show was an unwitting victim of a “family feud” at NBC. One of the first production decisions made by new NBC Entertainment president Jeff Zucker, “Emeril” was ordered up in the hope of kick-starting the network’s laggard Tuesday nights, but not everybody was on board. “Because Jeff was new, there was a lot of second-guessing,” says a source at NBC, “but you had a popular chef and two show-runners with a track record. It made sense at the time to take a shot with it. You didn’t see everything else that was a contender for that slot.” Meaning “Emeril” was the best they had. Furthermore, based most likely on Mr. Lagasse’s celebrity status, the show tested well.
Mr. Carr and other media buyers had seen clips of the “Emeril” pilot during the May 2001 upfront presentations to Madison Avenue in May. By July, at the TCA gathering, the nation’s TV critics had seen the pilot and were already telling NBC it had a problem. Consider this excerpt from the official transcript of the TCA session among the critics, Mr. Zucker and NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa:
Unidentified TV critic: Scott, I wanted to ask you, can you explain how a show like “Emeril” gets as far as it has? I’m not asking that facetiously. I’m trying to understand the process.
Mr. Zucker: It gets as far as it has the way that any other project gets onto the fall schedule. Somebody comes in and pitches it, and we make a decision as to whether or not we want to go forward with it and develop it and continue to fine-tune it, just like any other project. It’s no different than anything else.
TV critic: Doesn’t someone look at it and say-
Mr. Sassa: Do you not like “Emeril”?
TV critic: I think everybody or most people in the room would agree that it’s not ready for air.
Mr. Zucker: Right. I think that more than most in this room have that opinion. And we’ve heard that. First of all-a couple things. One, we are working on that pilot. It will be considerably different from what you saw. But second of all, we believe in it. We believe in the team behind it. And we believe there’s something to Emeril and the program that they want to do that responds with the people in the country. Again, it may not be everyone’s fancy in here. It may be everybody’s fear factor in this room, but, you know, we have some evidence, and I have a gut belief that it may respond with people out in the country.
Conceived in a climate of rising chef consciousness in America-reflected in the basic cable Food Network’s doubling its audience to 72 million households in two years-“Emeril” attempted to translate Mr. Lagasse’s proven culinary theatrics to a sitcom format, adding jokes and other characters to a backstage scenario. Ms. Bloodworth and Mr. Thomason, in partnership with NBC Studios, tried a familiar formula, combining generic workplace humor with the warmth of a TV family surrounding Emeril that included former “Spenser for Hire” star Robert Urich as Emeril’s narcissistic agent and comedy veterans Lisa Ann Walter as his producer and Sherri Shepherd as his stage manager.
After the show went on the air Sept. 25, “Emeril” managed to average only a 2.7 rating in the key adults 18 to 49 demographic and about 6.8 million total viewers, last in the time slot among the Big 4 networks in both measures. Its audience fell by about 45 percent during the run of the show. Admittedly, it was the only rookie show in the time slot, but critics were not in a forgiving mood and clearly were not impressed with any tweaking that been done since the version of the show they had seen in July.
“A festival of bad lines delivered badly-and not only by the star,” wrote Steve Johnson in the Chicago Tribune. “Painfully bad,” judged the Bergen (N.J.) Record. “Stick a Fork in `Emeril,”’ bannered the New York Daily News.
“I was stunned at how vicious the press was about taking a major talent off cable and putting him on a major network,” says Judy Girard, president of the Food Network, who gave Mr. Lagasse her blessing to try his hand at comedy while maintaining his two daily demonstration shows on the food channel, “Emeril Live,” and “The Essence of Emeril.”
“When we first heard about it,” Ms. Girard says, “we thought it was a good idea. “Emeril is an incredible showman, and I didn’t have a doubt that he could succeed. But after I saw the pilot I got concerned. He’s a brand, and the brand was being tampered with.”
More than a few critics complained that the producers were unsuccessful in harnessing Mr. Lagasse’s natural charm and gourmet-to-the-common-man persona; others simply insisted he couldn’t act. Either way, the consensus was that Mr. Lagasse seemed ill at ease in the skin of a character based on himself. “The fatal conceit,” said one fan of Mr. Lagasse’s Food Network programs, “was in thinking that Emeril could play a character named Emeril.”
“I wanted to like it,” says San Francisco Chronicle TV critic John Carman. “I’ve liked Bloodworth-Thomason shows in the past. And I guess Emeril is a nice guy. But he just wasn’t able to carry a comedy show. It was immediately apparent.”
And certainly the public clashes between the “Emeril” creative team and NBC before the show even aired didn’t help build any positive buzz for the show. Ms. Bloodworth had come right out and questioned producing partner NBC Studios’ “micromanaging” of every detail. In another conflict, Mr. Lagasse wanted to do the show in New York, where he tapes his Food Network shows, while NBC insisted it be done in Los Angeles to keep costs down.
“I think it would have taken on a different feeling, a different sensibility in New York,” says Jim Griffin, Mr. Lagasse’s agent at William Morris. “When
NBC said no, maybe w e should have walked away right there.”
After the cancellation, some on the “Emeril” team voiced the complaint often heard in TV that the network didn’t give them enough time to fix the show’s problems. “They needed to give us a year, both to work things out and build up any traction against established viewing habits,” says one member of the creative team. “If they ever hope to get anywhere in that time slot, they’re going to have to give a show a year.”
A lot to ask
“It’s asking a lot of any human being, even one with a great personality who comes across in an unscripted reality show, to make something like this work,” says Garth Ancier, the former NBC programming chief who passed on the “Emeril” idea the first time it was pitched to the network. “Emeril is charismatic, but he’s not funny.”
Mr. Zucker, Garth Ancier’s successor, clearly felt differently, although he declined to give Electronic Media his post-mortem views about the show.
“I think what Jeff Zucker wanted was [the] Emeril [you see on the Food Network],” says Mr. Griffin, “[but] it’s hard to put Emeril in the context of a tightly scripted format. I’m not sure they ever really got Emeril.”
“The mere exercise of fictionalizing him, yet you’re still calling him Emeril Lagasse, set up an odd expectation for the audience,” says Ted Harbert, president of NBC Studios. Though he is widely thought to have disliked the show personally, Mr. Harbert says for the record that Ms. Bloodworth and Mr. Thomason “worked their asses off trying to make it work.”
But Mr. Harbert dismisses the charge that the fault lay in Emeril himself. “Last on the list of why it didn’t work is Emeril’s acting ability,” the executive says. “I’ve put many people on TV who’ve had no acting experience-Tim Allen, Drew Carey, Roseanne-who went on to be in hit shows.”
Each of those performers he mentions came from stand-up comedy, which is a world apart from the demands of a sitcom but still closer than a cooking show. And some remember that those comics themselves had to overcome initial skepticism that they could make the transition.
Talents as big as Dolly Parton and Bette Midler failed to find their wings as they tried to launch sitcoms built for them, and recent flops have included vehicles starring seasoned comic actors such as Nathan Lane, John Goodman and “Seinfeld” alumni Michael Richards and Jason Alexander. Yet in the mind’s eye perhaps, something about the irrepressible Mr. Lagasse suggested he might beat these odds.
“The plan,” said Ms. Bloodworth at one point, “was to put Emeril Lagasse, who is this fabulous personality, in the middle of some very loud, mouthy, designing women with great food. And our premise was, you know, what’s not to like?”
Better than `Cops’
“Emeril’s” defenders at NBC point out that the show, though savaged in the media, was not the ratings disaster some have assumed. Its 2.7 ratings average in the 18 to 49 demographic, they point out, was better than the numbers for “Cops” and “Smallville.”
And this despite the curious fact that in some parts of the country at 8 o’clock on Tuesday nights, the fictional Emeril on NBC was competing against the nonfiction Emeril on the Food Network, an unfortunate programming coincidence that the Food Network says had no effect on its ratings-Mr. Lagasse has an audience of about 8 million viewers a week there-but it clearly drained away potential viewers for NBC.
As his NBC sitcom was about to go on the air, Mr. Lagasse said, “We have a great team, a great family, and we’re going to have a lot of fun.”
Given the tribulations of the show and the vehemence of the critical reaction, it’s not likely Mr. Lagasse had as much fun as he was planning to have. One indication of that is that like Mr. Zucker, he declined to talk about the experience.
Ultimately, perhaps Ms. Bloodworth was looking for the wrong gimmick. If you look up Emeril’s personal profile on the Food Network Web site, he lists his “alternate dream job.” Surprisingly, it isn’t sitcom star.
It’s musician.
Sean Mitchell, a Los Angeles free-lance writer, won a 2001 ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for his profile of singer Dave Alvin that appeared in the Los Angeles Times.