‘Miami’ Fixes Its Mistakes

Sep 29, 2003  •  Post A Comment

NBC’s “Good Morning, Miami” was last season’s No. 1-rated new sitcom in the advertiser-friendly adults 18 to 49 demographic that the network woos-yet its renewal was no no-brainer.
While an average of 13 million viewers tuned in each week, TV critics hated it with a passion usually reserved for sitcoms with such titles as “Shasta McNasty” and “American Wreck.” It was just another mediocre sitcom in a long string of mediocre NBC sitcoms to fill the space between Thursday night hits, critics charged, and they were sick of it.
“Obviously, if we only went by what the critics said, the show probably wouldn’t have been back,” NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker told TelevisionWeek. “But that’s not how we make our decisions.”
Instead, the decision was made because NBC liked the creative direction the show was taking in the second half of the year and had faith in creators Max Mutchnick and David Kohan to iron out the kinks. NBC pays about the same amount of money to a studio for a first-year sitcom as a second-year sitcom, so finances didn’t play a large role in the decision.
In April Mr. Mutchnick and Mr. Kohan pitched Mr. Zucker and a slew of NBC executives on how-if given a second season-they planned to turn the show away from the complicated love triangles that characterized season one toward more of a workplace comedy.
“As in so many of these cases, many of these shows need time to find their legs, especially when you premiere on Thursday night on NBC,” said Mr. Zucker, who has always been a vocal fan of the show. “I just think you’ve got to let these shows try to find their legs.
“After you’ve invested all this money in promoting the show, you’re a lot better off if you can make a go of that show in its second season than having to do it all over again.”
However, the final decision wasn’t made until the last minute. Mr. Mutchnick and Mr. Kohan were on a plane to New York for the broadcast networks’ upfront presentations to advertisers in May when they got the pickup from NBC.
“I think it happened somewhere over Indiana,” Mr. Kohan said.
Mr. Mutchnick said it’s worth it for NBC to give “Miami” another shot.
“If it works in the first 13 episodes, they are going to have a franchise,” he said. “They are going to have another business that they can lean on for the next five, six, seven years. I really believe if this show works this year it will be on the air for six years, and I hope that a big lesson is learned for everybody.”
With the official pickup in hand, that’s when the real work began. Mr. Mutchnick and Mr. Kohan knew they had made creative mistakes early on in the show and needed to fix them. In essence, they came up with some rules of reinvention for the sitcom.
Bring in Some New Blood
With three shows in production-NBC’s “Will & Grace” and “Good Morning, Miami” and CBS’s “The Stones,” a new sitcom-Mr. Mutchnick and Mr. Kohan decided to hire a new showrunner for “Miami.”
“When you’re writing something and it’s not going that well, you can get very inside the problem,” Mr. Mutchnick said. “You can’t see a way out. Going into the second year, we went out and said we have to find some new energy to bring into this writing process. We did that in hiring Bill Prady. [He] came in here with exactly the kind of energy we needed.”
Mr. Prady was the showrunner/executive producer of “Dharma & Greg” after creator Chuck Lorre left that show, and had been a writer on the sitcom “Dream On.”
“Usually when you go in to talk to somebody about an existing product, there’s a cautious approach to the conversation,” Mr. Prady said. “What was really exciting about [Max and David] was they knew which elements of the show worked, and they were very open to discussing elements that they didn’t feel had yet coalesced. When somebody is open to change, that’s exciting. It’s a pragmatic and forward-thinking approach.”
The show’s writing staff also has some new faces-about half the writing staff from last year was retained and new writers were added.
Give Leading Man Some Balls
Giving leading man Jake some cojones meant saying goodbye to Grandma. Last season, Jake (Mark Feurstein) originally came to Miami to visit his grandmother (Suzanne Pleshette), using a job interview at a low-rated TV morning show as an excuse. He stayed after he met and immediately fell for the station’s cute hairstylist, Dylan (Ashley Williams).
Mr. Kohan and Mr. Mutchnick hated to see Ms. Pleshette go, but her character no longer served a purpose on the show.
“The problem was we had drawn a character that was the instrument of castration,” Mr. Kohan said. “We gave [Jake] a grandmother who knew more about how to get women than he did. The idea of a leading man running home and telling his tales of woe to his Grandma, who has to support him, is not a good idea. It’s not the way to best reflect on your leading man. That was our fault.”
Another problem with Jake was the widespread perception among critics that he wasn’t very funny. Mr. Prady said they can change that by making Jake’s character more assertive and using his authority as the morning show’s executive producer to create more comedy.
“We shot something last night where [Jake] steps in to save [anchor] Gavin [Matt Letscher], and he has a really well thought-out but ultimately ineffectual plan, but his commitment to it made it very funny,” Mr. Prady said. “The more we’re able to solidify what his role is among these people, the funnier the character becomes.”
Lose the Love Triangles
Last season the show was built around the fact that Jake moved to Miami to pursue Dylan, who was dating the morning show anchor, Gavin. All the while Jake’s assistant Penny (Constance Zimmer) was secretly in love with Jake, though she hooked up with Gavin at the end of last season.
Confused yet?
Mr. Mutchnick and Mr. Kohan admitted they wrote themselves into a corner last season with tangled love triangles.
“There’s an inherent problem built in with that because over time, if the boy doesn’t get the girl, it’s boring,” Mr. Kohan said. “It ceases to be interesting. It’s enough already. We knew going into the end of last season that there had to be some other kind of fundamental dynamic for the whole show.”
This year Jake and Dylan will begin the season as an established couple and the show will evolve into a truer workplace comedy that explores the dynamics of all the characters as a surrogate family.
“There was so much potential in the secondary characters that because of the triangle story line [between Jake and Dylan], you hadn’t really gotten a chance to explore these secondary characters,” Mr. Prady said. “If you start to look at them, you start to realize they are all broken, damaged people who have found this place. The central question becomes can this group of people heal each other?”
After deciding to resolve the love triangles, the first order of business was to figure out what each character wanted and to plot what his or her goals were for the year.
“The three of us mapped out what each of their long-term objectives are,” Mr. Kohan said. “Once you get Jake and Dylan together, what you have are almost like surrogate parents of a troubled family. It opened up a world of possibilities. … It seemed to present a greater variety of possibilities than who is going to get the girl.”
Add a Common Adversary …
… And it doesn’t hurt if she’s beautiful and funny.
Enter Tiffani Thiessen. She joined the cast of “Miami” this year in a recurring role playing Victoria, the new station boss sent by corporate headquarters to boost ratings.
“We had to bring in an outside force that would galvanize this group of people into a cohesive unit, almost like a family kind of unit,” Mr. Kohan said.
Ms. Thiessen fits the bill perfectly, sashaying. She provides a threatening common foe for the characters and viewers at home to root against, but who has a few flashes of redeeming qualities.
“You see the bitch come in and just sort of be ruthless and unapologetic about
it,” Mr. Kohan said. “Because Tiffani is so good and because we wanted something else, we give her her own vulnerabilities. Suddenly you have an almost sympathetic character, which makes her a better opponent.”
For example, one episode will show Victoria running into Gavin at his Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, adding another level to her character.
Populate the TV World
The producers will also take advantage of the fact that the show is set at a TV station, which makes possible other on-air personalities, staff and editors. “Good Day L.A.” weather girl Jillian Barberie also joined “Miami” this season as recurring character Joni, a ditzy weather girl who aggravates serious news anchor Gavin.
While there are no plans to add any more permanent cast members this year, producers said additions will be organic, using the natural premise of employee turnover at a TV morning show. Joni was introduced in the first episode as a woman auditioning to be the station’s new weather girl.
“We love Jillian, but if we hadn’t liked her, then there would have been another audition and another woman there,” Mr. Prady said. “Gavin would have said `I can’t work with that woman,’ and then you would have seen another audition scene and another woman sitting there. That’s how we’re going to find our cast.”