Yesterday was a day of group field trips to various sets, so forgive me for being late to the party on the news about the “Law & Order: Los Angeles” character changes, but I have to ask: what the hell is going on over there?
Earlier this week, “L&O” boss Dick Wolf decided to shake up his ratings-challenged spin-off by kicking lead cop Skeet Ulrich and assistant prosecutors Megan Boone and Regina Hall to the curb. The show still needs a new actress who can look good in a skirt suit while seeming plausible making arguments at a bail hearing, but the lead cop position has already been filled…
… by Alfred Molina, who was already on “LOLA” as one of the show’s two lead prosecutors, rotating episodes with Terence Howard.
Excuse me? Huh?
The idea, according to Wolf, is that Molina’s character was a cop for 15 years, and gets so fed up with aspects of his job in the DA’s office that he decides to ask for his gun and shield back. Howard will now be the sole lead prosecutor.
Let’s leave aside my confusion over how Molina and Howard will now appear in every episode, given that Wolf said he was only able to get actors of their caliber by agreeing to limit the commitment.
I’m mainly puzzled about why a character who, in the handful of episodes I saw, was established as a dyed-in-the-wool political animal with ambitions of higher office, would suddenly throw all of that away so he could fill the Lennie Briscoe slot.
(Also, since I gave up on the show fairly quickly, has this cop backstory been mentioned it previously? Or is it going to first come up in the episode where he changes jobs?)
Another critic at press tour said that Wolf probably figures the ratings are so low that nobody will notice. I certainly consider Molina a more compelling actor than Ulrich, but not enough to bring me back to a franchise I had my fill of years ago, but maybe others will differ.
Still, this abrupt switcheroo reminds me of some other shows that made major changes in mid-stream when something wasn’t working:
• The ’70s version of “Wonder Woman,” with Lynda Carter in the star-spangled bathing suit, originally took place in World War II. When the second season began, the action had jumped ahead to present-day (mainly to save money, since period pieces are more expensive), which worked for the immortal Wonder Woman, less so for love interest Steve Trevor (Lyle Waggoner). So it was explained that this was now Steve Trevor Junior, who had grown up hearing his dad tell stories about Wonder Woman. Not creepy at all.
• One of the many bad comedies that NBC aired after “Friends” was “Cursed,” in which Steven Weber played a guy to whom horrible things kept happening after his girlfriend placed a curse on him. As the ratings sunk in its first and only season, NBC executives decided that viewers didn’t want to watch a show about a guy with terrible luck, and they changed the title to “The Weber Show” and removed all reference to curses.
• At one of yesterday’s set visits, “Cougar Town” creator Bill Lawrence was asked the inevitable question about the show’s horrible title, and he said, “I’ve never done a TV show that I haven’t made one incredible screw-up.” With that show, it was the title. With “Spin City,” it was the idea of splitting the show in two: half workplace comedy about Michael J. Fox’s job as New York’s deputy mayor, half romantic comedy about his relationship with reporter Carla Gugino. Gugino was fine, but it was clear the workplace stuff was much, much funnier, and she was dropped after the first half-season. In fact, one of the very first repeats to air after Gugino was let go actually erased the entire subplot featuring her character, and a brand-new story about Connie Britton and Michael Boatman’s characters was inserted in its place, just so viewers who didn’t know it was a rerun wouldn’t be confused about the back-and-forth formatting. (“Barney Miller” did the same thing, ditching Barbara Barrie as Barney’s wife after a season and spending the rest of its run inside the precinct.)
• A more extreme dumping of a romantic comedy premise came with the short-lived “Almost Perfect” (produced by friend of this blog Ken Levine, who gives his take on this mess here), which was supposed to be all romantic comedy, all the time, in which TV writer Nancy Travis and district attorney Kevin Kilner struggled to make a relationship work given their busy careers. CBS liked Travis, but for some reason disliked Kilner and made a second season renewal contingent on dumping him and turning it into a show about a wacky career gal having dating misadventures. The revamped, “Mary Tyler Moore”-ish version had the misfortune of being part of a disastrous CBS Wednesday lineup whose other pieces (the brilliant “EZ Streets,” the horrid “Public Morals”) were gone within a week or two, and CBS pulled it after the new season’s first month.
• Before “Friends,” Matthew Perry starred in a short-lived FOX sitcom called “Second Chance,” about a man (Kiel Martin) who dies and isn’t good enough for Heaven, nor bad enough for Hell, and so gets sent back in time to counsel his teenage self (Perry) and make him a better person. Nobody watched, but FOX recognized they had something in Perry and decided to reconfigure the show around him and his friends. The show was redubbed “Boys Will Be Boys,” and the producers approach to working around Martin was interesting, to say the least: they set “Boys Will Be Boys” in the months leading up to the “Second Chance” pilot. How the show would have dealt with that in a second season will be left to some alternate universe in which it was a hit and the “Friends” producers had to cast Jon Cryer to play Chandler.
• And here’s a successful one: Disney Channel’s “Good Morning, Miss Bliss” was retooled into the syndicated “Saved by the Bell,” ditching Hayley Mills as the main character, focusing on Mark-Paul Gosselaar and the other kids (and adding a few more in Tiffani Thiessen, Elizabeth Berkley and the great Mario Lopez), and relocating the school from Indiana to California.
So maybe there’s hope for “LOLA.”
What about you? Do you have a favorite strange TV show retooling?