Tag Archives: NBC

Who killed Prime Suspect?

The cancellation of the NBC show Prime Suspect is a puzzle worth working on.

There are three good reasons why the show should have succeeded.

1) It was really good television, with writing, acting and work so good that Pam and I just looked at one another after one episode, and said, “Wow.”

2) It had a British precedent, starring Helen Mirren no less.  This served as a kind of trans-Atlantic proof of concept.  These British shows are not always reliable but they help suggest that a show can work…because it has worked. 

3) It had an American precedent.  The cable show The Closer worked roughly the same territory (female officer endures hostility of male colleagues before solidarity is established) and it won a large and devoted audience.

So why did Prime Suspect not flourish.  Who or what killed it?

There is some suspicion that the problem has to do with our sexism, and more specifically our reluctance to embrace the lead character (as played by Maria Bello).  

One internet observer said that the entire show was killed by Bello’s choice of headgear. In his opinion, the thing that killed Prime Suspect was the hat.  

But I think we have moved beyond this.  Hats may be “unfeminine.”  They be “unflattering.” But they are not a deal breaker.  Viewers, and critics, are larger, less sexist, than this.  

In a nice essay, Melissa Silverstein suggests another reason.  She wonders whether American viewers are not yet ready for “a female character that is not 100% likeable. No matter how far we have come on TV with female characters we still are not there with having women who are not likeable.”

This could be right.  Refusing to be entirely likeable is an act of self authorship.  The sexist model says that women should conform to social expectation whatever that expectation is. To refuse this is to exercise a self determination some viewers might find threatening.  

But there’s another possibility, and that’s that Prime Suspect didn’t work because the Bello’s character didn’t care what we thought of her.  Detective Jane Timoney gives off what I now think of a very New York quality: as if to say, I am who I am and if you don’t like it, too bad. This is sometimes offered belligerently by New Yorkers, but more often it comes across as the sober understanding that not everyone is going to like you, and while you wish that were otherwise, hey.  (“Hey” is the New Yorkers all-purpose word, and here it means, roughly, there are things in the world I can change, and things in the world I can’t, and this is just one of the things I can’t change.  It’s a kind of resignation.)  This is unexceptional claim when made by a male New Yorker.  In a sexist culture, it is something else when made by a woman.

To be sure, this is a little like the likeable problem but it’s a more radical proposition.  Not being entirely likable means that I harbor a quality or two you don’t like.  Not caring what you think means that I don’t care if none of my qualities appeal to you.  This self position is, for the purposes of this show, radically feminist to the extent that it says “social expectations and the sexist model are a matter of indifference to me.  I’ve moved on.”

This is even more radical than the image of femaleness we are going to get in the forthcoming movie, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  This woman presents herself in a post-sexist language (tattoos and studs and haircuts) but she is engaging sexism by resisting it. The Bello/Timoney performance cuts itself away from the old regime.  It leaves the debate. And this is a more radical gesture, a more damning, refusal that any tattoo or stud. And this is to say that Bello/Timoney took up just about the most radical feminist one can take. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Americans were taken aback.  All of us are post-sexist to some degree.  Only a some of us are post-sexist to this degree.

We have a series of experiments at work in our culture, as our best actresses take on roles and use them as laboratories of a kind.  ”Can I be like this?” the actress asks. “Can/should/will women be like this?” everyone wonders.  And Prime Suspect gives us an answer.  Eventually our culture will catch up to Bello/Timoney.  At the moment she is ahead of the curve.   

Harry’s Law: flourish or fail?

One test of our knowledge of contemporary culture: can we predict whether an innovation will flourish or fail?

For the record, then, I believe Harry’s Law, the show that debuted last night on NBC, will fail.

The debut suggests I may be wrong.  Harry’s Law got at 7.5 rating / 12 share, putting it ahead of the latest hit show from CBS, Hawaii Five – O.

Harry’s Law has other advantages that should give me pause.  It has a formidable talent in the person of Kathy Bates (pictured) and it was developed and written by David E. Kelley, a guy who knows a thing or two about making hit TV. 

This show has a time-warp quality.  Harry’s Law feels as if untouched by the cable effect. The rise of HBO and the participation of TNT and USA Networks has created new standards of granularity (most recently Nurse Jackie).  TV will never work its way to perfect granularity and a one to one correspondence with the world "out there."  But the ratio is changing.  The cable effect has pushed all TV, even genre TV, to new veracity.

And by this standard, Harry’s Law feels completely "sound stage," a reality created by and for the cameras.  There is veracity here, but it corresponds to the "veracity standard" as that stood in 1990. At it’s worst, this show feels a little Murder She Wrote.

To make matters worst, there is a "crusading do-gooder" thing here that is cringe-worthy. Great and noble white people coming to the aid of defenseless black people?  How very 20th century Hollywood.  It expresses the secret racism of some parties: that the downtrodden depend on them, and their secret vanity: that when people come to the aid of the downtrodden they make themselves glorious. It feels as if Kelley is skirting that horrible Hollywood construction, the one that says the point of social action is not "social action," but the celebration of the do-gooder.  (Surely, this is why so little ever comes from the Hollywood fund raiser.  By week’s end participants have a hard time remembering the point of the event because, well, the point was to revel in their own generosity, and, hankies out, that was performed brilliantly.)

There is a deeper problem.  There are moments when this show has Kelley’s signature whimsy.  Madcap stuff happens.  Weird combinations occur.  When Kelley introduced this to TV, chiefly, I believe, through Ally McBeal, it was fresh and interesting.  Kelley is one of the originators of what Lisa Schwarzbaum calls "magical comedy."

To be sure, we still like to disparate things brought together, on the screen, on the plate, in the ad, in the fashion outfit, in the interior design.  Reckless, unexpected combinations has become one of our cultural signatures.  But we have moved away from whimsy to combinations that are more raw and to use the language of art criticism, "disturbational."  By this new standard, Harry’s Law feels like culture lite.  

Ok, that’s my prediction.  I might be wrong.  I hope I am.  I take no pleasure in the internet sport of trashing strangers.  I am not holier than David E. Kelley.  He has shaped contemporary culture in ways that deserve my admiration.  

My last prediction, that The Good Guys would fail, was confirmed.  Privately, I told a colleague that Undercovers would fail.  (She may or may not be prepared to back me up.) So I am batting 2 for 2.  We shall see how I do with this one.  


McCracken, Grant.  2010.  The Good Guys.  This Blog.  here

Schwarzbaum, Lisa. 1998.  Pleasantville.  Entertainment Weekly.  October 30.  here.

Chief Culture Officer watch: the troubling case of Jeffrey Zucker

The troubles at NBC have finally reached CEO Jeffrey Zucker, a guy so deft he had previously escaped criticism. Now the knives are out.

"Somebody needs to pay when a poorly thought-out experiment [i.e., the Leno move to 10:00] fails to the tune of millions of dollars, [and results in] the loss of a bankable star i.e., [the threatened departure of Conan O’Brien] and a public-relations nightmare that has the potential to threaten a proposed mega-merger [i.e., with Comcast].  And there is no doubt that the person who should pay for this instantly legendary [screw-up] is the man at the top who instigated the whole thing: Jeff Zucker." [Chez Pazienza, Huffington Post (as quoted in Macdonald, below)]

No doubt the factors that explain Zucker’s managerial difficulties are several and complex, but one in particular jumps out.

In the words of Richard Siklos, Jeffrey Zucker is someone,

who came up on the news side of the business, and he didn’t care for, or have an affinity for, the entertainment business and Hollywood per se.  [in Macdonald, below]

Apparently, Zucker is good at business…but bad at culture.  He knows how to run the company.  But he has no feeling for what the company does.

This is odd.  After all, NBC is mostly a cultural enterprise.  It works when it can read culture. It works when it can produce culture. Naturally, someone like Zucker needs to have the managerial skills to run a large and complex corporation.  But this is the necessary, not the sufficient condition of his (and its) success.  The sufficient condition is simple.  Zucker should know and love entertainment.  (See Maureen Dowd’s column for a nice treatment of the specific implications of Zucker’s incompetence here.)

It would be one thing if this cultural knowledge were arcane, possessed by a very few people tucked away in an obscure institutions (aka the university).  But what Zucker is missing is the cultural competence possessed by most of his viewers, especially the ones under 35.

Here’s what we know:

1) that popular culture became culture (see the work of Steven Johnson and Naussbaum).

2) that culture went from something very simple to something increasingly complex (for simplicity sake, let’s treat HBO as our case in point).

3) that cultural consumers have become increasingly well informed and sophistication (so says the book of Henry Jenkins).

A odd and uncomfortable possibility suggests itself: that NBC managed to hire one of the few people in contemporary America who doesn’t get TV.

How can this have happened? Checking someone’s cultural competence is pretty easy.  All someone at NBC needed to do was to take Zucker to lunch and quiz him on his favorite shows.  Even a brief conversation would have revealed the depth and sophistication of his knowledge.

And now a second possibility suggests itself: that the people doing the hiring at NBC don’t much know about the culture, either.  There is, perhaps, a systematic bias for business and against culture in the NBC c-suite.

Simply: NBC appears to be all about business and not about culture at a time that the corporation is increasingly about culture even when all about business.

Oh for a CCO…or just a CCO who grasps his culture at least as well as most of his viewers do.


Dowd, Maureen.  2010.  The Biggest Loser.  The New York Times.  January 12, 2010.  here.

Macdonald, Gayle. 2010. Boy Wonder’s Blunder. The Globe and Mail. January 14, 2010.  here.

Nassbaum, Emily. 2009. When TV became art. New York Magazine. December 4.

Note: this post was in the Network Solutions debacle of 2009.  It was reposted December 25, 2010.