The television series “The Millers” was canceled last week after one and half season on CBS. The show struggled in the ratings for some time, and considering the line up of shows CBS currently has, it wasn’t a very big surprise. A likable, only slightly dysfunctional family show in the tradition of “Everybody Loves Raymond” was strangely out of step among “Big Bang Theory” and “Mom” (even Melissa McCarthy’s series still flies under the radar). Truth is, in today’s market “The Millers” would have been a better fit on ABC, which is actually building a traditional family line-up.
Not that “The Millers” will be the end of any of the careers for those involved. Margo Martindale and Beau Bridges both received Emmy nominations for guest appearances on different shows last season, and are in high demand as character actors. Comic J.B. Smoove is one of the top names as far as comedian-actors, with a role in Chris Rock’s “Top Five” later this year. And series creator Greg Garcia always seems to have another series in the works (If you look at his IMDB page, he’s had a series on the air every season for over 14 years). Series lead Will Arnett was in two of the biggest movie this year; “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and “The Lego Movie” (he even has his own spin-off of his Batman character from Lego).
So why is an actor as talented as Will Arnett, not making hit TV series? What is the divide? What isn’t working?
The truth is, it is historically difficult for any actor to have more than one successful show…and it gets even harder with comedies. In fact, it is part of the reason comic actors like Andy Griffith, Dick Van Dyke, Jack Klugman, Bryan Cranston and Ray Romano went from sitcoms to drama series…because trying to create that magic twice is unbelievably difficult. How many actors have starred in TV sitcoms twice which were successful? Sure there is Bob Newhart, Mary Tyler Moore, Michael J. Fox, Julia Louis Dreyfus, and Patricia Heaton. But we have countless examples of actors who can’t find that lightening twice. Big stars of comedy who had long runs came back with almost no audiences (Paul Reiser was still on his press tour when his show was canceled). And Michael J. Fox’s show, “The Michael J. Fox Show”, was picked up for a full season, but only aired 15 (much to the delight of fans of “The Good Wife” who wanted him back on that show anyway).
What was missing? Well, in the case of “The Michael J. Fox Show”, a man named David Gary Goldberg, who had written and created Michael J. Fox’s characters for both “Family Ties” and “Spin City”. And the fact is, there is something to learn from that kind of relationship between comic actor and writer. The subtle collaboration required from the two, the chemistry needed, is often overlooked by audiences because when it does well, you can barely even see it. But there is a reason we have so many cases of comedy writers working again and again with one actor, or one TV writer working primarily on a specific character’s episodes. They find the voice that fits the actor to make the character both funny…and real.
One of the notorious stories about “Seinfeld” is the fact that the character of Elaine in “Seinfeld” didn’t have much to do before Carol Leifer provided some influence as a writer and producer. Leifer however acknowledges that much of Elaine isn’t so much HER, as it is herself and Julia Louis Dreyfus together. And that is the magic of some sitcoms…and why so many don’t work until the actor settles into the role. The same is true of Steve Carell’s version of Michael Scott and the entire cast of “Parks and Recreation”…it took time for the writers to write to the actors strength, rather than make them fit into the written roles. “Brooklyn 99” and “Veep” took entire seasons to find their characters, who are now written to the strength of every actor. Even Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling adjusted how they wrote their own characters between the first and second season of their shows.
The connection between comedy writer and actor (when they aren’t one in the same) seems even more important with sitcoms than comedy movies.
Greg Garcia’s previous shows, “My Name is Earl” and “Raising Hope”, were always best when characters were working class, dimwits with hearts of gold (both shows softened between pilot and first season into feel good piece of rural populism). Bridges and Martindale’s parents were more in line with Garcia’s best writing style, while Arnett’s was written to be the classic everyman. However, Arnett’s isn’t an everyman in the tradition of Bob Newhart, Ted Danson, or Jerry Seinfeld. He’s better as the anti-everyman; the character who when put in the everyman position, will spin them into something absurd and weird and truly subversive. Arnett falls in line with comics like David Cross, Andy Daly or Will Forte, both of whom seem far more normal than the characters they usually play. It’s the reason Arnett is so memorable is small roles and guest appearances, because he takes something and spins it something completely unexpected. It’s a quality Arnett has in life (just watch him on talk shows or the documentary Mansome) and you’ll see a quality we want on screen…a quality few writers understand.
While his character in “The Millers” was flat, his character in “Up All Night” was flat and inconsistent. His scenes were never as good as those with Christina Applegate or Maya Rudolph, whom creator Emily Spivey had written with at Groundlings and SNL, and understood what made her shine. In fact, with the exception of his small supporting role in “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret”, his working relationship with Mitch Hurwitz has been his most successful. Hurwitz understood how to utilized that anti-everyman quality with his roles as a screwball millionaire in “Running Wilde” (a show with potential and good role for Arnett) and of course, as Gob Bluth in “Arrested Development”. Gob is literally the antithesis of Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman actually is the traditional everyman in Hollywood), allowing Arnett to showcase that weird perspective he seems to share with Hurwitz.
This idea of the anti-everyman doesn’t mean a character is beyond emotional impact…Arnett was the heart and soul of the last season of “Arrested Development”. It simply means the character sees the world very differently than most of the audience would. We don’t identify with him as much as we empathize. Mitch Hurwitz understood that and that is part of the reason his writing for Arnett’s character was consistently well written and could seem real, no matter what he did. I want Arnett to be back on TV sooner than later. But I more so want him in a show which showcases his talent and comedic sensibilities. He could absolutely be a comedy star. But only with a writer like Hurwitz (or just Hurwitz himself) that takes notice of Arnett’s uniqueness, despite seeming ordinary at first sight. Work with him, build the character around him…and give the show the opportunity and time to find the right direction to take that character. Everything you need is available…they just need to come together in the right way.
Lesley Coffin is a writer and film biographer who lives in New York City. Read more about her below.