Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! In this week’s post, I’m sharing some thoughts on the MSTV flop Cursed (retitled and aired as The Weber Show for the majority of the year), which ran for 15 episodes at 8:30 on Thursdays between Friends and Will & Grace during the 2000-2001 season. As of this writing, all 15 shows that were broadcast in primetime — two additional entries were apparently burned off in a 3am slot the following August; I’ve not seen them and they do not circulate — can be viewed and downloaded from DailyMotion. (Should they ever be taken down, I’m happy to share my copies with curious entertainment scholars who subscribe and comment below.) Now, I don’t intend to waste too many words on this particular series, because, true to its initial tongue-in-cheek title, this vehicle for Wings’ Steven Weber was doomed from the start and isn’t worth discussing on a blog that seeks the best in entertainment.
However, I think it’s a good cautionary tale. Created by Nat Bernstein and Mitchel Katlin (Doogie Howser, The Gregory Hines Show, Over The Top, Center Of The Universe), Cursed starred Weber as Jack Nagle, a Chicago Lothario who goes out on a terrible first date and is “cursed” with bad luck by the vengeful woman whom he attempted to let down gently. The series was to follow Jack through this uncharmed life, which was pretty miserable at home, where he lived with an oddball roommate (and scatterbrained doctor), Larry, played by Chris Elliott; at the office, where he worked for his friend-turned boss, Wendell, portrayed by Wendell Pierce (The Gregory Hines Show); and in the bedroom, which he used to share with his on-again-off-again — now definitely off — girlfriend, Melissa, played by MSTV’s own Amy Pietz (from Caroline In The City). John O’Hurley (you remember him best from Seinfeld) recurred as another one of Jack’s bosses… But after commissioning the pilot and producing two additional episodes — the ones that were held and buried at 3am — NBC shut down production of Cursed, replaced Executive Producers Bernstein and Katlin with Friends scribes Adam Chase and Ira Ungerleider, and began a retooling of the series that sought to downplay the premise’s initial “broadness” by reshooting the pilot, retracting the “cursed” angle, and pivoting the show into something more realistic and relatable — i.e. another “singles in the city” show.
Word of the backstage turmoil did nothing to help word of mouth, and by the time the show premiered in late October — preempted with the rest of the season for the 2000 Summer Olympics, but delayed two extra weeks because of the backburner’ed entries — jokes about the cheeky Cursed being cursed were obvious… Of course, many pointed out that the timeslot itself supplied a lot of the negative connotation, for the first hammock on the Peacock Network’s most popular and prestigious night had already left a trail of short-lived fatalities — The Single Guy, Union Square, and Jesse among them. By the 2000-2001 season, ABC had already poked a hole in the 9:00 hour with Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, and CBS would, in February of 2001, put a dent in Friends and the rest of NBC’s formerly powerhouse line-up with Survivor and CSI. So, Must See TV Thursday was already in for trouble when Cursed came along and, true to expectations, dragged the evening down even more… As the new showrunners continued to move the series away from its “cursed” concept, and indeed dispensed with the notion directly in an installment discussed below, the reformatting that some in the media tried to talk up as having a positive effect on the show’s quality did nothing to improve the ratings. Thus, by the sixth episode, the last to air in 2000, Cursed was rechristened The Weber Show and a new regular character was introduced: Katie (Paula Marshall), a lesbian Jack befriends and for whom he soon develops feelings. Several outings later, he’s happy to learn that, hey, she’s not a lesbian after all — she’s just undercover to write an article — and they can be together… eventually. (Ugh!)
Viewers weren’t interested and neither was NBC — with Survivor just around the corner, the network pulled The Weber Show for February Sweeps and engaged in its “Supersized” strategy that we talked about in this week’s Friends post — with 40 minute telecasts of Friends (and on one week, Will & Grace, and Just Shoot Me!, as well). Eventually, The Weber Show returned in mid-March and the network went through all but the two Bernstein/Katlin installments, concluding the 15-episode run in late April on the first night of May Sweeps. The final broadcasts didn’t even make the Top 30, and coming after Friends, this was a guaranteed death sentence. The Weber Show was not renewed for the following season, and the series that had boldly attempted to mock its timeslot’s track record befell the same fate… But, again, I believe it was doomed from the start. Here’s why: it employed a high-concept gimmick that was fundamentally ill-suited for character-driven comedy. (The odder the premise, the more dimensional the characters must be!)
For starters, if a character is perennially saddled with bad luck, then we know what to expect for every comedic centerpiece, and thus, the suspense, tension, and surprise necessary to sitcom conflict is removed; we know it’ll end badly, so what’s the point in investing? And while most good sitcoms put their characters through more failures than successes, in a world where the “heightened” outcome is actually the good, normal, right occurrence in our world, and the show’s “typical” happening is what we’d consider outrageous and comedically inclined, then the latter loses its comedy, too, for now the absurd is commonplace and no longer extraordinary enough to procure laughs. Additionally, if a character is cursed, then he has little bearing on his own fate, and if he can’t motivate outcomes, then he probably won’t be able to motivate story either; granting him a personality and attempting to illustrate it through narratives that he can drive is going to be impossible. And, once again, we’ll never be able to invest… So, you see, this was never going to work. NBC was right to back away from it, even if it was the wrong solution to make the show essentially more cookie cutter and familiar — “singles in the city.” (It’s understandable that viewers would be bothered by that maneuver, too!)
Yet, if Friends has taught us anything, it’s that its low-concept design, however clichéd, is only as good or bad as the writing in support. This means, as always, character is king, and when we set aside the terrible gimmicky non-character rooted premise, Cursed is a show that doesn’t define any of its regulars. Elliott’s Larry seems the most fully formed, but that’s because the actor’s persona of established lunacy is the guiding force. Pietz is blander than she was on Caroline In The City and Pierce is used so tangentially that it’s impossible to ever get a grasp on exactly why he’s there, let alone who he is. Additionally, I don’t find Weber to be a performer who can elevate material; if it’s not on the page, it’s definitely not on the stage, and with the former Wings vet as the nucleus, positive forward strides almost exclusively have to be made in the writer’s room… but they aren’t. I haven’t seen the buried 3am outings, but I’m confident in assuming great character beats were in short supply… When the Friends writers come on board, they turned the show into a rom-com — with the lesbian-not-a-lesbian-lesbian-not-a-lesbian Katie, played by Marshall, whom some have since derisively labeled a “show killer” for her poor track record in new comedies — and punched it up with more one-liners. But, again, no great characterization strides were made. In fact, the show refocused itself so directly on the trio of Weber, Elliott, and Marshall, that the others were relegated to half-baked subplots that seemed designed to fill time, not flesh out personalities that could then be used to motivate comedy. As a result, I conclude that this series, whether Cursed or The Weber Show, guided by alums from either Doogie Howser or Friends, fails on a fundamental level: there’s no character to uphold the structure — either when high-concept and unworkable or low-concept and clichéd.
So, naturally, I can’t share a list of favorites, and there’s no point in offering an episode, because, again, you can find the 15 primetime broadcasts online elsewhere (as of this publication). But, I can briefly mention the installment that I would select as the series’ finest — no, not the ham-fisted guest show with Charlton Heston or the one with the shoehorned cameo from Whoopi Goldberg — it’s the fourth broadcast outing, “…And Then He Had To Give A Thumbs Up,” which was written by Friends’ Michael Curtis (who’s also credited with my second favorite script), directed by Mad About You’s Barnet Kellman, and shown on November 16, 2000. This is the entry that I referenced above as officially redirecting the show away from its cursed angle. It does this by re-establishing Jack’s bad luck, but then illustrating how, even with this bad luck, he’s able to emerge victorious both professionally and personally. In showing the audience this success, the show puts to bed the idea that Jack will forever be plagued by misfortune, and from there, he can simply live his life as all other sitcom characters do. Given the terrible start, this is a smart, succinct way of moving past the initial premise, and it’s helped by the funnier-than-usual script. (Other staffers included Suddenly Susan’s Phil Baker & Drew Vaupen, Wings’ Ellen Byron & Lissa Kapstrom, Will & Grace’s Gail Lerner, and Friends’ Mark J. Kunerth.) If you want a sample of what this series was like, in the middle of its two “eras,” that’s the one to watch.
Come back next week for another Wildcard post! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Friends!