When A Good Pilot Isn’t Good Enough: A Look at CHARLIE LAWRENCE (2003)

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’m sharing with you the pilot of a short-lived show — so short-lived that only two of its seven produced episodes (including the pilot) ever made it to air. Broadcast by CBS on June 15, 2003 (and again on June 22), Charlie Lawrence was created by Jeffrey Richman (Wings, Frasier, Stark Raving Mad  — and later Back To You, Rules Of Engagement, Modern Family) as a vehicle for Encore! Encore!‘s Nathan Lane. Here, Lane played the eponymous Charlie Lawrence, an openly gay TV star — from a Touched By An Angel-esque series called “Do Unto Others” — elected to Congress as a representative from New Mexico. The ensemble included Roseanne’s Laurie Metcalf as Lawrence’s hardcore, straight-edged chief of staff, T.R. Knight as a befuddled intern, Stephanie Faracy as an obsessive fan who’s also the office manager, and Ted McGinley as a neighbor and political rival with whom Lawrence nevertheless forms a friendship. It’s a great ensemble — each person is well-chosen and believable. And the teleplay from Frasier‘s Richman is hilarious — a master class in joke-writing (it’s a lost art these days). It establishes well-defined characters with immediate precision, and introduces an entire world brimming with possible story.

But I think it never should have been ordered to series. No, it’s not because of Nathan Lane, whose track record with attempted sitcom success was already a cautionary tale despite his recent Broadway triumph (The Producers). It’s actually because of the premise: it’s way too high-concept and idea-led for the era, where network comedy — this is 2003, folks (Arrested Development would premiere on FOX later that fall) — was dominated by easily categorized, simplistic genres, like the “fat goofy husband and hot mean wife show” or the evergreen “young singles in a big city looking for love.” Charlie Lawrence simply did not resemble the hits of 2003, which is probably — more than the proposed concern over his character’s orientation — why the network chose to bury this intended mid-season replacement later in the summer, and then pulled it after only two weeks (in a Sunday slot where ratings were bound to disappoint). There simply was no reason to believe it could be a hit… However, more than just the premise being out-of-place for network TV at the time, it was also probably wrong for the country at the time. Less than two years after the tragedy of 9/11, I’m not sure viewers were so eager to laugh at the perennial foolishness of Washington during the year that saw the start of the Iraq War. (And note that a premise about a TV star in D.C. was seen as broad and silly in 2003; it wouldn’t inspire the same type of laughs if done today, where the context is different…)

To that point, given the mood of the country, Charlie Lawrence was unwilling and/or unable to offer biting satire — at least, not in the way that we see now (and saw, even through a more character-driven lens, in Veep, which premiered in 2012). And there’s something almost delicate and romantic about this series’ view of Washington. Take the second (and last) broadcast episode, for instance, where Lawrence wants to sit with the popular lawmakers in the cafeteria — where there’s a hierarchy too easily compared to high school, since everyone in D.C. wants to be liked. That’s pretty gentle commentary. And even though I personally appreciate a look at our government that’s LESS acrimonious than is commonly depicted on TV, I also think there’s something very limiting about doing a series that spoofs Congress… but is unable to comedically critique it with any sort of significance. In other words, Charlie Lawrence was not only the wrong show at the wrong time (given what network TV was then doing), it also wasn’t even able to fully commit to being as wrong as it could (and should) have been, substituting ginger (jokes about Hollywood) for vinegar (jokes about D.C.)…

Nevertheless, it’s a great pilot for all the reasons stated above: the cast, the comedy, the possibility. And so even though I don’t think it ever could have worked as a series in 2003, it’s a perfect reminder to us that sometimes strong pilots aren’t meant to be ordered to series. (Also, three quick pieces of trivia. One: among the five shot but never aired episodes, one included The King Of Queens‘ Anne Meara as Lawrence’s mother. Two: one of the staff writers meant to provide D.C. accuracy was Kristin Gore, daughter of the former Vice President. And Three: the premise is not unlike Norman Lear’s never-aired 1979 sitcom, Mr. Dugan, in which a black football player became a congressman.) Now, the second entry, also by creator Jeffrey Richman and discussed above, was already a comedown in quality, so I won’t share that with you here. Instead, I’ll share Charlie Lawrence at its probable finest: the aforementioned premiere, entitled “A Vote Of No Confidence,” which was written by Richman, directed by Jerry Zaks, and telecast just once by CBS — after a Becker rerun — on June 15, 2003. 



Come back next week for a new Wildcard Wednesday! And stay tuned Monday for another Musical Theatre rarity!