A lot of funny/ha-ha things happened during the nine-season run of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” but a funny/unusual thing did too: Faced with a show that might become a hit, series creator Phil Rosenthal first deferred and finally walked away from a multimillion-dollar production deal at Disney, devoting himself to raising his baby throughout its TV lifespan.
Rosenthal didn’t realize it then, but that was emblematic of a shift in thinking among showrunners, more and more of whom appear committed to staying with their creations from the cradle to the grave.
It wasn’t always so. Indeed, back when “Raymond” began taking off in the mid-to-late 1990s, it was fairly standard procedure for producers who developed a successful program to be rewarded with lucrative overall pacts, tempting them to go create something new. While many remained involved in previous series, they often scaled back their role in later seasons as they focused on weaning new potential cash cows.
For Rosenthal, who said he wrote “Raymond” merely hoping “someone at CBS likes this pilot,” the notion of passing his series on to someone else “didn’t sit right with me.” As for someone else supervising the show, he said, “I couldn’t imagine it … leaving this new family I had.”
Of course, people in Hollywood leave families, real or fabricated, all the time. So what’s changed?
Practically speaking, the kind of money getting thrown around at showrunners in the ’90s isn’t flowing quite as liberally today. Writers and their reps also recognize that hits are harder to come by and sustain, so safeguarding a budding success can make more sense than leaping to the next opportunity.
“Maybe because it’s more rare to have a hit,” Rosenthal suggested, also citing the difficulty finding people to trust “with something that’s your vision.”
Dramas in particular have become significantly more intricate constructs, which don’t as readily accommodate a shift in oversight. Perhaps that’s why showrunners and even fans have a hard time contemplating a prestige series operating under somebody else’s stewardship.
“Lost” exec producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse contributed to this dynamic by throwing down a gantlet to ABC, saying that unless the network wanted to risk seeing someone else trying to decipher their wildly elaborate drama, execs had to agree to a long-in-advance end date. More recently, Matthew Weiner (“Mad Men”) and Vince Gilligan (“Breaking Bad”) have followed a similar road map, allowing them to see their creations through to the conclusion.
The modern drama has complicated what were once treated as fairly blase baton passes. In its evolution toward more programs reflecting an arthouse niche, TV exhibits an auteur theory — one that triggers considerable hand-wringing when behind-the-scenes changes occur. Witness the uproar in media and fan circles caused by Frank Darabont leaving “The Walking Dead” or over Weiner’s protracted negotiations regarding “Mad Men.”
More networks also seem to embrace HBO’s formula, which links a program’s lifespan to the guiding producer, which possesses considerable logic. Love or hate the finale, could anybody but David Chase have closed out “The Sopranos?” And while “Deadwood’s” premature exit was mishandled, the only more aggravating thought would be to envision somebody other than David Milch scripting its final season.
Whatever the causes, a new breed of show — and even some more traditional ones — has migrated far from the day when as many writers as New York stage actors could pass through “Law & Order” or its spinoffs, and “The Simpsons” claimed more comedy alumni than anything except perhaps the Harvard Lampoon.
As for Rosenthal, 15 years later he’s still happily associated with his signature creation, attending a screening of a documentary about the show, “Exporting Raymond,” at a festival last weekend in Edinburgh.
Although money wasn’t his motivation for staying, he said, it’s clear that doing so proved more rewarding — creatively and financially — than anything his Disney deal was apt to yield. “Woody Allen said you can’t ride two horses with one behind,” Rosenthal quipped.
And if producers want to ensure that their episodic progeny is capable of supporting them in their dotage, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.