Bruce Helford has produced a whole lot of television in his 30 years in the primetime trenches.
He shepherded nearly 100 episodes in the 2000-01 season alone when his Mohawk Prods. banner had four series on the air: ABC’s “The Drew Carey Show” and “Norm” and the WB’s “Nikki” and “The Oblongs.” But Helford had never endured a production marathon quite like the one he ran in spring when he was tasked with transforming “Anger Management” from a movie title into a comedy comeback vehicle for Charlie Sheen.
In so doing, Helford believes he has seen the future of TV development and production, at least for some shows. Produced by Lionsgate TV, “Anger Management,” which bows Thursday on FX, is part of the Debmar-Mercury stable of so-called 10-90 sitcoms produced on an accelerated timetable designed to get the distributor and profit participants to the promised land of syndication more quickly than a traditional series.
The model calls for a test run of 10 episodes on a cabler, and if those episodes hit pre-determined ratings targets, the cabler is obligated to pick up 90 more to be produced over two years. That allows Debmar-Mercury to then sell the off-network rights to local stations, which means the show (in success) is churning out profits barely two years after its premiere.
This innovative approach, first blazed by Tyler Perry’s TBS/Debmar-Mercury sitcoms, leaves showrunners no margin for screwups, reshoots or unplanned hiatuses to rethink story arcs. The point of shooting fast on a cable-lean budget is to better amortize production costs. The cost-consciousness begins by diving in to 10 episodes rather than a single pilot. Helford calls the process “backwards” — but he means it in a good way.
“Normally, for a pilot, I write a script and it goes through the notes process. And then we cast it and have all this luxurious time to rehearse and prepare,” Helford says. “This was the opposite — I was simultaneously writing scripts, casting and hiring a writing staff because everything had to get up and running so quickly.”
Helford developed his own rhythm for producing the initial batch of 10 episodes, with most segs being prepped and shot over two days, compared to a five-day sked for a typical network sitcom. For about six weeks in March and April, on a soundstage in the hinterlands of Sunland (about 11 miles north of Sheen’s old “Two and a Half Men” stage on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank), the “Anger Management” troupe worked Monday and Tuesday, took Wednesday off and came back for another episode on Thursday and Friday. Perry’s shows at times have turned out three episodes a week, but Helford felt that was simply “too heavy” for actors who were still finding their way with new characters. The famously volatile Sheen thrived on the accelerated work sked, Helford assures. “He’s been nothing but an incredible gentleman and supportive of everyone,” he says.
For writers, there are definite upsides to diving in to 10 episodes as opposed to focusing for months on a pilot.
“You know you have 10 episodes, so you’re not trying to stuff everything into a pilot to get it to test well,” Helford says. “And you really have to go on your gut instincts. You don’t have the time to overthink things, and the actors don’t have the time to get tired of the material. That gives it an honest spontaneity that you don’t always see in sitcoms.”
As tough as it is on the creatives, the 10-90 format requires adjustment on the part of network and studio execs too, Helford observes.
“They can’t have as much of a hand in the process,” he says. “If this show is a success, it will change things for everybody. Financially it makes more sense for everybody. Giving creators more autonomy can only be a good thing — as long as (execs) trust that left to our own devices we won’t go crazy.”
Before signing on to “Anger Management,” Helford had taken a three-year break from showrunning, his first extended time off since his career took off in the 1980s. In 2008 he’d worked with Bernie Mac on a Fox pilot, and the comedian’s death that August had a big wakeup-call impact on Helford.
“My kids were getting ready to go to college and I really wanted to spend more time with them,” he said. “When I came back, I was so energized that when (Lionsgate) said, ‘How do you feel about doing 100 episodes in two years,’ I said, ‘Sounds good.'”