So I’ve been having this fifteen year affair that just came to an end last Thursday night. Maybe you’ve heard of my paramour, Must See TV. I didn’t discover my love obsession hobby of watching TV like it was my job until I discovered Must See TV in the spring of 1998, when I accidentally caught a Friends episode while I was doing my math homework. Pre-algebra, I believe. (Ugh, yuck, horrible.) I’d had television obsessions before, but only with a couple of shows I watched religiously, namely Lois & Clark and Days of Our Lives. Yes, Days of Our Lives. I blame my mother for that one. (P.S. Did you guys know that Stefano is still alive?!) And then as one did back in the days before DVRs, because I stayed on NBC the rest of the night, I also discovered ER, and then I was pretty much done for life.
ER blew my awkward teenage mind completely to pieces, and my level of obsession quickly escalated, setting the patterns for obsessive fan behavior to come, when I would discover The X-Files later that summer. I was an extremely shy, awkward, and bookish teenager, and it might be something of an understatement to say that all of the energy ‘normal’ teenagers channeled into dating and socializing, I channeled into becoming an expert on everything ER and X-Files related. They were the only two boyfriends I had in high school, so to say that Must See TV had more of an influence on my life than it might your average person might also be something of an understatement. Patterns of behavior and story consumption I still hold today are a direct result of those early years caring more about Ross & Rachel and Chandler & Monica and Mark Greene, John Carter, Carol Hathaway and Doug Ross than I did about bothering to learn how to flirt with boys.
The rest of the story of my love affair with everything television is irrelevant for the purposes of this review. The beginning is the important thing. I watched Thursday nights on NBC for fifteen years, and I would have found this book interesting even without that personal connection, but it made it all the better.
In Top of the Rock, Warren Littlefield, a former top exec at NBC and president of entertainment, chronicles his years at NBC and the rise and fall of Must See TV. He dates the death of Must See TV somewhere around 1998, the year he was fired. As I stated at the beginning of this review, for me, the end really happened last week with the death of The Office, the last real Must See TV show on NBC, although it’s been years since it’s deserved that title. As a result, this book isn’t really the full story of Must See TV — more like what occurred during Littlefield’s time there from the 1970s until he was fired in 1998 — but it’s a fascinating insider’s look into the creative processes, executive decisions, and behind the scenes drama of what was once the highest rated network on TV. The book is told in a series of oral interviews organized around each show on the Must See TV lineup, from Cheers to The West Wing. It’s great to hear behind the scenes stories not only from Littlefield, but also from the actors, producers, and writers who experienced the shows firsthand.
Littlefield, like me, clearly loves television. It was his philosophy at NBC to find creative, smart, and talented people and let them do their thing, and he laments the state of network TV today (particularly at NBC), which he cites as a toxic space full of micromanagement, hostile to artistic integrity. Although he’s almost certainly painting the picture in his own favor, I tend to agree with him. Most of the shows that provided such success for NBC in its heyday would probably never even make it to air today, and if they did, would probably have faced imminent cancellation anyway.
This was a fascinating book, and I sort of wish it had been longer.