Friday, June 01, 2012

Top of the Rock

Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV

In this day and age of on demand television and next-day viewing through various online platforms, it's remarkable to think back on a time in which a good sized portion of the American population sat down and watched the same show at the same time. This era is as ancient as black-and-white television and cigarette commercials.  I well remember racing to finish my homework so that I could catch NBC's Thursday night lineup of Friends and ER.  If you missed the episodes and didn't think to tape them, you were out of luck until summer reruns! 

For fans of the big NBC hits of the 1990s (Friends, ER, Frasier, Will & Grace, Seinfeld) and entertainment history in general, Top of the Rock will definitely be a fun read.  Each show is discussed within its own separate chapters, so it's easy to browse or skip through the shows that don't necessarily interest you (other shows discussed include Cheers, Frasier, Mad About You, and 3rd Rock From the Sun).  I would have liked more focus on the creation and history of the shows and less on the business side of television, but it's a minor quibble. Seinfeld deservedly receives a ton of focus, but the real highlight of the book were the discussions of ER, my favorite show from that era.  Reading about the importance the original cast and crew placed on keeping the ensemble feel of the show and how hard the cast and creative crew fought to keep the technical medical language in the show made me nostalgic for this great show, although I would have liked to have known the original cast's feelings on whether or not they felt the show lost its way in the last several years of the show (likely, they weren't watching), as ER was the only show that did not end with the majority of its original cast still intact.  Noah Wyle's final thoughts are particularly poignant; Eriq LaSalle's memories on wanting and constructing the role of Dr. Benton are outstanding.  As the focus was on original cast members, I'm quite sorry that we don't hear from Laura Innes and Gloria Reuben, who joined the cast during the show's second season; their characters faced complex situations (disability/HIV) that were unique among television shows at that time.   Unfortunately, the sections on Friends were rather disappointing; the ER cast delved much more into specific moments/episodes and how they viewed and developed their characters. Other than a quick overview of the Ross/Rachel relationship, more specifics from the cast would have been welcomed. Lisa Kudrow's recollections on how she created her character (Phoebe) make the Friends sections worthwhile.

As someone who has read and enjoyed Tom Shales's oral history books on entertainment  (Live From New York, Those Guys Have All the Fun), I ended up wishing that the book was much longer.  While the book is very entertaining, most discussions aren't very involved in order to discuss as many shows as possible. While the last two chapters dealing with Littlefield's ouster from NBC and the rise and fall of Jeff Zucker (blamed by many participants for the downfall of NBC programming) may have been therapeutic for the author and his friends, most readers will wish for more emphasis on the cast and crew of the shows. In the end, this is an enjoyable but uneven look at a pivotal time in broadcasting.

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