Crazy business, this television. Here we are in a room filled with people laughing uproariously during a script read-through of "Mission Hill," an animated series about a struggling twenty-something slacker and his dorky kid brother, debuting on WB tomorrow night at 8. And the look on co-creator Josh Weinstein's face is one of pure terror.
Do you see it in his eyes? No, not the dark circles--that's exhaustion from months of 16-hour days in his West Los Angeles office. No, the fear is deeper, in the numbed, pupil-filled gaze of the 33-year-old, Washington-bred veteran of "The Simpsons."
It's the gaze of someone who has watched the fall TV hype machine rev up to full throttle without him. The gaze of someone who has seen lack of advance word turn into negative buzz and then scathing reviews and dismal ratings after a single pilot episode aired last month.
Mostly, though, it's the gaze of someone who has about four weeks to find an audience before his show--and a year and a half of blood, sweat and bone-wearying effort--will likely be zapped from the prime-time schedule.
"That's not much time for a show that most people don't even know exists," he laments during a conversation in his office a few days later, before heading off to record what would be the season's last episode if the series is lucky enough to survive the full 18 weeks.
"In our opinion, it's one of the best shows we've ever seen. But if the ratings are low, we can't tell the head of the WB that it's subtly satirical. It's like trying to explain the qualities of Fresca to the head of Pepsi. Even if there's a whole town in Texas that really loves Fresca. It doesn't help."
Weinstein and his 33-year-old partner, Bill Oakley--graduates of St. Albans and best friends since the eighth grade--thought they knew a thing or two about show business when they embarked on "Mission Hill." After all, the comedy writers had worked on "The Simpsons" for six years, running the Emmy-winning enterprise for three. They're seriously smart (Oakley went to Harvard, Weinstein to Stanford). They're overachievers. They've got vision, attitude, edge.
But it turned out they had a lot to learn. The pair sold the show to WB more than a year ago as an animated series for young adults with a sophisticated, "Simpsons"-style sensibility. They were hard at work on this concept even before WB became identified with upscale, young-adult programming a la "Felicity" and "Dawson's Creek."
"Mission Hill" is about laconic 24-year-old Andy French, who is raising his 17-year-old brother, Kevin, in the bohemian section of some big city. Their neighbors include a gay couple who make love noisily and a pornography production house upstairs. Andy and his roommates spend a lot of time walking around their loft in their underwear and deal with a lot of grown-up stuff.
Busy with getting the show right, the executive producers didn't think much about public relations. In April, Weinstein and Oakley sent advertisers a two-minute presentation of "Mission Hill" to what's called "the up-fronts," an annual meeting in New York where advertisers start deciding where to put their fall dollars. The tape was a poorly edited patchwork of their comments with unfinished drawings of the series's quirky characters. Advertisers panned it.
"If I would've judged the show from that tape, I would've hated it, too," Weinstein says.
Then when television journalists came to the networks' annual presentation of their fall schedules in Pasadena in July, Weinstein and Oakley had nothing to show them because none of the shows were done yet; the first episode was completed only a few weeks ago. And with little to go on, WB's publicity department did little to tout "Mission Hill."
As a result, "for seven months, the only impression people had of the show was based on a two-minute tape that looked terrible," Weinstein says ruefully. "Six major publications panned it before they even saw it." That's the way it goes these days in an entertainment world ruled as much by advance buzz as by program content.
Then when the critics finally did see it, they didn't exactly smother the show with praise.
"It simply isn't distinctive enough to make a strong first impression," wrote the New York Daily News. "The opening plot . . . includes both drunkenness and hints of female cartoon nudity but somehow seems to be both trying too hard and not trying hard enough."
Some just hated it. The Deseret News in Salt Lake City called the show "ugly to look at, stupid and offensive. Oh, and while it's supposed to be funny--it's not even close."
Other critics thought it had promise. Variety gave "Mission Hill" a glowing review, and USA Today held out the possibility that it could improve, noting that if the show was "not terribly amusing . . . neither was 'The Simpsons' at first."
But mostly "Mission Hill" has just been ignored, buried at the bottom of TV columns waxing on about "Once and Again," that show about two 40-year-old divorcees who fall in love, or "Freaks and Geeks," about a bunch of high school misfits.
How did that happen?
Lots of theories are being thrown about in the brightly painted production offices, where overworked writers and artists often sleep on the floor. Like: There's a backlash against animation. Like: There's a backlash against teen shows. Or: There's a backlash against raunchy humor. It hasn't helped that the title of the show was changed in August from "The Downtowners" because of a threatened lawsuit by a similarly named MTV show.
"I don't know exactly why America doesn't know about this show," says Weinstein, pounding his knees in frustration. He's gained 30 pounds since last year--stress, fatigue, anxiety (also pregnancy--his wife just had twins). "It's like Teen People came out with its fall preview, and we're not even in it."
"We were very naive," says Oakley, who tends to finish Weinstein's remarks, as if they were an old married couple. "They told us the up-fronts weren't important."
Weinstein: "From April, we've had to overcome this slight tarnish."
Oakley: "And once a show is tarnished, it's very hard to untarnish it."
'An Acquired Taste'
"Mission Hill" is adult-oriented animation for a generation growing up with "The Simpsons" and drawn to "King of the Hill" and "South Park." It's exactly the demographic that WB captures, and in principle it fills a space on the young network's schedule for animated humor. Andy, voiced by actor Wallace Langham (of "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Veronica's Closet"), works at a water bed store, and has as roommates a scuzzy male and quirky New Age female in addition to his annoying little brother. He inherited the brother when their parents moved to Wyoming and left Kevin in his care; Andy promptly sets out to corrupt him. In the pilot episode, he lets Kevin get drunk and has sex with a new girlfriend in the next room.
The show was conceived, Weinstein and Oakley explain, to take on issues relevant to young adults that they couldn't treat when they were writing "The Simpsons."
"On 'The Simpsons,' we couldn't do stories about people between the ages of 12 and 35--about cruddy first jobs, or dating, or sex," Weinstein says.
Oakley: "It would always ring false to have Lisa on a date. She's in second grade." He cracks a smile. A big, baby-faced guy, he's seated in their shared office next to Weinstein, who is smaller, darker and generally more nervous. "We wanted to do a show when a majority of the stories would happen in an organic world where we've spent the majority of our lives. We have great stories to tell."
Oakley was raised in Maryland, Weinstein in Virginia. After meeting at St. Albans and striking up a friendship, they founded a humor magazine called the Alban Antic in 1983 that lasted until a controversial headmaster, Mark Mullin, closed it down four years ago over offensive jokes. (When Mullin became the subject of a very public tug-of-war at the school, Weinstein and Oakley wrote a letter to its governing board urging his ouster and were delighted when the headmaster was given the heave-ho.)
After college, where both worked at their schools' humor magazines, they fully expected to be offered jobs on "Late Night With David Letterman," like other comedy-oriented grads of elite schools. Instead they had to move back home and languished in jobs in advertising and the promotion department of "America's Most Wanted." In their spare time, they wrote sketches for the local comedy troupe Gross National Product.
Their big break came in 1989 with an offer to write for a Comedy Central show called "Ha!" They moved to Los Angeles, and that lasted for a year. Then came unemployment. And more unemployment.
They were close to despair. "I got to the point where I felt like there must be something that everyone in television knows that I don't know," recalls Oakley, who by then was married. He sent away for the Foreign Service exam.
Finally, a well-placed fan gave them good advice: Change your agent. They did, and the move resulted in their being hired to work on "The Simpsons" in 1992. They left the show only because "we didn't want to break it," according to Oakley. "We always said we'd never do a joke that we'd done before."
They wrote one pitch for a live-action show that didn't sell, but otherwise "Mission Hill" has been their primary occupation ever since.
Says Oakley: "The audience we're going for is one that's sophisticated, that likes high and low humor, that's very savvy in animation." But he knows, or at least he has learned, that the show is not to everybody's taste.
"This show is definitely a case where a lot of people don't get it. It's not setup, setup, setup, punch line," Oakley says. "It's observational humor. It's jokes told in a weird way, in the background or with a bizarre sound effect."
Both Oakley and Weinstein--and the cast members, too, for that matter--say they are bothered by the show's 8 p.m. time slot, traditionally a family-friendly hour. They wrote it with a 9 o'clock slot in mind.
Asked about the scheduling decision, WB executive Tracey Pakosta says the competition has gotten too tough in other time periods, and that the network trusts Weinstein and Oakley with edgy material because they are so well respected.
"It's all put into context," she says of the adult material, adding that the network standards department has scrutinized every script. "The issues may or may not be racy, but it's in a smart, sophisticated way."
Whatever. In truth, neither Weinstein nor Oakley expected the show to appeal to television critics in their fifties and sixties, or the Parents Television Council. All they've really hoped is that the show will find the audience that's meant to like it.
Says Oakley: "It's an acquired taste. And you have to have acquired the taste already."
A Costly Lesson
The script read-through for "Mission Hill" is one of those weird Hollywood rituals in which the audience--writers, WB executives, agents, friends, relatives--laughs convulsively at the slightest joke, and laughs hardest at any lines read by a known actor. In this case, it's Langham as Andy French and Vicki Lewis (of "NewsRadio"), who plays the quirky roommate Posey.
Nonetheless, the script is indeed clever and dovetails with the characters' development over the season. In it, tensions built up between Andy and Kevin explode after the younger brother ends up in the background of a porn video and their parents find out. Kevin gets sent to Wyoming but ends up pining for the dissolute but good-hearted atmosphere of his brother's loft apartment.
From his parents' house, Kevin pleads to Andy on the phone: "I'll never say a word about your smut ever again. Or Posey's spores. Or Jim's smoking. I promise. Help me!" Andy is finally persuaded to reconsider when his father offers a bribe.
Despite Weinstein's anxiety, the script is well received; the network executives offer support and a few suggestions. All seems well. But a few days later, before taping the episode, the cast sits around and again debates why the show lacks media heat.
"I don't think we have a great start because we're not slotted where we can easily be found by the audience meant to find it," says Lewis. "I think we would stand a better shot at grabbing an audience at 9 or 10." She thinks about this for a moment. "Hey, I think you'd put us after Letterman, we'll find a bigger audience. But I think the show will speak for itself."
"Every line we cross on the show--the drinking or masturbation--is done in a smart way," says actor Brian Posehn, the voice of roommate Jim. "Right out of the gate, we're 150 percent better than anything new in animation that's on. I just have to think the show will find a cult following."
Oakley has been listening silently, and finally joins the conversation. "This has been a lengthy, expensive lesson," he says, referring to the overall trauma of being ignored. "It's been a giant education, in a way."