When most Emerson alumni return to campus, they usually talk about their recent successes, not their failures. But that’s exactly what Max Mutchnick, the co-creator of Will & Grace, did last Friday afternoon in a discussion entitled “Partners: The Rise & Fall Of A TV Show.”
An audience of over 100 students and faculty filled the Bright Family Screening Room as Mutchnick held a candid discussion and presentation about his latest television show, Partners, which was canceled this past fall after only six episodes aired on CBS.
In 1998, Mutchnick came to prominence as the co-creator of the television show Will & Grace, a part of NBC’s Must See TV Thursday that included Friends and Seinfeld. Through its eight seasons, the show earned 16 Emmy awards and 83 nominations. The show was also one of the first to feature openly gay characters in the main ensemble. But after its conclusion in 2006, Mutchnick has struggled to create another hit.
“I had no idea I captured lightning in a bottle,” said Mutchnick of Will & Grace’s success, and his continuing struggle for another show to catch-on. “You have to write and conceive a relationship that people feel a part of.”
After the cancellation of his television show $h*! My Dad Says in the spring of 2011, Mutchnick, a graduate of the class of 1987, said that CBS still wanted to work with him. But this time, the network wanted a show with a gay-straight relationsh++++ip at the center. CBS was looking for its next trendy show about thirty-somethings, in the vein of How I Met Your Mother and 2 Broke Girls, according to Mutchnick.
And although Mutchnick felt he already treaded that ground with Will & Grace, and criticized CBS’ current crop of shows for either being crude, like 2 Broke Girls or filled with generic characters, like How I Met Your Mother, he couldn’t say no to another shot on network television. And his advice to students during his presentation was to sell a network exactly what it is looking for, even if it’s not ideal for you.
“You have to pitch them something that’s in the universe of what they sell,” said Mutchnick.
Showing emails sent between him and studio executives, Mutchnick provided a rare look into the nitty-gritty side of show business. In his presentation, the alum screened the Partners audition tapes.
“It doesn’t matter how well I do,” said Mutchnick. “If I get the casting wrong, [the show] is dead in the water.”
He criticized the interference of CBS for the downfall of Partners, blaming the network for casting better known and better looking stars, like Superman Return’s Brandon Routh instead of actors who were actually funny.
But Mutchnick was willing to compromise for the prestige of network television.
“The mindset is to get on the air,” he said.
Still, Mutchnick told the crowd to stay true to the original vision, even if bits and pieces of it get tampered with along the way.
Sophomore Ricky Downes said he attended the panel because he too wants to become a show runner after graduation. Downes said the discussion was well worth attending for the show business insight it provided.
“I learned the importance of going with your gut and learning from your mistakes,” said the visual and media arts major of Mutchnick’s advice.
For his next endeavor, Mutchnick said he hopes to learn from his past mistakes by leaving the networks behind for cable television, a move that he said is giving him more artistic freedom than he’s previously been accustomed to. He said he recently sent a pilot script to TBS entitled Clipsters, an ensemble comedy about friends who work in a barbershop together.
“Dialogue on cable is so crisp, they can write how people really talk,” said Mutchnick. “But the best thing that’s going to happen is I get to cast human beings again.”
With an iconic show already on his resume, Mutchnick is still eager to recapture the success that he managed with Will & Grace. He freely admits that he can, and must, continue to improve as a writer.
“You fix your writing by keeping on writing,” said Mutchnick. “The first draft is never your last.”
Madanjian can be reached at email@example.com.