This is the second part of a two-part article. Part 1 is available here.
In the span of four days, the entertainment industry went from learning of the next big TV show Steven Spielberg is executive producing (an adaptation of Microsoft’s Halo franchise) to mourning the early death of one of the last big TV shows Spielberg executive produced (NBC’s Smash). This caused us to look back at Spielberg’s track record as a TV Executive Producer (EP).
In part 1, we explained what it is an EP even does, i.e., they basically oversee everything unless they receive the credit through a loophole in which case they might do next to nothing. We also looked at Spielberg’s EP credits from Amazing Stories in 1985 up to his brief time on the front-end of NBC’s long-running medical drama ER. Here, in part 2 we pick up where we left off, and note that for the most part Spielberg produces very ambitious TV shows and has shown that he can pull off a successful mini-series with less assured success elsewhere.
Family Dog (1993)
Family Dog originally appeared as one episode of Spielberg’s Amazing Stories in the mid-1980s, at which point it had been created, directed, and written by a pre-Pixar Brad Bird (The Incredibles). Bird was not involved with the show, but Spielberg was actively involved as Executive Producer along with Tim Burton who contributed to the Frankenweenie-esque design of the dog. CBS heavily promoted the show owing to Spielberg’s attachment, but due to lengthy delays in the animation the show only ever completed 10 of the 13 episodes ordered by the network. It aired over the summer at a time when almost no new programming ran during the summer.
Band of Brothers (2001) & The Pacific (2010)
Clearly reasoning that Saving Private Ryan was so fun they should do it again, Spielberg and Tom Hanks executive produced the 10-part miniseries Band of Brothers, an adaptation of a Stephen E. Ambrose’s non-fiction account of the “Easy Company” of the United States army during world War II. A decade later came a sister series, another 10-part miniseries entitled The Pacific and focusing upon, well, the Pacific Theater of World War II. Both remarkably high-budget shows achieved wide critical acclaim and won just about every award possible. This did invariably result in awards show fatigue in which you grew so tired of seeing Tom Hanks accept yet another award for Band of Brothers that you never wanted to hear about the show ever again. Well, hopefully you’re over that now since I just spent a paragraph making you hear about that show again.
Alternately known as Steven Spielberg Presents Taken, this 10-part miniseries followed the lives of three different families from 1944 to 2002. All three families had ties, somehow, to the crash landing of aliens in Roswell, New Mexico. Spielberg executive produced alongside Leslie Bohem. It aired on the Sci-Fi Channel, and won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Miniseries. It is perhaps best remembered, though, as having been shamelessly ripped off by the longer-running, less-award winning though perfectly enjoyable series The 4400.
Into the West (2005)
Take two families, one white American and the other Native American, and watch how their lives intermingle during the westward expansion era of American history from 1825-1890. That’s Into the West, which aired as a six-part, 12-hour miniseries on TNT and was marketed as coming from DreamWorks Television and executive produced by Steven Spielberg. There were 10 credited producers, 4 of which credited as co-executive producers. However, Spielberg was the only EP. Into the West performed well in the ratings for TNT, and was the most nominated show of the 2006 Emmys, although it only won 2 awards from its 16 nominations.
United States of Tara (2009-2011)
It’s about a suburban mother with dissociative identity disorder, and is probably most known for having been created and run by Juno-screenwriter Diablo Cody and the award-winning performance by Toni Collette in the lead role. However, it was actually based upon an original idea Steven Spielberg had, which he then co-created with Diablo Cody through DreamWorks Television. For this level of involvement, he was a listed EP on the show. He was, however, never credited as a creator of the show, generously yielding that credit solely to Cody. It enjoyed a healthy run of 3 seasons, 36 episodes.
Terra Nova (2011)
You can’t go wrong with Steven Spielberg and dinosaurs, right? That’s what we all thought when this humans vs. dinosaurs show was announced. However, perhaps we forgot about the only-okay The Lost World: Jurassic Park and “we wish it was okay” Jurassic Park III, the former of which Spielberg produced and directed and the latter he only executive produced. Terra Nova was a big-budget gamble, telling the story of futuristic, resource-starved humans crossing into a parallel time streams for more real estate and supplies even if it meant fighting off CGI dinosaurs. It was thought of as a slam-dunk, but it never achieved the ratings to justify its budget and was canceled after 13 episodes. Some fans hold out hope Netflix will bring it back, but that moment appears to have passed.
The River (2012)
Mere months after Terra Nova’s disastrous run on Fox came the somewhat lower profile failure of the eight-episode run of The River on ABC. Ostensibly, The River was about a documentary crew searching the Amazon for a famed scientist-explorer-television host known to have gone missing in a bizarre area of the rainforest. This was Paranormal Activity creator Oren Peli’s first TV show, and the main thrust for the show came from a meeting Peli had with Spielberg in which the latter professed to wanting to do a found footage TV show together. Peli took the concept for the show from an idea he had for a low-budget horror film, and Paranormal Activity 2 co-screenwriter Michael R. Perry helped him turn it into a TV show. During this process, the two would pitch ideas to Spielberg who would pitch ideas back. It was ultimately produced through DreamWorks Television, with Spielberg as EP. However, by the time the show arrived the found footage format appeared to be waning in popularity, based upon box office for films using the format.
Speaking of taking too long to arrive, Smash appeared to be an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Glee (and mimic its multiple revenue stream business model), but it did not arrive until Glee‘s relatively brief popularity bubble had burst (or at least deflated considerably). So, people weren’t going to tune into a show about the behind the scenes goings on of a Broadway musical from creation to premiere just for the novelty of seeing people break out into song. Of course, it didn’t help that with each subsequent episode the harder and harder it became to remember this as the same show whose pilot had made it look so promising. Prior to the second season, Buzzfeed.com ran an expose about why the creator/show-runner was fired after one season, and how some of the people you’d most trust-specifically Executive Producer Steven Spielberg-were responsible for some of the worst aspects of the show.
The final two episodes of this beleaguered show air tonight on NBC, who have canceled it due to both low-ratings and high cost of production. Among the 37 stages of grief to cope with the show’s demise are “visiting a bird sanctuary to verbally berate a peacock” (the long-time NBC mascot) and “being the only attendee at your own Bombshell sing-a-long party.”
Falling Skies (2011-Present)
Falling Skies, which has aired 2 10-episode seasons with a third beginning June 9th on TNT, is about resistance fighters on Earth after a successful alien invasion (think of it like a post-War of the Worlds if we had lost instead of won). Noah Wyle stars as the main character, a father of three and former Boston University history professor now serving as second-in-command in a militia regiment. The show’s concept was co-conceived by Spielberg and Robert Rodat, the screenwriter for Saving Private Ryan who further developed the idea and is the sole credited creator of the show. The title, though, comes from Spielberg. Spielberg was heavily involved with pre-production, and production of the pilot, and was instrumental in the casting of Wyle whom he knew from the casting process of ER in 1993/1994. Although not the type of show (i.e., because it’s sci-fi) to win many awards, the ratings have been steady and reviews mostly positive.
In addition to Halo, Spielberg is currently attached as an EP to three other TV projects (Under the Dome, Lucky 7, and The Talisman), although his level of involvement with each is unclear. Also, this list has been restricted to original scripted programming, but Spielberg has stepped into the reality TV genre at least once. He executive produced a 2007 reality show called On The Lot, in which aspiring filmmakers competed for a contract with Dreamworks. It lasted for a single season on Fox, airing over the summer.
Do we now have a little better idea what it means when a new show is announced as “Executive Produced by…Name of Famous Person”? It would appear that this often means that person might have contributed to the initial creation and pre-production of the show before handing it off to someone else (or a small team of people). As for Spielberg, he consistently backs new and interesting TV projects. He’s had a bad run of luck as of late with Terra Nova, The River, and Smash. However, we know that when he is announced as being attached to a new TV show the result will ultimately prove to be something rather ambitious. Of course, just like any other TV show, ambitious or not, it may kind of suck.