Were you thrilled by the live television musical phenomena of the last few years, or did you hate tweet them? Regardless, NBC's decided to shake things up with something different in 2017: a live televised drama. Award-winning writer Aaron Sorkin's debut play A Few Good Men is tapped to come to the network later this year, exact date unknown.
While some research showed me announcements from last year (see these Variety and Playbill articles), I only just found out about this project while visiting NBC's website regarding a different show. I'm still surprised it's in development, and more than a little miffed by this little statement from one of the producers:
“The one thing I will tell you is that our goal is to also grow into a situation where we're doing a live musical and a live drama each year,” Zadan told Playbill.com. “We would love to do the right play with the right cast, and it has to be exactly right because it can't be something that appears like PBS. It has to be something that looks like it's a great entertainment, that's dramatic and has a stellar cast that people would watch. We're looking forward to branching out into that area too, to experiment and to see what happens. We're looking to explore this world of live television.”
Actually, it sounds exactly like something that would appear on PBS; still, implications that public broadcasting isn't "great entertainment" aside, I do get where he's coming from. An NBC primetime special is not the same thing as Masterpiece Theater. It's dependent on ratings and advertising, and will need to get a lot more people watching to be called a success.
The play isn't without its fans, of course. It's already been made into a film starring Tom Cruise back in the '90s, and it's been popular in local and regional theatre in recent years. It's a courtroom drama, which TV viewers love and are familiar with, and there are plenty of hypeable military/political themes. Plus, Sorkin is a big enough draw on his own to attract some attention.
But A Few Good Men is not a "feel good" show. The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, and The Wiz (the first three NBC specials) all had a certain nostalgia factor to them, playing to a wide audience. While last year's Hairspray isn't quite old enough for that kind of appeal, it's a show with plenty of pop ballads and wry, winking moments to keep people tuned in.
Again, A Few Good Men is not that show. Perhaps more importantly for studio execs and parents alike, this show is not appropriate for young audiences. Personally, I don't think last year's Grease Live (FOX) would be appropriate for kids either, but I know many enjoy the soundtrack and turn a blind eye to its darker moments. This play won't have the veneer of snappy music and lyrics, or stars dancing, to distract from its brutal elements. The subject matter is dense and controversial. Without getting into spoilers, someone is killed. It plays like an HBO drama and, based on current FCC laws, will have to be censored for primetime television.
Maybe it will be successful in spite, or because, of these differences, attracting a very different audience to NBC's now annual entertainment experiment. Maybe doing a musical in the same year will offset any viewers lost from the play (as is true in most theatre seasons). Certainly I hope we could see more dramas and comedies brought to a wider audience.
I just can't help feeling this choice for a first dramatic outing is misguided. It's not wrong to ask audiences to experience a story with more meat; I just wish the first time we did so, it wasn't also a trip to the meat grinder.