Networks scramble to fix up fall's new shows like ''Suddenly Susan'' and ''Ink''

By Dana Kennedy
September 20, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Darling, it was a nightmare,” says Elizabeth Ashley, recalling her brief association with NBC’s new Brooke Shields sitcom, Suddenly Susan. Ashley was originally signed to play the owner of a restaurant where Shields was to be the manager. ”I was staying with a friend in L.A., and it was the night before the first rehearsal for the pilot,” Ashley says. ”It was 10 o’clock, and I still hadn’t gotten the script. Then I got a call from these people saying ‘We’re the new producers, and by the way, you’re no longer a restaurant owner and there’s no longer a restaurant. Now you’re a romance novelist, and the show’s set in a publishing house.”’

At the next day’s rehearsal, Ashley found a workplace in chaos. ”We were getting total rewrites every minute. It was massively difficult.” Virtually on the spot, Ashley quickly crafted a character, ”a cross between Barbara Cartland and Joan Collins. I thought I pulled it off.” She may have; the producers said they loved her. Then she learned by reading a newspaper report — nobody bothered to call her — that she wouldn’t be in the show at all. A second pilot was being shot without her and without almost everyone else. ”Sure, it would have been a great gig,” says Ashley. ”But that’s television.”

At least that’s television this September. If there were a screenplay about this season’s troubled crop of new TV shows, it would be titled The Fall of Their Discontent. Shields’ show is just one of several much-hyped new series with big stars — including CBS’ Ink and Cosby — that have undergone major overhauls or serious tinkering. The first four episodes of Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen’s Ink were scrapped just 18 days before the Sept. 16 debut date; sitcom vet Diane English (Murphy Brown) was brought in to replace exec producer Jeffrey Lane and reinvent the show. In April, Bill Cosby sacked his executive producer, Richard Day and his costar, Telma Hopkins, in favor of his first TV wife, Phylicia Rashad. The pilot for Michael J. Fox’s Spin City was deemed a keeper, but it’s rumored that the network worried that the subsequent shows shot weren’t as good. None were redone, however.

NBC had the opposite problem with Suddenly Susan: Because of Shields’ celebrity, her unexpected on-camera charm, and her appeal to the right demographic, the show won prime time’s most coveted slot — Thursdays at 9:30 p.m. between Seinfeld and ER — in May. Then, several weeks later, concerned that the show wasn’t sharp enough to qualify as Must See TV, NBC ordered a new pilot and none of the original cast members or writers-executive producers made the cut. Except, of course, the 31-year-old Shields. ”I’m not sure if this means it’s TV’s worst season ever or it means it may be the best ever,” says NBC Entertainment head Warren Littlefield. ”You’ll know the answer to that when the new shows roll out and we see the ratings.”

Make that the 40 new shows. After the failure of so many debut series last season — NBC’s 3rd Rock From the Sun was the only bona fide breakout hit — the networks are launching an ambitious number of shows this fall. They’ve also brought in marquee names, at marquee salaries, in the hope of getting an edge on the fierce competition. ”The biggest advantage of a Ted Danson, a Bill Cosby, a Michael J. Fox, or a Scott Bakula [Mr. & Mrs. Smith] or a Rhea Perlman [Pearl] is that they will get immediate tune-in,” says Paul Schulman, president of a New York ad-buying company.