What went wrong with the highly touted sitcom -- and what the network's doing to fix it

By Sandra P. Angulo
October 13, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT
Cursed: Chris Haston

”Cursed,” the new NBC sitcom originally set to premiere Oct. 12 in the plum Thursday night slot between ”Friends” and ”Will & Grace,” won’t make its debut until Oct. 26. While NBC fills its 8:30 p.m. time period with familiar faces — a new ”Friends” aired last night, and back to back episodes of ”Will & Grace” are scheduled for Oct. 19 — ”Cursed” is in the midst of a total creative overhaul, including a new writing team, new producers, and a re-shot pilot episode with a revamped premise.

Despite its gloomy title, ”Cursed” actually got off to a promising start. When NBC unveiled its new shows back in May, executives heralded the Chicago set sitcom about an ill fated single guy as their best new comedy. The series’ original pilot, which was released to TV writers, was certainly unusual: In it, an overachieving bachelor named Jack Nagle (”Wings” veteran Steven Weber) suffers through a blind date with a woman who turns out to be a witch — one who curses him to a run of bad luck. A series of surreal, farcical encounters ensue: Jack’s chased by a mob, tied up by a crazed security guard — there was even a running gag with a menacing clown. When the pilot was screened for journalists, it got mixed reviews, but ”Cursed” was hardly seen as the worst of the new season’s offerings.

But as recently as last month, the network nearly scrapped the show entirely. The reason? Executives were so disappointed with the first few episodes that they decided to ax the series’ cocreators, Mitchel Katlin and Nat Bernstein.”We kept reading the scripts hoping they’d get better,” says Garth Ancier, the president of NBC Entertainment. ”It was a little too broad and a little too silly. It had to be smarter and more character driven to fit in with our Thursday night.”

For the ”Cursed” makeover, Ancier brought in sitcom rainmakers Adam Chase, an exec producer of ”Friends,” and Ira Ungerleider, another ”Friends” producer who worked on a previous NBC Thursday at 8:30 p.m.show, ”Jesse.” During a post Emmy celebration on Sept. 10, says Chase, ”Garth cornered me and said ‘What about ”Cursed”?’ I was so flattered that the next day I decided if we could get three weeks to start over, we could do something good.”

Chase and company immediately took over the show, discarded the early batch of episodes and wrote new scripts. On Monday, the cast — including Chris Elliott (”Get a Life”), Amy Pietz (”Caroline in the City”), and Wendell Pierce (”The Gregory Hines Show”) — will begin reshooting ”more than 60 percent” of the season opener. The biggest change under the Chase/ Ungerleider regime is that ”Cursed” will have no more supernatural hocus pocus. ”We’re removing the magical elements from the show,” says Ungerleider. ”You have to look at the curse more metaphorically. Everyone in life is cursed. It’s just that life for him will be a little harder — and hopefully funnier — than it is for the rest of us.”

What you won’t see on Oct. 26 is a scene with the witch opening a spell book, preparing a brew, and damning Jack. Instead, Jack’s date says five ”threatening” words to him in Ancient Greek (rough translation, according to Chase: ”I curse you,”) at the end of the date. ”What happens to him [next] still sucks, but it’s not as out there,” says Chase. As for the menacing clown: ”We tried to eliminate him completely, but it wasn’t possible logistically.”

After all these redos, ”Cursed” must still retain a substantial portion of the ”Friends” audience, which averages 21 million viewers a week. If it can’t — the way previous 8:30 p.m. flops ”Jesse,” ”Union Square,” and ”The Single Guy” couldn’t — NBC may be wondering if it’s the time slot, as well as the shows, that’s cursed.