''ER'' and ''The West Wing'''s Emmy-winning producer resuscitates the ailing show

Keeping ”Third Watch”

Ponder the dilemma: You are the executive producer responsible for two of television’s biggest critical and commercial hits; indeed, one show is arguably the most successful TV drama of all time. You create a third drama, and while it isn’t too shabby, it just doesn’t deliver the sort of smart, high-quality entertainment your name has come to suggest. Viewers know it, the show’s stars know it, you know it — and the critics won’t let you forget it. Because you are who you are and because the ratings for your show don’t completely stink, the network and the producing studio sit you down for a little chat. ”They said Third Watch was a good show, a solid show,” remembers John Wells, laughing uncomfortably at the mediocrity implied in the word ”solid” (the description used by the NBC and Warner Bros. executives in a meeting late last season). ”So we had a choice to make. Do we start over and try to tell stories in a way that hasn’t been done a lot lately? Or do we just sit back and hope that we make it to 100 episodes [when a show can go into syndication] because financially that would be wise for everyone involved?”

For the Emmy-winning executive producer of ER and The West Wing, the choice was a matter of pride: Start over. ”The absolute worst thing that could happen,” Wells figured, ”was that we’d make three years of forgettable television.” Of course, if we were talking about any other producer, Third Watch would likely be history by now. The show debuted Sept. 23, 1999, and after being introduced in ER‘s slot, it moved to Sunday nights at 8, where it struggled, ending the season ranked 50th, right behind CBS’ Nash Bridges. Better shows have been canceled for lesser crimes.

Certainly, a less esteemed producer would have been told far more sternly to change the show, especially given the results of the audience research Warner Bros. Television president Peter Roth had done on Third Watch. ”Audiences felt there were too many characters,” says Roth, ticking off viewer complaints. ”They didn’t know enough about the characters to tell them apart. They couldn’t understand the concept of a firehouse that houses both paramedics and firemen, or figure out the differences between their jobs.” Even the meaning behind the show’s name (which refers to the 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift) was a mystery.

As most writers will tell you, audience research is to creative impulses as Raid is to roaches: It kills them dead. Furthermore, it’s often proved wrong (just ask Jerry Seinfeld, whose NBC comedy initially received notoriously bad scores from test audiences). But in this particular instance, Wells had to agree. ”We actually had trouble remembering what the episodes were about,” says Wells. ”We looked back over last season and we had some very good episodes — and way too many mediocre ones.”

But the decision to boldly revamp the show also came with a downside. ”We were certainly concerned about losing the people who were already watching,” recalls Ed Bernero, the show’s co-creator and supervising producer (and a former Chicago cop). ”We were already doing decent numbers, not great numbers. John was the one who really thought we needed to make this change more than anyone.”

Thus, on the directive of Wells and fellow executive producer Chris Chulack, the new and improved Third Watch has switched focus from action sequences (raging fires, big explosions, people trapped in buildings) to character-driven stories that alternately spotlight each of the show’s nine characters. ”Last year we had to follow four or five story lines in every episode,” explains Michael Beach (who plays paramedic Monte ”Doc” Parker). ”Nobody was allowed the time to explore anything. And there was never a doubt about the outcome of an episode. They went; they saved the babies; they saved the man. So who cares? They were heroes, period. This year it’s ambiguous.” Adds Molly Price (police officer Faith Yokas): ”Last season all you ever saw were uniforms. You never saw souls. You’d see a character and then they’d disappear.”

The show is also taking risks with controversial subject matter. In one of this season’s most powerful episodes, Faith locks horns with her alcoholic husband over an unexpected pregnancy — a third child that he wants and she doesn’t. In an extraordinary plot twist for a network series, Wells made the decision to allow Faith to follow through with the abortion. ”I couldn’t believe they actually put me on the abortion table and showed my face as I was having it,” Price says. ”It’s so damn brave.”

”The ‘Faith’ episode is a perfect example of the kind of story we couldn’t do last year,” explains Wells. ”Because to understand the story, you have to spend the entire episode within the character. It’s not a story about abortion. It’s about her getting to the point in her life when she feels so trapped that she’s not sure she can trust her husband. And it’s impossible to do a story of that kind of depth structured within four other running stories.”

Sums up Bernero: ”People seem to respect the show more because we’re saying things that other shows aren’t saying. And whether you agree with what we say or not, these are emotions that real people have. Our characters are living and I think people respect that.” The ratings are certainly more commendable. Third Watch — which now airs Monday nights at 10 — has shown a slight improvement in the key 18-49 demographic, and ranks as the No. 1 show in its time period among women of that demo. More importantly, people are beginning to talk about the series — and some of those people are high-profile enough to generate some desperately needed buzz. Rosie O’Donnell regularly plugs the Third Watch hunks on her talk show. And Mia Farrow’s children are such big fans, she actually requested a guest-starring role. (She played Faith’s mother in the Nov. 27 episode.) ”We’re pleased with the direction it’s headed,” notes NBC’s West Coast president, Scott Sassa. ”We’d love the ratings to be bigger, but it’s a tough time period for NBC. We think they’ll get bigger once [ABC’s] Monday Night Football is off the night.”

Though he’s not yet ready to bet the mortgage on the outcome, Wells himself is also upbeat about Third Watch‘s new direction. ”I wish we’d found it a year ago when NBC gave us a boost by putting us in the ER slot,” he says. ”But we didn’t deliver a unique enough show. It’s a better show now, but it’s difficult to get people to come back. We can’t do it in just one episode like ‘Faith.’ We’ve got to do it every week. And with any luck, people will find it.”

Third Watch
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