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TELEVISION: INK-A-DINK-A-REDO

4 minute read
Richard Zoglin

Whether it succeeds or fails, the CBS sitcom Ink (Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET) will be remembered for inspiring one of the most refreshing bursts of candor in television history. When the pilot episode for the Ted Danson-Mary Steenburgen comedy was finished, the people involved could scarcely contain their lack of enthusiasm. Danson, at a press conference, said he didn’t want to “disclaim the baby” but promised the show would improve. Steenburgen likened the series to making a batch of pancakes: sometimes “you throw out the first.” A few weeks later CBS tossed out all four episodes completed up to that point, fired the producer and delayed the premiere for a month so the show could be retooled. Said CBS Entertainment chief Leslie Moonves: “It is better to do it right than do it fast.”

They still did it fast. Diane English, the creator of Murphy Brown, was brought in as executive producer, and she scrapped virtually everything but the two stars (who are married to each other) and the basic premise–a divorced couple working together at a New York City newspaper. The show was rebuilt from scratch in just five weeks, starting with a brainstorming session that English convened with a handful of writers on Martha’s Vineyard. “I flew in the day after Hurricane Eduoard and flew out the day before Hurricane Hortense hit,” she says. “We thought it was very symbolic.”

And it turns out they did it right: Ink doesn’t stink. The first version was a strained attempt at something resembling ’30s screwball comedy: Danson and Steenburgen finalized their divorce in the opening scene and were back at adjoining desks the very same day; when Steenburgen offered to quit, she was made managing editor instead. Even if the setup had been more plausible, the show proved how unfriendly TV is to stylized screwball comedy. Viewers don’t want to be distanced by brittle, rat-a-tat comedy patter; they want comfortable characters they can relate to.

Ink II provides them. Danson and Steenburgen are now a couple who have been divorced for 10 years (with a 15-year-old daughter) but are thrown back together when she is hired as the managing editor of the paper where he’s a star columnist. “Have you seen the buses?” he boasts to his ex-wife. “I’m on the M4, the M10–and the 6. That’s crosstown, baby.” She’s a high-strung but determined professional woman trying to give up smoking; he pesters their daughter to find out whom her mom is dating. Next headline: ROMANTIC TENSION BREWING.

Danson, with his mix of insouciance and egotism, is in peak form–trying, for example, to foment a rebellion among his co-workers against “Evita in there” after they’ve been thoroughly snowed by their new boss. Steenburgen needs to spend a few hours at the word processor before she’ll convince us that she belongs inside a newsroom, but she plays off him well. The secondary characters are better than their pilot predecessors as well, largely because most of them (like the mousy business reporter played by Saul Rubinek) aren’t pushed on us too hard. The one exception is Christine Ebersole as a brassy nightlife reporter who’s been to one too many charity soirees; but since she also has the funniest entrance of the show (maybe of the season), she’s excused. Ink is now a workplace comedy that really works.

English is still recovering from the mad dash to finish the show. “There was not an iota of room for a mistake, a misstep, for losing a day or even half a day,” she says. After all the pressure, she had a “momentary freak-out” half an hour before the first taping. “I was pacing around in my office and expressing tremendous anxiety. It all just came out. I was exhausted.” The stars, too, sound relieved that the ordeal is over. “From the beginning, we poured our heart and soul into this,” says Steenburgen. “Diane’s biographical work on who these people are feels much more right to us.”

The question is whether it will feel right to the audience. “Shows are not hatched; they develop and evolve,” says Jeffrey Katzenberg, co-founder of DreamWorks, the program’s producer. “The fact that Ink wasn’t there out of the box is not atypical.” What is atypical is the spotlight the show is under–as one of CBS’s most highly touted fall series and a high-profile vehicle for two very expensive stars. At least now the vehicle seems in shape for the long haul.

–Reported by Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles

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