Why Is Chuck Lorre Doing a Show for Netflix?

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Chuck Lorre. Photo: Jason LaVeris/Getty Images

Measured in terms of profits generated and network schedules transformed, there’s a good case to be made that Chuck Lorre is the 21st century’s most successful creator of network TV shows. The man behind The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, Mike & Molly, and Mom certainly ranks as the biggest of all big-shot producers at CBS, home to every one of his series since 2003. While other networks and producers have struggled to keep traditional multi-camera comedies alive, Lorre has proven to be a master of the form, time and again.  So the news Wednesday that Lorre’s new Kathy Bates–led sitcom about the pot dispensary business will be headed to Netflix — and not the Eye, or even another traditional network — would seem at first blush to be a Big Bang–level event for the TV industry. When the man who at times seems to be singlehandedly keeping the network sitcom alive ends up outside the broadcast ecosystem, that’s probably not without meaning.

And yet, it’s important not to get too carried away reacting to this deal, or any individual bit of television development. For one thing, Lorre and his co-writer on his new project (the supremely talented Late Late Show alum and Daily Show alum David Javerbaum) do not appear to have made some sort of advance decision to abandon broadcast altogether. The show, now known as Disjointed, was shopped to the major networks as well as Netflix last winter. While Lorre hasn’t commented, it seems safe to assume that he hasn’t had a sudden epiphany that his future is (only) in the streaming business, and that he’s given up on commercial TV. There are many longtime broadcast scribes who actually have indicated there’s no longer much upside in broadcast. But until he says otherwise, it’s best to assume Lorre is not one of those people.

As for the networks themselves, it’s telling the Hollywood trades didn’t report the news of the Netflix order with the sort of read-between-the-lines descriptors — “bidding war,” “multiple offers,” “hotly pursued” — often used to characterize blockbuster deals. (Deadline did say the project was the “most anticipated comedy spec script”— last winter.) Two industry insiders familiar with the pitching process say the pilot script and concept didn’t, er, bowl over broadcasters. None of this is a slam against the script or idea, just a clue that the networks weren’t falling over themselves to land the show, or that Netflix had to barge in like the 800-pound gorilla it can be and take Disjointed off the market with a bid that blew away all other suitors (as it did with the upcoming The Get Down, for example).

It would be a bit curious, however, if at least one broadcast network — particularly CBS and NBC — didn’t try really hard to get this show. Perhaps there were concerns over the show’s theme (it’s set in a pot dispensary). Maybe the networks didn’t want to give Lorre and Javerbaum the leeway to be as blunt as needed dealing with the subject matter. (That’s hard to imagine, given the suggestiveness of Two and a Half Men and the heavy themes of Mom.) It’s also possible the pilot wasn’t very funny, or at least not funny in the eyes of CBS and other broadcast executives. (A network source and a top talent agent I contacted Thursday both had less-than-kind things to say about the script.) But even if that’s true, Lorre has a history of so-so first drafts turning out okay. CBS scrapped the very first pilot for Big Bang because it didn’t quite work. It turned out okay. Why not roll the dice?

Ordinarily, I’d be the first to argue against networks shelling out huge sums of money for a project they don’t passionately believe in, or at least sort of believe in, just because of the auspices attached. If that’s what happened here, it seems a bit shortsighted. Other than Lorre’s Bang, which probably is in its final two to three seasons, CBS doesn’t have any huge hit comedies. Its modest hits (2 Broke Girls, Lorre’s Mom) are also nearing the end of their runs. Meanwhile, NBC — despite the promising Superstore and The Carmichael Show — doesn’t really even have a comedy brand. In the same way NBC jumps on any stray thought Dick Wolf has, or ABC goes all-in on almost any musing that springs from the talented mind of Shonda Rhimes, you’d think a show from Lorre would be a must-have. Even if Lorre wanted the ability to explore not-usually-safe-for-prime-time themes, it would seem he’d be the guy you’d grant the leeway to. Put his show on at ten p.m., a time when network standards are a bit more relaxed. Let Lorre produce all episodes ahead of air, and then maybe run them two per week in the summer (where Seinfeld spent two seasons before moving to the fall). It’s tough for networks to color outside the lines sometimes, but someone with a track record like Lorre's would seem to be the perfect person to grant permission to do just that. Nobody is going to label a network exec stupid for taking a chance on a man who’s literally making billions for his employers at Warner Bros. TV.

Of course, it’s that last detail which may explain why Netflix stepped up when the broadcast networks wouldn’t. Lorre is based at Warners, one of the few truly major independent TV production studios left. Networks, both broadcast and cable, have come to believe the best (and maybe only) way to big profits is to own, and thus control, all the content on their air. Unless Disjointed ended up a Big Bang–level hit, it would probably have been hard for a broadcast network to make a ton of money from the show. Couple this fact with perhaps lukewarm reaction to the show’s concept or spec script, and broadcasters’ resistance makes a bit more sense. I’d still argue Lorre was worth the risk — but it’s not my money. What’s more, if networks such as CBS and NBC take the money they’re not spending on Lorre and instead invest it in some promising new voices (like Jerrod Carmichael, for instance), it’s hard to take issue with how this played out.

There’s also the question of why Netflix, which already has dozens of series and just snagged a massive 54 Emmy nominations, decided to order 20 episodes of a Chuck Lorre comedy.  That’s actually much easier to answer: Why not? Compared to its big-budget dramas and even some of its single-camera comedies, Disjointed will likely be relatively cheap, even with Lorre and Bates on board. The streamer has also made it clear it wants to be something to everybody, and given the presence of lots of old-school sitcoms from past decades, as well as originals such as Fuller House and The Ranch, forking over $50 million for 20 episodes of a comedy from a talent such as Lorre is a pretty easy call. If critics end up liking Disjointed, and Lorre has a good experience on the show, the project will serve as still another advertisement for the advantages of working under the SVOD model, further weakening broadcasters’ already perilous position in the TV universe. Plus, let’s assume the worst-case scenario unfolds, and the show ends up being savaged by critics. Netflix’s deal with Adam Sandler, which has so far resulted in two virtually invisible and horribly received movies, has had zero impact on the streaming network’s brand and only a minimal impact on its fiscal bottom line. If Disjointed proves to be a bad trip, it’s not going to do a thing to harsh Netflix’s media mellow.