By Bradford Winters
If there’s news from Hollywood that isn’t bound to compete with tabs on Brangelina, certainly it’s the death of a mid-level TV executive, the kind of person who might be largely responsible for one of your favorite shows, and just as largely unheralded for it.
In this awful case, the executive in question is—was?—Nora O’Brien, VP of Drama Programming for NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios, who recently dropped dead on the set of Parenthood, a new one-hour series adapted from the 1989 Steve Martin film and slated for NBC’s fall schedule. One minute O’Brien was shooting hoops with members of the crew during a break in filming; the next minute she told a friend she felt dizzy and suddenly collapsed. A brain aneurysm at the age of 44.
This is hardly meant to pass for a eulogy, as I didn’t know O’Brien well enough to write one. But as a producer and writer on the ill-fated NBC series, Kings, which O’Brien helped shepherd, the two occasions I was with her for any substantial amount of time—once at a company dinner, and once on set during filming—were enough to ascertain that I liked her and looked forward to working with her.
In the little time we had together, we shared an Irish flair for family, though her being one of seven close siblings duly trumped my being one of four. And while we didn’t exactly share her passion for football, I liked her all the more because of it. Had I gotten to know Nora any further, I can easily imagine having this to say about her:
What was clear from the start was that she had a great passion, she was very smart and insightful, had great taste and aptitude for development and production, and her thoughts on the material were spot-on. But the most amazing thing about her was her integrity. She fought for what she believed in, and she didn't tolerate dishonesty or a lot of the bull this business can throw at you. She believed in being a straight-up honest person, and that's why so many people were touched by her and are devastated by her loss.
That’s from Mark Stern, an executive at the Sci Fi channel where O’Brien worked for six years before her promotion at NBC Universal. Among other shows that O’Brien helped oversee at Sci Fi was Battlestar Galactica, which has earned at least two paeans from contributors to this blog (Gregory Wolfe, Santiago Ramos). Behind more visible figures such as Ronald Moore, the show’s creator, and Edward James Olmos, its star, were those like Nora O’Brien who did their comparatively anonymous part.
What makes her passing all the more untimely is that it comes upon the heels of the demise of Kings, a show that she worked so hard to help succeed, only to see it get sidelined at NBC even before it aired, and then struggle out the gate when it did. I have to tread carefully here, so as not to bite the hand that feeds me, nor overlook the fact that the reviews of Kings, a series that loosely adapts the story of King David for a modern context parallel to present-day America, were mostly mixed.
That said, anyone who knows the excellent marketing job that NBC did for the show last fall, a text-based poster campaign that I found notable for its level of understatement in a business so often wrought with overkill, might agree that in the end they never did what they needed to do, which was define the show in a clear and committed way. In my opinion, part of the problem was that religion, or the fear of it, got the better of them, and rather than making use of the show’s biblical imprint as one of its greater selling points, if anything they tried to hide it.
You have King David at your disposal, a figure that covers quite a huge demographic in this country, to say the least, and what do you choose instead for your ad in the back of a cab that I saw one night before it aired? “SEX...ENVY...JEALOUSY...GREED....” The unfortunate redundancy aside (envy and jealousy?), don’t most shows today have the same selling points? We all know the world of King David was steeped in these vices and more; so why not appeal to those elements that your potentially massive church- and temple- and mosque-going audience can’t get anywhere else on prime-time television?
Because you don’t want to risk their ire at offensive content. To be fair, NBC did take on religion with The Book of Daniel several years back, and paid dearly for it with the apoplectic response of certain camps in Christian America. I never saw the show and thus can’t comment on it, but if your subject is King David you have some very disturbing stories in First and Second Samuel to defend your potentially offensive content. Given what that massive demographic you’re not reaching out to can stomach of depravity in the biblical story of David—Samuel’s hacking Agag to pieces here comes to mind—they shouldn’t have much problem with a far tamer version on network television. Not if they’re to be taken at their Word, at least.
When a friend of mine who runs a church in the Bronx called me after the premiere of Kings to sing its praises, he also reported that he had just come from a large meeting of fellow pastors where none of them had even heard of the show. Meanwhile they and millions of others nationwide are poring over the Psalms on a daily basis.
After staggering for four weeks in its Sunday night slot, Kings was moved to hospice in a Saturday night bed, which lasted a week. Presently, it is off the air (but huge on iTunes) and supposed to resume in June to finish the remainder of its first and only season.
I guess this is what you would call a doubly unhappy ending.