As journalism, Top Of The Rock: Inside The Rise And Fall Of Must See TV is largely a failure. It doesn’t attempt to account for all points of view, it doesn’t pursue the interesting hints and stories that are dropped, and it tries too hard to provide an epic overview of NBC in the ’80s and ’90s (mostly the latter). On the other hand, the book is a wild success when read as the collective dialogue of a group of people who had a great time making some great TV, and are now getting the band back together for one last show. Much of the time, the participants in this oral history seem like they’re extending a hand to readers, saying, “Have I got a story for you.” And they usually do.
Top Of The Rock resulted when former NBC president of entertainment Warren Littlefield opened up a giant storage unit full of documents and other mementos from his time at the network. From there, he decided to write a book, but he didn’t want to limit it to his experience. He interviewed many of his fellow executives, and creative personnel and actors from the era’s top shows. The book’s greatest fault is that the resulting story still manages to be somewhat one-sided, but the approach also allows for an inside look at how TV can work when it’s really humming, which other books about the medium haven’t really captured.
Littlefield’s time as president of the network neatly coincides with the Seinfeld era. His first major decision as president was how the network was going to follow up the loss of its flagship hit Cheers, and he was fired in fall 1998, shortly after the final broadcasts of Seinfeld reruns on the network. During that period, Littlefield helped develop the shows that propelled the network to the top of the Nielsen ratings, as well as utility players that helped plug in the gaps. Littlefield offers a good survey of both types of shows, devoting lengthy sections to programs like ER and Friends, but also taking time to talk Mad About You and Just Shoot Me. (Sadly, NewsRadio, arguably the era’s greatest sitcom, isn’t even mentioned.)
When Top Of The Rock focuses on how these series came together, it’s electrifying. The story of how the network took a chance on Jennifer Aniston by filming episodes of Friends while CBS still had a contract with her makes for surprisingly gripping reading, even though flipping on any nearby television will show Aniston playing Rachel per usual. Similarly, the story of how David Kohan and Max Mutchnick stumbled their way toward the program that became Will & Grace gives great insight into the creative process of both men, as well as their collaborator, sitcom director James Burrows.
But the book lags when it leaves the creatives behind and heads into the executive suites. The most interesting executive is Preston Beckman, the network’s famed scheduling guru, who was fond of big, gutsy moves and finding tiny tidbits in ratings data that other stat-heads wouldn’t have noticed. The book could use more of Beckman talking about why he suggested the moves he did, and it could use more discussion of these scheduling ins and outs in general. The book also struggles with depicting its antagonist, Littlefield’s boss, Don Ohlmeyer, who comes off as a gigantic asshole, but is never interviewed to give his side of the story. Littlefield has said in interviews that if Ohlmeyer wants to talk, he can write his own book, but not having his voice dooms the segments about the network’s executives.
Still, those segments are few and far between. When the story is about how the network took gambles on risky-seeming pilots that ultimately paid off, Top Of The Rock has a breezy, insider quality that makes for compulsive reading. Littlefield doesn’t tell the whole story, but the story he tells is damn entertaining.