When "Spin City" premiered a couple of years ago, it was not a particularly good show.
And that's not the evaluation of a critic. That's how Michael J. Fox, the show's star and one of its executive producers, saw it.And the big problem was the original concept. Fox's character, Mike Flaherty, is the deputy mayor of New York City. And he was deeply involved in a romance with a gorgeous female reporter who covered city hall.
"Basically, what happened in the first season was we discovered that if you had a young guy who's very successful, very good at his job, funny, glib, intelligent and was living with an unbelievably beautiful woman who thought he was terrific . . . that probably it wasn't that funny," Fox said. "And it was, probably, maybe a little irritating."
So, after just a handful of episodes, the girlfriend was dropped from the cast. And instead of a show with a star, a co-star and a bunch of supporting characters, "Spin City" became an ensemble comedy with Fox at its center.
"To have a guy who is successful and has so many things happening on one level yet (who) cannot find a way to make his personal life work . . . made it more interesting and gave us more stuff to do," Fox said.
It also helped turn the show around. In its first season, "Spin City" struggled to be better than just OK. But things were looking up by the end of that season.
And in its second season, "Spin City" became one of the best comedies on television. So what happened?
"Really the answer is just - things evolve," Fox said. "It's just like a kid. It just grows however it grows, and we have such amazingly talented writers and these (actors) are freakily gifted so it just starts to happen."
Fox said it was "really exciting" how the show came together in its second season.
"There's a setup, and you cut to a reaction shot of (Alan) Ruck and you get a laugh," he said. "And that's the kind of stuff that we live for. And so now to be getting into that stuff, it really frees us up to do a lot of other things because we know we'll get laughs with just the character stuff."
And the characters have become distinct - and very funny - individuals. There's Ruck's pompous, intolerant Stuart; Barry Bostwick's dimwitted mayor; Richard Kind's manic press secretary, Paul; Michael Boatman's openly gay Carter; Connie Britton as the unlucky-in-love Nikki; Alexander Chaplin's young, rather naive James; and Victoria Dillard's competent Janelle.
"After two years of working with all these guys, all the writers feel like they actually know these characters," said co-creator and executive producer Bill Lawrence. "And that's a lot more rare than you would think."
He said that many sitcom writers simply come up with what they think are funny lines and force them out of the mouths of characters without much thought about who those characters are.
"My friends ask me if all these people are really like the characters they play," Lawrence said. "And that says to me that we're doing really good work. And it's not true - everybody here, to an extent, is very different from the character they're playing.
"Except, of course, for Richard (Kind)."
But it wasn't just the writers who struggled to find the characters. So did the actors.
"I think the first season I was trying to make the mayor something that was probably wiser, smarter, more in control than anybody else felt he should have been," Bostwick said. "So I was probably bumping heads with the creative force in the show.
"And I think by the end of the first season and definitely by the beginning of the second season, I sort of gave that up and just sort of went with the flow of how it was going to just naturally end up. And trust that these guys knew what they were doing. Basically, the first season I didn't trust them at all. I felt that I was much wiser and smarter than they were."
All of which raises an interesting point. If it weren't for the fact that Fox is a big TV star, chances are that "Spin City" might have lasted, oh, maybe half a season. The network would never have given the show enough time to work out its problems and hit its stride.
Which can only leave us to wonder how many other shows that last six or 13 episodes might have turned out not only to be good but turned into hits if they were given the chance.
Television series are something that cry out for patience. But patience is in short supply among TV programmers - to their detriment as well as ours.