Book Review: “Top of the Rock: The Rise and Fall of Must See TV” by Warren Littlefield

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"Top of the Rock"

If you habitually watched sitcoms throughout the 1990s and wanted to know the full stories behind all of your favorite shows, “Top of the Rock” is the book for you. It’s an imperfect but very entertaining read.

The book focuses on NBC’s run of TV dominance in the 1990s, driven mostly by its standout Thursday night lineup. Written by longtime NBC suit Warren Littlefield, who you may remember as having been played by actor Bob Balaban in both the Late Shift HBO movie and on Seinfeld– and yes, I pictured him as Balaban the whole time I was reading- the book is a strange hybrid. It’s half oral history, and half Littlefield’s memoir.

This is a very strange way to structure a book- it’s the opinions of all of the different people involved, yet Littlefield originated the project and likely had control over what was included, along with cowriter T.R. Pearson. When I write my autobiography some day, I’ll be sure to publish it in oral history form, interviewing all my friends but only using the quotes that say I was right about everything.

The book rampages through the creations and various runs of the most popular NBC shows of the 1990s, from Seinfeld to Friends to ER to Will & Grace. It’s all riveting stuff, even if there’s not a whole lot of new information, aside from former “ER” star Noah Wyle admitting, apropos of nothing, that he took two women back to his hotel room one night. Large numbers of key people associated with the shows, both in front of and behind the camera, agreed to participate.

I know I’ve heard the Seinfeld origin story told at least ten times previously, although the story about Jerry Seinfeld ultimately deciding to the quit the show is among the book’s strongest. The Will & Grace chapter is a highlight as well.

So what’s wrong with the book, aside from the strange structure? Littlefield leaves out anything related to the Letterman/Leno succession battle. I know that’s not the focus of the book, but I’d have loved to hear the former executive’s side of that, especially since he’s so often been associated with it.

There’s also not more than passing mention of all of the shows- The Single Guy, Veronica’s Closet, Caroline in the City, etc. that were part of the “Must See” brand and didn’t succeed nearly at the level of Seinfeld or Friends. In showbiz making-of books, failures tend to be more fascinating than successes. There’s also just about no mention of NewsRadio, a truly brilliant show that also ran on NBC at the time.

The other major thread of the book is repeated references to Littlefield’s epic feud with his then-boss, Don Ohlmeyer. Ohlmeyer is depicted, by Littlefield and others, as a bullying, mean-spirited jerk, who frequently got drunk at the office and -worst of all- didn’t know anything about television and was often wrong.

Sure, much of that might be true, but that Ohlmeyer didn’t participate in the book makes it feel like piling on and score-settling. And besides, I guess it’s a rule now, with the ESPN book and now this, that Don Ohlmeyer has to be the primary villain of every TV business oral history.

Then there’s a final chapter in which Littlefield and others bash what NBC has become in the years since he left, laying all the blame at the feet of Jeff Zucker. Once again, I’m sure the author is right. But not giving Zucker and other post-Littlefield executives a chance to reply just feels unfair. And the book never acknowledges that despite far inferior ratings, great comedy is still on NBC on Thursday nights, with Parks & Recreation and (until recently) Community. 

Regardless, you can ignore the strange structure and the various things that are glaringly missing, “Top of the Rock” is a very entertaining and enjoyable read.

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