| As April of this year passed and I got more and more Kingdom Hospital DVDs marked “domestic broadcast version,” two things became apparent to me. The first was that the shows were getting steadily better. The second—by tax day it could no longer be denied—was that we were going down the tubes. That was a Maalox month for me, and I often found my thoughts turning to the great screenwriter William Goldman’s First Rule of Show Business: “Nobody knows anything.”Kingdom Hospital should have worked. It was based on a Danish miniseries that was both funny and scary. We had a great cast, including two Academy Award nominees (Bruce Davison and Diane Ladd). We had a network (ABC) that was fully behind us, because I had delivered successful miniseries projects to it before and because it was desperate for a hit. I had a near-perfect rapport with my KH writing partner, Richard Dooling, who knows plenty about medicine and whose macabre sense of humor is in perfect harmony with mine. Add to this a producer with whom I’ve worked for 10 years, a director who heroically signed on to shoot all 15 hours of the show (and work with the same core crew throughout) to give the series a seamless, made-by-hand feel, and jeez louise, why wouldn’t I feel confident?
ABC execs felt that way too. Not everything I’d done for them was great—only God gets it right all the time—but some of our cooperative efforts, such as The Stand and Storm of the Century, had done well with the critics as well as in the ratings. The network made no secret of wanting a marquee dramatic success in the midst of the reality show glut. Also, ABC had something that, to my knowledge, it never had before: every single script. This made the show easier to budget, easier to schedule, and much easier to cast (actors love seeing the whole arc of their characters). And for ABC it became easier (at least in theory) to evaluate Hospital’s chances of success. What the network believed—what executive producer Mark Carliner and director Craig Baxley believed, what my cowriter, Rick Dooling, and I myself believed—was that KH was going to be a roaring success. As late as this March, Rick and I delivered a season 2 “bible” which the Alphabet net bought, paid for, and eagerly received.
Of course, most of the execs who bought that bible—and Kingdom Hospital in the first place—were gone by May, part of a major network shake-up that may not be over yet. KH was “put on hiatus” (net-speak for “get that dead fish outta here so it doesn’t stink up the May sweeps”). It will finish, however; those of you who want to see how the story ends—which it does rather splendidly, I think—can watch the final four episodes that began June 24 with “The Passion of Reverend Jimmy,” our tip of the cap to Mel Gibson.
So who’s to blame for this el floppo? The network? That would be an easy answer—ABC has fallen on hard times—but it won’t wash. ABC promoted well and delivered a large enough audience for the premiere episode to land in the Nielsen top 20. After that, watching the ratings was like watching a man walk down a set of suicide steps. We went from 5.5 to 3.7 to 2.3, finally bottoming out at something like a 1.0, which is basically the ratings equivalent of the black death.
Was it the story? Man, we all thought that the idea of ghosts in a modern hospital was a groove, and European audiences flipped for the Lars von Trier version. American audiences may not have been comfortable with the mixture of realistic hospital triage and supernatural goings-on in the Old Kingdom, which, as loyal viewers know, is Kingdom Hospital’s darker half.
My wife—who wrote the story on which “The Passion of Reverend Jimmy” is based—may have come closest to the real problem after watching the first episode. She was very quiet after it was over, and I asked her, with some real concern, if she hadn’t liked it. She said she’d liked it fine, but added there was “a lot of heavy lifting in it.”
I knew what she meant, and that was when my first feelings of unease surfaced. There was a lot of heavy lifting in that first episode, and in the next couple, too. I think there’s a lot of fun to be had in them as well, but Kingdom Hospital really is a novel, not a bite-size TV series like CSI or Law & Order, and most novels offer readers a deal: If you give me some time and effort, I’ll pay you back double… or triple… or, in the case of the great ones, maybe a dozen times over. With KH, I realize now, we were asking viewers to give us a week or two, maybe three, and that was more time than most were willing to give.
Am I putting TV viewers down, accusing them of being dumb? I am not. You come home tired, you want something that’s fun and familiar? That’s fine. It doesn’t preclude the thrill of discovering something new—just look at the success of 24. All I’m saying is that inertia is a tough barrier to crash through, and Kingdom Hospital wasn’t capable of doing it. Those last four episodes sure are fine, though—for me, they pay off like a jackpot in Vegas. I only wish I could have brought a larger audience along to collect it.