Although a bit on the formulaic side, “TV Land Moguls” is a well-constructed, intelligently produced look at some of the heaviest-hitting mover/shaker producers throughout TV history, taking it in chronological order through each of six eras.
Unlike what the title might indicate, this is not about network bosses but production-house wizards and the Midas touch they brought to the tube. Host Merv Griffin and narrator Adam Arkin take us from Lucy and Desi through Jerry Bruckheimer in telling the story of how a precious few creative minds helped form and nurture what we have come to know as network primetime.
Things get started in the opener with a look at the pioneering days of the 1950s, focusing specifically on two key partnerships that would steer the way television did business for decades to come. The first is Lucille Ball and husband Desi Arnaz, recounting the much-told (but always interesting) story of how they defied conventional wisdom by producing their show in Los Angeles rather than New York and preserving it on kinescope so as to give birth to the concept of the rerun. It also formed the beginnings of the powerful and influential Desilu Studios, which produced not only “I Love Lucy” but countless other shows of the era.
While Arnaz was rightly credited as the business brains of the operation, he’s described in “TV Land Moguls” as a largely reclusive and alcoholic figure and Lucy as the de facto boss who ultimately had to step in and rescue the operation. There’s some priceless footage here, however, of Desi doing the audience warm-up in his smoking jacket (and while a lit cigarette dangles from his fingers, no less).
Also dominating the “Moguls” premiere are Danny Thomas and his production partner Sheldon Leonard, who gave the world “Make Room for Daddy” as well as “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Gomer Pyle, USMC” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” among many others. Surviving execs and actors from the period appear here to lend their perspective in interviews — including Marlo Thomas, Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore — while Ball is seen in a 1980s interview. (She died in 1989).
Of course, labeling this episode “The 1950s” is more than a bit of a misnomer, since it spills well over in the ’60s. But no matter. Other producers profiled in subsequent episodes include Quinn Martin, Jack Webb, Sherwood Schwartz, Grant Tinker, Norman Lear, Aaron Spelling, Leonard Goldberg, Garry Marshall, Stephen J. Cannell, Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner, Steven Bochco, David E. Kelley, Dick Wolf and Darren Star.
The first pair of segments in particular feature a slick blend of archival footage, information nuggets and insightful chat. The series comes from CBS News Prods., and its library clearly is an impressive one. If “TV Land Moguls” feels a bit too pat and truncated to be a truly definitive document, it benefits from being both smart and entertaining. Griffin is, unfortunately, reduced to reading a few cue cards here. Too bad. If anyone is qualified to wax eloquently about showbiz, it is he.
“TV Land Moguls” airs Wednesday from 9-10 p.m. on TV Land.