Why 'Grace' Tumbled Under Fire

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Grace Under Fire" vaulted into prime time's Top 10 its first season and tied "Frasier" for the People's Choice Award as favorite new comedy series. Yet though the latter continues to amass accolades in its fifth year, the former exits ABC's schedule after tonight with barely a whimper.

As recently as three years ago, "Grace" and its star, Brett Butler, appeared to be on top of the world, moored in the coveted berth after "Home Improvement." Its rapid decline thus represents a case study of how a candidate to become television's next golden goose was allowed to lay such an egg. As one alumnus of the series put it, "You'd have to look pretty hard to find a show that went from No. 3 to off the air faster than that."

Sources attribute the show's demise principally to Butler's erratic behavior, augmented by the reluctance of the production company, Carsey-Werner, to address those problems until it became too late to rectify them.

Production on "Grace Under Fire" halted in October 1996, when Butler sought treatment for what was reported to be an addiction to painkillers, and again last August when she apparently suffered a relapse. Work on the show ceased for good a month ago, just 14 episodes into this year's 25-episode order.

At the time of the latest break, Carsey-Werner issued a statement saying, "We have decided to suspend production on 'Grace Under Fire' so that Brett [Butler] may have time to resolve personal issues."

Though the company held out hope of resuming production then, there is tacit agreement that the program's run is over. Both ABC and Carsey-Werner declined comment.

Networks wait eagerly to find series with the ratings potential of "Grace Under Fire," which retained more of "Home Improvement's" audience than anything else that's followed the Tim Allen hit. During the 1994-95 season, nearly 90% of those who watched "Home Improvement" stayed around to watch "Grace."

As recently as two seasons ago, the series still ranked No. 11 among prime-time programs, averaging nearly 21 million viewers a week. This year, the audience has dwindled to not much more than half that, though based on the general decline in network viewing, the show still might have survived minus the aggravation and tumult that went with it.

Some of those who worked on "Grace Under Fire," speaking on condition of anonymity, blame Carsey-Werner for letting the situation get out of hand. Others say that in light of what they characterized as Butler's self-destructive actions, there was little anyone could do to prevent the show from imploding.

In a 1996 autobiography, "Knee Deep in Paradise," Butler acknowledged a stormy history that included drug abuse and alcoholism in her youth. She also admitted to clashes with producers as she sought, she said, to protect her vision for the show.

Butler's publicist, Lisa Kasteler, said the comedian had no comment regarding the series or her plans. Those associated with the show past and present expressed hope that Butler would receive help, with one source speaking for many by calling the experience "just a shame for everyone involved."

Carsey-Werner has been one of television's most reliable hit factories, responsible for "Roseanne," "3rd Rock From the Sun," "Cybill" and Bill Cosby's last two prime-time series, including his current CBS sitcom.

Still, the company also developed a reputation for allowing stars to control their programs, often at the expense of the writer-producers. In fact, another Carsey-Werner show, the CBS comedy "Cybill," is also considered unlikely to return next season, with some feeling that the program's audience decline has corresponded with star Cybill Shepherd asserting more creative influence.

"Grace Under Fire" premiered in September 1993. Despite the show's commercial success, there was discord behind the scenes early in its run, prompting series creator Chuck Lorre to leave after the first season. A parade of writers has passed through since, with a new executive producer every year.

"Nothing I could do was going to make Brett happy," Lorre said in an interview last September. "The show was No. 2 [in the ratings], and she wasn't happy."

Continuing into its second season, "Grace" still looked like a major hit, dominating its time period even after ABC moved the show in April 1995 from behind "Home Improvement" to a night-anchoring position at 9 p.m. Wednesdays.

Carsey-Werner subsequently sold the rerun rights to local TV stations, and ABC gave the series a two-season renewal, ensuring that the program would reach the minimum 100 episodes needed to air in syndication Monday through Friday (a total of 112 have been produced).

"It didn't really matter from that point on," said a former writer, who described Carsey-Werner's attitude as, "Everything is just a problem to be overcome until we get to 100 episodes."

Carsey-Werner officials have maintained privately that Butler's well-being--not reaching 100 episodes--was their foremost priority. In an interview last fall, co-founder Tom Werner also called charges that the company affords its stars too much creative latitude "ridiculous," saying, "We always try to do what we think is best for the show."

Nevertheless, the task of keeping "Grace" going became increasingly problematic. Production sources say Butler wouldn't follow scripts, forcing producers to cobble together episodes from whatever footage was usable.

Because of those logistical hurdles, the show began taping frequently without a studio audience. Two regular cast members--Jon Paul Steuer, who played the Butler character's son; and Julie White, who co-starred as her friend Nadine--asked for and secured release from the series.

Matters deteriorated further this season. Sources from the show report that Butler threw a soda can at executive producer Tom Straw, who asked executives to provide him a bodyguard. They also said Butler insulted Straw in front of a stunned studio audience, using extremely crude terms.

From a creative standpoint, insiders feel "Grace Under Fire" veered away from its focus on the day-to-day struggles of a single working mother. While Roseanne's public flaps kept her name in the tabloids, her program's content remained relatively unscathed by such distractions until its final few seasons. On "Grace," producers say, turning out coherent episodes became a major challenge.

ABC hurt the show's ratings last season by moving it to 8 p.m. Wednesdays from its original 9 p.m. slot. As a further sign of its waning confidence, ABC renewed the show for this season but left the program off its fall schedule, holding it in reserve. Even the 100th episode--usually a cause for parties and a flurry of congratulatory ads in the Hollywood trade papers--went largely ignored when the show returned in November.

Producers who worked on "Grace Under Fire," meanwhile, have discussed a get-together once the current TV season concludes to share war stories. And hit-starved ABC can only hope one or more of the three comedies joining its lineup in March will emulate "Grace's" early performance--at least, up to a point.

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Losing 'Grace'

Charting the ratings decline of ABC's "Grace Under Fire" over its five seasons.

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Season Viewers Prime-time (in millions) Ranking 1993-94 28.7 6 1994-95 29.1 3 1995-96 20.7 11 1996-97 13.2 45 1997-98 11.2 62

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