CBS' 'Partners' Creators Cope With Complicated Back Story: TCA

Ray Richmond contributes to Deadline’s TV coverage.

In 1995, Fox premiered a new sitcom entitled Partners that starred Tate Donovan and Jon Cryer as architects and best pals who have an offbeat secretary. In the pilot, one of them gets engaged, tossing their friendship and partnership into jeopardy. That pilot was directed by top sitcom helmer James Burrows. Seventeen years later, CBS this fall will premiere a new sitcom — also entitled Partners — starring David Krumholtz and Michael Urie as architects and best pals with a zany secretary. In the pilot, one of the guys gets engaged, threatening their friendship and partnership. Like its namesake predecessor, Partnersit was directed by James Burrows. The similarities between the two projects were front and center at TCA this morning when Partners creators/exec producers David Kohan and Max Mutchnick appeared with their stars to promote their new show. Kohan and Mutchnick essentially dismissed the parallels between the two shows’ premises as, with Mutchnick calling the identical titles as an “unfortunate coincidence.” Quipped Krumholtz, “Is it also an unfortunate coincidence that my character’s name is Tate Donovan?”

Jeff Greenstein, who created and ran the Fox series, has been vocal about his displeasure over the new show on Twitter. “So I guess it’s OK to rip off the title, premise, pilot story, characters’ jobs and pilot director from a colleague’s series and claim it as your own,” he wrote on Twitter. “Have fun!”

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Complicating the situation are a couple of factors. One is that Greenstein worked for years as a writer, producer and exec producer on Kohan and Mutchnick’s Emmy-winning comedy Will & Grace. So there is already a history between the men — and, previously, a working and positive one. Another mitigating issue is the fact that the new Partners has been framed as the story of the personal and work relationship between Kohan and Mutchnick — as friends since high school and business partners since their early 20s — and represents their third attempt to get such a story to series. The first was a 2007 CBS pilot that was also called Partners and starred Jay Mohr and Brian Austin Green. The second pilot was made the following year at ABC and was titled Fourplay, with Alan Tudyk, Josh Cooke and Ty Burrell starring. It was finally got picked up to series this time as Partners. The main difference in the new show from the original Fox Partners is that one of the two lead characters is gay, reflecting the real-life orientation of Kohan (who is straight) and Mutchnick (who’s gay). As for Burrows, who will stay with the CBS show as a director/executive producer, he has a long history with Mutchnick and Kohan and has directed most of their pilots, including Will & Grace and the 2007 Partners.

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At the session, Kohan and Mutchnick were asked this morning why they didn’t just change the title of the show or profession of the leads. “They weren’t architects initially, they were writers,” Kohan replied, “but we felt there was something about writing that’s a little insular.” Regarding the title, he added, “We started thinking about our titles and said, this is what this is.” Added Mutchnick, “We thought (Partners) was perfect for this show.” As for Greenstein’s Fox show, “I obviously knew that Jeff had done this show called Partners,” Kohan said. “I was not very familiar with it. And it was not something that we were even thinking about.” Added Mutchnick: “Jeff is a great writer, he worked for us for many years and it was a wonderful working experience. I’m not really sure why this is interesting to him. It’s just such a different world.” He said he’s never seen Greenstein’s show, “but it’s just kind of been a surprise to us because this is the story of the two of us (Kohan and Mutchnick), and my husband, and his wife, and that’s the show that we’re doing,” Mutchnick said. “That’s where we’re coming from.”

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Asked to expand on the subject after the panel, both Kohan and Mutchnick seemed genuinely surprised and a little bit flustered that this was turning into an issue. Kohan admitted that Burrows had told them they needed to change the title, he was overruled because “everyone agreed that (Partners) was the right title. “We’d thought of a few other things, like Significant Others,” he said. Mutchnick made the point that in fact the two shows in question “have nothing to do with each other.” “We don’t even have a defensive posture about it,” he said. “I hope (Greenstein) does very well in his life. It’s just odd to me that he wants attention, he knows us very wel … That’s why it’s surprising. We’re just kind of trying to lower the temperature of this thing because it’s not really a story.”

Greenstein declined comment.

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