Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Riding Off into the Sunset (Strip)

So, the second-to-last nail has been pounded into the coffin of the NBC series "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," with it going on hiatus for the unforeseeable future. The only step left untaken is network cancellation.

I was thinking about writing a little blog about the show and, I'm afraid, that by the time I post it, the show will be totally gone. But my buddy tyranist met me for lunch, and he wanted to talk about the show too. He and I have been watching the show together since the second episode, as sort of a fun tradition and excuse to get together every week. Today, he rhetorically asked why people hate the show, and I couldn't answer him. I don't know, exactly, but I know why I loved it, and thought I'd talk about that here and perhaps guess as to why it failed.

When the show first premiered, it got fantastic ratings (and why not? The pilot was some of the most compelling television I'd ever seen). But it was all downhill from there.

This last Monday, it got something like a 4.18 rating, which is what your average "Firefly" did in 2002 (and that, besides being an even better show, was MUCH more screwed over by its network than Aaron Sorkin could ever insist happened with "Studio 60"). There has been talk about giving the show the axe for months, and "Studio 60" must have had at least one champion that has kept it going this long (since the negative talk started up the minute the ratings dropped in the second episode). I, and especially tyranist, would love the show to continue.

It's a weekly Drama about a thinly-disguised weekly comedy sketch show on a thinly-disguised national network and the crazy stuff that goes on behind the scenes, as well as some of the politics and headaches that come with running a show (and a network) like that. Created by Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme, who gave us "The West Wing," it stars (I initially typed "starred," but that's just being negative) Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, Amanda Peet, Sarah Paulsen, Steven Weber, D.L. Hughley, and Timothy Busfield.*

On the same night, NBC's got a monster hit in "Heroes," a great multi-character superhero Drama that has actually been getting better as it goes along, but "Studio 60" hasn't been holding its lead in (in fact, it's dropping it like a baked potato wrap with a human fetus in it). Perhaps that's because "Heroes" appeals to one demographic and "Studio 60" appeals to another, or maybe there's some other reason for the dropoff. Besides bad ratings, the show seems to have created more enemies than a Republican agnostic running an abortion clinic, who also happens to vocally hate "American Idol."

There's a lot of good, even great, things to say about the show.

I love "Saturday Night Live." When I was with the Marines, I spent roughly one-third of my conscious life talking about that program. I am absolutely fascinated about how SNL is (and was) made, and "Studio 60" is the closest we've gotten (though I heartily recommend the book "Live From New York," an amusing and informative novel-sized collection of SNL cast and crew memories). It seems to be a pretty accurate glimpse at what it might be like to work in that kind of medium, and that kind of environment, with those kind of people. Minus 95% of the dull aspects of every job.

Matthew Perry, one of the most talented and comically-gifted actors of this generation, was allowed to shine on his own, and came across much more able than his other post-"Friends" castmates, managing to be realistic and lovable, in spite of being on the wrong side of virtually every argument.

It had that great advantage TV has over the movies in that there is time to set up long story arcs, drop threads to be picked up in the future, space to show us each character, hand them something to do, give them room to grow, places to go, and time to make us love them. "Studio 60" made Amanda Peet actually likable (something no other film or show has accomplished).

Every hour was a compelling look at what the guys at the top went through to make art. We saw frustration and hurdles, arguments and concessions, studio interference, ratings ups and downs, problems with budget and sponsors, writer's block, drugs and harassment and discrimination, pride and disappointment, lightness and despair, and lots of different kinds of relationships (of course). Most of the time, it was shown to us with cleverness, a quick pace, humour, and brilliant dialogue.

The show did have a few negatives it struggled with, however.

I will admit that "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" was an overlong, awkward, and hard-to-remember title. But NBC tried to nip that by calling it simply "Studio 60" almost from the get-go.

NBC has been at the bottom of the ratings pile for the last couple of years, not just in third-place anymore, but often coming in below Fox (which used to be impossible). It's hard to create a hit when nobody's watching. And "Studio 60" was on Monday nights, opposite "CSI: Miami," which I have never watched, but I imagine has the same devoted following the fifteen other CSIs have. Not good.

Another thing the show had going against it was that NBC, in one of these crazy dueling-volcanoes/-magicians/-bodyswitchers/-asteroids/-Robin Hoods/-alien invasions/-Columbus occurrences, produced two different series about fictional sketch comedy shows this season. The other one was a half-hour sitcom called "30 Rock" (a reference to 30 Rockefeller Center, where "Saturday Night Live" is produced), this one created by ex-SNLer Tina Fey and starring Alec Baldwin, Fey, and Tracy Morgan. Comparisons were inevitable, and after that first hit "Studio 60" episode, pretty much everyone seemed to side with "30 Rock." I'm not here to bash that show (which I don't find unwatchable, but certainly not great), but many think both are Comedies, a lot of people appear to think that they are both trying to accomplish the same thing, and literally everybody thinks you can't love one and love the other.

Another downside to "Studio 60" is that it is smart. Smart is like garlic and a crucifix to your average Reality TV vampire. Maybe I don't even need to go into that.

I do feel that the show hasn't been as good the last few episodes, but even "Battlestar Galactica" has put out a stinker or two, a criticism "Studio 60" hasn't earned yet.

In writing this this week, I was going to go online and see what your average Joe had to say about the show (from message boards and such). But then I decided I just didn't care. I know that I liked it, and my friend liked it, and I heard enough criticism from professionals to get the gist of it.

A lot of people complained that the show-within-the-show was not funny. Yeah, that may be a valid complaint, but how often did we actually see the live show? Maybe one minute out of each episode (or two if you count the musical guest)? We saw snippets, enough to show that they actually had sketches and recurring characters. But even if those moments were as bad as people say they were, "Studio 60" was laugh-out-loud funny pretty much every episode, just due to character and dialogue. And what's more, "Studio 60" wasn't a comedy, it was a drama, and that drama was often just as compelling as any medical, courtroom, or procedural series.

One of the things that has most surprised me about the critical reception to "Studio 60" is that it has been so reviled. While "30 Rock"'s detractors just shrug it off as inconsequential silliness (which is also my opinion), "Studio 60" seems to engender outrage not seen since the ABC show about the priest with . . . god forbid . . . real human weaknesses (or NBC's own "Book of Daniel," which probably offended people for the same reasons, though it's sometimes hard to tell). People are angered by the gravity and self-importance of "Studio 60," both the real show and the fake show-within-the-show. How dare they make it look like it takes work, talent, and inspiration to put on a live TV sketch show? How DARE they show people who are passionate about their work?

But come on. Have you ever tried to create something? Something that entertains? Something involving a group of people? It takes sweat, collaboration, talent, compromise, heart, teamwork, dedication, and inspiration. "Studio 60" was trying to show that, and the feeling of satisfaction you get when it works out right. Dude, even a turd like "Mad TV" takes a tremendous amount of work to get on the air.

There are a lot of shows that have been canceled before their time (I could write an essay about "Enterprise," "The Dana Carvey Show," "Space: Above and Beyond," "Freaks and Geeks," "Police Squad!", "Star Trek," "The Flash," "The Others," "Adventures of Brisco County Junior," and the most egregious example, the aforementioned "Firefly"), and "Studio 60" won't be the last. The bottom line is, television is a money-making enterprise. While some shows go on and on, regardless of quality ("The Simpsons," "e.r.," "Crossing Jordan," "Survivor," etc.), it's because they make money for their producers and networks. And, to a lesser extent, it's political too. But I'm not privy to any insider information, so I can't even guess at all those goings-on.**

It's taken me a while to type this up (and I'm still not entirely satisfied with it), and during that time, there's talk that the final handful of episodes might not even air (but just be dumped onto the internet, which is better than nothing, but still). Losing a show is hard, and it's too bad that so much has conspired to kill it, but I have really enjoyed watching "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" with my friend.

And that's something.

Rish "You Can't Take the Sky From Me" Outfield

*Which reminds me of a stupid anecdote. Last year, I was working on the series "Without A Trace" (with Anthony LaPaglia), and Timothy Busfield was directing it. I had been paired off with another extra, a hard-partying Hispanic dude, and we joked around for most of the time, walking the halls pretending we were FBI men (which isn't totally absurd, since we were supposed to be FBI men). We saw Timothy and I mentioned the fact that Busfield had played a character on REVENGE OF THE NERDS. My new friend didn't believe me, either because Busfield had aged so much, or because this dude just didn't remember him. "I swear," I said, "He played Wormser." "No way, dude," he said, though he may actually have said "ese," or "vato," or "pedaso de la mierda de mil araƱas," I don't really know), and I said, "I'll prove it." We walked up to T.B. and I said, "Mister Busfield, you played Wormser on REVENGE OF THE NERDS, didn't you?" He looked at me and looked at my friend and seemed to get really, really angry. "No!" he shouted, with (feigned) frustration. "I played POINDEXTER!" Then he smiled and we laughed and he went about his business.Thanks for letting me share.

**Anecdote Number Two: I was on the set of the Fox non-starter "Kitchen Confidential" the day that show was cancelled. I could see how deflated the people involved were, how the crew looked around and at each other and realized that their little group would be split up a week later, and they'd be going their separate ways. The actors seemed to take it the hardest (I saw its star, Bradley Cooper, unhappily passing the news to someone--hopefully not just his bookie or dealer--on his cellphone), and there was a break, hard to say if it was an hour or three, where everything shut down and people lamented their fate. I never watched that show, so I can't tell you if it was crap or not, but there were people who spent eight to fifteen hours of each day working to bring it to the screen. And that was all over as soon as they wrapped that episode.

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