Thursday, December 14, 2006

Studio 60's Ratings Make it Studio 6.0

Recently, I took an in-depth look at why Lost’s ratings were down this season. I had such a fun time critically thinking about such things that I have decided to examine what can only be described as the biggest disappointment, ratings-wise, this season: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Created and written by Aaron Sorkin (Sports Night, The West Wing), it was supposed to be the show that would anchor Monday nights on NBC and catapult the struggling network to the top. Unfortunately, the show has acted like an achor, but in the more common way they are used: it is weighing down and dragging the network to the bottom. NBC has picked up the show for the entire season, but I cannot see how it could granted a second season with its current ratings. Why did this show not live up to the hype? Or come anywhere close to a ratings success? A couple of theories:

Too Preachy: The first couple of episodes save for the pilot, talked about big world issues such as the role of religion in and on TV and the War on Terror. While such topics would be fine if presented on Sorkin’s old show, The West Wing, there are wildly out of place on a drama about comedy. Not to say that if Mr. Sorkin wanted to tackled these concerns later on in the show’s life, after he had established the show’s pace and place in the landscape, that’s one thing. But Sorkin hadn’t earned that privilege yet. True, The West Wing brought him credibility, but he didn’t seem to know that he was working on a brand new show, with brand new limitations and situations that he couldn’t thrust his views into right away.

Aaron Sorkin didn’t realize that he was back playing with his own money, not the house’s, when he gambled on debating topical issues in the first few episodes. Viewers and critics immediately turned off. Luckily, recent episodes have been light on hard issues and it seems to me that Sorkin has slowly realized that he can’t push as hard as he could on The West Wing.

Too Personal: Aaron Sorkin is personally writing each episode. He has admitted to putting some of real life experiences into the show. For example, star director Danny Tripp (played by Bradley Whitford) is a recovering cocaine addict, like Sorkin is. However, Sorkin has so thinly veiled his truth from his fiction. Harriet Hayes (played by Sarah Paulson) is a Christian, church-going comedian and actress. So was Aaron Sorkin’s ex-girlfriend Kristin Chenoweth. That connection makes it hard to watch as Sorkin, through the characters he writes, makes Harriet seem dumb or not too bright. Or when another character rips into her. A recent example had the characters palyed by Nate Corddry and D.L. Hughley repeatedly admonish Harriet for wanting to appear in a men’s magazine. Which, coincidentally (or not), Kristin did as well. With the characters whining about how it would demean Harriet to do appear in lingerie, it is clear that Aaron is sending a personal message through his show.

There is also a Vanity Fair reporter who shares similar traits to another Sorkin ex. Matthew Albie (played by Matthew Perry) has to write every episode of Studio 60 because he is the prodigal son and his fellow writers are idiots. A big complaint on the set of The West Wing was that the other writers rarely got to contribute anything because Sorkin repeatedly took control. The Amanda Peet character is strongly against reality TV amplifying what Aaron Sorkin was fervent about when he was promoting the new show. There are other instances where lines out of a character’s mouth or their actions seem out of place and more indicative of Aaron Sorkin wanting to say something personal through his creations. While it is true that if you didn’t know anything about who was creating the show, this issue wouldn’t be that bad. But remember, NBC was touting Mr. Sorkin as the third “star” of the show, so things such cannot be ignored.

Too Unfunny: A frequent lament about the show to be sure. It is a drama, but it is a drama about a comedy show. Rarely, though, is anything on the show, whether it be behind the scenes or on stage is actually funny. And you need funny to counter any drama. Again, The West Wing did it well, with moments of comedy balanced by the larger issue.

Once again, in recent episodes, the comedy seems to be improving. I laughed at loud at parts of the show, which was rare early on. I believe this aspect of the show is getting better and I hope it continues.

Too Familiar: Matthew Perry. Bradley Whitford. Quick cadences to dialogue. Maybe the public is just tired at this point. Sure everyone loved Perry on Friends. Whitford was gold on The West Wing. But how can we enjoy them if they never go away? And people seem to forget that The West Wing was falling pretty quickly in its final few years. Sure, Sorkin was gone at that point, but it was his monster. It still had his fingerprints on it. So why is it a surprise when The East Wing (Studio 60) doesn’t light up the boards?

The rest of the cast is stupendous. Corddry, Hughley, Paulson all have shining moments. But they are usually playing off of the Whitford or Perry characters. Paulson is particularly trapped in a romantic entanglement with Perry. Corddry and Hughley are starting to grow, but Sarah Paulson is stuck. Studio 60 needs to pull back slightly from Matthew and Bradley and focus on the other characters.

Too Bad of a Time Slot: As mentioned before, Studio 60 was supposed to rule Monday nights. It was the sure bet, while its lead-in, Heroes, was going to be the show that struggled. Unfortunately, the reverse happened. Heroes is a big hit, and deservedly so. However, that leaves Studio 60 with a strange lead-in. Heroes is a sci-fi fantasy serial drama in the mold of Lost. Studio 60 is a straight up drama about real people. They aren’t really compatible with each other. Geeks aren’t going to stick around for every day stuff; furthermore, Studio 60 was and is billed as a “smart” drama, but often serial dramas are taxing to the brain as people try to figure out clues and plot points, which is good for Heroes, but bad for Studio 60.

NBC is going to stick with Studio 60 on Mondays for now, but I would suggest a change. Stick it on Thursdays nights after the two-hour comedy block and move ER to Monday nights. Studio 60 would be great “flipside” to the previously seen comedy shows. And it would be a good programming gimmick to put the comedy about backstage at a sketch show (30 Rock) with its dramatic counterpoint (Studio 60). If NBC doesn’t want to move ER then they should stick Studio 60 with Friday Night Lights. Both shows are struggling but perhaps could find an audience together. FNL is supposed to be a family show and while I have yet to hear the description applied to Studio 60, The West Wing was once considered a family show so Sorkin can write one.

There is no single reason why Studio 60 is not performing as well as predicted. Perhaps it got buried under its own hype. Sorkin’s previous endeavors in the TV world were surprise hits with little expectations. Studio 60 had huge expectations and has failed to live up to them. Maybe Sorkin can right the ship and then pray for a second season to further his rebuilding. Otherwise, he might be left out in the Sunset Strip.


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