Monday, July 02, 2007

Burning off '...the Sunset Strip'

The final episodes of Aaron Sorkin's comedy-drama TV series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip got burnt off by its American network over the past few weeks. The show had a ton of advance hype before it launched, thanks to a crackerjack cast, an incendiary opening to the pilot and the fact it was Sorkin's return to network television four years after his acrimonious departure from The West Wing. Critics wondered if a TV series about TV could find a wide audience, or would it suffer from being seen as too self-regarding. There are no shortage of TV series set within the world of TV series that have been failures, but there have been successes too - often sitcoms [Murphy Brown. The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Larry Sanders Show].

Studio 60's problems were not centred round its setting, but the show's content. It was set behind the scenes of a Saturday Night Live-esque weekly sketch show. But it wasn't funny, nor was it particularly dramatic. The show revolved around the on-again, off-again relationship between a massively talented Jewish TV writer and a hardcore Christian female performer. According to critics, this was an analogue for the relationship between Sorkin and a particular actress. Sorkin has battled with addiction issues. The show's central character - writer Matt Albie, played by Matthew Perry - was resorting to painkillers to write the show. At times Studio 60 felt more like therapy than entertainment.

Ratings plummeted and critics sniped. Many of the Sorkin trademarks that had made The West Wing [and Sorkin's first TV series, the frequently sublime Sports Night] such a success were present and corrent - rat-a-tat dialogue, overlapping conversations, silky smooth visuals enlivening a talky set-up [no doubt thanks to director, executive producer and frequent Sorkin collaborator Thomas Schlamme]. But the extra spark that made its predecessors come alive was missing. Not funny, not dramatic. The West Wing's White House setting meant the stakes were always high, but who cares if a sketch comedy show succeeds or fails?

By December last year Studio 60 was deep in trouble. It rallied creatively with a wonderful Christmas episode, but returned in the New Year back without any fresh impetud. The show was pulled off air in February after 16 episodes. The remaining six episodes have just been burned off in America, screened in the dog days of summer when nobody's watching much TV. The final few helpings did serve up some genuine drama, but it was far too little, too late. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip will be released on DVD later this year and I'll buy it. I've bought everything else he's done, and will always give new Sorkin material a chance. But who knows if Sorkin will be given another chance on TV any time soon?


Anonymous said...

You make it sound as if people stopped watching because they didn't like the show. As if it were cancelled because of ratings. This television show will be a case study in network mismanagement in the near future.
Nbc had the worst over-saturating marketing campaign ever created, “the stars are about to collide”. They continually (to this date) cut promos to make it look like a comedy. They put it on at 10PM on Mondays, when market research shows the only dramas to do well at 10PM are FORMULAIC; which is why it had better ratings in Central time (funny considering the red/blue supposed divide of the show). The audience has a ton of options to see it at other times, so of course they’re not going to see it at 10PM. It was the 2nd most DVR’d show of the year; it was consistently top ten on Itunes; and this doesn’t count Amazon or Rewind viewing. The show takes way too much energy and concentration to watch for the first time at 10PM, so noone does, but the fans are there in masses. Then nbc, when the show was getting bad publicity from basicly two sources, a rival network and a rival show it was kicking the ratings crap out of, bailed entirely.

It can never be said the show was canceled because of ratings, these are the end of regular season numbers:
61. Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip NBC 8.5 3.6/9
61. Medium NBC 8.5 3.0/8
83. The Black Donnellys NBC 6.7 2.7/7
87. Scrubs NBC 6.4 3.2/8
95. Friday Night Lights NBC 6.1 2.3/6
102. The Real Wedding Crashers NBC 5.8 2.7/7
102. 30 Rock NBC 5.8 2.7/7

The early problems of complete ineptitude on the part of nbc killed this show and in trying to cover that fact they want the show to have a bad legacy. The grave mistake made by WB/Mr. Sorkin was in letting nbc bid against CBS.

The story the day of its finale were the classy fans of the show that took out an ad in The Hollywood Reporter in support of Studio 60’s charity, Tipitina’s Foundaton. Hopefully they raise a lot of money, that should be the show’s legacy.

David Bishop said...

You may well be right about Studio 60's fate being sealed by network-led issues, rather than a product of viewers turning off.

But I think falling ratings may have been a part of the problem. Studio 60 went from 13.4 million viewers for the pilot to less than eight million four weeks later - that can't be healthy for any show.