When this particular TV season started, back in September/October, NBC raised eyebrows for programming not one but two shows about the behind-the-scenes action at a “Saturday Night Live”-esque sketch comedy. One, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” was an hour-long drama by TV wunderkind Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing”). The other, “30 Rock,” was a half-hour sitcom by former “SNL” writer Tina Fey.
Now, a mere four months later, both of the shows have been sidelined (or placed on “hiatus” in TV speak). “Studio 60” was yanked off Monday night’s schedule in favor of Paul Haggis’ high-profile Irish mob drama “The Black Donnellys” (a convoluted soap opera that isn’t likely to improve on the faltering ratings of “Studio 60”). Next week, NBC will bump “30 Rock” from its Thursday night lineup in favor of Andy Richter’s new sitcom “Andy Barker P.I.” (which, by virtue of its star alone, has serious promise). So, what went so wrong with NBC’s numerical experiments?
In the case of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” a lot. The show was a hit with the critics, who lavishly praised it in its first few weeks. I certainly did. Unfortunately, the solid casting and Sorkin’s impeccable dialogue just didn’t match up with the show’s soggy characters and clichéd plots. As the weeks wore on, I found it increasingly difficult to believe in the show’s roster of characters. The romance between Matthew Perry’s wound-up writer and Sarah Paulson’s born-again comedienne was a stretch. Paulson’s character, meant to be a controversial island of conservatism amid TV’s raging liberals, never once rang true. A fundamentalist Christian who likes gays, supports freedom of choice, makes fun of religious types and poses for a skimpy lingerie spread? In what Bizarro universe does this take place, Mr. Sorkin? A later storyline manufacturing romance between Bradley Whitford’s clean-and-sober director and Amanda Peet’s knocked-up studio exec seemed equally forced. The show’s last two-episode arc had the squabbling couple locked out on their building’s rooftop and discovering they loved one another. That whole “locked on the rooftop” bit was a creaky old cliché when “Night Court” mined it back in the ’80s.
NBC has said the show might return. But, honestly, without a major overhaul, I doubt Sorkin’s series has much life left in it.
“30 Rock,” on the other hand, has been an increasing bright spot on NBC’s schedule. The show had a shaky start, but has really settled into its groove. Tracy Morgan has toned down his crazy, entourage-toting comedy star. Jane Krakowski has found just the right self-mocking tone. Tina Fey has done a perfect job as the straight gal surrounded by insane coworkers. And Alec Baldwin (winner of a recent Golden Globe) is pure comic gold as the wacko boss. By concentrating far less on the “show within a show” and more on things like the spot-on mocking of NBC’s corporate power structure (currently controlled--as “30 Rock” asserts--by some sort of wig company), this sitcom gets funnier every episode.
Its only problem is that it’s up against juggernaut “Grey’s Anatomy.” “30” has a better chance of returning than “60.” But without a better timeslot, it’s doomed to the same mediocre ratings.