There’s a certain irony to this episode, but not the kind of irony that fans might enjoy. One subplot centers on the question of audience retention. Basically, everyone’s job rides on a retention rate, from first to second episode, of about 90%. This small matter is treated with life or death seriousness. The irony, of course, is that “Studio 60” has lost more than 30% of its initial audience, and it continues to bleed viewers over each new hour. It’s never a good thing when a show makes the case for its own cancellation.
The rapid decline of “Studio 60” has left a number of people wondering what the hell happened. This was supposed to be another triumph for intelligent television. Instead, it has become a cautionary tale of the worst kind. Critics point to the fact that the series has already gone after Christians and takes on even more conservatives in this hour. In effect, the series is begging half the country not to watch it, and sure enough, they’re tuning out in droves.
Let me be clear about this much: the episode had a lot of high points. Most of them were related to characterization. The large ensemble is beginning to shake out to the point where personalities are emerging. The conflicts are evolving nicely, and it’s getting easier to relate to the world of television politics. I still wonder if that world is something the masses would ever want to see, since it shatters certain illusions and confirms certain unsettling suspicions. But I, for one, enjoy seeing what happens behind the curtain. Any dwelling upon the negative is an attempt to identify why the show is struggling, and what needs to be addressed to turn things around.
Two major issues come to mind when I think about why the series is struggling to get a mainstream audience. The first pertains directly to the characters. To get the mainstream audience to watch, you have to be able to transcend party lines and religious considerations. “Lost” is a hit, for instance, because it manages to cover multiple aspects of society with its cast, and people can relate to their struggles for redemption. It literally has something for everyone.
As interesting as I find Jordan and her sordid past (and damn, do I like her more and more), and as much as I understand Sorkin’s desire to use Danny as an analogue for his own struggles, a whole lot of people are turned off by what they see as immoral Hollywood excess. Where we see complex business politics playing out in a creative pressure-cooker, they see petty personal hypocrisy. And as I mentioned last week, a whole lot of people find it absurd that a show about a sketch comedy series would be so damn portentous all the time.
All of which brings me to the second major issue, one that struck me in the previous episode and bothered me even more this time around. The comedy sketches aren’t all that funny. It’s one thing to be intellectual about showing the process behind the scenes, and quite another to be overly intellectual in the comedy sketches. How many of the most memorable sketches from SNL were intellectually satisfying? Most of them were very clever but played broadly. Most of the sketches rehearsed in this episode could easily be spun as “academic, elitist liberal humor”. In other words, it’s only going to play to a select audience.
Most core fans, those with a knowledge and understanding of Sorkin’s brand of writing, approach this series as intended. It’s wish fulfillment, just as much as “West Wing” was. Sorkin is selling the idea of an intellectually-challenging comedy show as successful, despite all the predictions of doom from network executives. It’s all right there in Wes’ tirade in the pilot. Sorkin is developing a world where all those criticisms about network television need not apply. But that is, in fact, the problem: he’s trying to tell wish fulfillment about television on actual television, and unless things change in the next few weeks, that subplot about the ratings will sound an awful lot like a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Fans might reasonably suggest that changing the show to address these issues would, in fact, undermine everything that Sorkin is trying to accomplish. And they would be right. I don’t want to see that happen either. But if the fans want to know why the series is struggling, these are two big reasons. This show was never going to be a mainstream success. It doesn’t have the broad appeal or message to strike that instant chord. We are left to hope that the network is willing to live with a modest audience for a very expensive show.
(As a sidenote: I also have a new podcast associated with my various reviews called “Velocity TV”. Current episodes cover “Studio 60”, so it might be something of interest. Go to http://velocitytv.libsyn.com if you want to listen!)