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Audience Retention
2006-10-02 21:18
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Three episodes in and "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" seems to be in it for the long haul. "The Focus Group" was less hysterically tense than the first two episodes, which is a good sign rather than a bad one, and the supporting cast is beginning to see their roles develop. Most importantly, after the high level of tease and the low level of follow-through in "Cold Open" and the pilot, the show-within-a-show is beginning to resemble more closely something that people might actually want to watch. Sarah Paulson was funny and charming in this episode with her Holly Hunter accent and her growling bear joke, Nate Corddry's bad impersonations are funnier than his good ones, and on the whole "Studio 60" now seems at least as funny as "Saturday Night Live," rather than a great deal less funny. Before last week, I didn't think that was even possible. Extra credit for the low-key use of an uncredited Rob Reiner as this week's "guest host," and extra extra credit for the very funny "30 Rock" promo that ran during this episode with Alec Baldwin wondering when he was going to get to meet Aaron Sorkin and Amanda Peet.

It's a little confusing that "Studio 60" apparently exists in a universe where there is a competing "Saturday Night Live" rather than supplanting it. References to "SNL" characters and sketches are probably inevitable but I might have made a different choice there; perhaps NBC insisted. If there is a worry going forward it's that the obvious pressure of having a week to write and produce a live television show will put the drama on rails. Every week will be the same story, struggling to put together the show and then triumphing at the end with a montage of all the hilarious sketches Matt and Danny have somehow nursed to life. "Focus Group" undercut that somewhat with a minor twist (it was Danny trying to manipulate Matt using focus group statistics rather than Steven Weber's Slimy McStockcharacterstein) and a subplot involving Matt's old grudge against the writing duo played nicely by the manic Evan Handler and the mellow Carlos Jacott. I sort of enjoy the subtle gag that Jacott and Handler's Ricky and Ron (who are always together, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) are kind of like a dark, corrupted, unfunny Matt and Danny. They've even formed a dark alliance with Weber's Smarmy O'Genericemptysuit even as Matt and Danny bond with Peet's Jordan McDeere.

It's a good sign when a drama can start ironing out its weaknesses, in this case the supporting players and the plausibility of the show-within-the-show, while not losing sight of what made it appealing in the first place. The authenticity of Sorkin's insider's perspective continues to impress, while there are plenty of knowing nods at the creator's own career history refracted through Matthew Perry's increasingly impressive performance as Matt. In "The Focus Group" Danny tries to mend the fences between Matt and Ricky and Ron, warning his head writer that if he tries to do the show all by himself he'll burn out, just as Sorkin did on "West Wing." While "Focus Group" is the first episode to move some of the attention off of Sorkin's two leads, the episode ends up right where it ought to, with Perry and Bradley Whitford playing a beautifully balanced half-comic/half-tragic scene out on a moonlit beach. (Matt, ever the writers' proxy, comments openly on the homoeroticism of the moment.) Whitford and Perry have just terrific chemisty; it's thrilling just to watch them walk together. I'm glad this show is succeeding. Along with "Heroes," NBC has the two best new shows of the season, and they're back to back on Monday nights.

I said before I was going to write about "Kidnapped," which I finally caught up with this weekend, so here it is: it's terrible. The dialogue in the first two episodes of this show never sounds like anything people would say. It sounds like pieces of numerous straight-to-video action movies cut up and spit back out. Characters say things like "I will end you!" with a straight face. A married couple proves they're still intimate when she watches him shave and says "You missed a spot." You've seen all of this before and you didn't like it then, so why would you like it now? Delroy Lindo and Jeremy Sisto both do the best they can with the hideous dialogue and the contrived situations, but this piece of junk is completely unsalvageable. What advantage would kidnappers possible gain from blowing up a squadron of FBI redshirts? Do they get some sort of ransom bonus for degree of difficulty? Also, Sisto's character is totally implausible. You couldn't be an private consultant specializing in kidnapping and be based in the United States. Nobody ever gets kidnapped for ransom in this country, because the FBI really doesn't mess around when it comes to kidnapping. "Standoff" has this same problem, but at least "Standoff" has Ron Livingston and Gina Torres and some occasionally snappy writing going for it. "Kidnapped" sucks hard and I hope they cancel it before anyone else has to suffer through a single episode.

Speaking of sucking hard, I caught the second episode of "The Class" the other day. Oh man. It's been a long time since I watched a sitcom with a laugh track without laughing along once and even longer since I watched one that was as brutally unfunny as "The Class." How did they manage to recruit a studio audience to laugh as frequently and as loudly as the one on this show does for every non-joke? They must have gotten the whole lot of them as stoned as a Trey Anastasio crowd. That's the only thing I can think of. Or maybe they just show them an old "M*A*S*H" episode or something on tape and just splice the laughter in where (in)appropriate. The only thing even remotely funny about this show is the haircuts, like I said when I reviewed the pilot.

"How I Met Your Mother" is 0 for 3 on the young season. That's a little disturbing. The sitcom was pretty solidly diverting week to week in its first season, especially down the stretch last spring as the writers and actors got comfortable with its storytelling style. For some strange reason the show is relying on rather obvious sitcom tropes like the just-split couple that still has feelings for each other and the wacky visiting parents rather than letting the comedy flow naturally. For the first time the cast seems to really be straining and even Neil Patrick Harris's Barney hasn't gotten a laugh since the season premiere. I don't know what happened here. It's early yet, and the only reason I even kept watching the show at all during the shaky first half of its first year was my borderline creepy Alyson Hannigan fixation, so I'm not deleting my season pass quite yet. It got better then and it might get better now. Maybe the reason I'm not laughing has something to do with Hannigan's hair, which is now light brown after a decade as various shades of red. Hannigan looks slightly like a certain girl with whom I went to high school, a contributing factor if not the major factor in the crush I first formed on her during the first season of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." After the first two seasons of "Buffy" she went to a much brighter red hair color, rather decreasing the resemblance, and allowing me to appreciate her fine work on its own terms. Now that she has brown hair again it's like, whoa, I wonder if that's what that certain girl from high school looks like now? This is on the whole a little unsettling. I wish she'd go back to the red.

2006-10-03 00:00:36
1.   subclub
"It's been a long time since I watched a sitcom with a laugh track..."

"'How I Met Your Mother' is 0 for 3 on the young season."

It couldn't have been that long!

2006-10-03 00:40:17
2.   Mark T.R. Donohue
You know what I meant, you pedant.
2006-10-03 07:53:44
3.   subclub
Let's just agree that the Holly Hunter impression was very good!
2006-10-03 08:27:10
4.   DXMachina
I've tried to watch The Class a couple of times, and man, it's unwatchable. I need to find something to watch Monday nights while waiting for Heroes to come on. The only thing on that's even mildly diverting in that time period is the Law & Order rerun on TBS.
2006-10-03 08:42:42
5.   Benaiah
I thought that the main skit, "Science Schmience" was not funny at all, but I agree, it did seem like something you would see on SNL. I liked that they actually showed a full slate of skits, even in brief, though I am still wondering how funny these ideas would be if you could see the whole thing (cuz they aren't cracking me up with what I am seeing). Still, it is an enjoyable show and extremely well acted so I think that is just a minor defect.
2006-10-03 09:38:17
6.   Jon Weisman
I have to disagree with your optimistic report. The third episode of Studio 60 was pretty much the one to make me give up on the show, and the only reason I'm going to continue watching next week, if I do, will be to see how bad the train wreck is.

The show is way, way too serious. Again, I ask, how can it be that this show is more serious than Sports Night? There is dry wit, but nothing more. No actual comedy. No throwaway B plot or even D plot. It's all about the drama except the only drama is that some unfunny writer or performer or executive might get fired. Homicide: Life on the Street had more humor than this - amid real life or death stakes.

To say that the group of writers and performers on NBS' Studio 60 is unique is an understatement. They are the most lifeless group I have ever seen associated with a television show. Look, if you have to have comedic genius Harriet Hayes researching small towns on the Internet, okay I guess, but that should be a counterpoint to the mass hysteria around her, not to the occasional lame Weekend Update-type joke. I admit she did do Holly Hunter pretty well, but there is still next to nothing about her remotely convincing in her role. And if the best argument for her righteousness is that she has coincidental control over power outages, that's not very impressive, is it?

However important this show is to NBS, it can't possibly be more important than their prime time shows. It just can't. The idea that Jordan's job depends on Studio 60's performance is ludicrous. The idea that the new Studio 60 is improved is almost equally so. The show deserved mass firings, and there has been nary a one. So I'm left to believe that Matt Albie has turned things around by himself - but nothing they put on screen has convinced me that's realistic.

Matthew Perry continues to have some moments that get me caught up in his world, but beyond that, I think Studio 60 is hopeless. The best argument for it, as the Moliere bit subtly encourages, is that it might motivate people to read more.

2006-10-03 10:08:49
7.   Bob Timmermann
Sarah Paulson is a great actress. But she has a bad role. And she seems too measured to be a great improv actress.
2006-10-03 10:10:59
8.   Mark T.R. Donohue
And of course the premise of "The West Wing" was that the fate of the nation rested upon routine weekly press conferences. It's TV, it can take itself as seriously as it likes so long as it amuses me. And honestly, my least favorite parts of the show are the scenes played for obvious laughs. The under-the-radar patter between Whitford and Perry works just fine for me.

If you want to nitpick holes in premises you can do it for any show. I agree that the threat of mass firings/cancellations/Bible Belt apocalypses is a little overplayed but I suspect that as the show settles into itself it will feel less of a need to use such obviously contrived devices to build tension.

Whatever. It's baseball time now.

2006-10-03 14:23:30
9.   Jon Weisman
From Variety:

NBC held up well at 9 with week two of "Heroes" (5.3/13 in 18-49, 12.6 million viewers overall), down about 10% from its premiere, but then dropped sharply at 10 with the third seg of "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" (3.5/9 in 18-49, 9.1 million viewers overall), which slid 17% from last week's 18-49 score and 30% from its premiere.

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