Can all of us who toil in the media and entertainment business take a collective deep breath, agree to get over ourselves, and declare a moratorium on behind-the-scenes series about the business? Let’s face facts: Between the coasts, America is just not that into us. I say this as NBC’s critically lauded Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip returned for its final six episodes last week to typically dismal ratings. And despite such marquee names as Steven Spielberg and Mark Burnett, Fox’s reality filmmaker competition On the Lot is tanking, too.
Last October, I predicted Studio 60’s eventual demise, not because I wasn’t a fan but because, over the years, I’ve seen too many series about showbiz get critical merit but fail to reach critical mass. I’m cheering on NBC’s other inside-TV show 30 Rock and hope that one of the funniest comedies in primetime draws a bigger crowd in its sophomore season.
If recent history is our guide, however, there’s little reason for me to bet the house on that. Industry humor, as I noted last fall, might be the sole domain of premium cable, where Entourage and Curb Your Enthusiasm don’t need blockbuster numbers to be dubbed successes in the rarefied air of HBO. And if 30 Rock does ultimately rate, it might be because it plays up the industry’s buffoonery more than its supposed cred.
When I look at next season’s prime-time grid, I’m nervous. You can’t help wondering what the future holds for Fox’s Back to You. Despite the best pedigree of any freshman sitcom—the series stars Patricia Heaton and Kelsey Grammer, with a pilot directed by James Burrows—it feels jinxed. It’s set in a TV station, with Heaton and Grammer as Pittsburgh news anchors, and it has been more than a decade since that formula worked on Murphy Brown. If the theory holds, the masses have a bias of against newsroom comedy, which doesn’t bode well for Fox’s midseason series, Anchorwoman.
It’s easy to see how the whacky showbiz world keeps being fodder for shows. First, the folks who create the series take the Creative Writing 101 dictum to “write what you know” too literally. And part of the calculation, no doubt, comes with thinking the odds for getting good notices will increase when you glamorize a world many TV critics believe they’re part of. Too often, people calling the shots are guided by an inner voice saying, “Aren’t we who inhabit this club so undeniably fabulous, who wouldn’t find an inside look at our world intoxicating?” That’s not a good thing.
Even in the lower-expectations land of cable, Bravo won’t bring back a Project Greenlight HBO dumped out of. On Bravo, chefs, hairdressers, trainers, designers and models work, but Tabloid Wars, a well-reviewed reality show about life for competing New York dailies, didn’t make the cut. Other ink-stained reality fare on MTV—I’m From Rolling Stone and Miss Seventeen (as in the magazine)—is out of circulation. And even if I get my kicks watching FX’s Dirt, the tarted-up, inside view of a fictionalized supermarket tabloid starring Courtney Cox, I’m in the minority. The series was lucky to get a second season pickup.
It has been 40 years since The Dick Van Dyke Show successfully mined the industry for laughs; you’d think by now the biz would accept that the inside-TV formula doesn’t work. In fact, here’s an idea: a rollicking new comedy about self-obsessed network execs who keep suggesting behind-the-scenes series that tank. Now that’s something America might laugh at.
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