Intelligent Television is an Endangered Species

Becky and I have been working our way through the one and only season of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip thanks to Netflix and our Roku box. We missed this show when it was actually on the NBC airwaves back in 2006-2007, so it’s brand new to us and we’re really enjoying it. I’ve particularly noticed the snappy, intelligent writing that doesn’t pander to the lowest common audience denominator. We often ask each other what was just said because it goes so fast. There are also plenty of nuances and inside-jokes that are insanely funny and are subtle enough to be easily missed, but catching them is part of the fun. Of course, this show failed to attract an audience and was summarily canceled by NBC after one season. NBC, instead, put their money on stuff like Deal or No Deal and Celebrity Apprentice and The Biggest Loser – shows that don’t require writers at all and attract far more viewers than S60 ever did.

To be fair, NBC has really stuck by their Thursday night, laugh-track-free comedy block ever since The Office premiered. What’s funny is that one of those shows is also about a sketch comedy show: 30 Rock. Both 30 Rock and S60 debuted in the same year, had similar premises and even had numbers in their name. 30 Rock survived and has been a modest hit for 4 years and S60 is a distant memory.

Now, having watched 30 Rock since the beginning and now watching S60 for the first time, there are some really interesting themes explored on both shows. One common theme is some criticism of NBC itself (or NBS as S60 calls it). 30 Rock had a season 2 episode about NBC putting a show on the air called “MILF Island”. Tina Fey’s character was appalled that the show was being aired, but it was getting great ratings so the network was not going to budge on it. In an early episode of S60, programming head Jordan McDeere hears a pitch from a reality show guru about a new show about couples breaking each other up on an island. She rejects it as being tasteless and insists that they pursue intelligent shows to attract an intelligent audience. Of course, the decision is not popular, but she gets her way (unlike Tina Fey in 30 Rock).

Now comes word that real-world NBC has given a green light to produce a show called “Love in the Wild” which is basically the same show that was rejected on S60. It puts singles on a remote island, gives them “challenges”, eliminates… I’m bored already. Although I’m sure this show will produce ratings for NBC when it makes it on air.

The problem is that it seems like intelligent, well-written shows don’t attract audiences and therefore end up canceled. We’ve seen it with half-hour comedies (Arrested Development) and with hour long dramas (Freaks and Geeks).

But this rule seems to apply almost exclusively to the big four broadcast networks. It seems that cable has become the home of intelligent and sometimes risky programs. From my personal viewing experience, Mad Men comes to mind as a show that must have sounded somewhat risky when pitched (HBO turned it down as a replacement for The Sopranos) but has become one of the best written and acted shows on television. AMC used the momentum from Mad Men to greenlight other intelligent hits like Breaking Bad and now The Walking Dead. Sure, cable allows for more graphic shows, but good shows don’t need to be violent or sexual. Why don’t the broadcast networks take a risk and order up a “challenging” show or two and see what happens if they stick with it for a couple of years?

When you cancel a promising show based solely on ratings, you often get burned on the other side. Freaks and Geeks launched the careers of a number of big stars (Judd Apatow, James Franco, Seth Rogan, Jason Segal) and S60 showrunner creator Aaron Sorkin is getting Oscar buzz  for writing The Social Network this year. I’d say NBC would kill to have that kind of star power on their airwaves now. I think NBC (in particular, but all the networks generally) should listen to Jordan McDeere and try picking up a show that would otherwise go to cable and give it some run. We don’t want any more clones of the latest fad shows, we want creativity and originality.

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