Fall TV is upon us. It’s almost an archaic notion given the changing landscape of media today, but that’s a whole other story. Today, I look back at 2006, the year NBC took a gamble on a pair of thematically similar shows, only to have the program they were ignoring eclipse the program they were touting as their new crown jewel. The former was Tina Fey’s 30 Rock. The latter was Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
During the summer of 2006, the networks went about their normal marketing push to get viewers interested in their new programs. For months, we had already seen buzz for the mutant drama of HEROES. Between the whispers of “Save the cheerleader, save the world,” came murmurs of two very different programs about the behind-the-scenes worlds of TV comedy. Both centered on head writers. Both existed in a sketch comedy universe. Both were on NBC. This was understandably confusing to potential viewers. “So, the one with Friends’ Matthew Perry is the drama, but the one with intense movie star Alec Baldwin is the comedy. Huh?”
NBC seemed to be hedging their bets for some reason. Was their a heavy demand to see how a show like Saturday Night Live came to life every week? Were viewers picketing Rockefeller Center, demanding to see fictionalized versions of show runners experience Sienfeld plots or have soap opera worthy love affairs? Maybe.
The network had struck gold with Sorkin a few years earlier. The award-winning writer of A Few Good Men brought back NBC’s long lost prestige with his political drama The West Wing. Sorkin left the show after four acclaimed seasons. The show wrapped after three more, just in time for Sorkin to bring them Studio 60, a drama about a west coast cousin of SNL. The cast included Perry as the troubled head writer and West Wing alum Bradley Whitford as his best friend and equally troubled exec producer. They men are lured back to take over the suffering sketch show by new network exec Jodarn McDeere (Amanda Peet) after their former boss (woefully underutilized Judd Hirsch) has a very public meltdown on air. NBC ran the Network inspired meltdown scene (the opening scene of the series) as a promotion for the program. This was accompanied with a lot of reminders that the show was created by Sorkin, the subliminal message being, “Hey! Remember when you liked The West Wing? We think you’ll like this.”
Much less hype was given to Fey’s 30 Rock. The former head writer of SNL developed the show, reluctantly setting it in the comedy world. Her original concept was the set it in the universe of a cable news show with the Alec Baldwin character playing a parody of Bill O’Reiley. The development process eventually brought 30 Rock into the familiar world of sketch comedy. Fey took center stage as the show’s head writer, both on and off camera. Fellow SNL veteran Tracey Morgan signed on to play a larger-than-life caricature of himself, while Allie McBeal star Jane Krakowski was cast to play spoiled star/best friend, Jenna. The role had originally been written for fellow SNL cast member Rachel Dratch, but NBC felt she was lacking in sufficient sex appeal. Dratch stayed on playing multiple one-shot characters in the first season, but was noticeably absent in subsequent seasons. Anchoring the cast was Baldwin as corporate executive Jack Donaghy, the perfectly tailored foil to Fey’s neurotic Liz Lemon.
Improv nerds recognized some of their own among the supporting cast. Scott Adsit, Jack McBrayer, and John Lutz (among others) had been making names for themselves on live improv stages around the country before landing this particular network TV gig.
NBC’s marketing early on gave the impression that this was the show that would go away within a year. They even joked about the obvious comparisons to Studio 60 in their own promos. Considering how mercilessly the show bit the hand that fed them over the years, it’s almost a small miracle they were on the air at all. Had they not matured beyond their pilot, they may have been the forgotten experiment.
The tone of 30 Rock’s earliest episodes did not feel like a broadcast network show. It had the pace and feel of show that should have been on HBO or Showtime. Within three episodes, however, they found their voice. Once they embraced the absurdity that set them apart, 30 Rock earned its following and praise.
Flash forward to 2007. Studio 60 limps to the end of a single season. It’s final episode contains a hastily written fourth act that appears to be in place of a season cliff hanger. 30 Rock, on the other hand, goes on to win multiple Emmys and Golden Globes. (A few years later, Sorkin would make a cameo as himself on 30 Rock. In a Sorkin trademarked walk-and-talk scene where Studio 60 is mentioned, he snaps back with a very defensive, “Shut up!”) It’s a shame that Studio 60 never found its audience. Maybe HEROES wasn’t the best Monday night lead-in. They should consider themselves lucky. They never would have survived the Writers’ Strike of 07.