Bringing intelligence back to prime-time TV


A few weeks before NBC debuted “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” myself and my roommates were driving in Hollywood, and saw the two huge billboards with Bradley Whitford and Matthew Perry – the show’s stars – pictured on them. I remember saying, “That show’s going to be huge when it comes out.”

Yet by the third episode the series had lost 30 percent of its audience for the pilot. While the ratings have improved, they are not what they should be. The major complaint I keep hearing is that it is “too smart.” I’m sorry, what? I can only assume here that followers of the formulaic “CSI” spin-offs find any show outside of the forensics/hospital/legal dramas a tad bit hard to follow. The weird thing is that “Studio 60,” while smart, isn’t rocket science or anything, so try a new excuse.

“Studio 60” was created by Aaron Sorkin, who, before his “West Wing” days, had a fantastic behind-the-scenes at a TV show series called “Sports Night,” though that was very different from his current creation. “Studio 60” follows the work behind an SNL-type variety show set in Los Angeles. The series started with a blatant rip-off of a major scene from the 1976 film “Network,” yet thankfully picked up. In the pilot, two producing partners (played by Perry and Whitford) are hired back to run “Studio 60,” from which they were fired a few years earlier. This time around, a new network head had taken over (Amanda Peet, who seems to be the one weak link in the cast), and the partners face personal issues with the cast and writers – specifically Harriet, an Evangelical Christian (Sarah Paulson), who plays Perry’s character’s ex-girlfriend.

“Studio 60” is smart, witty and well-written, with a set as flashy as the show itself. Despite the initial “it’s too smart” complaints, ratings have picked up, and should hopefully continue to improve. Do yourself a favor and watch “good” television – even if you think it is “too smart,” maybe it will help you with a thing or two.

Another series that gets criminally low ratings is “How I Met Your Mother,” a sitcom on CBS. While it is hardly suffering in the Nielsens, it gets far lower ratings than other sitcoms that are painfully unfunny – something this show is not.

This is one of the rare series where the supporting actors are those who take the spotlight, and rightfully so. The series premiered last fall and was marketed as a new “Friends” to a certain extent; and while it has yet to fully live up to this, it’s on its way. Bob Saget narrates the show, as a dad who explains to his teenaged kids in the 2030s the story of how he met their mother. The younger version of Ted, the narrator, is the guy that women claim they want, and then search for a way to dump once they actually secure his affections. In the first episode, the perpetually commitment-ready Ted (Josh Radnor) meets Robin (Cobie Smulders) and tells her he loves her on the first date. They almost kiss, but?no. And then came the moment when the writers backed themselves into a corner: The dad narrates to the kids, “And that’s how I met your ? Aunt Robin.” It was truly a stupid move, and a common fan complaint now is that most find Ted and Robin – who are now together on the series – boring and somewhat useless as fans already know how it all ends; the two are, essentially, the stars of the series, yet will never get together in the end.

The series becomes instantly likable with the addition of the supporting characters: ex-couple Lily (Alyson Hannigan) and Marshall (Jason Segel), and cad Barney (Neil Patrick Harris). Hannigan and Segel are great in their awkwardness together, while Harris (formerly seen as Doogie Howser way back when) is the show’s comic gold mine. The actors also work well in enhancing what is already good writing and, lately, a more creative storytelling structure.

So, tell me: Why aren’t you watching these shows again?