'Studio 60' stripped as it fades into the sunset

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The expansive set of NBC's "Studio 60" on Stage 19 of the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Calif.
By Rob Owen, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

BURBANK, Calif. -- Say what you will about the quality of NBC's now-canceled "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" -- the show had one of the most impressive sets in Hollywood.

A drama set behind the scenes of a "Saturday Night Live"-like program, "Studio 60" (returning at 10 p.m. Thursday) was written by "West Wing" and "Sports Night" creator Aaron Sorkin and chronicled the challenges of working in TV and the romantic lives of the people who write and produce the fictional sketch show, also called "Studio 60."

The sketch show took place inside an old Hollywood theater retro-fitted for TV, which necessitated space for a mammoth two-story set on Stage 19 of the Warner Bros. lot, previously home to 2006's big-budget ship-sinking movie "Poseidon" and the TV series "Falcon Crest" and "China Beach."

"When I was writing the pilot, I imagined a generic soundstage, something like Studio 8H where 'SNL' shoots," Sorkin said during a January set visit. Others in the production team suggested another approach. "They said it might be more interesting if we imagine that 50 years ago the network bought some old movie palace or vaudeville palace, gutted it and turned it into an old radio studio and then a live TV studio, and that's where we are now."

Built at a cost of several million dollars, the "Studio 60" set took up about 32,000 square feet of space.

Courtesy Warner Brothers
The two-story, multi-million-dollar set of NBC's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" was one of the most eleborate in series television. This is how it looked earlier this year when the show was still in production.
Click photo for larger image.

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"There wasn't an inch of space that wasn't utilized," said Mindy Kanaskie, who grew up in Robinson and served as the show's co-producer. Because "Studio 60" was a show about TV, it didn't matter if the camera captured the soundstage walls or other behind-the-scenes stuff most programs try to avoid. "There was nothing you couldn't film there."

In addition to the stage where the fictional "Studio 60" was shot -- complete with bleachers for the audience -- a maze of hallways around the perimeter of the stage led to a writer's room and makeup rooms. The set's second story housed an office overlooking the stage used by Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) and master control, home of the show's director, Cal (Timothy Busfield).

Now the set is no more. Kanaskie said the destruction began earlier this month with the removal of artwork and more than 100 monitors. Rented neon lights were carefully dismantled. Props were returned to storage. Then the rough work began.

"When we were putting it up, everyone was so gentle. When it comes down, they're just ripping stuff out," Kanaskie said. "I haven't gone back this week. It makes me sad."

Viewers probably don't often consider this aspect of a TV show's cancellation: When a series fails, it's not just the stars who have to move on; a crew of more than 100 people are also out of work.

Kanaskie, a 1979 Montour High School grad, worked as John Wells' assistant on "China Beach" and eventually became a co-producer on "The West Wing" before "Studio 60." Now she's considering her next move.

"You're always a freshman," she said by phone earlier this month. "Something ends, and you have to go beg for a job. It doesn't feel good, but everybody does it."

So what went wrong that "Studio 60," the most heralded show of the 2006-07 TV season, flamed out so quickly? Kanaskie thinks promotions of the sketch-comedy element in advance of the show's premiere gave viewers the wrong idea and led to disappointment.

Star Bradley Whitford echoed that notion. He compared it to "The Larry Sanders Show," HBO's behind-the-scenes-of-a-late-night-talk-show series that began with the assumption that Sanders was a jerk.

"This show does not have a comic premise, and I think that has juked perception a little bit," said Whitford, noting that "Studio 60" is different from many other TV dramas. "It's a stakes adjustment. Almost every other show at 10 o'clock is not only about crime, it's about semen-splattered corpses and children burned. ... We're gonna show the struggle of something not lurid or agonizing but of putting on something creative."

But American TV viewers weren't in the mood, ratings tumbled, and "Studio 60" was yanked from the air in February. To me, the failure was not a surprise because of the premise: No matter how literate "Studio 60" could be, there are a finite number of viewers with an interest in what goes on behind the scenes on a fictional show. The people who watch "Entertainment Tonight" obsessively are not guaranteed to watch a show like "Studio 60." "Larry Sanders" was a hit by HBO's measure, but it wouldn't have lasted on NBC.

The cast and producers of "Studio 60" maintained that the show was not "too inside" (" 'CSI' is really inside the coroner's unit. 'ER' is really inside the hospital," Whitford said in January. "Solving a murder is really a sort of odd, alien experience.'"). But the other problem was that Sorkin tried to endow the "Studio 60" crew with the same nobility as the "West Wing" wonks. No matter its resident, Americans still feel a sense of reverence for the White House; they tend to feel something more akin to antipathy for Hollywood.

Plus, "Studio 60" never made me care enough about some of its key characters. I never believed Sarah Paulson as supposedly devout Christian Harriet Hayes, and I didn't care about her relationship with Matt. Many viewers also lost interest and the show's low ratings prove the point.

NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly said that all the company's executives were on board with the renewal of low-rated critical favorites "30 Rock" and "Friday Night Lights," but "Studio 60" received "frankly, a mixed response from many of us. Some of us loved it, some got frustrated with it. It just felt like the show had kind of run its course and there was no more upside to be had."

By January, "Studio 60" began to shift its focus somewhat to romantic relationships, including pregnant network executive Jordan (Amanda Peet) and her romance with Danny (Whitford). Sorkin maintained he always intended to play more of the show's romantic comedy potential, and at least one of the stars preferred that approach.

"I'm a big fan of it becoming a little bit more character-driven, a little bit more about the people," Perry said before the ax fell. "I absolutely think it could use more of the relationship stuff and who's dating who and who's breaking up with who."

After the remaining six episodes air, "Studio 60" will break up for good with its small but loyal core audience.

"There's no cliffhanger," Kanaskie said, reassuringly. "You'll be pleased with the ending."

TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Ask TV questions at www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Q&A.


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