1. Sports Night
I have talked at length about my love Sports Night, and I badly wish it had listed more than two seasons. The first of Aaron Sorkin’s (almost) four TV shows, it wasn’t as big of a failure as #2 on this list, and in retrospect it’s somewhat amazing that it didn’t work. The three main stars of the show (Felicity Huffman, Peter Krause and Josh Charles) have all been successful since then. It’s hard to say if this show would have faired better after Sorkin established himself on The West Wing, but as we will see later, that didn’t make it a slam dunk.
Sorkin’s shows were always filled with smart, witty, quick-thinking characters that at times made them feel a little unrelatable. I have always felt that the dialogue in Sorkin works moves at a breakneck pace, for better or worse. Jokes and references often have to be processed quickly, and at times characters almost feel too witty.
One thing that was really great about this show though, was the fact that sports was just a minor part of it, and it really just happened to be about the people who worked there. Joshua Malina, as geeky producer Jeremy was always one of my favorite characters. He was full of useless trivia and obscure facts.
The show lasted 45 episodes, and spent parts of the 2nd season in a story arc about bad ratings that mirrored what was going on in real life. Everything seemingly worked out for the show within a show, but not so much for Sports Night itself. I own the DVD box set and try to spend 22.5 hours every few years re-living this masterpiece.
2. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
This was Aaron Sorkin’s 3rd show, and had “hit” written all over it. Coming closely after the conclusion of The West Wing, it starred one guy from that show, Bradley Whitford, a post-Friends Matthew Perry and a ready-to-give-TV-another try Amanda Peet. It featured plenty of other recognizable faces like Steven Weber (Wings) and D.L. Hughley (The Hughleys).
Like Sports Night, Studio 60 was a show within a show. This time it was a sketch comedy show, not unlike Saturday Night Live. After it’s executive producer (Judd Hirsch) quicks live on the air after the network refuses to allow a racy sketch to air, his former proteges (Perry and Whitford) are asked back. At the same time, Amanda Peet is taking over as a new, and different, network executive. The combination of this make for a lot of growing pains for the show within a show. The actual show itself never had a chance to work these out.
Virtually everthing I said about Sports Night can be applied to Studio 60. The quick witted, always on characters were entertaining to me, but just didn’t do it for most people. It has been said before (and I can’t remember if it was Alan Sepinwall or Bill Simmons) that one of the biggest problems with this show is that the sketches within the show weren’t funny. As a result, it was hard to believe that these guys were as good as they were made out to be. I never really got hung on this, however, and enjoyed almost every minute of it. I revisited it in it’s entirety last year and it was as good as I remembered.
Shawn Ryan has been behind a handful of TV shows. The Shield is considered by many to be FX’s best effort to date, and at worst, a step below the Mad Mens and Breaking Bads of the world. I never watched it, but I wish I had and it remains on my list of shows to check out someday. He also executively produced The Unit before the first of his two failed gems.
FX’s 2010 drama Terriers was a show about two private investigators, one of who is “that guy” Donal Logue. Logue plays an ex-cop who lost his job and wife to alcoholism. His new partner is an ex-criminal. They are your stereotypical smart, crafty PIs, but because of their backgrounds you can understand why this is the best they can muster for a career. Very similar to other crime procedurals, the show has compartmentalized storylines within each episode, but also an overarching plotline that they are working towards involving politicians and real estate developers.
The chemistry between Logue and Michael Raymond-James was top notch, and exactly what was needed to make this show great. They clearly cut both ethical and legal corners to get what they needed to solve their case, which was the only way this show could work. Logue’s life is complicated by his ex-wife’s pending nuputials, the sudden re-appearance of his schizophrenic sister and the constant reliance on his ex-partner to help him out of jams. Raymond-James has his own issues, specifically his past life and his current girlfriend who is in medical school.
Unlike the first two shows on this list, Terriers was born in the social media age. Add to the fact that it was on FX, and thus with lower expectations, and it’s really surprising that it was unable to get enough momentum for a 2nd season, especially with Ryan1 at the helm. The problem with this show was that it was very hard to jump in mid-season. And it’s likely that anyone who did was completely lost, which really made it tough to boost the ratings after a slow start.
4. Party Down
The only show on this list that I never watched during it’s original run, it’s clearly one of those shows that should have worked, and because I wasn’t around at the time, I really don’t know why it didn’t. Adam Scott has gone out to great success on Parks and Recreation. Jane Lynch has the same with Glee. Megan Mullally brought some star power in season 2. Martin Starr (Freaks and Geeks) is talented and Lizzy Caplan (Mean Girls) has always seemed like a rising star to me. Paul Rudd helped write it, and Fred Savage directed a bunch of episodes. Seems like a perfect formula to success.
The premise was about a catering crew in Hollywood comprised of aspiring actors, writers and comedians. None of them want to be there, and they are constantly exposed to the glitz, glamor and riches of their wealthy clients, sometimes even as actors playing themselves (see Steve Gutenberg). The show was very funny, and if we had Starz when it was on perhaps I would have given it a chance.
There is just the right amount of nonchalantness and incompetence related to catering. Ken Marino plays the team lead in a very Michael Scott-esque manor. The cleverness of the types of events is what makes the show so great. Over the top sweet sixteen parties, high school reunions, weddings, backstage parties, pre-school auctions, funerals and even an orgy.
The twenty episodes are a quick, easy watch, and really don’t need to be viewed in order. So of all the shows on this list, this is the easiest one to take a chance one.
- Although maybe that’s not saying much, since Ryan’s next effort, another cop show, The Chicago Code, was also a failure [↩]