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written by Sam Greenspan

Studio 60, a bunch of reality shows with great concepts and sad bastardizations of comedy.

A few weeks ago I did a list of the 11 Most Disappointing Movies of the 2000s and it generated some of the most passionate debate I’ve ever had on this site.

I’m not sure that this TV list will be as inflammatory — after all, how many people are really going to call me an uninformed, antagonistic jackass because I was disappointed by Joey? — but I do think it’ll be an entertaining look back at the “what could’ve been” of 2000s TV.

As with the disappointing movies list, this is not a list of the worst TV shows of the decade. Things like Cavemen, American Juniors, Baby Bob, According to Jim, Emeril! and The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency won’t be on this list — we expected them to be terrible, they were and, therefore, no disappointment was registered.

This list is devoted to shows that could’ve been good, should’ve been good, might’ve been good… but, unfortunately, fell way, way short.

11 | Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (NBC, 2006)

In fall of 2006, NBC decided to put two shows on its schedule, both of which took place behind the scenes at a live Friday night sketch comedy show. Two shows entered, one show left. That show was 30 Rock.

Studio 60 had so much going for it. Aaron Sorkin, coming off The West Wing, returning to a TV behind-the-scenes show — something he’d done so well with Sports Night. A-list talent including Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, D.L. Hughley, Amanda Peet and Steven Weber. And the first-to-market advantage over 30 Rock; Studio 60 debuted on September 18th; 30 Rock wouldn’t premiere until October 11th, after four episodes of Studio 60 had aired.

All the criticisms have been repeated over and over. Sorkin was sacrificing the quality of the show to take shots at his ex (Kristin Chenoweth), justify why using cocaine (like he does) is better than driving drunk, and/or portray writers as celebrity superheroes. Matthew Perry got eaten alive on screen by better dramatic actors like Evan Handler. Tying to transition the high-stakes White House drama of West Wing into a sketch comedy TV show just didn’t feel authentic.

And, of course, standing above all else: The comedy segments were tragically unfunny. We were supposed to buy Matthew Perry as the funniest writer alive but every single sketch we saw (and I do mean every single one) wouldn’t have even made the 12:30 to 1:00 AM portion of any episode of Saturday Night Live. Not even the one hosted by Jonny Moseley.

NBC gave it 14 rocky episodes before they pulled it from the schedule and burned off the remaining six episodes during the summer.

10 | XFL (NBC, 2001)

It seems like forever ago that Vince McMahon was untouchable. When the WWF was riding so high that he had an extra $100 million or so just sitting around… money he could use to try to take down the NFL, just like he’s recently taken down WCW, his chief wrestling competitor.

The XFL got an amazing television deal — weekly games on NBC on weekend nights, plus more games on UPN and TNN. And the opening game on NBC got incredible ratings — a 9.5 Nielsen rating, far better than anyone had expected.

The problem: All of us who tuned in (yes, I was one of those suckers) watched a boring game that wasn’t even in the same solar system as the professional football we were used to.

McMahon instituted a bunch of crazier rules to distinguish the league from the NFL… but all of them backfired. Instead of a coin toss, players would race and fight for the ball… which led to injuries. There were no fair catches on punts… so teams would instead send extra guys back to surround and protect the returner, leading to clusterfucks that prevented big returns. Corners were allowed full bump-and-run coverage anywhere on the field, not just within five yards of scrimmage like the NFL… which crippled the passing games and limited scoring. All teams had to play in outdoor, grass stadiums… but the season was in the winter, which led to tiny attendance at games in Chicago and New York.

Ultimately, it was just low-quality football which quickly started setting ratings records… for the least-watched prime-time network programming of all time. It was also part of the chain of events that ended McMahon (and pro wrestling’s) second golden age and relegated the WWF back to pseudo-sport obscurity.

To me, it’s disappointing because it could’ve been a contenda. McMahon had the money, the vision and the balls to introduce a viable alternative pro football league to a football-hungry country. Unfortunately, his Achilles heel of hubris and bravado made him declare it a competitor to the NFL, which it wasn’t. We shouldn’t have been comparing it to the NFL, because when we did, it couldn’t compete.

If it had been positioned as an entertaining way to fill your football jones during the NFL off-season, something good to flip on instead of whatever the hell other networks showed on Saturday nights… then it might’ve worked. Trying to sell it as a superior brand of football? Me hate he for going there.

9 | FlashForward (ABC, 2009)

This was positioned as the perfect compliment to Lost… and the pilot convinced us it was. After I watched the first episode, I told people it was one of the best pilots I’d ever seen. I was absolutely hooked. I wanted to know what happened. Why everyone blacked out. Why everyone saw the future. Why one guy at a baseball stadium seemed to avoid blacking out. Why Harold from Harold and Kumar didn’t see anything in the future.

Four episodes later and I was no longer watching.

It turned out they didn’t really have that interesting of a story to tell. All the intrigue dissipated and gave way to weak, predictable storylines and writing that was trying way, way too hard. The cast that seemed so promising turned out to be either going through the motions or incapable of elevating the material.

And, worst of all, I (and, from the looks of the ratings, America) stopped caring. Amidst a bunch of momentum-killing storylines about future infidelity, some guy’s dead-or-not-dead daughter and the concept of self-fulfilling prophecies, we no longer found ourselves willing to give up an hour a week to find out why everyone blacked out.

8 | Dane Cook’s Tourgasm (HBO, 2006)

This documentary followed Dane Cook and three much-less-famous comedians (one of whom was barely open mic quality) on a 20-show bus tour of the U.S.

The concept of a behind-the-scenes look at four comics touring the country, living the life, entertaining the masses — that’s a cool idea. And this came out while only 87 percent of the country was going through Dane Cook backlash, not the current 96 to 98 percent level.

There were two major problems with the series.

One: They (and by they, I mean Cook) kept referring to the tour as something “greater than all of them, greater than itself, etc.” It wasn’t. It was a 30-day bus tour with 20 stand-up comedy shows. The fact that the other comedians ended up bickering was more of a statement on their personalities than the “rigors” of traveling on a bus and performing two shows every three days.

And two: Cook directed the series… and basically portrayed himself as a benevolent comedy God. He, the superstar, gave this break to his three less-famous friends. He would mediate the fights. He would help the guys work out and perfect their new material. He would take them on different activities during the day to keep things fun. He wasn’t just the world’s most popular comedian, he’s also its most level-headed, kind, super-awesome human being.

Basically, it felt like he went into the kitchen determined to make the world’s best steak… ended up making kinda-flavorless meatloaf… then still tried to present it like he’d made the world’s best steak. What can you say… he’s not that good of a Cook.

7 | The 1/2 Hour News Hour (FOX News, 2007)

If you don’t remember, this was FOX News’s answer to the Daily Show — a half-hour news parody show with a 100 percent right-wing slant.

You can stop typing up your angry comment about how I hated it because I’m a raging hippie liberal who wants to have a three-way with Nancy Pelosi and Al Franken (and then treat the STDs we all get with universal, government-funded health care).

This show wasn’t bad because it was right wing. It was bad because it was. not. funny.

This seems like a good place to reiterate my thesis — these aren’t bad shows, these are disappointing shows. I was disappointed by this show because I think there’s a place for it. I’m upset that this poorly-written, poorly-acted, poorly-produced show has basically ruined the opportunity for a better version of it anytime in the near future.

This show’s biggest failure was its misinterpretation of what the Daily Show does. The Daily Show is not a half-hour of right-wing bashing and liberal brainwashing. Nor is it just a bunch of topical one-liners stacked one after another. Yes, Jon Stewart is a Democrat, there’s no doubt about that. But, more importantly, he’s evolved into THE best political and media watchdog that we have.

He’s the only TV personality who calls EVERYONE on their bullshit. Stewart and his team actually go into TV archives and pull the footage that proves when people in politics are cheating the American people — whether those people are members of the Bush administration or talking heads on CNBC.

The 1/2 Hour News Hour simply produced mediocre sketch comedy about low-hanging conservative fruit (like people who believe in global warming). It wasn’t the Daily Show… it didn’t feel real, in the moment, or serving a real purpose. It felt like Weekend Update with way-less-talented writers and anchors… and dated, forced jokes.

6 | Listen Up! (CBS, 2004-2005)

I really like Tony Kornheiser. For many years I watched Pardon the Interruption. Of all the billions of idiots on TV screaming wild, attention-seekingly-strong opinions about sports, Kornheiser and Wilbon’s were the only opinions I really wanted to hear.

So when CBS decided to produce a sitcom about Kornheiser’s life — popular sports TV personality by day, devoted but always-learning family man by night — I thought it had a lot of potential. Kornheiser’s a legitimately funny guy… surely a show with Jason Alexander starring as him would be legitimately funny too.

It wasn’t. The family storylines were textbook recycled ’90s sitcom crap… yet always got precedence over the PTI-based storylines. Also, something about Alexander just felt phony… he was just reading generic sports-talk dialogue as if he was Gerrardo reading transliterated English lines in Rico Suave.

Frankly, Kornheiser deserved better; the show was canceled after one season.

5 | Carnivale (HBO, 2003-2005)

Sometimes, I think shows make the mistake of making their premises grander than they need to be. For example, Prison Break would’ve been fine if it was just one brother trying to break his falsely-accused brother out of death row before his execution. They didn’t need to make it so the brother’s false accusation was tied to a gigantic worldwide conspiracy spearheaded by the vice president of the United States. Really. Totally unnecessary.

Carnivale is another example of that. It looked beautiful — honestly, it was a televised work of art. There were plenty of compelling characters. A Depression-era traveling carnival with some people who may or may not have mystic powers is enough. It could’ve been a character-driven series that made HBO look artsy and bold and better than every other channel for a decade.

Did they have to make the carnival the battle ground for mankind’s ultimate battle between good and evil? Absolutely not.

The show thrived (and actually moved storylines along) when it focused on the carnival itself. The relationships, the exploitative “cooch” show, the personalities of the workers. The show became ambiguous, dragging and (often, it seemed, intentionally) overly confusing when it went back to the whole angel-versus-demon mysticism.

I’d been waiting forever for a show about a traveling carnival (which, I think, is an fascinating, limitless backdrop). Instead HBO gave us a series that used the carnival as a completely-replaceable setting for an apocalyptic showdown — at least, I think that was the point. In two seasons they moved their storylines along so slowly that even the guys who make Lost had to be thinking, “Damn, answer just ONE question already!”

It was canceled after two seasons… long before any questions were ever satisfactorily answered.

4 | Hit Me Baby One More Time (NBC, 2005)

A great idea for a reality show that disappeared before it could even really get going. Since a lot of people missed it, here was the premise. The show would find one- or two-hit wonders from the ’80s and ’90s. They’d come on the show, fill us in on what they’ve been up to, perform their biggest hit… then perform a cover in their style of a modern hit.

To me, this was can’t miss. Back when it debuted in ’05, I wrote down just a handful of artists I’d love to see on the show and the modern song they could perform. (Some highlights: Nena covering Shakira… Bell Biv Devoe covering Get Low by Lil’ Jon… Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock covering Hey Ya!… C&C Music Factory doing the remix to Ignition… and Richard Marx covering John Mayer.)

It got canceled after five episodes so, clearly, something went wrong. I’m not exactly sure what. The British import host wasn’t very good, he made the whole thing feel very scripted and uncomfortable. The bands often came on incomplete… A Flock of Seagulls, The Motels and Arrested Development all performed with new versions of their groups… which worked contrary to the underlying premise.

The covers didn’t always match up quite right to the performers… like, why would Club Nouveau of Lean On Me fame perform Thank You by Dido? And, in a huge blow, Vanilla Ice sandbagged the show by saying he was going to cover Destiny’s Child’s Survivor… but instead performed a new original song of his also called Survivor… completely crapping on the entire purpose of the show.

Such a shame. Could’ve been appointment television. (Who’s gonna be on? What cover are they gonna do? Rick Astley performed SexyBack!? They’d better put that on iTunes.) Instead, it just came and went in five quick, forgettable weeks.

3 | Quintuplets (FOX, 2004-2005)

The concept (a family featuring quintuplets with five very different personalities) deserved better. Instead, it got the whole lame, cookie-cutter sitcom treatment. You could almost smell the bureaucracy on every single “joke” that they delivered and in the predictable quintuplet personalities (little pervert, cool jock, weird random skinny guy, brainy girl, hot blonde airhead girl).

Naturally, of Andy Richter’s three ’00s sitcoms, the one that was a creative black hole lasted the longest — 22 episodes (to 19 of Andy Richter Controls the Universe, only 15 of which aired… and six of Andy Barker, P.I.) As Homer Simpson once said (after a crayon was removed from his brain and he was temporarily a genius), sometimes it’s hard not to feel like a Spalding Grey in a Rick Dees world.

2 | Last Comic Standing (NBC, 2003-2008)

It was inevitable that there’d be a competitive reality show that set out to find the next breakout stand-up comedy star. But… I’m still waiting on it.

Last Comic Standing was never about finding the best comedian. It was a reality show looking for people who were fair to good at stand-up but, more importantly, who would hopefully fight and argue with each other when they lived in a house.

So, inevitably, the handful of actually-good comedians on the cast would easily pick off the weaker comedians — ones who were cast because they were good for TV — rendering all the manufactured drama as pointless.

The show never really produced any superstars… never really produced any drama… and never really produced a rejuvenated interest in stand-up comedy. There was no repeat of the ’80s when stand-up comedy clubs were popping up like racquetball courts and Jordache stores.

Instead, it put an endless amount of disposable, mainstream, I-could-see-how-people-might-find-that-funny jokes on TV.

It’s hard to take a stand-up competition seriously when it’s clear people like Chris Rock, Richard Pryor, Jerry Seinfeld or Mitch Hedberg would never have been cast early in their careers — I mean, sure their comedy would change the way people look at the world, but would they flip out if someone ate their Frosted Flakes?

1 | The Casino (FOX, 2004)

The ’00s were the decade of reality TV… and this was the biggest miss of the entire era.

Here was the premise: A never-before-seen look at what really goes on behind the scenes at a Las Vegas casino and hotel. Two childhood friends purchase a failing Vegas casino and do whatever it takes to rebuilt it and make it great. Created by the king of reality TV, Mark Burnett, creator of Survivor.

I completely bought in. How could you not? Every time I’m in Vegas I look up at the thousands of cameras and wonder who’s on the other end. Every time my money gets pushed into a mysterious slot I wonder where it goes. Every time I see a bunch of French Canadians in weird colorful costumes contorting their bodies around poles, I wonder what they’re thinking. (Especially when it happens at a strip club, not during Cirque du Soleil.)

Unfortunately, the description I gave above didn’t describe the show quite accurately.

What really happened: Zero behind-the-scenes access, a contrived attempt to tell “salacious” Vegas stories, a boring, painful, unappealing show that was euthanized before its 13 episodes could even air.

This was a reality show that just so happened to have multiple cameras set up on swinging couples and/or guys picking up transvestites. It was like The Hills, but with worse acting. There was an entire episode focusing on a tragically nouveau riche white trash couple coming to the casino, causing a scene and still being treated like gods. Half of the other episodes focused on a lounge singer for no particular reason. The rest focused on the two owners talking about how classic and “old Vegas” they were going to make the casino. Talking, not showing. Just talking.

Not a single moment of the thing felt real. Not a single moment felt like exclusive access. Not a single moment was interesting. But because of this failure, we’ll probably never get a good reality show that takes place behind-the-scenes of a casino. But, ya know, at least we can watch a bunch of Italian stereotypes incarnate get enough instant fame that they won’t have to get jobs for another five to 10 years. That’s eye-opening too, I guess.

Just missed the cut:

  • Joey (NBC, 2004-2006)
    Couldn’t capture the appeal of Friends… resolved the sexual tension between Joey and the neighbor too quickly… Joey’s career was too depressing to sustain its own sitcom.
  • The Rerun Show (NBC, 2002)
    A sketch comedy show recreating famous moments from sitcoms. Great idea, only executed in the least funny way possible.
  • That’s My Bush (Comedy Central, 2001)
    Really, Trey and Matt’s only miss ever — a parody of an ’80s sitcom that worked so hard on making a perfect parody it forgot to be start-to-finish funny.
  • Reunion (FOX, 2005)
    A murder mystery told over 20 years — good idea, horribly executed with beyond-recycled plots.
  • Everybody Hates Chris (UPN/The CW, 2005-2009)
    Chris Rock’s life and Terry Crews’s incredible talents somehow spun into a series that barely produced any laughs.

Honorable mention:

  • First Monday (CBS, 2002)
    The Supreme Court seems like a great place for a procedural drama. An amazing place, actually. So this really should not have sucked so much.
  • Drawn Together (Comedy Central, 2004-2007)
    Cartoon parody of reality shows leans way too heavily on shocking-for-the-sake-of-shocking jokes… just reeks of trying too hard.
  • The Benefactor (ABC, 2004)
    Mark Cuban is an amazing personality. An Apprentice-lite show was not right for him.
  • Lucky Louie (HBO, 2006)
    A traditional, multi-camera, laugh track sitcom on HBO — complete with swearing, nudity and a cast of talented comedians. Tragically unfunny.
  • Whammy – The All-New Press Your Luck (GSN, 2002-2003)
    Disrespectful update of an all-time classic game show that needed to stay just the way it was. Whammys are supposed to be cheaply animated. It’s part of their charm.
  • The New He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (Cartoon Network, 2002-2004)
    You can’t spell “Hey man, don’t bastardize one of my best childhood memories” without “He-Man.”