Upon first look, The Ratings Game could feel like an excuse for Showtime to use a popular sitcom star after he’s just had his TV series canceled in an attempt to squeeze as many huge cable numbers as possible. Any such notions quickly evaporate after seeing how smart, biting, and hilarious of a send-off director/star Danny DeVito created with regard to the way television worked. I’m sure there was a certain element of good-natured revenge infused into The Ratings Game with regard to the politics of ’80s network television, but to his credit, DeVito’s film sidesteps any area which might have launched it into hatchet job territory and instead stays totally in the mode of hilarious satire for what remains one of the funniest TV movies ever made.
In The Ratings Game, successful trucker Vic DeSalvo (DeVito) has come to L.A. to make it as a television producer. The trouble is, not only can he not get many meetings, but he blows the ones he does get thanks to the lousy quality of his projects. When a just-fired network executive green lights one of Vic’s shows as a vengeful last act, the wannabe producer thinks he’s struck gold. His hopes are once again dashed, though, when he realizes that while the network is obligated to air his programs, they also have the power to bury them. Vic proceeds with production regardless when he meets and falls in love with the sweet Francine (Rhea Perlman), an overworked and underappreciated TV ratings statistician, who agrees to use her access to make Vic the hottest producer in television.
Even if someone wasn’t around during the ’80s, it’s easy to see how The Ratings Game wonderfully functions as a time capsule of the way TV functioned back in the day. In the film, shows like “Hotbods and LeVar” populate the airwaves and hearing promos such as “from the producers of Beer Nuts comes a human drama that will touch and move you” proved commonplace. What’s especially interesting is that The Ratings Game was made and released at a time when NBC (which clearly serves as the model for the network in the film, and had recently canceled DeVito’s beloved sitcom Taxi) couldn’t get a hit and was considered the sitcom wasteland. “Sittin’ Pretty,” Vic’s main sitcom about a pair of college coeds and a freshman fraternity brother sharing a dorm, is the kind of nauseating sitcom that the network would have considered a winner in the early ’80s, but is now considered incredibly cringeworthy. Additionally, while much of the film is heightened, The Ratings Game serves as both a document and an indictment of the classic way television operated in those days, especially with regard to content. “I realize that Albert Schweitzer and Mother Theresa never met, but with you and Carol Burnett in the leads, people will love it,” declares Vic to Alan Alda (who he is supposedly speaking to on the phone), indicating the networks’ habit of recycling their actors in projects they weren’t always suited for but guaranteed big numbers.
For anyone unfamiliar with DeVito’s brand of comedy, The Ratings Game is truly the perfect introduction. Not only are the shows Vic creates laughingly bad, but there are also great moments of dialogue which draw forth one laugh after another while expertly sending up its very subject. “I couldn’t relate to the characters. You got anything with Nazis?” says an executive to Vic after he is done pitching a show. “How is it possible that ‘Nunzio’s Girls’ beat the MASH Reunion Special,” proclaims another executive when one of Vic’s shows proves a hit. There are some truly outrageous aspects, namely the sending off of a collection of families on a fake cruise while Vic’s teamsters turn on everyone’s television sets at home to his programming, ensuring high numbers. Yet the comedy throughout The Ratings Game is so potent that even such far-fetched elements are more than welcome.
In the performance department, there’s always great curiosity at watching real-life couples act off of each other on screen to see how in synch with one another they really are. Here, Perlman and DeVito have such fantastic chemistry in roles different from their other collaborations. This feels like the real them, and it’s so nice to watch the moments they share together, no matter what their characters are doing. The scene where Vic walks Francine home is especially lovely and tender. Beyond that, there’s something sad, yet inspiring about the main character as played by DeVito, who beautifully brings forth Vic’s genuine essence and his relentless determination to keep dreaming. Meanwhile the likes of Vincent Schiavelli as a flamboyant personal assistant, George Wendt as a suburban dad, and Michael Richards as a TV-addicted teamster all lend valuable comic support.
Production-wise, The Ratings Game is not bad for a TV movie and easily feels like it could have been a feature film, especially due to its biting content. It also shows how DeVito has always possessed an undervalued knack for filmmaking and crafting stories which commented on areas most people wouldn’t have looked at twice. In an era where television is more alive than ever, The Ratings Game proves an interesting watch today, moreso than when it first aired, as DeVito so boldly asks: Who so brazenly thinks they are powerful and influential enough to decide what makes quality television?
The release of The Ratings Game comes with a vintage making-of-featurette, trailer, outtakes, and deleted scenes, including a hilarious one with Lainie Kazan as the network’s go-to clairvoyant who has her own idea of a mini-series featuring a psychic character that would be a good vehicle for Loni Anderson.
There is also a collection of DeVito’s short films, which range from darkly comic to just plain dark, all the while retaining that dynamic energy the director has always managed to bring to his projects.
While The Ratings Game was made more for fans of DeVito and those who understand the way television of the day worked, it’s an incredibly fun ride for all who see it.
The Ratings Game is now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films.