TV Talk: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Saving the world, one sketch at a time.

TV Talk: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Starring: Matthew Perry, Amanda Peet, Bradley Whitford, Steven Weber, D.L. Hughley, Sarah Paulson, Nathan Corddry, Timothy Busfield

Series Creator: Aaron Sorkin

This is a new segment I’m trying out, called “TV Talk”. This isn’t a review, per se, and it’s definitely not a list. Instead, it’s a discussion of my current opinion of a TV show, my thoughts and feelings, what I think might happen, or what I think should happen. It’s different from a review in that it will be much more informal, looks at a show during a season, and won’t have a rating. This is a way to discuss TV as it happens, as I don’t like to review a show until I’ve seen the whole season. I don’t much care for reviewing individual episodes, as I like to examine the storytelling from a wider perspective, so this is a compromise. I’m hoping this will encourage discussion in comments from others, because talking about TV as it airs is a lot of fun. Think of this like a column in the entertainment section of a newspaper/website.

I chose Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip as the first subject of this piece because it’s the show I have the strongest feelings about this early into the new TV season. Written and created by Aaron Sorkin, who is responsible for two of my all-time favourite TV shows (The West Wing and Sports Night), Studio 60 was easily the new show I was most looking forward to this season. The pilot was met with critical acclaim, the cast brought back some TV favourites, and the premise was interesting. How could it go wrong?

I know! It could be a condescending, smug, overly-serious look at a writer-saviour brought in to change the television landscape with a live, 90-minute sketch show that is less relevant than Saturday Night Live in its own fictional universe. Sad to say, this show has been a major disappointment for me on many, many fronts. The pilot started off strong, setting up a strong agenda and taking some risks with Judd Hirsch‘s Wes Mendel interrupting a live broadcast of the show-within-the-show to decry the sad state of network television. At the time, it seemed like the show was supposed to be a fictional version of SNL, with the network being a fictional version of NBC, so it seemed pretty brave to rant about how they’ve plummeted financially and creatively by airing crap like Fear Factor. The pace of the pilot was crisp, with the trademark Sorkin and director Thomas Schlamme-style rapid fire dialogue while following the conversants walking. The characters all seemed interesting, and their jobs looked to give Sorkin plenty of material. With both of his previous shows, Sorkin proved to be the master of the workplace drama, so everything looked like Studio 60 was going to be the trifecta in his crown.

Instead, the show was immediately undermined by constant references to the real NBC and Saturday Night Live, which made the original pilot less daring, and the show-within-the-show less innovative by extension. Wes Mendel wasn’t critiquing NBC as much as he was ranting about a fake network (and the rest of TV less specifically). Worse, if SNL exists in the same world as Studio 60, then this isn’t a show about an SNL-type sketch comedy show, it’s a show about a MadTV-type sketch comedy show. In other words, its the copy, the less-culturally significant copy, and constant references to SNL sketches like “Wayne’s World” and “Toonces the Driving Cat” only confirm that their show isn’t all that significant.

Which brings me to my biggest problem with the show: even though their program isn’t even as culturally-significant as a show that hasn’t been all that culturally-significant in over a decade, they act like it’s the most important thing in the history of ever! I get that the characters are passionate about their work. They should be. It wouldn’t be all that dramatic if they didn’t care about their work. But it’s more than passion with this show, it’s a tone that what these comedians do is incredibly important to everyone in the world that drives me nuts. Worse, it’s the idea that what the network executive overseeing this one sketch comedy show does that makes me gag.

Said network executive is Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet), who in a recent episode found herself in a scandal when a report turned up that 8 years ago she had a drunk driving arrest (no conviction). In this crazy universe, news outlets all around America suddenly give a shit what a fourth-place network president does at any time in their life, much less 8 years ago. In my universe, I can’t even fucking name a network president, and I watch about 15 shows a week (or something, no time to count, too busy watching). Even dumber was the scene where Jordan tells series director Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) and writer-god Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) that they should spoof the news of her old arrest on the show. What a great sketch that would be: someone no one in the world cares about did something unfunny that no one cares about! Perfect for the males aged 16-28 demographic that watches sketch comedy on Friday night!

It’s as though Sorkin never got over working for The West Wing, and now every dramatic situation he invents must involve hyper-smart characters whose actions change the nation. It was fine for The West Wing (even if the Bush administration has proven a lot of that drama false, in that a government can seemingly screw everything up and not be held accountable). But this is comedy people. COMEDY!!! It’s not about educating the world, or making the world a better place, it’s about laughter. Or, at least, it should be. Instead, Studio 60 is increasingly about Sorkin’s need to prove himself (and, by extension, his characters) as the smartest guy in the room, using the show as his personal soapbox to decry anything that bothers him.

So far, Sorkin has picked his fights with the internet, reality TV, and the religious right, with only the religious right battle feeling authentic and thought out. His recent episode featuring a Mark Burnett-type reality TV producer pitching an abominable show about trying to break up couples by airing their dirty laundry just showed how out of touch Sorkin is with television in the year 2006. Could such a show exist? Probably. But, shows like that are no longer the ratings juggernauts network chairman Jack Rudolph (Steven Weber) makes them out to be in this show. It’s like doing an episode about the popularity of Tae Bo or something, like way to pick up on that trend five years too late.

The show is officially a drama, but it is a drama about a comedy, and thus should actually be funny sometimes. Hell, The West Wing was a drama about politics, and it was funny a lot of the time. Yet, Studio 60 is trying waaaaay too hard at being smart all the time, that I have a hard time believing that the show-within-the-show is funny either. Especially when they give us glimpses into sketches as painfully dull as the Nancy Grace spoof from last week, or some high-minded commedia dell’arte sketch from the third episode. I think half the problem with the show is that it’s too clever-by-half for what it’s supposed to be, and probably should’ve been about something else. Instead of being a drama about the behind the scenes happenings of an SNL-type show, they should’ve made it a drama about the behind the scenes happenings of a Daily Show-type show. Then maybe all the polemics disguised as “comedy” would fit, as would the high-minded belief that they’re doing more than just making people laugh.

Here’s the thing, when you come off as too lefty-smug for ME, then something has really gone wrong. This show needs to stop telling us how great it is (seriously, every other scene is about how Matt Albie is the bestest writer ever, or how Sarah Paulson‘s Harriet Hayes is the most talentedest performer ever, or how Studio 60 is the greatest show ever), and focus on actually being great.

If you haven’t figured it out by the mere length of this rant, it kinda bugs me. It bugs me that a show created by a guy I worshiped as a writer (Sorkin) makes me roll my eyes as much as Studio 60 does now. It frustrates me that it could follow up its best episode since the pilot (“The West Coast Delay”), with an absolutely terrible one (“The Long Lead Story” – could there BE more exposition?). And it baffles me that, despite all my complaints, I’ll probably keep on watching. Possibly in spite of myself.

Questions? Comments? Angry rage? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Related:
Sports Night: The Complete Series

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