Lights Out in Studio 60

I’m going to make a new tag category: TV. Every once in a while I find myself wanting to write about TV, and since my other blogging outlet, Best of the Blogs, isn’t really the place for it (we seem to be down to about a dozen regular readers over there, and at least four of them are morons), I’ll do it here. It won’t be often.

NBC’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip came to an end last Thursday night, its final episodes burned off in the wasteland of early summer, largely unnoticed and mostly unmourned. The arc of the show’s history is pretty well-known—from the most buzzworthy new show of the past season to sputtering ratings to a three-month midseason hiatus to cancellation, and the last six episodes burned off at a time of the year when nobody’s watching TV.

The official critical line on Studio 60 was that viewers couldn’t relate to a show about the backstage goings-on at a SNL-type TV show, and that when creator Aaron Sorkin tried to make those backstage machinations seem as significant as those on the The West Wing, the effect was ridiculous. (I didn’t buy that then, and I still don’t—watching drama of any sort, from a big-budget flick to your kid’s grade-school play, requires a certain suspension of disbelief. As I wrote at the time, “few of us are young, nubile medical interns, and people still love Grey’s Anatomy.”) Yet every story about the show mentioned that it was the most TIVO’d show of all, and that it had one of the most elite audiences on TV in terms of education and disposable income. That latter fact seemed to feed the critical backlash, by giving critics license to proclaim the show irrelevant because they knew that the people who watched it weren’t the kind of people who’d read or heed what TV critics say. But a lot of us in that elite audience weren’t fools—we knew that Studio 60 wasn’t up to Sorkin’s standard. The November two-parter, “Nevada Day,” for example, was an ambitious attempt to move the show out of its backstage locale and make some big statements about politics and TV. Even though it fell mostly flat (and became almost unwatchable in the second part), it had its moments. Sorkin’s widely publicized decision to make one character an outspoken Christian conservative was promising and admirable, but not especially believable. But the fans hung in there nevertheless. The show peaked with its Christmas episode, which was the perfect combination of wit and heart. There followed a several-week hiatus, during which Studio 60 fans hoped the show might finally be on track.

It wasn’t. Succeeding episodes focused on the soapy relationships between the leads and the women in their lives. As good as Brad Whitford and Matthew Perry were—and at times, their chemistry was amazing, although never in the same ballpark with other Sorkin lead pairs, Sports Night‘s Dan and Casey and The West Wing‘s Bartlet and Leo—Amanda Peet and Sarah Paulson never met their standard, or sparked any chemistry on their own. In the end, neither actress was believable in her role—Peet as the network president and Paulson as the fictional show-within-the-show’s Gilda Radner (and the conservative Christian to boot). Indeed, Studio 60‘s biggest flaw was not its premise or its plotting but its casting. We never saw any of the supposedly brilliant comedic actors on the show-within-the-show actually being funny, which is more of a problem than you might think—certainly more than Sorkin thought. The best-cast part was probably Steven Weber as the network CEO, but whenever Studio 60 started to focus on network politics instead of Whitford and Perry, I started looking at my wristwatch. In other words, the best-cast character on the show shouldn’t have been on the show at all. One of the things Sorkin’s always been great at is developing peripheral characters, and he did that here—Timothy Busfield as Cal, the fictional show’s director, was great; even small parts, like the doctor and the Air Force officer in the final arc, were better developed than the leads on many other shows. But you can’t build a whole show out of supporting parts, and in the end, Studio 60 never came together the way I hoped it would.

The final six episodes were the whole series in microcosm—moments of delight for Sorkin fans, when the wisecracks came so fast you needed the closed captions to keep up, moments of high drama, moments of great warmth, but separated by long stretches of “well, this is OK, but. . . .” And in the finale (titled, as were the final first-season episodes of Sorkin’s two earlier series, “What Kind of Day Has it Been”), they all lived happily ever after.

I don’t expect Aaron Sorkin to have a network series again for a while—his future now is probably in the movies (he wrote The American President, which starred Michael Douglas, long before getting into TV), although I’d like to see what he could do with a series on HBO or Showtime. Whatever he does, though, I’ll watch it. And when Studio 60 comes out on DVD in October, I’ll buy it, because to paraphrase the old joke about sex, even when a Sorkin show is bad, it’s still pretty good.

4 thoughts on “Lights Out in Studio 60

  1. hooloovoo42

    even when a Sorkin show is bad, it’s still pretty good.

    And that’s why most of us watch them. Even at its worst, S60 was one of the best shows this year. Yes, I’m sorry to see it go, but I’m also glad that it finished as it did. Sports Night was sort of left hanging and although I liked the end of TWW, it had changed so much from the Sorkin years that I was still left dissatisfied at how Tomorrow finished.

    This is an extract from an email I sent to a fellow fan last night.

    > I’ve just rewatched the SN version of WKODHIB and had a major
    > *sniffle*. If Aaron Sorkin never writes for television again, it will
    > be a huge loss. I don’t care if he recycles plots, titles, lines or
    > actors, the man is a genius and can reduce me from laughing my head
    > off to a wibbling lump in milliseconds.

    But I believe that Matt’s last line in S60 – “I’m gonna make a friend out of you yet” – is Aaron’s response to the critics and the hate-filled bloggers out there. He’s going to write for TV again some day, but until then, he’s got a few other things going on that are taking up his time.

  2. jb

    One of the last lines of the final episode of “Sports Night” was interpreted by some people as a shout-out to the network: something about anyone who can’t make money with “Sports Night” should get out of the money-making business. So he’s got a history of that.

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