No show has been more hyped by critics this year than Aaron Sorkin’s return to television, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. It’s a pleasure to report that the hype was justified. Studio 60 is Sorkin’s eloquent tirade against the degradation of American popular culture and the erosion of free speech that the Bush era has fostered, all within the veneer of a glamourous behind-the-scenes exposé.
Sorkin was, of course, the creator of The West Wing, but only worked on the show for four seasons before the network ousted him and his creative partner Thomas Schlamme, the show’s key director. The show continued for another three seasons under the guidance of John Wells, but since Sorkin had written every episode, the show was largely seen as withering away. The reasons for Sorkin’s firing were never confirmed, but the late delivery of scripts and episodes and Sorkin’s own struggle with drug addiction are acknowledged as the major factors. However, since Sorkin WAS The West Wing, the network’s decision reeked of placing commerce over art, which has become a central preoccupation of Studio 60.
The pilot opens with the filming of the latest Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a weekly comedy variety show in the vein of Saturday Night Live. A Federal Communications Commission rep is telling executive producer Wes Mendell (Judd Hirsch) that a sketch must be pulled due to content that may offend religious groups. Mendell is furious, but acquiesces. During the opening sketch, a clichéd pastiche of Bush, Mendell walks on stage and begins taking the network and the FCC to task for their hijacking of America’s most influential medium, for their defanging of those with something to say and their constant kowtowing to perceived standards of morality, rabid religious groups, and the lowest common demominator. His colleagues keep him on air for a minute until they are forced to cut to a commercial.
It’s a dynamite opening that makes Sorkin’s intentions abundantly clear: television has gone to the dogs and enough is enough. But the finger is being pointed at NBC as much as anyone, and here it is anchoring their Monday night lineup. But more on that in a moment.
The network goes into damage control that night, and the new president, the enigmatically genial Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet), convinces her boss to take a radical step: rehire the former showrunners of Studio 60 that he essentially fired four years before, who have since gone on to great filmmaking success. We meet Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) at a Writer’s Guild awards night, where Matt is so strung out on painkillers from back surgery that he barely registers his win for Best Original Screenplay. Word then reaches Danny of the network’s intentions, and Jordan reveals that she knows that Danny cannot direct another film due to failing an insurance company drug test. Unable to direct Matt’s new script for another 18 months, the pair take the job. However, they clearly agree with Mendell’s outburst and view the show’s recent years with similar scorn. But so does Jordan, who will let them run the banned sketch the following week. The new era begins.
The parallels to Sorkin and Schlamme’s experiences on The West Wing are clear, creating a venomous metatextuality that makes NBC’s willingness to broadcast such a blatant critique of their past actions all the more surprising. Studio 60 likely landed at NBC (following an unprecedented bidding war) after they got their arses handed to them by the other networks, making their history with Sorkin and Schlamme a more assailable obstacle. For the last few years, NBC has been a bland, toothless shadow of its former self. Once the central pillar of American network television with shows like Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier, and ER, it has since been saddled with serviceable but hardly earthshaking shows like the myriad Law and Order permutations and dreck like Las Vegas and Crossing Jordan while every other network pulls out buzz-magnets and ratings hits. The worst cut of all must be the formerly inconsequential ABC scoring with Lost, Desperate Housewives, and Grey’s Anatomy, thus essentially trading places with NBC.
Being responsible for their last acclaimed show (before The Office unexpectedly emerged as a contender in its second season), Sorkin and Schlamme clearly represented a return to respectability. What makes their new project so tantalising is that they have written this saga into it, often quite blatantly. Matt (the Sorkin analogue) has recently broken up with Studio 60 cast member and Christian singer Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson) – Sorkin started dating Christian gospel singer Kristin Chenoweth after leaving West Wing, which she later joined as a cast member. And Matt and Danny (the Schlamme figure, although Sorkin emerges a little too) have found success in the movies, and while Sorkin and Schlamme haven’t exactly set Hollywood on fire, they’ve hardly crashed and burned. But they clearly still smart from their forced exit by NBC, and have other axes to grind about the state of entertainment.
This is what sets Studio 60 apart from the vapid ‘inside’ look of shows like Entourage, which is populated by venal, unlikeable characters whose tedium could be endured if the show actually had something to say about American culture and a relevance to everyday people. It doesn’t, and Sorkin has plenty. If Hollywood insider fictions bore you senseless, fear not. Just as The West Wing promoted meaningful discourse about politics – leaving aside for now any criticisms of its leftism, sentimentality, and accuracy – Studio 60 encourages us to deeply consider what has happened to our entertainment. As Hirsch’s character says, “there’s always been a war between art and commerce. Now, I’m telling you, art is getting its ass kicked, and it’s making us mean.”
The post-pilot series thus looks incredibly tantalising. What will Studio 60 the sketch show become under Matt and Danny, and what topics and discussion will it allow Studio 60 the drama series to broach regarding the state of Western culture and free speech today? Although they appear to have Jordan on their side at this point, there will clearly be a lot of resistance from other network bosses, including the cold and efficient Jack Rudolph (Steven Weber), ensuring that the art versus commerce theme will remain prominent.
But leaving aside the vitality of its commentary, this is an entertaining, well-written show with a terrific cast. Sorkin applying his pithy and intelligent dialogue to the entertainment world will be such a treat, just as his loaded West Wing scripts were dazzling portrayals of their milieu. I imagine it wasn’t easy to coax Matthew Perry back to series television, especially after what happened to Matt LeBlanc and Joey, but I’m glad they did. Sorkin’s script no doubt helped. He was always the best thing about Friends, and his appearances on The West Wing proved that he had the chops for both drama and Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue. His character here is closer to Chandler than his Joe Quincy on West Wing, but he’s hardly reprising his Friends role. His new quirks and partnership with WW alum Bradley Whitford promise something different – the two also have terrific chemistry. Judd Hirsch is tremendous in his brief appearance and it’s a shame he’s not sticking around, but I suppose that’s the point. Amanda Peet has drawn some flack for a performance that’s askew to the rest of the cast, but I didn’t notice anything. She fits in just fine and conveys Jordan’s cryptic personality very well. Whitford is wonderful as always, and while the rest of the cast don’t get a great deal to do, there’s not a weak link among them.
Where Studio 60 may fall short is in how far Sorkin plugs his own life into the story and whether the show is internally cohesive enough to continue when his own experiences can no longer fuel storylines. But that’s an unlikely prospect: this isn’t a show that exists to serve a grudge. There are plenty of suggestions in the script of Sorkin’s love for television (which he has admitted his the show’s motivating sentiment), and that his frustration is with the medium’s future than with the medium itself. I imagine he relishes being back in the hot seat with Schlamme and able to cause a stir, and it’s great to see him back to contribute to the renaissance in TV drama that we’re all enjoying right now.
Check out a 6 minute preview here.