From the creator of The West Wing comes one of the most anticipated series of the last decade – Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. But can a drama set in a TV studio live up to life in the Oval Office? Words Matt Pomroy
Some people say Aaron Sorkin is a genius, the saviour of television, who created some of the most intelligent viewing ever to appear on the small screen. To others, he just makes expensive dramas that don’t get nearly enough viewers to warrant a continued prime-time slot, or to compete with rival networks’ programming. In truth, he’s both of those things. The creator of The West Wing had a lot to live up to with his new series, Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. The general consensus is that the much-loved White House drama dropped in quality after Sorkin left (partly as a result of his drug problems). Would Studio 60… be his big comeback?
Essentially, Studio 60… is an expansion on Sports Night (a comedy about a sports news programme) that he first did back in 1998, but now it’s set behind the scenes of the titular Studio 60 – a Saturday Night Live-style show. And rather than a straight comedy, it’s a broader drama with jokes that most intelligent comedies would kill to have.
In true Sorkin style, it starts with crackling dialogue that’s right on the money. In fact, the ranting monologue in episode one, which shapes the entire series, is as good as anything The West Wing ever gave us. Executive producer Wes Mendell (the excellent Judd Hirsch) walks on set and hijacks the live broadcast of Studio 60, knowing he’ll be fired but by now past caring. Dismayed at the petty censorship of the Federal Communications Commission and continued pressure from religious groups and advertisers, he launches into a tirade against what the once-great show has become and the state of modern television.
‘This show used to be cutting-edge political and social satire, but it’s gotten lobotomised by a candy-a** broadcast network hell-bent on doing nothing that might challenge their audience,’ he spits. Sorkin wrote the words himself, and while many have suggested that it’s a sly dig at the flat-lining Saturday Night Live, it’s hard not to feel that the sentiments aren’t a big blunderbuss shot at television itself – and an impassioned plea to return to some kind of quality.
When Wes is thrown out of the building, they bring back the previously fired writer-director team of Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford), who seemingly represent Sorkin himself, on his white horse, coming to save the day. One of them even has a substance abuse problem. Amanda Peet plays Jordan McDeere, the recently-hired president of the network, and Sarah Paulson is Harriet Hayes, Matt’s ex-girlfriend, who also works with them. But it’s really about the two guys who bounce off each other like Sam and Josh in the Sorkin-era of The West Wing. Whitford’s character is little different from Josh Lyman (and that’s a great thing), but it’s Perry as his writing partner, Matt Albie who really impresses. Although Perry had shown glimpses of what he could do with a few guest appearances in The West Wing, he moves up a level here with a performance that makes you forgive all his post-Friends films – apart from perhaps Serving Sara, that one might take a little longer to excuse.
The pair deliver the Sorkin scripts astutely with lots of walk-and-talk shots plus rapid-fire dialogue full of dry quips and sharp jokes that don’t require a huge set-up. The script is intelligent, with social commentary that doesn’t beat you over the head, and the cast works perfectly. So naturally it was cancelled. Amid the hype, it opened well in the US, with over 13 million viewers. But by mid-season only six million were still watching and it wasn’t picked up for a second series. It was dropped and ultimately replaced by The Real Wedding Crashers, a cheap reality series based on a film and produced by chief spokesperson for moron pride, Ashton Kutcher.
It involves brides and grooms willingly turning their ‘special day’ into an intentional disaster, to ‘punk’ their unsuspecting guests and get 42 minutes on the television. Seven per cent of viewers watched Kutcher’s hidden camera show on its debut. Studio 60… was pulling in seven per cent too, but hidden camera shows don’t cost over US$3 million per episode to make.
It all makes Wes’s on air rant in the first episode of Studio 60 seem all the more tragically prophetic: ‘We’re all being lobotomised by this country’s most influential industry that’s just throwing in the towel on any endeavour to do anything that doesn’t include the courting of 12-year-old boys. And not even the smart 12-year-olds. The stupid ones. The idiots. Which there are plenty.’
Of course he’s right, but in the current televisual tsunami of stupidity it’s nice to be able to cling to rafts of intelligent and soul-saving driftwood like Studio 60 At The Sunset Strip – if only for one wonderful season. And if you don’t tune in, Kutcher and the stupid 12-year-old boys win. •
Studio 60 At The Sunset Strip begins on May 15 on America Plus at 11pm.
For Time Out Magazine – click here for original PDF – Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip