I just finished watching the first season of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. I hadn’t expected brilliance; I’d watched enough of it the first time round to know I was buying some pretty flawed television. It was no Sports Night or even West Wing. But I am a sucker for Sorkin, and in this case I figured I’d get a ton of interesting insight into watching him fail fairly noisily.
It took me the whole season to figure out what was wrong with the show. Not, parenthetically, that there wasn’t a lot that was right. Matthew Perry was great. I like Sorkin dialogue. I liked a bunch of the characters, even the minor ones, some of whom had their arcs and character development sadly cut short when the show ended. Oh, and I really liked Mark McKinney. Man, what a deadpan. And Steven Weber! There’s a show waiting to be made about his character. More on that later.
Lance Mannion had a lot to say about Studio 60 while it was running, and a lot of the stuff he says about why it failed is accurate. I think the comedy was better than he gave it credit for, but I’m picking nits at that point. Sarah Paulson was in fact sorely miscast and abused as a stand-in for Sorkin’s own love life; the whole show moved kind of slowly; enough with the rants about Christianity already. Sheesh.
But he missed the big thing. (Come on. The whole point of blogging is to talk about why the clever person over there is wrong. It only lacks class when you don’t give them credit for clever.)
The real, deep problem with the show is that network comedy sketch shows are about the most unimportant thing on television these days, and Sorkin wanted to do a show about a very important network comedy sketch show. It’s all over the show; the characters treat Studio 60 as if it were the arbiter of cool. Sorkin is writing a world in which everyone in America, not to mention Afghanistan, cares a lot about late night network television.
I can’t name a single Saturday Night Live cast member except for those Lonely Planet guys, and that’s cause of YouTube. OK, I cheated and peeked — Maya Rudolph’s name rang a bell. But SNL is not, in fact, making what one could call an impact on pop culture these days.
So the premise is flawed, and as a result all the storylines — nearly without exception — feel slightly off. It starts out with the story about how Danny and Matt rejoin the show. Realistically, if a couple of SNL vets came back to run SNL again after winning a WGA award for Best Screenplay, the story is about how they’ve lost their career in a big way. Not in this universe.
This continues. Reporters flock to the stage doors, high-powered lawyers hang around the set because it’s so damned compelling, and major reporters push to do big stories on the show. It doesn’t ring true, because it’s all predicated on the idea that Studio 60 really, really matters.
If the show had been set in 1980 or so, it would have worked. Sadly, Sorkin needs his current events. C’est la vie.
The good show that sort of lurked at the edges of this one is the Jack Rudolph drama about a seriously competent network executive who has to grapple with the changing face of media. I want to see Stephen Weber figuring out how to use the Internet to sell his shows. I want to see him using the Internet to create his shows. NBS as the network which breaks with tradition and puts user-created content on prime-time television? Sure, why not? It’s the Sorkin universe. Weirder things happen. But make the stories about…
All the stuff that pisses Sorkin off. He’s always sneering at bloggers in his scripts. So that one is probably a lost cause.
Still, it was interesting to watch him trip up. I’d certainly recommend the DVDs for anyone who’s into that sort of thing. Also there’re more than a couple great bits.