I finally caught the end of Aaron Sorkin’s latest series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Sorkin’s first major TV show (that I’m aware of) SportsNight caught the attention of critics though failed to ignite with the public. His follow-up, The West Wing, was a hit with both. His third effort, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, was canceled after the first season and it was considered fortunate that it lasted that long.

So the question is… what went wrong?

The biggest problem, I think, is that Studio 60 played to Sorkin’s biggest weaknesses while failing to get the audience along for the ride.

The biggest problem was the most essential: the premise. Why Sorkin and NBC thought we would enjoy a TV show about Hollywood producers preaching to the American people is completely beyond me. I think Hollywood in general has this notion that because we buy People magazine and care about celebrities that we care a whole lot about what goes on behind the creative process. By and large we don’t. But worse than the faulty premise, they took the behind-the-scenes approach and made it unattractive to even people like me that might be interested by making it half about the making of the show and half about the point of the show within a show which is the main characters’ crusade within the show to overcome the stuffy network execs and censors and tell us how we should think.

Which leads to problem number two: sanctimony. Sorkin seems to be a pretty bright guy. It’s obvious that he thinks about the issues that are important to him. He seems like the sort of guy that yells at the President and other political opponents when he’s giving a speech on TV. There is almost a pent up rage there wherein he will go out of his way to have one of the characters air some sort of political rant that you can tell Sorkin, and not the character saying it, has been to let out. He did this a lot on The West Wing, too, but it was more appropriate to a political drama than to this. The conceit that we should be as happy to hear a Hollywood producer or actor spout off self-righteous diatribes as we are to hear the fictional President of the United States do it tells us quite a bit about the inflated sense of importance that Sorkin and Hollywood have for their place in the political debate.

None of this is to say that I actually had a problem with the content of the rants themselves. But even when I very much agreed with what he was saying, he made his point of view sound the incontrovertible truth when I could easy come up with a retort. Sorkin’s at his best when he’s doing back-and-fourth dialogue. Sorkin forgets that sometimes. On West Wing he forgot it during the mock-2002 election between Jed Bartlet and Robert Ritchie. Republican Ritchie was nothing but a rhetorical punching bag wherein Bartlet could display his intellectual superiority over an idiot Republican. Somehow, though, he was actually worse about the one-sided political rants on a show about a TV show than he was on a show about the White House.

On some level Sorkin realized this shortcoming and he tried to compensate for it by self-deprecation. The Hollywood liberal jokes were ever-present, but it came across more as that sort of half-joke that the guy with the really bad temper has when he pretends to get upset about something and you think he’s joking but the uncertainty and familiarity of it makes you more uneasy than humor-filled.

The last thing thing he did was fail to let the show write itself. In the first season of The West Wing, Sorkin attempted to set up romantic chemistry between Josh and Mandy. It didn’t work. No one cared. Everyone was a lot more interested in Josh and his assistant Donna. After the first season Mandy was unceremoniously dumped from the program. that kind of adaptability was absolutely crucial and completely missing from Studio 60. Nobody I know that watched the show really cared about Matt Albie and Harriet Hayes. I frankly believe that they were better off without one another. But for personal reasons (it mirrored Sorkin’s own romance with Kristin Chenoweth) and the show suffered as a result. Their lack of chemistry became immediately apparent when two episodes after her introduction I was thinking that Matt Albie and Mary Tate should pair off. Just as with his political views, Sorkin was more interested in saying his piece than he was in showing or saying things that might really interest us. No complaints about Danny Tripp and Jordan McDeere. I thought they were cute together.

Before I move on, I should say that on the whole I did enjoy the show. If it were on again next year I would probably watch it, though I’d do like I did this year and be constantly behind a week or ten. Despite the rants and mismatched romances, I really did like most of the characters. Sorkin’s dialogue — that is when he has two characters talking — is still really good (though not as great as it once was). He also managed to capture an energy like had had in SportsNight that seemed beyond hokey when applied to The West Wing.

The good news about the show’s cancellation is that it may leave Sorkin free to pursue other projects. What I would actually like to see him do next would be to take the best elements of SportsNight and Studio 60, namely the energy of producing entertainment for the masses, and marry it with the best from The West Wing, intelligent political commentary in an appropriate venue. I would love to see him do a show about a cable news network. SportsNight sort of did that, but it was a sports program. I’d like to see an NBS Nightly News program or maybe a cable news network. One of the things I thought he did very well with The West Wing was the interplay between politics and news. I’d love to see him do it from the other side.


Category: Theater

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9 Responses to What Went Wrong In Studio 60?

  1. Peter says:

    As I understand it, part of the problem with Studio 60 is that production costs were much higher than for most other TV shows. Ratings levels that might have been adequate for most shows weren’t enough given the inflated costs.

  2. trumwill says:

    I could see production costs being high on a show like that with some of the actors involved (though it’s no Lost or Heroes), but the ratings from what I understand were pretty abysmal. On the other hand, the last six episodes were mostly shot indoors and away from the studio (which was probably the expensive part of non-cast production), so you may be right there.

  3. Abel says:

    Aaron Sorkin is overrated. Period. If you want to know why Studio 60 failed and it’s counterpart 30 Rock succeeded, there’s some interesting commentary about it here.

  4. trumwill says:

    Well, to each their own regarding Sorkin’s talent. I think he’s quite talented, though much of it was wasted on Studio 60 because it played to his weaker points (sermonizing, mostly). I am a fan of Sorkin’s style of dialogue, which I know some people absolutely hate. I also think his characters are good when they avoid taking themselves too seriously, which he did a better job of on The West Wing than Studio 60 (and an even better job on SportsNight). He also does a good job, in my opinion, of balancing large casts and handling plot threads.

    But I have my criticisms as well.

    I agree with Card on the unfunny nature of the characters that are supposed to be funny. The description of the skits weren’t funny and these people took themselves way too seriously for comedy writers. You expect people to be serious in the White House, but not so much in the studio of SNL.

    Card is wrong about Sorkin not knowing any Christians. The Harriet Hayes character was based on his ex-girlfriend Helen Chenoweth, who made an appearance on the 700 Club similar to one that Hayes made in front of some Christian organization. At the same time, his criticisms aren’t far off base. I think one of the reason that I didn’t like the Hayes character was that she appeared to have no conviction. She came across a bit like the Christian to have on the cast to insulate him from criticism. Even though there was a definite reason for her to be there (and her to be Christian) apart from that, Sorkin missed the opportunity to have a good dissenting voice. I also thought an opportunity was missed by having Steven Webber’s character be a fellow traveller rather than someone who actually thought it wasn’t a good idea to portray 50% of the electorate as rubes and would-be fascists. There really were a lot of opportunities missed due to Sorkin’s bottled-up rage at the right.

    Unlike Card, though, I really did like the other characters. Particularly Danny Tripp, who I actually liked a lot more than Brad Whitford’s character on The West Wing. I thought Matthew Perry’s Matt Albie character was also interesting and likeable when he wasn’t lecturing us on how we should think.

    I thought that the ratings on 30 Rock were not very good, either. I’ve seen the first episode and found it pretty enjoyable. It’s a completely different kind of show, though. Also, one of the things I meant to mention but didn’t was that premise matters a whole lot more when it comes to dramas than sitcoms. Try to explain Frasier or Friends and people will have no idea whether they like it or not. Give me a rundown of The West Wing or Providence and I have a much better idea of whether it’s up my alley or not (yes and no respectively).

  5. Barry says:

    I came in late to The West Wing (5th season or so) and spent many hours on Bravo and DVD catching up while the rest of the show unfolded live, and I never watched Sports Night, so I’m still relatively new to the Sorkinverse. I looked forward to Studio 60 (and still miss it) – one reason because I liked the production values, the huge set, and the backstage life that I can relate to (being in theatre). I didn’t mind the editorializing as much as you did, Will, even though I’m a middle-of-the-road guy politically.

    But the point you raised about the show-within-a-show was my main point of contention – I would never believe any of the actors on the internal show would ever be on a program like SNL or even MadTV. They seemed to be talented actors, but not very talented comedians. Not a one, really, even the young overweight Chris Farley-type guy. They were all too serious, even backstage, or when they weren’t serious they were juvenile. I would never watch that Studio 60, and I couldn’t believe it was an “institution” the show led us to believe.

    I’m surprised that group made it through the audition process when looking for some seriously funny young talent – yet able to use acting chops when the backstage scenes required it. Maybe they don’t exist anymore, I don’t know. I would think a quick raid of Second City or some other existing group would produce at least a few of the background players with believability.

  6. Abel says:

    Ultimately, of course, “Studio 60” was canceled and “30 Rock” not only survived the year but was renewed for this season, when it will anchor a reconstituted comedy block on Thursday nights. (Its second-season premiere is Oct. 4 at 8:30.) And last week it won an Emmy for best comedy series.

    — New York Times September 23 http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/23/arts/television/23stei.html?ref=arts

  7. trumwill says:

    I knew that 30 Rock had been renewed, but I had heard it was despite rather than because of its ratings.

    In any case, according to this site Peter was right, Studio 60’s ratings really weren’t that bad at all over the season. Studio 60 ranked #61, 30 Rock was #102. Looks like costs were a pretty serious issue.

    It’s really quite depressing that 6 of the top 10 shows were reality TV shows.

    It’s also really interesting, looking at this list, which shows were cancelled. It’s surprising how poorly NBC as a whole is doing. CBS is canceling sitcoms in the 60’s (The Class was at #65 and was cancelled, there was talk of How I Met Your Mother being cancelled at #61) and NBCs highest rated sitcom is #58. NBC has no shows in the top 10 and only two in the top 20.

  8. Peter says:

    It’s somewhat surprising that reality shows continue to dominate the ratings. I had thought that the whole reality-show concept’s Warholian 15 minutes of fame was now on about Minute 16 or 17. There’s a certain sameness to most reality shows that makes the specific nature of the underlying competitions almost irrelevant.

    Getting back to the cost issue, TV networks love reality shows because they tend to be much cheaper than scripted shows to produce.

  9. trumwill says:

    Barry,

    I strongly urge you to check out Sports Night.It’s available on Netflix if you have that. I believe that it would be right up your alley.

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