Those new episodes of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip which are going to start airing on May 28? Enjoy ‘em if you can, because that’s the last you’ll see of NBC’s most hyped new drama of last year.Many of you might remember just how excited I was about Studio 60 in the months leading up to the 2006 television season. Hell, I was so geeked about it I created a new holiday in celebration. Aaron Sorkin has been one of my favorite writers for years, The West Wing remains one of my favorite TV series ever, and Studio 60 had a great cast lined up. NBC, behind even FOX in the network ratings, desperately needed a new hit and were prepared to give S60 a major push. No way this show could fail, right?
I gave Studio 60 a solid chance to wow me, both out of respect for the creators involved and out of sheer blind optimism. But it didn’t take long to see the magic Sorkin and company had brought to The West Wing hadn’t followed them to their new show. A few episodes managed to be really entertaining, but none hit more than a solid stand-up double as compared to the not infrequent home runs of Wing.
(Was it fair for me to so consistently compare these two series? Probably not, but I think it was also natural given the strong creative voice behind both shows. I’m wondering if many of us judged Studio 60 more harshly than we should have simply because it wasn’t The West Wing.)
(No, I’m pretty sure Studio 60 just wasn’t that good.)
I started writing my first “what’s wrong with Studio 60” post after the fourth episode had aired, though I never completed it because I figured it wouldn’t be necessary, that Sorkin would get the show on course. Silly me. Most of the problems I had with the show early on continued to be problems throughout, and even more weaknesses became clear as the show limped along. Here now, for your Five O’ Friday enjoyment, are five of the reasons I think Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip eventually didn’t quite work:
- Studio 60 boasted a strong cast full of likeable actors which it nearly completely wasted. Matthew Perry played Not Chandler Bing really well. Steven Weber, who normally does charming and personable with ease, proved to be equally adept at playing an insufferable asshole. Bradley Whitford (though he seemed miserable most of the time), Amanda Peet, Timothy Busfield, the adorable Lucy Davis — this show had plenty of actors I liked, and frequently didn’t give them anywhere near enough to do. Whitford in particular, who was so fantastic on The West Wing, spent much of the series looking like he was waiting for someone to bring him something interesting to say.
- Countering that last point about the great cast, though was the fact that Sorkin (or his designated casting flunkies) seriously miscast both of the show’s female leads. Never for a minute did I buy that Sarah Paulson’s Harriet Hayes was one of the most beloved comedic actresses in America — she wasn’t charming and she wasn’t all that funny. I also never believed Amanda Peet as a hotshot young television executive. Can I imagine that a smart, capable, talented woman shot up the corporate ladder to run a network by her mid-30s? Oh, sure I can… but the woman I’m imagining and Amanda Peet’s Jordan McDeere don’t have a whole lot in common.You know what I would have believed? Amanda Peet as one of the country’s most beloved comedic actresses. Peet is naturally charming and funny in exactly the way the stiff Paulson isn’t. I think Peet as Harriet would have worked much, much better (and probably made the Matt-Harriet relationship less grating) — and casting an actress somewhat older than the 34-year-old Peet would have made Jordan a more believable character, too. (Yes, there are plenty of actresses in their 40s and 50s who could have done determined, capable, accomplished and damn sexy — including Christine Lahti, who guested on several episodes of Studio 60 and just happens to be married to Thomas Schlamme, Sorkin’s creative partner.)
- I never felt like Sorkin had a firm grasp on his characters. Most of the characters felt more like placeholders than people: the black one we can use to discuss issues of race; the Christian one we can use to discuss issues of religion and explain why Midwestern conservatives are clearly so, so stupid; the druggie one we can use to explain why Sorkin’s cocaine binges really aren’t all that bad. To continue with the unfair comparisons, the character development on Studio 60 paled next to that on The West Wing or on SportsNight, Sorkin’s first series; based on that history alone, I’d expected that the character development and interaction would be one of this show’s strengths, and was quite disappointed to discover that not to be true.
- Sorkin just never seemed to really get what his audience wanted out of this show — honestly, I’m not sure he ever much considered his audience at all. The show felt like his way of explaining and excusing his own demons, which would have been absolutely fine had it been more consistently entertaining. When he made his course correction after the extended winter break, bringing the romance angle more to the front (and destroying most of Matt’s likability as a character in the process ,— yes, he “dumped” Harriet for good because, while single, she thought about sleeping with another guy) and the show became almost painful to watch.
- I’m not sure the setup inherently allowed for that many compelling stories to arise from it — and many of them that did he’d already done on his previous shows. The A-plot of the second episode of Studio 60 was lifted whole from a similarly-themed episode of The West Wing (both centered on the stressful anticipation of a bunch of poll results/ratings which would determine the future course of the government/show). Much of the show’s drama came from a Matt-Harriet “relationship” that was never believable between two stars without much chemistry together (Perry and Whitford had plenty of chemistry, but that coupling might have been pushing the boundaries a bit far for NBC’s taste) or from Sorkin-serving “creatives versus suits” plotlines. Neither ever really connected enough to serve as the dramatic lynchpin for the show.
- Bonus sixth reason: I know it’s been said to death by this point, but holy moley did those in-show skits suck major ass.
All of that said, I still liked the show and I’m quite sad to see it gone. I’m hoping that the experience hasn’t soured Sorkin on television for good, because when he’s at the top of his game, he’s one of the best TV writers around — if not the best. Unfortunately, Studio 60 was far from Sorkin at his best, and while that might still be better than most shows currently on the air, it wasn’t good enough. Expectations both creative and commercial were simply too large and the production buckled underneath the weight. I almost can’t believe I’m about to say this as it goes against so much of what I feel about the creative process, but: I hope Sorkin takes a few years away from TV and comes back with something a little less personal.