Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Thursday, July 26, 2007 by

“I have no reason to trust you; you work in television.”

A show about TV, made by some of TV’s most celebrated talents, but which says TV is rubbish, and that everyone who works in TV including its most celebrated talents is rubbish, yet wants to celebrate TV and all who work in it for being rubbish, all at the same time?

No wonder it got cancelled. In fact, Aaron Sorkin, the creator of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, probably relished its demise as some kind of abstract, self-referential tribute. A tribute, that is, to his own genius for telling it like it is, and in no way to do with the show being a jumbled, incoherent mess of mixed messages. Oh no.

Granted, The West Wing was always going to be a hard act to follow. And the hype surrounding the US premiere of Studio 60 – almost a whole 12 months ago, such has been Channel 4′s dithering – implied the world was about to gaze upon a new jewel in television’s crown. But Sorkin and his West Wing cohort Thomas Schlamme didn’t make things any easier for themselves, or their millions of expectant fans, by bequeathing Studio 60 unto the planet in a manner suggestive of having forgotten how to produce a decent opening episode.

Both this and The West Wing came bearing self-evident gifts: a ringside seat in the most powerful office in the world and a berth in the engine room of one of the most watched programmes on television. The premise alone was almost enough to make you tune in.

But while The West Wing‘s premiere unfolded with the minimum of exposition, Studio 60‘s debut was choked with set-ups and plot points and back-stories.

By the end of the first episode of the former we knew virtually nothing about the private lives of the principal characters: we only knew them through their work, which had been shown to be dazzling, perilous and utterly compelling. Conversely by the end of the first episode of Studio 60 we’d had to wade through a slurry of obtuse details involving drug habits, back surgery, gospel albums and ball games, only to reach a point that we knew was going to happen all along: the two leads, Matt (Matthew Perry) and Danny (Bradley Whitford) would take charge of the eponymous late-night entertainment revue.

As such there was no sense of anything being proved or accomplished, and no feeling of having just spent an hour being entertainingly enlightened. Rather it was 60 minutes, or 40 to be precise, eavesdropping on clever-clever dialogue, pointlessly circular arguments and clunky non-sequiturs (“Stop talking now? You bet”).

Think of how The West Wing pilot was so stunningly crafted, carrying you up and up through a tower of mini-crises and misunderstandings, methodically etching aspects of the protagonists’ responsibilities, ever-expanding its depiction of life in the White House until – bang! – two-thirds of the way through, the President burst into view, becalming colleagues and blasting critics and generally righting the world’s wrongs. By way of a debut, it was the classiest way of saying if you like this, stick around, there’s plenty more to come.

With Studio 60 there was no such invitation. The viewer’s interest was taken utterly for granted, as was our inclination to tune in again. We were given no reason to stick around. The primary assumption on behalf of the producers seemed to be, simply: look! Here’s Chandler from Friends and Josh off The West Wing – together! And if you want, you can see them together again next week! Isn’t that great?!

Well, not if you weren’t much enamoured of them in the first place. Likeable alternatives were in short supply as well. It was unsettling that someone with a track record like Sorkin should choose to stack the shop window for his latest ensemble full of distinctly unappealing creations. The female characters in particular were really badly written, network boss Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) coming over as utterly without gravitas and credibility while Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson), one of the supposed “Big Three” show stars, was like a walking open sore, forever bleeding one-note contempt and weird expressions.

The only agreeable and, in fact, dimensional character of them all was the show’s veteran creator Wes Mendell, superbly played by Judd Hirsch, and he got fired 15 minutes in.

Mendell’s live, on-air outburst (“… There’s a struggle between art and commerce … a candy-ass broadcast network hell-bent on doing nothing that might challenge their audience … I’m telling you, art is getting its ass kicked …”) was the only exciting thing in the whole episode. But even this was a pastiche, by dint of constituting an unsubtle homage to the film Network – a homage hammered into the ground by Sorkin via a scene showing rival TV stations all chuntering on hysterically about the screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky.

If you rip something off then make great play of referencing what it is you’re ripping off, does that make it all okay? Not, perhaps, if the homage (“This is what happened in the movie!”) goes on to never quite emerge from the shadows of the original.

Maybe all TV studio executives are unlikeable types. Maybe they are all self-obsessed and egotistical and appallingly arrogant. Maybe all American TV networks are “prissy, feckless, off-the-charts greed-filled whorehouses”. It doesn’t follow, though, that saying as much, and in as bludgeoning a manner possible, is itself good television.

There are surely other ways to satirise the TV industry than having characters lazily refer to right-wing religious programmes as “a Klan rally” and their hosts as “bigots”. Other, more imaginative, more original ways. Ways less predicated on schoolboy humour and the kind of generalisations that confirm rather than challenge stereotypes.

If, however, television is founded upon laziness and generalisation – as Sorkin appears to want us to believe – embracing them in the name of commerce is no substitute for eviscerating them in the name of art.


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