Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Wednesday, December 19, 2007 by

Anyone in need of a sappy Christmas would have turned away from the last episode of this series blinking not from tears, but disbelief.

To the last, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip messed things up. It should have been a farewell full of schlock and unashamed sentimentality. Half a dozen intense storylines were queuing up for resolution. The writer, Aaron Sorkin, was a past master at this, penning four triumphant finales for The West Wing.

And yet even here, at the last hurdle, with no distance left to run (the show already cancelled by its American network) and no time left for half-measures and screw-ups, even here Studio 60 got it wrong.

Plots were dispatched into oblivion with all the aplomb of someone ticking off their weekly shopping list. Characters spoke wholly in platitudes. Nothing built to a climax; everything melted into banality. And barely once, in this supposedly definitive take on the mechanics of the American TV industry, was television mentioned.

To those who made it this far, who had travelled with the show through its ludicrously convulsed existence, the relief was akin to it being the end of a school term. Free! Free at last! For it had become apparent, very quickly after the first episode, there was little reason to stick with Studio 60 other than out of duty, and the hope of the odd flash of genius. Then, as the weeks skulked by, there emerged a perverse pleasure in seeing what tawdry gimmick or (presumably) self-deprecating cliché Sorkin would deploy this time around.

“Let’s see”, you liked to imagine him thinking, “we’ve had the drug addiction episode, the getting-locked-on-the-roof episode, the let’s-hire-a-black-writer episode. What’s left? How about … pregnancy?”.

The moment when president of fictional TV network NBS Jordan McDeere suddenly announced, completely out of nowhere, she was having a baby was one of the foulest pieces of TV possible. Utterly cynical if intended to be genuine, completely smug if conceived to be ironic, this was real jump-the-shark time: horrifying, yet also strangely fascinating, to watch right before your eyes.

After that there was no chance of redemption. This was a ship going down with all hands. Each episode became less and less about a TV show and more about ghastly relationships between ghastly people, punctuated with endless contradictory political diatribes. Every 30 seconds came the sound of someone clearing their throat to air another of Sorkin’s obsessions. Except these perorations were a world away from the informed, uplifting chatter of The West Wing. At times there was so much hatred on screen you could imagine viewers switching off in their thousands, asking, “What have we done to offend this man?”.

And while there was no concessions were made for people arriving halfway through the series, or who might have missed an episode, there was equally precious little reward meted out to those who stayed the course. We were treated like dunces, happy to overlook 180-degree personality changes and storylines conjured up and hastened away all in a matter of seconds.

Being generous you could argue this was partly to do with the way the series materialised during its one and only American transmission. While it unfolded in an uninterrupted 22-week run over here, over there it emerged in fits and starts, the first 10 episodes followed by a seven-week gap followed by five more episodes followed by a whopping three-month gap followed by a final six episodes.

Yet this only came to pass because the show was flawed in the first place. Its fascination with clever-clever plotting precluded the emergence of plausible, attractive characters and a likeable, intriguing setting. Sorkin and his regular cohort, director Thomas Schlamme, had nobody to blame but themselves. They knew how the TV industry worked (heavens, they were producing an entire series about the very thing!), and they knew their show would be threatened with cancellation if it flopped and temporarily taken off air.

Which it duly was, hence the hiatus in transmission, hence the air of panic, and hence the compounding of an already noxious brew with evermore hysterical ingredients.

Along came the war, in the guise of one of the cast’s brothers who was suddenly serving in Afghanistan. Along came, ho ho, “trouble with falling ratings”. Along came industrial action and religious fundamentalism and dangerous animals loose under the stage and weddings and people learning to pray (learning to pray?!?!) and premature babies and an utterly demented episode which didn’t feature any of the main characters and instead had Alison Janney from The West Wing appearing as herself alongside a person her character used to date in The West Wing but who now played someone who had a crush on Alison Janney overlooking the fact that previous episodes referred to The West Wing as if it were real and that Alison Janney didn’t actually exist.

There was twisted appeal in the savage lunacy of it all. As scene after scene fixated on America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, you sat agape at something you’d never expect to see in a mainstream American television drama – and also at something you’d never expect to see being done so crassly by such noted Hollywood luminaries.

The last five episodes depicted the events of one single night: an audacious stunt Sorkin never dared try in The West Wing, and perpetrated here as much – you felt – for the sake of it as anything else. There certainly wasn’t the momentum to sustain interest in the same events over a quintet of shows, and as the plot entertained crisis upon crisis it was a bit like watching somebody’s artistic reputation self-combust in slow motion.

Studio 60 ended its life as one massive fuck you to us, to America, to television, to anyone and everyone. With every final crude dramatic revelation or hackneyed turn of dialogue another chunk of Sorkin’s legacy came tumbling to the ground. Except each sound you heard wasn’t that of falling masonry, it was of another TV fan’s heart breaking.


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