Recently, I’ve been enjoying a bit of an on-again/off-again “Aaron Sorkin marathon,” letting DVDs play as background noise while I work. I only own the first four seasons of The West Wing, and I started playing them on a whim several weeks back. Once I was finished with those, and still wanting some of that aforementioned background noise, I perused my rather expansive home entertainment library and decided to continue the Sorkin stylings with the series he created after leaving The West Wing, Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip.
I was one of the early adopters for this show, and for all I know I’m one of the few people who still likes it. I heard about it during the spring and summer of 2007 before it aired as part of the fall’s new television season. A special “screener” edition of the pilot episode was released for rental via outlets like NetFlix and (I think) iTunes, and Kevin acquired a DVD via his NetFlix queue. He had already watched it and came away impressed. Knowing that I was a big Sorkin fan, he brought the disc to Casa de Wardo. We watched it on a Sunday afternoon, as I recall, and I remember liking it more than disliking it, and making a mental note to include it in the list of new shows I was planning to check out that fall.
To set this up: The West Wing was my introduction to Sorkin so far as television was concerned. For reasons I cannot explain to this day, I missed Sports Night when it was on television, and only after borrowing Kevin’s DVD set of the complete series did I come to understand just what I’d missed.
Prior to The West Wing, I’d seen Malice, A Few Good Men and The American President and liked the last two films more than the first one. I later saw a stage version of the play on which A Few Good Men was based, and by then I was firmly in the “I Heart Sorkin” fan club. There are few writers who can craft dialogue and pacing the way Sorkin does, and it was obvious even from these earlier efforts that he was already a notch above his contemporaries. That was an opinion of mine solidified by the time The West Wing came around. I was saddened when he left the show after four seasons, and though the series rebounded to a degree in its last couple of seasons, I don’t think it ever came close to recapturing the energy which fueled the first four, Sorkin-driven years.
But wait! We’re here to ponder Studio 60. Or, rather, re-ponder it.
The premise: Behind the scenes at a network sketch comedy show (ala Saturday Night Live) called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Mimicking the basic idea that fueled Sorkin’s Sports Night, the series depicted the inner workings of “the show within the show” and the lives of the cast and crew as they worked to produce each week’s episode.
The series had a lot going for it at the beginning: Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme working together again, and leading an impressive cast of veteran and up-and-coming actors. Matthew Perry (Friends, along with a memorable guest turn on The West Wing), Amanda Peet (The Whole Nine Yards, with Perry), and Bradley Whitford (late of the The West Wing, which had just completed its seventh and final season) headlined the series, along with the solid supporting efforts of Steven Weber (Wings) and Timothy Busfield (thirtysomething, as well as being another West Wing vet). Actors who became more prominent as the series’ first season progressed included Sarah Paulson, D.L. Hughley (in the first role that actually made me like him), and Nate Corddry as “the Big Three” cast members of the “show within the show.” (And don’t forget a pre-Wolowitz/The Big Bang Theory Simon Helberg as one of the supporting players!)
After a decent pilot episode, the show took several weeks to find its feet, at least for me. Though there were several enjoyable moments in the first two or three episodes broadcast after the pilot, my overall impression revolved around the fact that everybody was taking this shit way too seriously. A recurring theme of the show seemed to be that WHAT WE’RE DOING IS IMPORTANT, WE HAVE TO DO IT RIGHT, AND WE HAVE TO IT RIGHT NOW, but it wasn’t conveyed in the same effective manner Sorkin utilized when depicting the day-to-day lives of the president’s staff on The West Wing. And while there was ample evidence of patented Sorkin smart, snappy dialogue and pacing, something intangible seemed to be missing. It still didn’t quite feel like a Sorkin show. Things started coming together in the fourth episode, “The West Coast Delay,” but still something felt just a little off.
Then, we got to the sixth episode, “The Wrap Party.”
Picking up where the previous show, “The Long Lead Story,” ended, the episode is split between three main stories: Matt (Matthew Perry) and Simon Stiles (D.L. Hughley) head to a comedy club in search of a new African-American writer to add to the crew, while Tom Jeter (Corddry) is visited by his parents – including a father who’s thoroughly unimpressed with his son’s choice of vocation. Meanwhile, producer Cal Shanley (Timothy Busfield) tries to figure out why an elderly man who has wandered into the building is enthralled by an old photo — one of dozens scattered around the studio and illustrating the long, illustrious history of the theater and Studio 60. It’s this last story that truly sings in the finest “Sorkinsian style,” as we learn the old man was once a writer for an earlier incarnation of the show…before he was blacklisted during the McCarthy Era.
After this episode, I knew I was in for the duration, however long that might end up being.
Other favorite episodes from the remainder of the series’ include: the 2-part “Nevada Day,” in which Tom Jeter is extradited to Pahrump, Nevada on an outstanding warrant and where hijinks quickly ensue; “The Friday Night Slaughter,” which features an interesting twist on the use of flashbacks to an earlier time in Matt’s career when he and Harriet (Sarah Paulson) are introduced and begin working with each other; the four episodes which do their level best to tie up the show’s various dangling plot threads once it was known the series would not be renewed.
Included among the chaos to be dealt with in these last four hours are Jordan (Amanda Peet) and her pregnancy complications, to Harriet and Matt finally ending the philosophical debate which has defined their relationship for the better part of a decade, to learning exactly why Danny and Matt were forced to leave Studio 60 years earlier after a heated dispute with NBS chairman Jack Rudolph (Steven Weber) in the months after 9/11. Wrapped around all of this (and more) is the ongoing plotline of Tom Jeter’s younger brother being held captive in Afghanistan, and the efforts to secure his release. Given what was required and the amount of time in which to do it, I thought the series did about as good a job as could be expected to tie off the character arcs and end on a note of hope; not of series renewal, of course, but at least the idea that somewhere out there, the cast and crew of the fictional Studio 60 are gearing up for next week’s show.
I certainly don’t think Studio 60 was nearly as good as the first few years of The West Wing, and Sports Night is a somewhat different animal so those comparisons aren’t really fair. Still, despite its flaws, this was a noble experiment; one I enjoy revisiting on occasion. Rumor has it that Sorkin’s next television effort will focus on the goings-on behind the scenes of a political talk show like Face the Nation or Meet the Press or whatever you’d find on Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC. Hell, that was enough to sell me, sight unseen. Until then, I wait with barely-restrained enthusiasm.