So long, Studio 60

Edited for grammar 2007 Dec 16.

I just finished watching my TiVo’d copy of “What Kind of Day Has It Been”, the 22nd and final episode of Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Studio 60 was highly touted as the Next Big Thing in TV drama, opened with a stellar pilot, and then faded out over the course of a season. A while back, NBC made it clear that it would not be picked up for a second season; the word was out early enough for Sorkin to adjust the storylines for the last few episodes.

Short version: Like most of the post-hiatus episodes, this one was pretty good. It had flashes, at least, of the brilliance that Sorkin brought to Sports Night and of course The West Wing. Much like the rest of the season, alas, it had only flashes. The episode was bittersweet, in that you can see where this might have gone with another season’s chance. There really was potential for a break-out, smart, important TV show, but Sorkin never quite found his feet.

More below the fold.

So what went wrong? And what, if anything, went right? I’m no professional critic but I have some opinions. (Shocker, that.)

The first and overwhelming failure, in my opinion, was the absolute lack of any identifiable musical signature. Sorkin went with W.G. “Snuffy” Walden again, as he did on Sports Night and The West Wing. But Snuffy didn’t come through this time, or, at least, the music never “hooked” the viewer. Again, there were flashes — the end of the pilot, the Christmas episode — but it never gelled. As goofy as it sounds, I think Studio 60 was doomed by its lack of opening titles and most importantly, of a theme. There was just this generic background music that never gave the show a feel of its own. Walden never gave us that infectious theme that you could hum in anticipation of the credits rolling.

Secondly, Sorkin’s writing just wasn’t up to snuff. Although he is still the master of quick-paced dialog, the characters he created just didn’t connect. We should have cared more about Harriet and Simon and Jordan; we should have been invested in Matt and Danny. I don’t think he ever made the case, though; Sorkin just assumed we would care, because they were the frontliners. Ironically, it was only the “smaller” roles (Lucy, Tom, Jack) that seemed to work. A lot of the time I found myself wishing the “stars” would get out of frame so that these background characters could shine through.

Third, Tim Busfield and his great character of Cal ended up generally wasted. In the episodes that focused on him (“The Harriet Dinner I” and “The Disaster Show”), he was absolutely brilliant. Cal brought the funny like no one else on the show (which is odd, considering it was about comedy). Busfield did much the same with his recurring character from The West Wing, and it was a pleasure watching his craft again.

Fourth, it was painful to watch the slow lobotomization of Jordan McDere. Amanda Peet’s character started off as the spunky, fiery network president who could handle anything Danny or Matt could throw at her and could dish out worse. Then she got pregnant and Sorkin got stupid. She wilted into a typical pregnant TV character — soft, moody, and most of all, boring. The metamorphosis was, ironically, one of the easy TV cliches Sorkin was using this show to rail against. It was interesting to have a strong character whose motives was as noble but whose opinions were different from the two anointed stars.

So, did Sorkin do anything right? Actually, yes. For the most part, the banter between characters was sharp and engaging. Even though characters took themselves too seriously, they spoke well and made interesting points. Also, from my (admittedly limited) experience, entertainers in hot properties actually do tend to take themselves a little too seriously. On the other hand, I liked that Sorkin’s TV professionals understood the power and importance of television — and if you hold yourself too highly to be a TV watcher, if you categorically dismiss it as a medium, well, the past few elections must have caught you off guard. TV does wield a huge influence in this country, and more so because we pretend it does not.

The visual look of the show was spectacular. Unlike early seasons of The West Wing, the lighting level was dead-on each episode… no more squinting into shadows or shielding your eyes from glare. The Studio 60 set was improbable but lush and comfortable. There were, of course, plenty of long winding paths to allow the patented walk-and-talk, which was generally used to good effect.

When the music worked, it worked really well. Although some on the Net decried the use of “Under Pressure” in the pilot, calling it trite and cliched, I thought it worked very well. Yes, it’s used a lot, but that’s because it’s a song that works. Someone who can write can still evoke the power that inspires everyone to overuse it. Likewise, near the end of the season, as the world falls apart (because in Sorkinworld, it is May that is the cruelest month), the overlay of scenes of growing desperation with John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith” worked perfectly. And if you weren’t stirred by the New Orleans jazz tribute during “The Christmas Show”, well, I hope you at least got top dollar for your soul.

Most of the acting was superb, especially in light of Sorkin’s uneven writing. From The West Wing, I expected Bradley Whitford (“Danny Tripp”) to be brilliant, and he was. Perhaps the best testimony to Whitford’s acting is this: Many of the more rabid WW fans turned off S60 in disgust because “Josh wouldn’t act that way”. In other words, because Danny Tripp was not the same likable earnest character as Joshua Lyman — because Whitford brought a different character to life — they couldn’t bear to watch.

I’ve already mentioned Busfield, also not a surprise, based on his West Wing performances.

Matt Perry (“Matt Albee”) was outstanding. He did two stints on The West Wing toward the end of Sorkin’s tenure there, and he was superb. I think a lot of people assume he can only be Chandler Bing, but he’s demonstrated a tremendous range. Matt Albee was a likable but flawed character, overly sure of his opinions, not-so-secretly terrified that other people didn’t like him. He was clearly the kid who learned to use sarcasm and comedy to hide the fact that he felt overwhelmingly vulnerable. Matt Perry brought that across completely. The end of “The Focus Group” sticks with me. Everyone is excited and happy that the numbers are up; Harriet and Danny are dancing; the cast is celebrating. And Matt heads out, alone. He works the fan line, his eyes alight. And then, just as the last strains of Dave Mason’s version of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” come crashing down, he stops at the door of his car and looks over the line of screaming fans again. And there is sadness and even terror in Matt Perry’s eyes. It truly gives me goosebumps.

And that scene is the metaphor for the entire series run. Matt Albee is, quite transparently, Aaron Sorkin’s version of himself. That episode was heavy on meta, in no small part because after the expected huge opening of the real Studio 60, everyone wondered if Sorkin could keep those numbers. (In the real world, alas, no.) When Sorkin wrote about himself as he wanted to be seen, the show dragged and stumbled. When he wrote about himself as he is — sharp, driven, but also more than a little afraid and desperate for public acknowledgment — the show soared. It’s a shame it took him too long to understand that, so long that the ratings spiral couldn’t be staunched.

But, flawed as it was on many levels, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was a work of love and a work of art, and I for one will miss it in the fall schedule.

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