I finally caught the end of Aaron Sorkin’s latest series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Sorkin’s first major TV show (that I’m aware of) SportsNight caught the attention of critics though failed to ignite with the public. His follow-up, The West Wing, was a hit with both. His third effort, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, was canceled after the first season and it was considered fortunate that it lasted that long.
So the question is… what went wrong?
The biggest problem, I think, is that Studio 60 played to Sorkin’s biggest weaknesses while failing to get the audience along for the ride.
The biggest problem was the most essential: the premise. Why Sorkin and NBC thought we would enjoy a TV show about Hollywood producers preaching to the American people is completely beyond me. I think Hollywood in general has this notion that because we buy People magazine and care about celebrities that we care a whole lot about what goes on behind the creative process. By and large we don’t. But worse than the faulty premise, they took the behind-the-scenes approach and made it unattractive to even people like me that might be interested by making it half about the making of the show and half about the point of the show within a show which is the main characters’ crusade within the show to overcome the stuffy network execs and censors and tell us how we should think.
Which leads to problem number two: sanctimony. Sorkin seems to be a pretty bright guy. It’s obvious that he thinks about the issues that are important to him. He seems like the sort of guy that yells at the President and other political opponents when he’s giving a speech on TV. There is almost a pent up rage there wherein he will go out of his way to have one of the characters air some sort of political rant that you can tell Sorkin, and not the character saying it, has been to let out. He did this a lot on The West Wing, too, but it was more appropriate to a political drama than to this. The conceit that we should be as happy to hear a Hollywood producer or actor spout off self-righteous diatribes as we are to hear the fictional President of the United States do it tells us quite a bit about the inflated sense of importance that Sorkin and Hollywood have for their place in the political debate.
None of this is to say that I actually had a problem with the content of the rants themselves. But even when I very much agreed with what he was saying, he made his point of view sound the incontrovertible truth when I could easy come up with a retort. Sorkin’s at his best when he’s doing back-and-fourth dialogue. Sorkin forgets that sometimes. On West Wing he forgot it during the mock-2002 election between Jed Bartlet and Robert Ritchie. Republican Ritchie was nothing but a rhetorical punching bag wherein Bartlet could display his intellectual superiority over an idiot Republican. Somehow, though, he was actually worse about the one-sided political rants on a show about a TV show than he was on a show about the White House.
On some level Sorkin realized this shortcoming and he tried to compensate for it by self-deprecation. The Hollywood liberal jokes were ever-present, but it came across more as that sort of half-joke that the guy with the really bad temper has when he pretends to get upset about something and you think he’s joking but the uncertainty and familiarity of it makes you more uneasy than humor-filled.
The last thing thing he did was fail to let the show write itself. In the first season of The West Wing, Sorkin attempted to set up romantic chemistry between Josh and Mandy. It didn’t work. No one cared. Everyone was a lot more interested in Josh and his assistant Donna. After the first season Mandy was unceremoniously dumped from the program. that kind of adaptability was absolutely crucial and completely missing from Studio 60. Nobody I know that watched the show really cared about Matt Albie and Harriet Hayes. I frankly believe that they were better off without one another. But for personal reasons (it mirrored Sorkin’s own romance with Kristin Chenoweth) and the show suffered as a result. Their lack of chemistry became immediately apparent when two episodes after her introduction I was thinking that Matt Albie and Mary Tate should pair off. Just as with his political views, Sorkin was more interested in saying his piece than he was in showing or saying things that might really interest us. No complaints about Danny Tripp and Jordan McDeere. I thought they were cute together.
Before I move on, I should say that on the whole I did enjoy the show. If it were on again next year I would probably watch it, though I’d do like I did this year and be constantly behind a week or ten. Despite the rants and mismatched romances, I really did like most of the characters. Sorkin’s dialogue — that is when he has two characters talking — is still really good (though not as great as it once was). He also managed to capture an energy like had had in SportsNight that seemed beyond hokey when applied to The West Wing.
The good news about the show’s cancellation is that it may leave Sorkin free to pursue other projects. What I would actually like to see him do next would be to take the best elements of SportsNight and Studio 60, namely the energy of producing entertainment for the masses, and marry it with the best from The West Wing, intelligent political commentary in an appropriate venue. I would love to see him do a show about a cable news network. SportsNight sort of did that, but it was a sports program. I’d like to see an NBS Nightly News program or maybe a cable news network. One of the things I thought he did very well with The West Wing was the interplay between politics and news. I’d love to see him do it from the other side.