TV reviews

Is It Really So Bad? – Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

It was one of those things that could have only happened in the entertainment industry; two television shows, set within the world of a late night Saturday Night Live-style sketch comedy series, debuting in the same television season, on the same network. One of these shows would last for seven seasons. The other would only last for one. Both would be created by high-profile writers who had done much in the way of acclaimed work for the network in the past.

30 Rock not only lasted the course, but Aaron Sorkin, the creator of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (the other show in this equation) would actually cameo on Tina Fey’s iconic series. It was the icing on the cake of this particular scenario, not least because Sorkin’s cameo would have himself and Fey make reference to Studio 60.

The smart money would have been on Studio 60 lasting the longest. Sorkin’s return to television after leaving The West Wing following its fourth season, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip arrived with a heavy amount of publicity and an all-star cast, including Bradley Whitford, Matthew Perry, Sarah Paulson, Amanda Peet, Steven Weber and DL Hughley. The series even felt somewhat personal to its writer and main director.

Most of the episodes, like many of the Sorkin-era West Wing and Sports Night, were directed by Thomas Schlamme. Watching Studio 60, it’s hard not to see Matt and Danny as Sorkin and Schlamme, as the series sees Matt and Danny return to the titular show and the network it airs on – the fictional NBS – in much the same way Sorkin and Schlamme were doing with NBC and this show.

It’s many personal touches like this that make Studio 60 such a compulsive watch. It’s also something that almost causes its destruction and as such is the largest stick its critics use to beat it with.

Whilst this reviewer will admit that the show has its fair share of issues as it enters its second half, the good far outweighs the bad; and as such, is a series that is truly worth viewing.

At only one season, it’s fully formed and feels beautifully perfect as a “one and done” show given that it actually brings many of its plot lines and character arcs to a conclusion as it comes to an end in what would end up being its series finale.

Opening with a blisteringly intense scene that recalls that most famous of moments from Paddy Chayefsky’s and Sidney Lumet’s Network, amazingly Studio 60 doesn’t dive into the realm of darkly, brilliant satire that the famed 1976 movie does. As is the case with Sorkin, there is much in the way of politics – both executive and actual politics – but the tone and attitude of the series is much more positive and light, especially in the season’s first half. It’s as brilliant and well produced as one would expect from a glossy, well-made network television comedy-drama that comes from this stable.

Like The West Wing and, eventually, The Newsroom, there is great joy and a sense of swashbuckling brilliance as we watch a bunch of good-looking liberals try to do the best they can against the brick wall of a more conservative hierarchy. We feel bad if they stumble and feel great when they succeed. Set within the confines of its SNL-like sketch series, the show takes stock of what it must be like behind the scenes of the actual SNL as it tries to remain funny, relevant and biting as the real world becomes ever more political and scarier.

In many ways the series is like the glorious love child of all of Sorkin’s work, taking place within the television industry, much like Sports Night and The Newsroom, whilst not afraid to throw political subjects into the mix – most potently censorship – in a manner that one can imagine Josh or Sam discussing in The West Wing.

For the most part it does this brilliantly, even in the critically lambasted end of season three-parter “K & R”, where star of the show Tom finds out his brother, an airman in Afghanistan, is being held hostage. It could come across as clumsy, but for the life of me, I loved every minute and kind of wished that there had been more of it.

Admittedly, not everything the series does turns to gold. The biggest failing is the Matt/Harriet storyline, which begins promisingly enough, with Matthew Perry and Sarah Paulson sharing a winning chemistry, but its more serious and darker turn in the second half, coupled with Matt’s drug problem, feels as if Sorkin is writing a touch too much about both his own past, bringing to mind his former relationship with Kristen Chenoweth. Perry is wonderful and once again shows why it’s a shame he hasn’t been able to have another Friends-style success. He does everything thrown at him so well, but given his own troubles, and coupled with that of Sorkin’s, the storyline comes across as a touch self-indulgent and somewhat drags.

It’s the only major failing in a series that does nearly everything else correctly. With this level of charm, witty scripting, glossy direction and a flawless cast at the top of their game, it’s a shame the show wasn’t successful enough to warrant another season to iron out its issues. Sorkin would go on to Oscar-winning success with The Social Network and create The Newsroom for HBO – another brilliant series looking at the inner working of the industry, albeit this time from the perspective of current affairs – and in some respects one could look at Studio 60 as a trial run for what he would end up doing there, but that doesn’t mean that Studio 60 should be ignored.

Flawed? Yes, but when it’s at its best, it truly is well worth watching. The first half is fantastically done, and maybe it stalling a little in the second half is why Sorkin would take his next television show to HBO where shows are allowed to have shorter runs, as well as near complete creative freedom. But even as a trial run, Studio 60 is great.

While it somewhat goes all over the place with Matt and Harriet’s relationship, Danny and Jordan (Amanda Peet) make for a charming love story that actually has something of a fairy tale ending. Like Perry, it’s a shame that Bradley Whitford hasn’t been able to get himself another hit show like The West Wing given that he is one of the most charming actors in the business, whilst Peet’s performance as Jordan is one of the best things she’s ever done.

Danny, Matt, Harriet and Jordan are great lead characters and their constant butting of heads with studio executive Jack (Steven Weber) always makes for entertaining viewing. Even better, like SNL in real life, the series makes glorious use of cameo appearances of big name stars guest “hosting” Studio 60, thus allowing the likes of Lauren Graham and Allison Janney to come in and somewhat lampoon themselves. It also gives the series a very meta aura given that Graham and Perry are the best of friends in real life and Janney actually starred in Sorkin’s The West Wing, something the series actually makes reference to within the episode.

Without a doubt, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is one of television’s most underrated gems and is ripe for rediscovery.

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