The Sorkin That Was: Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip
Tomorrow sees the much-anticipated debut of The Newsroom, which marks not only Aaron Sorkin’s return to television but also his first non-broadcast network show. But, before we get there, let’s consider the show that marked the end of his relationship with broadcast, the short-lived Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip.
There were comments, earlier this week, to the effect of “Studio 60 wasn’t Sorkin’s downfall, it was an interesting and entertaining show!” which I can agree with up to a point; there were certainly a lot of good things about Studio 60 – The pilot remains a thing of greatness, with a tight script and a lot of promise – the series as a whole was something that struggled in many ways, and never quite managed to come together in the way that The West Wing, or even Sports Night, did. But why?
Part of it was that the show wasn’t actually about what it was about. Which is to say, while the text of the show was the lives and work of the people involved in the making of a television show (also called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), the subtext of the show was Sorkin’s attempts to come to explore the culture war between conservatives and liberals in an America that was becoming increasingly fragmented, with the show’s cast being essentially split between the liberals making the show and the conservatives being the ones who (a) own the network, (b) those who want to censor the show for whatever reason and (c ) everyone else that Sorkin wanted to go after that week. It’s not necessarily a bad idea – If he had managed to pull it off with anything resembling subtlety, it would’ve been a crowning achievement – but the execution of said idea was all over the place, careening around the show with little throughline other than the repeated use of straw man arguments and charicatures when it came to the conservative viewpoint. Whereas West Wing was angry but nuanced, Studio 60 was simply angry; it took on not just the culture war but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, too, as well as all manner of other massive, important targets: Racism! Voyeuristic journalism! Drug addiction! And more!
Studio 60‘s problem clearly wasn’t ambition; if anything, it was far too ambitious, and lacked an editor or someone who could tell Sorkin to sit down and rework his ideas until the end result was strong enough to carry the weight it was being asked to deal with. It didn’t help that so much of the character work in the show was familiar – After four years of West Wing and two of Sports Night, the inter-office romance of Jordan and Danny seemed especially stale, as did the “they still love each other but can’t make it work” relationship of Matt and Harriet – or that so much of the banter and dialogue had the cadence and rhythm of Sorkin’s earlier work, but without the bite or immediacy.
Perhaps the final nail in the coffin for the show, which barely finished out its first season, was that it seemed out-of-step with popular culture, which for a show about popular culture is a horrible failing. Compare this show to the first year of 30 Rock – Tina Fey’s take on, essentially, the same idea, only funnier and feeling like it’s created by someone who understands mass culture as a participant, not someone who’s read some New Yorker reviews and thinks they can wing it – and the difference is not only obvious, it’s painful. Perhaps if 30 Rock hadn’t existed to show up the ways in which Studio 60 failed to fulfill its very own stated aims, the show might have made it to a second year and found its footing, but as it was, Fey’s show roundly humiliated Sorkin’s on that level, making its failings elsewhere even more apparent.
Studio 60, when watched with the benefit of hindsight, is an oddly instructive lesson on how not to do this kind of TV show – Unusually for a serialized story, watching it in chunks just underscores the uneven pacing and abrupt changes in direction, as well as repetitive attempts to get to the same idea. From that point of view, it’s worth revisiting. But if you’re looking for a “good” show about television and pop culture and the people that make it, you’re looking for 30 Rock; the good Sorkin was sadly replaced by overworked and underdeveloped Sorkin this go around. Here’s hoping that The Newsroom sees him refreshed and ready for a second take on the same ideas.