26 July, 2007
"Drama series about a late-night comedy sketch show. Studio 60 is in danger of cancellation, and its Executive Producer is undergoing a very public breakdown. Network executives Jack Rudolph and Jordan McDeere ask former employees Danny Tripp and Matt Albie to step in and save the show."
Doubtless you will have already heard that this new show from The West Wing creator about the backstage goings on at a comedy show has been cancelled. If not you may have got that hint from this low profile digital debut. But none of that means it's a bad show.
Aaron Sorkin is one of the few showrunners in the US who writes every script himself (occasionally with a partner), which considering we're talking about 22 episode seasons and not 6-part series is pretty remarkable. The advantage is that we get Sorkin's undiluted voice, the disadvantage is we get Sorkin's undiluted voice.
Other writers in LA were quick to pick up on the latter, perhaps jealous that he alone gets to do the former. Let's face it Sorkin is in a privileged position, once NBC had agreed to the pilot they had to buy the whole season and show the whole season no matter what the ratings were like. And they weren't good. NBC put on a brave face because the network was attracting the upscale audience which advertisers love but there wasn't enough of them and it got pulled. The remaining episodes were burnt off at the end of the regular season.
The problem with Sorkin's voice is that his themes might be worthy but they aren't necessarily universal. For example, one of the issues of the series is how television is going down the pan and pandering to the religious right. That's of concern to us all as screenwriters, and producers and directors but it may be a bit too insidery for a general audience.
The other problem is that Studio 60 is based on a late night sketch show like Saturday Night Live but was going out on a Friday. (Incidentally that's improbable but understandable, as it couldn't go out on Saturday, and yet Sorkin was criticised even for that.) So it's a sketch show but while Sorkin is funny, he's not sketch show funny. The sketches within the show improved as the series went on but he needed to farm those out to broken comedy specialists.
The show is about a head writer and involves the politics of the writers room and problems with the network. That's Sorkin writing what he knows but there were complaints about it being too inside. I accept some of the themes of the series might be too inside but part of the fun of TV drama is getting to know workplaces you don't know about. ER has loads of hospital politics and lots of medical jargon and no-one calls that too inside because it's about the characters first and the detail of their jobs isn't as important. The same with Studio 60.
I liked Sorkin's mix of characters and relationships. There are three romantic comedy stories interweaved in the storylines so it isn't all about the office and network politics.
The series improved when Brummie Lucy Davis from The Office joined the writers room. Co-incidence? I think not. The introduction of a Brummie to your show in an acting or writing capacity is always going to help. Especially if they're called Robin. It's just a fact. I just wish more producers were aware of it.
When Studio 60 was put on hiatus, it came back with renewed vigour. Sorkin had incorporated something real-life happening to one of the actors and something going on in the news and he said it sparked him creatively.
When you create The West Wing then expectations are going to be high but such was the scramble to find fault with Studio 60, there were even complaints that he used the same font as The West Wing in the opening credits. I didn't even notice.
It's the pilot and it's by Sorkin so you can learn a lot especially about the setting up of characters. For instance Jordan is introduced first of the main characters, but although she is an executive she is obviously a nice executive. How do we see that? Sorkin does it by a comment she makes around the dinner table but that might have been missed so he has another character comment on it.
The cold open doesn't feature any of the main stars but it sets up the setting and the main series theme brilliantly and dramatically.
Sorkin only planned the show to run two seasons but I'm glad we have at least this one. Time is precious and you don't particularly want to be wasting it on crap shows but I think, overall, this is worth the investment. It's recommended.
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
Thursday 26 July, 10:00pm
Pre-season interview - New York Times (requires subscription)
Post-season interview - Los Angeles Times