Case File #1: Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip

Case File #1: Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip

In January 2007 A.V. Club head writer Nathan Rabin began My Year Of Flops, a twice-weekly series of essays about films that were financial flops, critical failures, and lacked substantial cult followings. It continued on after its original year as a book and as a twice-monthly feature, and is now expanding into My World Of Flops, a series of twice-monthly essays that expands the scope of the column to include books, television shows, music, and other forms of pop culture.

In a 2007 Chicago Tribune article, Maureen Ryan quotes Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip creator/show-runner/writer/God Aaron Sorkin as saying, “I think that’s what’s unusual about Studio 60, is that the people who don’t like it are extremely vocal about it.” He wasn’t kidding. Four years after Studio 60 was put down like a long-suffering, much-kicked dog that took itself way too seriously, the show lives on as a series of pitch-perfect Twitter feeds chronicling the lives of characters like the Matthew Perry-portrayed Sorkin surrogate Matt Albie, a wise-cracking, hard-living warrior for satirical truth who’s as witty as he is fearless. 

There’s nothing new about creating fictions based on characters, situations, and conflicts you do not own. It’s called fan-fiction and it is held in only slightly higher regard than tentacle porn and the music of clown-themed horrorcore duos from crumbling former industrial centers. Yet the Studio 60 Twitter feeds operate on a higher, more satirical evolutionary plane than regular fan-fiction. It’s not just that the people who don’t like Studio 60 are extremely vocal about it; they’re also unusually creative and eloquent in the way they express their dislike for the show. Actually, dislike isn’t fair. People don’t get obsessed with shows they merely dislike (or movies or books, etc). No, the Studio 60 Hate Brigade is obsessed with Studio 60 almost as much as the characters within the universe of Studio 60 are obsessed with Studio 60. That’s saying an awful lot, because nothing has interested anyone, ever, to the extent that Studio 60 interests its characters.

I’m one of those strange obsessives. Since early 2007, My Year Of Flops has chronicled the curious world of cinematic failure. Beginning today, we’re expanding the focus of the column to entail the sum of pop culture: movies, books, music, poetry, comic strips, haikus, cities, cultural movements, commedia dell’arte, plays. From this moment forward, nothing will be off limits for what we’re rechristening My World Of Flops. I would be lying if I said there wasn’t some part of me that wanted to expand My Year Of Flops into My World Of Flops partly to provide a forum for my Studio 60 obsession. But failed television shows come and go; why does Studio 60 obsess us so? 

The answer has a lot to do with arrogance. In premise and execution, Studio 60 was a work of unbearable, overweening arrogance. It began with making the lead character of Matt Albie both a clear Sorkin surrogate and a writer so ridiculously romanticized even M. Night Shyamalan might say, “Get over yourself, dude. You’re a fucking writer, not Jesus’ younger brother, the one God really likes.” Albie isn’t just a principled, gifted writer; he’s a man who gets out of bed every morning aching to making a stand. He’s admired by men and irresistible to women who run the gamut from a Maureen Dowd surrogate played by Christine Lahti to the high-end skanks of the Rockettes. Even with a head full of bad chemicals and a belly full of pills, he’s able to single-handedly write a peerless work of transcendent social and political satire everyone in the known universe will be talking about around the water cooler Monday morning. Writing 90 minutes of new comedy every week is a Herculean endeavor for even the most gifted writing staff; now imagine 90 minutes of brilliant comedy emerging anew weekly from the mind of but a single man! On pills, even! And with the kind of problems you would not believe! As I write this, I realize that that this is not a man I’m writing about. This is a God. Oh sure, this man-God has an ego. Wouldn’t you? 

The arrogance extended to filling the cast with a murderer’s row of familiar faces. Studio 60’s main and guest cast doubles as a living television history. To start with an example near and dear to Sorkin’s heart, from The West Wing we have Bradley Whitford as Danny Tripp, a recovering alcoholic and drug addict and Albie’s right-hand man. The life-giving rays of Matt Albie shine on us all, giving us joy and hope, but they shine most brightly on Danny. From Kids In The Hall we have Mark McKinney as a cynical veteran writer brought in to school some upstarts after the rest of the writing staff quits. From The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Lou Grant comes guest star Ed Asner as the head of the network. Taxi gave Studio 60 Judd Hirsch. Thirtysomething was kind enough to provide Timothy Busfield as Studio 60’s director, while the British Office gave Sorkin Lucy Davis to fatally under-use. Sex And The City was nice enough to do the same with Evan Handler, while The Daily Show With Jon Stewart kicked in young Nate Corddry. This wasn’t a cast. This was the It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World of television shows. Sorkin and his casting director didn’t get somebody for the show: they got everybody. And I haven’t even gotten to Steven Weber, D.L. Hughley as black man Simon Stiles, Amanda Peet, Sarah Paulson, Carlos Jacott, and Columbus Short as the fabled Other Black Guy. 

Studio 60 is so self-congratulatory I’m half-surprised it doesn’t open with an Academy Of Television Arts & Sciences tribute to itself. That’s a byproduct of the show’s overbearing arrogance: It thinks it’s won the game before the game has even begun. For Sorkin, however, the game stretches way back. In his mind, he wasn’t just launching a new television show with an unusually pronounced sense of history. No, he was carrying on the holy work of Paddy Chayefsky, Norman Lear, Edward R. Murrow, and Lorne Michaels (back when he still gave a damn). Sorkin wasn’t just trying to raise the level of discourse on television; he was fighting for the medium’s very soul.

It wasn’t until I got about halfway through the show that I realized that Studio 60 only really makes sense once you stop seeing television as a medium and start seeing it as a religion. Studio 60 is ultimately about the cult of the show runner, Sorkin-as-Jesus. Matt gives and gives and gives and gives. And all he asks is a little absolution if he takes some painkillers and dallies with Rockettes. Is that really so much? No wonder the Christianity of love interest Harriet Hayes (Paulson) rubs him the wrong way: You’d be pissed too if your soulmate worshipped a different, lesser deity.

The show’s arrogance extended to having Aaron Sorkin write every episode. Oh sure, staff writers got a “story by” credit here and there, but Studio 60 was ultimately a one-man show. Sorkin’s voice dominates. Studio 60 desperately needed a counterbalance, a cold-hearted bastard like The Social Network director David Fincher to sand-blast away all the sermonizing, politics, and melodrama and get to the diamond-hard core of Sorkin’s writing. If left to his devices, Sorkin doesn’t lurch into self-parody; he leaps. But nothing betrayed Studio 60’s arrogance quite like the importance it placed on its show-within-show. The show within the show in Studio 60 looks like MAD TV, yet it is supposed to have the importance and social significance of the Constitution and Magna Carta combined with Testaments Old and New. 

Yet in interviews, Sorkin contended that the criticism that the snatches of sketches we see on Studio 60 aren’t funny aren’t legitimate since they’re not supposed to be funny, and that what we’re seeing are rough drafts and dress rehearsals, not finished pieces. But we should at the very least get the sense that the sketches on display have the capacity to be amusing. None of the sketches approach being funny, let alone achieve it. They often feel like spoofs of hacky sketch writing. The writing on the show-within-the-show in 30 Rock is at least supposed to be bad. Studio 60 has no excuse.

Here’s the ultimate tragedy of Studio 60: For decades, comedy lovers have bemoaned that comedy is never taken seriously. Comedies are ghettoized. They’re ignored at the Academy Awards and dismissed by critics. So it should have been a good thing when a serious man finally came along to take comedy seriously. But Studio 60 takes comedy so seriously it goes full circle and becomes comic. A lot of comedy professionals, or at least those who talked to the Los Angeles Times for a piece on the subject, were flattered that a writer of Sorkin’s prominence took an interest in them and their line of work. When they finally saw the fruits of Sorkin’s labor, however, many of them felt insulted. But before the inevitable letdown ensued, there was an awful lot of excitement surrounding Studio 60, especially its pilot. 

Along with much of the public, I watched the pilot in a state of feverish anticipation the night it premièred on September 18, 2006. When it was over, I couldn't wait to see what happened next. I re-watched it with something approaching dread for My World Of Flops a few months back, though what I responded to most profoundly upon a repeat viewing was its infinite sense of possibility. Studio 60 could go anywhere. It could do anything. And it could do it with one of the most remarkable casts in recent memory. The pilot for Studio 60 still radiates potential the second time around, even if was doomed to go fatally unrealized. 

In the pilot, Matt and Danny are recruited to run the late-night live sketch-comedy show they had previously quit four years earlier after their mentor Wes Mendell (Hirsch) goes on air with a hastily improvised screed clearly modeled after Peter Finch’s famous freak-out in Network. The tirade has a distinctly ersatz, greatest-hits feel to it. It’s telling that three decades after Finch was mad as hell/not taking it anymore we’re still whining about the same old bullshit Finch was railing against. Having Hirsh yowl the line, “That remote in your hand is a crack pipe” illustrates how little we have evolved since Network, both in terms of the depths to which our culture has fallen and the language we employ to document its decline.

When old Wes spouts an endless series of bland generalizations about the evils of television, the show is savvy enough to have Danny call his mentor out on his over-use of “TV is evil” clichés, even if it clearly believes that on some level Hirsch is speaking truth to power. Sorkin is at least considerate enough to acknowledge that he’s blatantly stolen the opening of his show from one of the most famous movie scenes of the past few decades by having one reporter after another invoke Network when discussing the story. That’s Sorkin’s game: He’s not being derivative; he’s simply commenting on the media’s race to provide glib pop-culture shorthand for complicated events.

How important is Studio 60 within the world of Studio 60? Here’s how new network President Jordan McDeere (Peet) introduces them to the press: “[Matt and Danny] will make us laugh, they will make us think, they will make us talk, and they will make us proud. They will return Studio 60 to its former glory as the flagship program of NBS, and NBS will return to its former place as America’s greatest broadcast network.” Why stop there? Why not continue, “They will revitalize democracy and restore the United States to its former glory as the greatest democracy in the world and usher in a new utopia of peace, prosperity, and cutting-edge political and social satire!” Then again, I’m not sure Studio 60 could make the fine distinction between a vibrant and successful democracy and a vibrant and successful Saturday Night Live

Matt and Danny taking over Studio 60 creates complications. Matt has a long and tedious history with the show’s breakout performer, the would-be chameleon named Harriet Hayes, whom Paulson plays dourly. We are informed that despite her chaste ways, Hayes is “undeniably sexy.” It’s good that Sorkin inserted that subtle clue into the show, or we’d easily mistake the character for being shrill, unpleasant, humorless, and ragingly, defiantly, celibacy-inducingly non-sexy. 

Harriet and Matt’s relationship is based on the odd-couple pairing of Godless Jew Sorkin and Jesus-loving West Wing player Kristen Chenoweth. Chenoweth is undeniably sexy and every bit as talented as Hayes’ character is supposed to be. This is because Chenoweth is infinitely more attractive and appealing than the character she ostensibly inspired. Chenoweth has a rare combination of girl-next-door innocence and bombshell sexuality. The best Paulson can counter with is cold, bland prettiness, which wouldn’t be much of an issue if she were as explosively gifted as the show desperately needs her to be. For the character to make any sense at all she’d have to be Christina Hendricks by way of Tina Fey, or a female Jon Hamm. That’s an impossible order for anyone but the female Jon Hamm. 

Here and elsewhere, Sorkin betrays the old dictum to show rather than tell. We know that Harriet and Matt are brilliant/perfect for each other because the show drills that into our skull even after our brains violently reject these and other equally preposterous notions. To cite a particularly egregious example of Studio 60 showing rather than telling, at one point Harriet looks at the body of a more voluptuous cast-member and says, “I want my body to look like yours” only to have the castmate retort, “I want my talent to look like yours.” Who talks this way? Who even thinks that way?

We know that one of the things Studio 60, the show within the show, does is tell people what’s cool, because one of the characters says, “One of the things this show does is decide what’s cool.” And what does Studio 60 think is cool? A good illustration of the show’s sensibility can be found in its guest stars. Even in the lean years, Saturday Night Live is able to get big names that almost invariably skew young. In Studio 60’s world, the kids are apparently crazy about guest stars like Rob Reiner (the show gets its best ratings in 14 years for an episode Reiner hosts), Felicity Huffman, a lute-playing Sting, Corinne Bailey Rae, Allison Janney, and the Asian guy from Heroes, who was once apparently big enough to be faintly plausible as the host of a popular late-night sketch show.

These are not the entertainment choices of young people. These are the entertainment choices of a wealthy, middle-aged man. That speaks to another of Studio 60’s fatal flaws: It’s too old. Saturday Night Live does not represent the sensibility of Lorne Michaels. It represents the combined sensibilities of a bunch of hyped-up, oversexed twentysomethings desperate to impress the big boss. Studio 60, in sharp contrast, has the sensibility of a wealthy middle-aged man desperately trying to channel the personality of hyped-up, oversexed twentysomethings desperately trying to impress the big boss. It’s a testament to how out of it Sorkin is that when the Los Angeles Times ran a piece on comedy writers criticizing the show, Sorkin responded, “I read the headline and [I thought], ‘Does [Stephen] Colbert not like the show? Does Billy Crystal not like the show? Tina Fey? Seth Myers? Real comedy writers—do they not like the show? No, she wasn’t talking about those people. I would encourage you to go to the Web site for Employee Of The Month, the improvisational comedy troupe that was complaining about the show, you will discover that they are unemployed and disgruntled.”

Sorkin doesn’t make TV shows for the unemployed and disgruntled. He doesn’t waste his time with losers. No, Aaron Sorkin makes television shows only the Billy Crystals of the world can appreciate or criticize. He makes winning dramas about comedy for winners, not unemployed losers. Here’s the thing: Those unemployed, disgruntled complainers tossing pebbles up at a giant like Sorkin, in spirit at least, embody the underdog essence of comedy, not Billy fucking Crystal. Who took Billy Crystal seriously as an arbiter of edgy comedy back in 2007?

Sorkin is an entertainment Goliath who just couldn’t understand why more people wouldn’t take his side in his noble battle with that annoying David asshole. That David loser was nearly as bad as those unemployed, disgruntled losers in Employee Of The Month. Sorkin’s contempt for bloggers makes its way onto the show via an exquisitely condescending little rant where Danny quips of the rise of the blogosphere, “It’s like we’ve all spent the last five years living in a Roger Corman film called ‘Revenge of the Hack.’ I have to care about the Internet because everyone else does” while bemoaning a mainstream media that takes seriously the opinions of a female blogger who has “got a freezer full of Jenny Craig and she’s surrounded by her five cats.” Sorkin will have you know that opinions are only valid if they come from the very successful.

Bloggers aren’t the only group Studio 60 treats with sublime condescension. If Sorkin set out to give limousine liberalism a bad name (not that it needs any help in that department) he couldn’t have done any better a job. Studio 60 goes so far out of its way not to be offensive toward African-Americans, common people, Christians, and the military that it is incredibly condescending and accidentally insulting toward all those groups and more. D.L. Hughley’s character Simon Stiles is so defined by his race—and, ironically or not, his unwillingness to let himself be defined by race—that he may as well begin every sentence, “As a proud, strong black man who grew up in the hood yet pulled himself up to become a Yale drama student…”

Sorkin created Studio 60 to comment insightfully on the world around us. Instead, he turns everything it touches to kitsch. In the documentary Exporting Raymond, producer Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal is flummoxed by a Russian costume designer who sees a Russian remake of Everybody Loves Raymond primarily as an opportunity to teach the women of Russia abut fashion. In a similar way, Sorkin has decided to use Studio 60 as an excuse to deliver a stiff lecture on the history of comedy. We think we signed up for a fun, sexy show about a bunch of crazy kids putting on a production. Instead Professor Sorkin favors us with an endless dissertation on Satire As Social Protest In The United States In the Cold War Era.

A single moment in “The Long Lead Story,” the series’ fifth episode, captures everything that’s hilariously off about Studio 60 in microcosm. In it, Corddry’s Tom Jeter, a sketch performer but more importantly the brother of a soldier fighting in Afghanistan, leads his Ohio mother and father on a guided tour of the legendary old theater where Studio 60 is filmed. To Jeter’s dad, Tom might as well be the guy who mans the jizz-mop at the sleaziest whorehouse in Tijuana. Being from the Midwest, he is at best vaguely familiar with this “television” and also this newfangled thing called “comedy,” but he doesn’t care for it one bit, nor does he want his son humiliating the family name by doing something like starring on a hit national television show.

The passive-aggression is so thick it barely qualifies as passive as Tom shows his rigid father and slightly less emotionally constipated mother the set and tries to convey, as stridently and humorlessly as possible, that what happens onstage every week is of the utmost importance to the functioning of the universe as a whole. This is lost on his parents, who respond to Jeter’s comments about “Who’s On First” being taped on that very stage with an embarrassed, “Your dad and I don’t watch Comedy Central.” Finally Jeter’s dad can’t take it anymore and violently expectorates, “That’s swell, Tom. But your little brother is standing in the middle of Afghanistan!” If Studio 60 were Mommie Dearest (it kind of is), this would be its “no wire hangers” line. 

Sorkin seems to have taken the criticism of Studio 60 to heart, because over the course of its 22-episode run it grows progressively less timely and topical and more rooted in the relationships between characters. Danny spends less time battling network suits and more time wooing the pregnant Jordan, who may be the show’s greatest achievement. Jordan is a walking contradiction: a devastatingly effective ditz, an awkward geek in the body of a head cheerleader. She’s a clownfish who somehow manages to not only survive but thrive in a world ruled by sharks. Though she says things like, “I believe that quality isn’t anathema to profit,” there’s an impish streak to Jordan that makes her the most likable and engaging character on the show. I was also taken with the veteran comedy writer Mark McKinney plays with just the right hint of world-weary resignation, a man so beaten down by life he barely has the energy to be cynical.

As the budget and cast shrank, Studio 60 focused more intently Matt’s psychological state and began featuring flashbacks of what I like to call “backwards-baseball-cap Matt.” The backwards baseball cap let us know we’ve traveled in the wayback machine to the heady days before Matt and Danny took over the show, when Matt was just a prodigiously gifted writer with a penchant for wearing backwards baseball caps and a thing for a new cast-member named Harriet. As with everything in Studio 60, this thread instantly devolves into overheated camp full of posturing, speechifying, and empty rhetoric, the proverbial sound and fury signifying nothing.  

Studio 60 closes as it must, by roping in the only event of the past 15 years that has rendered comedy as important as Sorkin and company feel it to be: the tragic events of 9/11. As it lurches to a close, Studio 60 limps back to the uncertain days following 9/11 to explore how Matt and Danny fought for a theoretically scathing sketch about the White House’s relationship with Hollywood, which was so ostensibly devastating in its satirical fury the network suits want Matt to apologize for it. Matt is a man of principles, however, so he quits in protest and goes on to thrive elsewhere. September 11 is of course Matt’s defining hour, the crucial moment he chooses morality and his glistening ideals over professional security. 

September 11 was a cultural moment when a show like Saturday Night Live really did matter, when the mundane business of comedy began to feel vaguely heroic. I know I’ve never been prouder of my colleagues over at our sister publication The Onion than in the week following the 9/11 issue. However, as with everything else, Sorkin gets 9/11 wrong. He doesn’t capture the hush, the quiet, the grieving, the mourning, the sense that nothing was ever going to be okay again. In Sorkin’s world there is no hush, no quiet, no subtle contemplation, just big speeches and big moments and big drama.

Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip had the capacity to be one of the all-time greats. It was a show we were going to be talking about the way we do Seinfeld and The Sopranos and every other show that left an indelible mark on our culture. This was going to be Sorkin’s defining triumph. Instead it’s his defining shame. Only a fool would underestimate the inspiration for Matt Albie, however, so after Studio 60’s high-profile cancellation allowed the Schadenfreude Brigade to get in a few extra kicks at the show’s corpse, Sorkin licked his wounds, wrote Charlie Wilson’s War, then won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Social Network. With The Social Network, Sorkin really had captured the zeitgeist. He was once again chasing history. This time he found it.

I imagine that the massive success of Sorkin’s script for The Social Network—a big, flashy, hyper-verbal screenplay that sought to comment insightfully on the world we live in—healed some of the pain of Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip’s failure. In true My World Of Flops form, Sorkin failed and succeeded spectacularly for many of the same reasons. This time Sorkin really was right to swing for the fences. Early in Studio 60, Jordan tells Danny and Matt, “I raised the bar high? I’m sorry. Clear it.” Sorkin always raises the bar high. That’s the kind of ambition we love and loathe here at My World Of Flops. 

Yet in its own strange way, Studio 60 endures, albeit as an epic, intermittently fascinating folly rather than as a magnum opus. On Twitter and in the culture at large, it continues to fascinate and annoy. Though it aired less than half a decade ago, Studio 60 already has the hermetic, sealed-in quality of a period piece. Sorkin set out to chronicle his time using satire and ripped-from-the-headlines drama as his media. He instead ended up providing a cringe-inducing snapshot inside the narcissistic self-delusion of a terrifically talented, heroically flawed writer who took on far more than even he was capable of handling. 

Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco 

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