Pi remembers STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP (2006-07)
A couple of months ago, Tick hit us all up to start a website where we could all write about films. Everyone was hip to the idea and Reservoir Blogs was born, but I knew there was no way I was going to be able to keep coloring within the lines. I’m too punk rock for that. So allow me to be the first to step out of line, break off the trail and wander off by myself into the ghetto of Hollywood.
Truth be told, I love films and the experiences they bring, but good episodic television has a stronger pull on me. Maybe it’s the way that I personally write and prefer to tell a story, or maybe it’s because I don’t have to put on clothes and go to an overpriced cineplex to get my entertainment fix. Lying in bed like a sloth, wrapped up in a blanket, gorging yourself on DVD boxsets isn’t a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon. In any event, set your Wayback Machines to 2006. Today I’m going to talk about Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip.
Studio 60 arrived on the Fall schedule with a lot of fanfare. It was created by Aaron Sorkin, who was hot off of The West Wing and it had assembled a pretty impressive cast of television stars who had starred in other hits. The first episode scored high, but it dropped off pretty dramatically by Episode 3. To it’s credit, NBC tried to promote it, using all the critical acclaim the show was receiving to try to bring new viewers in, but too many hiatus’ in an attempt to pair it with event episodes of other shows and the fact that the show just didn’t resonate as well coming in midstream, spelled doom. There’s other reasons why this show only got one season, but we’ll get to those later.
Studio 60 is a show about a show, specifically a show called Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip which is a Friday night, sketch comedy show a la Saturday Night Live. When the show opens, much like SNL, Studio 60s best days are behind it. Where it was once cutting edge, dangerous comedy, it’s been reduced to unfunny, safe sketches. Executive Producer Wes Mendell (Judd Hirsch) has just lost a battle about content with Standards and Practices and snaps. He kicks everyone off the stage, goes on the air and launches into a diatribe against the show, the network and the people at home watching. That monologue is epic, an homage to Chayefsky’s “Network” and it’s everything people don’t want to hear. So of course, it gets him fired by network CEO Jack Rudolph (Steven Weber).
Did I mention that it’s also the first day of the network president Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet)? While Studio 60 has slipped over the years, it’s still one of the network’s most important and lucrative shows. She needs to fix the situation stat and comes up with a bold plan. She wants to bring the creative team from Studio 60’s heyday back. Jack Rudolph fired them years before due to some controversy and they’ve gone on to successful feature film careers. Jordan has a plan though and before long, she’s brought back Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) as Executive Producer and Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) as Head Writer. The cast is excited and happy to have them back, but can they bring the show back to life?
The next 22 episodes are about that and much more. It really is a brilliantly executed television show. The plot is constantly interesting and always moving forward in both logical and surprising ways, but always believable and grounded. As nice as the plot is though, it’s the characters that are the meat of the show. This is where you find Sorkin’s fingerprints and where the show really shines. Every character will surprise you at some point and not only that, but the actor’s portraying them will as well. The two people that I wasn’t sold on going in were Amanda Peet and Steven Weber. When we first meet Jordan McDeere, she’s presented as the stereotypical, ball-busting, female executive we’ve seen a million times before. Peet not only brings depth to the character, but a softer, feminine side when it’s called for, and a quick-witted sense of humor that would be vital for a woman dealing with comedy writers all the time. Weber’s Jack Rudolph could’ve easily been portrayed according to type as well. CEO who only cares about the bottom line, and to some degree he is, but there are moments where you see there’s much more to the man, that he does want to break the mold. He just doesn’t want to lose his job in the process.
While Studio 60 is about a comedy show, you rarely see the actual show. You’ll see bits and pieces, you’ll hear it being rehearsed, but it’s not really about that. It’s about the people who make it go. All of the key members of the cast get their moments, as well as key figures in the writing room and the control booth. Sorkin takes you to all of the people involved with making a show at one time or another and they’re all interesting in their own ways. At it’s heart though, Studio 60 is a character drama and with characters, there has to be a love story. In this show, there’s actually two big ones. The first is between Jordan McDeere and Danny Tripp. What starts with mutual admiration grows into more and after an evening stuck together on the roof of the building, both make their feelings known for each other and they take off from there. It’s nice and it creates storytelling opportunities, but what makes the show is the romance of Matt Albie and Harriet Hayes.
Harriet is the lead female on the show and has had an on-again, off-again relationship with Albie for years. When the show begins, they’re broken up, for a seemingly stupid reason to everyone who knows them, but for issues that become more clear as the show goes on. Through flashbacks, we learn that Harriet is in some way responsible for Albie’s success as a writer. He couldn’t get a sketch on the air until he started writing for Harriet and the whole reason he started writing for her was to be close to her. To go into all the twists and turns of the Harriet/Matt relationship would do the show a major disservice. It’s something you need to see and it’s something you need to feel unfolding as Sorkin intended. The thing with Matt/Harriet though is that no matter what shit they go through, whether they’re together or not, whether they’re with other people or not, you can see it in their eyes that the love is still there. That it’s real and it’s what drives them apart and towards one another simultaneously. That’s a pretty impressive accomplishment, considering the writing and acting never feel forced, there’s a chemistry between Perry and Paulson that feels real and the performances involving these two always seem genuine and warm, even when they’re screaming at each other. Through all of the great moments in this show, it’s Matt and Harry that stay with you the most.
So if the show was so great, why’d it only get one season? Aside from the hiatus trickery, the truth is it was too smart for the American public. The dialogue was sharp and quick. This wasn’t something to watch while folding laundry. It demanded attention and honestly, some of the episodes were pretty heavy, which brings me to another point. It was sold as a comedy. It’s not. There are funny scenes, funny lines and Hell, it’s about a comedy show, but it leans more towards drama. Considering that NBC debuted Studio 60 and 30 Rock in the same year, I think people tuned in expecting to see 30 Rock type shenanigans and that was so NOT what you were gonna get from Studio 60. Add to that, you have scenes devoted to discussions about overnights, ratings, upfronts and other terms that would be considered inside to people who don’t follow entertainment as obsessively as others. It was kind of a recipe for disaster, but most of the great television shows are.
Even though it only had one season, I rate Studio 60 high on the list of my all-time favorite shows. If you have any interest at all, it’s worth checking out. For those of you don’t want to take the risk and buy the thing, you can watch the whole run on streaming Netflix. At the very least, check out the first couple episodes. If that doesn’t hook you in, I hate you and I hope you die.