Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip Review
The SeriesHigh concept scares the pants off decision makers in TV and Film studios. With The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin proved that not only can high concept work in TV but that people will watch it and love it. They won't feel the film-makers are talking down to them or necessarily trying to educate them or make them smarter because people will like clever if it's done well. In the case of The West Wing, critics and opinion formers loved it for its sweeping cameras, its snappy repartee and the illusion that the the most powerful man on earth is a caring liberal humanitarian supported by the best caring liberal humanitarians he can muster. The West Wing was technically daring in breaking the small scale of TV production and using cinematic techniques unpopular in TV such as long tracking shots, crane shots and seemingly huge sets to do these things with. The West Wing was written on the basis that people are bright and want to know about complexity and moral vaguery. And The West Wing was popular because it is reassuring in a world of wars started by demagogues that the people in power might be as competent and human as Josiah Bartlett, Leo and Josh.
Sorkin's TV follow up was based on the high concept that in the way people had shown a hunger for knowing about how power really works and how America elects presidents, they also really wanted to know about the industry of show and the business of TV and mass media. The technical daring of the filming and the sets would be as it had been, as would the ensemble cast and plethora of fine actors. Sorkin would slog his guts out writing the teleplays, and Sorkin would use the people he knew from his previous work. The ostensible hook would be two talented chancers resurrecting a Saturday Night Live type show despite the moral state of the industry and the post 9-11 politics of media.
If the real pull of The West Wing had been to reassure the world that a liberal high minded politics was possible, Studio 60 set out to prove that modern entertainment made well and made bravely could also succeed despite the influence of censors, advertisers and politicians. Where the West Wing gave us the best president we never had, Studio 60 would give us courageous female studio heads and tough but fair chairmen of the board. We would get TV that would bait the religious right, point out the slaughter of war and rail against censorship. Other shows have done this too in recent years, Boston Legal at Fox has been the antithesis of the company that owns it in it's liberalism and Bush bashing, and it has also been excellently written and performed as the point is proved that people can laugh and think at the same time. Sorkin's show could be just as powerful if not as funny.
Now the series has been cancelled, it's easy to be critical of why Sorkin failed. From it's opening to the series finale the audience fell away by 75% and some of this is due to failing confidence in the boardroom and bad scheduling but the problem with the idea that people will watch intelligent TV is that once you give them wit and cleverness they will keep expecting it. The problem with Studio 60 was that the more the series continued the less it had to say, or indeed wanted to say. The writing which started off bright and with a mission to inform the viewer of the mechanics of modern shows and how they are made, stopped talking about the issues and got lost in the love-lives of TV executives. Balls to the wall plots about censorship, right wing manipulation and the vacuity of TV commissioning in the age of a split America gave way to compromise romances and impressive guest stars. Importantly, Sorkin's clear intention to draw a parallel between McCarthyism and the Bush years was relegated to a simple parting shot and some subtext.
Basically, Studio 60 lost it's high concept and succumbed to easy soap as it fought against the fate of being cancelled. Matthew Perry did more of his Chandler Bing faces and the atrociously trivial on-off romance between his character and Sarah Paulson's character started to swamp the more interesting elements of the programme. The more Sarah Paulson's character is pushed up centre, the more this viewer was forced to question whether he believed she was a great comedienne or a particularly interesting character. Her role is exposed more and more as a device rather than a person, someone who allows the liberal writers to admit the existence of another point of view but who is not well enough portrayed or created to be convincing or cared about. It is no surprise when the romantic focus switches to Amanda Peet and Bradley Whitford for the the three part finale as this pairing is a more successful and charismatic one than the former one.
Still, I've spent a lot of time telling you how the series dumbs down and becomes soapy rather than celebrating how excellent the opening dozen episodes are. It is amazing that each of the opening twelve episodes manage to not only introduce a myriad of characters but to use their interactions and conflict to create a compelling picture of how TV is big business and how in modern America such business is harder than ever. We get episodes touching on the evil of focus groups and their role in neutering entertainment, episodes about media takeovers, the hypocrisy of the FCC in trying to censor TV it doesn't like and intriguing episodes on the mechanics of writing teams. Like The West Wing, Sorkin aims high and explains the complexity without talking down to the audience and these 12 episodes are some of the best TV made last year.
The remaining episodes begin to trough after the two parter, The Harriet Dinner, where we are pitched into one of the many rows of head writer Matt Alby and show star Harriet Hayes. I know in other series, such awkward romances draw viewers but I stopped caring whether they should be together somewhere around episode three. Frankly, Harriet's a bore who isn't funny and whenever he's around her Matt Alby stops being very interesting either. Despite this, the endless plots about this great romance keep coming, and the show starts to become rather lopsided and without a moral compass.
The nadir of the show is in the introduction of a sexual harassment plot which attempts to straddle the fence of concerned sexual politics whilst helpfully ignoring that the two leading characters have both acted in ways which in any working environment could bring a ton of legal bricks down on their employer. To make things worse the lawyer assigned to the case is "hot" and any serious consideration of the issues of harassment is forgotten. This episode is followed by a rather weasily plot featuring one of the stars brothers being kidnapped in a war zone that feels stolen from Sorkin's previous work with little consideration for adapting to the new setting. Here his dialogue starts to irritate as everyone begins to sound like a liberal Jewish smartass regardless of who they are - doctors, nurses, soldiers... everyone. This cack-handed attempt to re-enter the real world is laudible for all it tries to say about the Bush administration but it falls flat when balanced with the schmaltzy romance and maternity cliffhanger.
And so the series ends with an opportunity for Whitford to direct, and ironically Sorkin proves the wisdom of his high concept by abandoning it mid series and fatally pandering to soap lovers. When Studio 60 keeps it smart, it is brilliant but it gives up on the mission of enlightening the viewer about the rectangular guest they have in their front room to try cheap tricks and saccharin. Perhaps its failure will put off the next high concept drama writer and convince others to commission some more reality TV in its place, or perhaps the next writer will stick to their guns through to the end. Studio 60 can happen again and lets hope it does.
Still, the program was superb at times and reminded the world of the way freedom of speech was forgotten after the attack on the Twin Towers, and it even tried to show the guilt the money men feel for giving in to the political bullying of the time. Studio 60 also gave TV a great relationship, a love story of sacrifice and loyalty, but this was not the romances of the series but the friendship of Matt and Danny. These were the best scenes of the show, the ones where Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford played off each other with lightning wit, knowing sarcasm and deep affection. For this great friendship and some bravura writing and vision, Studio 60 will deserve to be remembered and revisited, even if it didn't deserve to be re-commissioned.
The DiscsWarner present the whole 22 episodes on six single layer discs housed in three dual disc slim cases which are kept in a glossy thin box. Discs one to five contain four episodes each and disc six contains the special features along with the two final episodes. For a run down of the episodes titles and credits, please use the IMDB link at the side of the review. Visual quality on the transfers is fine with the weakest one being the pilot which has poor contrast, and black levels vary throughout the rest of the series from good to very good. You'll find these transfers a lot sharper than the TV broadcasts that aired on More 4 with better saturation and skin tones. The sound is present throughout as a 5.1 track which matches the camera movements brilliantly with ambient effects moving around the listener as the camera swoops in and out of rooms and around the actors. This is a fine mix which must have been the devil's own to get to this quality given the number of tracking shots and handycam sequences, and the sound is presented with fine clarity doing justice to the snappy dialogue, bursts of music and the often frenetic world we are are watching. The subwoofer track is used well to capture the different ambiences of the studio and the writer's room and the effect of the 5.1 track is to envelop the listener.
The pilot episode carries a commentary from Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme which is only accessible through the episodes menu. They describe the vision for the show and Sorkin admits his debt to Paddy Chayefsky's script for Network. The pilot was created with various shortcuts to keep money down and both men are open about this, they discuss casting Judd Hirsch as Wes, the luck of getting Ed Asner and working around Amanda Peet's schedule. There is no bitterness about the cancelling of the show and both speakers keep themselves to the germane and the functional whilst appreciating the work of the cast they used.
The final extra is In Depth: The Evolution of Studio 60 where Timothy Busfield takes us for a wander around the set whilst interviews are intercut from Sorkin and cast andcrew about how the set was put together from the original idea of the script, and how the characters were thought up. The featurette is 24 minutes long and has not been converted properly from a NTSC source.