Try playing this game when Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is released on October 16, 2007.
Close your eyes and have someone insert a randomly selected West Wing, or Studio 60 DVD into the player, and, with your eyes still closed, see if you can distinguish between the two. Odds are, in scenes with Brad Whitford and Tim Busfield, you won’t be able to tell the difference.
In part, that was the reason why Studio 60, perhaps one of the most highly anticipated shows in recent memory became the single-biggest flop in recent memory. After a promising opening, Studio 60 was pulled from sweeps before limping through May, a time period reserved only for burning off shows before they ascend to television heaven.
There are many things that went wrong with Studio 60 that could’ve been changed by a slight tweak to the foundation of the show. As junior writer Lucy said in B-12 following her sketch bombing at dress, “Buy the premise, buy the bit.”
Series creator Aaron Sorkin should’ve taken some of his own advice, because absolutely no one bought the premise of a late-night sketch comedy show that focused more on the war on terror than struggling and desparate comedy writers trying to get a sketch on the air.
It was also difficult to empathize with Studio 60 head writer Matt Albie running the show while high on pain killers, especially if you compare it to West Wing Chief of Staff Leo McGarey abusing drugs while running the United States of America.
Which would you find more compelling?
In keeping the comparison between Studio 60 and Sorkin’s previous ventures, the classic Sorkin ping-pong banter between characters that worked so well on Sports Night and the West Wing seemed contrived on Studio 60. Although Matthew Perry, Whitford, and, especially, Steven Weber gave sterling performances, their command and use of Sorkinese couldn’t save the show from its focus on puzzling relationships, especially what proved to be the main story arc between Matt Albie and Studio 60 star Harriet Hayes.
Speaking of buying the premise to buy the bit, Hayes’ character was the most perplexing of all. For a show that was supposed to be cutting-edge funny, pulling no punches for religious-right, what was a self-proclaimed devout Christian such as Hayes doing on the show, anyway? The relationship between her and Matt became tired and cliché almost at the outset, as did the sudden relationship between Jordan McDeere and Danny Tripp.
The West Wing equivalent would be Mandy Hampton and Josh Lyman, who Sorkin originally penned as the romantic subplot during the West Wing’s first season. And, wouldn’t you know it, Sorkin completely wrote out Mandy by the second season, without explanation, when Donna Moss accidentally had more chemistry with Josh.
Even going back to Sports Night, Sorkin seemed to have a weird grasp on how to write romantic arcs, because I never enjoyed the on-going romantic tension between Casey McCall and Dana Whitaker.
Instead of a comedy show, if the premise had been a behind the scenes look at a show on the Fox News Channel or CNBC, the political banter would’ve made more sense. Sorkin could’ve even kept some of the comedy involved had it been an “inside baseball” show set to the Colbert Report or The Daily Show on Comedy Central.
Either way, Studio 60 took itself far too seriously, and after pulling in more than 13 million viewers in the pilot, the show dipped to less than seven million by mid-February, and when it returned in May, it averaged about two million.
Still, I will miss this show.
I was proud to be among the six million who tuned in on Monday nights, and among the two million when the show was banished to Thursday night.
Even Sorkin at 50 percent outshines most other shows with his trademark tracking shots (in no small thanks to director Thomas Schlamme), intriguing plots (though the best storylines – Tom Jeter’s solider brother being held hostage, Simon Stiles’ subsequent explosion at the press, Jack Rudolph’s struggle with the board – came after the show had already been canceled) and thought provoking discourse.
At the rate television is going now, I wouldn’t be surprised to see, as Wes Mendell lamented in the pilot’s cold open, “Who wants to screw my sister?” as an upcoming reality show on Fox. But, sadly, that is the direction television is headed, far away from the romanticized version of television that Sorkin had envisioned.