Wed 16 Aug
Sooner or later, everyone gives in to Netflix, and I now count myself among the weak. The Web-based, DVD-by-mail service now offers, in addition to all those hard-to-find movies available in just a day or two through the U.S. Postal Service, the debut episode of Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” And this, months before it will first air on NBC’s Fall 2006 schedule. Broadcast television is dead.
I’ve been very eager to see this show, in no small part because I think that Sorkin’s two prior shows, “The West Wing” and “Sports Night,” represent nearly unmatched high-water marks for consistently produced, intellectually challenging and genuinely surprising commercial television.
What’s more, “Studio 60” has all the apparent markings of a return to the basic premise of the cruelly short-lived “Sports Night.” It concerns the behind-the-scenes machinations of a television show — this time an aging sketch comedy franchise not unlike “Saturday Night Live” — and explores the moral quandaries laying just beneath an enterprise designed to anesthetize millions of households on a regular basis. Fun stuff! Seriously, it is; you owe it to yourself to hole up for a weekend with a freezer-full of Hungry Man dinners, a microwave and the complete DVD collection of “Sports Night”’s two vastly under-appreciated seasons if you haven’t already seen these shows.
As for “Studio 60” itself, well… it’s promising. It looks much like vintage Sorkin — which is to say that it moves like vintage Sorkin. The camera swings freely throughout the show’s elaborate and beautifully lit set. As a creative visionary, Sorkin has a secure place among an elite handful of other talents working in film and television today — David Mamet and Michael Mann, to name two — who possess a completely engrossing ability to immerse us in the world of work.
People do great things in Sorkin shows, and they take the time to celebrate those achievements, large and small — it᾿s the allure of higher purpose that makes his creations so transfixing. Part of what was so compelling about Sorkin’s vision of “The West Wing” in its hey day was the sensation of being thrown into the middle of the most highly charged work environment ever, surrounded by some of the sharpest and most virtuous (if not altogether realistic) professionals the country has to offer. This same heightened sense of activity is still brought to bear in “Studio 60,” but whether or not it’s going to prove equally intoxicating, it’s hard to say. The look and the feel is there, but the substance may not be.
This new show is, by turns, preachy, cheeky and self-satisfied, which has been true of all of Sorkin’s works, but for some reason the combination fails to reach critical mass here. An essential chemistry seems to be missing amongst the entire cast, all of whom, it should be said, seem to be bringing their best efforts forward, trying to rise to the occasion of reading Aaron Sorkin’s lines.
But the script just isn’t there. More than ever, the lines written for this first episode amount to dialogues of agendas, with characters talking in surprisingly labored, overly expository bursts that fail to capture the imagination. The banter seems less rooted in who the characters are than in what Sorkin’s ideas for them are. That may have always been true of his work — his detractors would surely argue that — but here, it feels almost as if these dialogues represent only an idea of what Sorkin’s ideas might be, and not necessarily the ideas themselves. The whole affair has more of the substance of a Sorkin knock-off than the genuine article.
Still, it’s a fascinating production to watch, both for its intricacy and for the ham-fisted but completely sincere way that Sorkin uses his TV show-within-a-TV show construction to deliver his irresistible yet suffocating moralizing. In the series’ inciting incident, a character played by Judd Hirsch interrupts a live broadcast to deliver a “Network”-style, on air diatribe that infuriates the show’s corporate parents. In this instance, at least, it comes across as an authentic proxy for Sorkin’s world view, a strident declaration of the producer’s own repulsion with TV.
The fact that everything Hirsch’s character says about commercial television is completely true is beside the point; what’s more interesting is the way that Sorkin has used a network to deliver his anti-network message, and how NBC is using Sorkin’s cachet to neuter that very same message, and how the show is being promoted right now not on television so much as by mail order (via Netflix) — it’s a weird game of inverted media relationships, a semiotic mess. That may not make for a great reason to watch “Studio 60,” but I’m betting that Sorkin’s magic touch for gorgeous, engrossing screenplays will return, and then the whole enterprise will be a beautiful kind of car crash.