What Do Sports Center, The White House and Saturday Night Live All Have in Common?

Studio 60 on the Sunset StripSooner 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.

Sorkin-esque, Right?

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.

A Bully Pulpit in a Vast Wasteland

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.

I Can’t Not Watch

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.

  1. I reckon if you watch the pilot for any significant piece of television in the last five years (or, in the case of Lost, pretty much the whole first season), you’ll find that the dialog is made to carry way too much of the early characterisation. In fact, I dug out the West Wing pilot last week and cringed at how much Sorkin was trying to convey in dialog. But that magic moment when the President arrives… it was all worth it for that.

  2. Finally! Someone else who appreciates Sports Night. I have so many fond memories of watching this show. Infinitely quotable, great characters (Peter Krause’s best work, on par with Six Feet Under).

    “I understand what makes a woman think any man is better than nothing. I just don’t understand what makes a woman think she has nothing.”

  3. Thanks for the acknowledgment of Sports Night. I too was a disappointed fan when it was cancelled. It is one of my favorite examples of a show that was “too smart” for broadcast television.

    I hope that Studio 60 finds its bearings and its audience before it suffers the same fate.

  4. Long live Sports Night!

    I had watched it when it was on during the first season but fell away from it.

    Borrowed Andrew’s box set and watched it one after the other. The end of the second season wasn’t as good but it ended on the right note.

  5. What I like to say about the end of “Sports Night” was that it felt like saying goodbye to a group of very good friends that you’ll never see again. Sad, really. I didn’t quite feel that way about “The West Wing” because, by the end, the show had gotten fairly distorted (though I liked it all the way to the last episode, I admit). Anyway, I hope “Studio 60” makes me feel that way too about its cast of characters. It’s a rare feeling.

  6. That’s pretty much how I felt, Khoi. I stopped watching “West Wing” altogether right about the time Sorkin left daily operations.

    Naz, I think the unevenness of the late second-season episodes of “Sports Night” reflected the show’s uncertain future. When it wasn’t clear whether the show would be renewed, they brought a lot of that insecurity into the script, and it got its feet back once the verdict was final.

    It will, indeed, be interesting to see how “Studio 60” turns out. Hollywood and the TV industry have a tendency to think everyone else finds their business just as interesting as they do, and they’re usually wrong.

  7. I’ve never heard of “Sports Night,” but I do enjoy some good old Saturday Night Live. I really have no idea what “Studio 60” is about, but if it is good like you say I hope people actually watch it and keep it on air.

  8. Good comments. I think that your criticisms are valid but that the package still adds up to some of the best 45m that you can watch right now. And Matthew Perry was funny. On the other hand, I seriously cringed when the ‘under pressure’ riff started and Matthey Perry started going on about “it’s a great studio”. “You like it? Good ’cause we live here now”. Fishy. Also, I found Jordan McD pretty annoying.

  9. I can hardly wait to see if this show lives up to the hype. I loved Sports Night and was disappointed in its demise.

    Does anyone have any idea of the name of the song and it’s artist that’s featured in the latest commercials? It’s the sort of big-band-jazz-like tune. I’ve heard this track used in other promo’s for several shows and ads. I would greatly appreciate any info anyone can offer on this.

  10. Sports Night is among my top 5 television shows of all time. Not since Mash have I ever laughed and come to tears all in the same 30 minutes.

    I’ve always had this theory that it was the title of the show that was ultimately it’s downfall. Taken at face value, Sports Night sounds like … well a show about sports which is an immediate turn-off for a large demographic. And people who tuned in expecting a show about sports would likely be dissapointed.

  11. just wondering, with a good number of episodes behind us, what is your opinion of the show now?

    (I watch Studio 60 and don’t even change the channel during comercials. The gods of television must somehow note that. I also buy it on iTunes or even suffer through watching it on NBC.com. Am terrified of another Sports Night scenario. Just doing my part 🙂

  12. Alisa: the episodes since the pilot have definitely been an improvement over that initial foray, but sometimes I don’t think that Sorkin is as sharp as he once was.

    Part of the magic of “The West Wing” was that the characters and scenarios made for a plausible air of do-right-ness. Sorkin has given himself an altogether more difficult challenge here with a cast of Hollywood entertainers… I don’t think people are quite as willing to assume good intentions on the part of the “Studio 60” characters as much as they did those from “The West Wing.”

    This means Sorkin has to work harder than he did before, and I think he gets that, too, because he certainly does work harder fleshing out these characters than he has in the past. But he sometimes takes short-cuts he never would have in the glory days of “The West Wing,” either, fast forwarding to emotional payoffs that don’t always feel well-earned.

    All that said, the show is still an impressive piece of work. I never fail to find it fascinating or less than entertaining, and I’m growing more and more attached to these characters. I worry about a “Sports Night” scenario of premature cancellation, too. It would be horrible to see it go off the air… maybe I should sit quietly through the commercials, too.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.