Alt Title: Abandoned Garage on Skid Row

STUDIO: Warner Brothers
MSRP: $59.98
RUNNING TIME: 900 mins.
· Pilot Episode Commentary by Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme
· In Depth: The Evolution of Studio 60

The Pitch

Saturday Night Live meets The West Wing meets arrogance minus the funny.

The Humans

Created by Aaron Sorkin. Starring Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, Amanda Peet, Steven Weber, D.L. Hughley, Sarah Paulson, Nate Cordory, Timothy Busfield, Evan Handler, Carlos Jacott.

It's a Rug-Burn.  Get it?
"Season 2? You under there?"

The Nutshell

When the creative mind behind a very SNL-like Friday Night variety show on fictional broadcasting company NBS pulls a Network-like bonkers mental breakdown on live TV over the censoring of a script called “Crazy Christians,” new network President Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) enlists the help of former writer/director team Matt Albie and Danny Tripp (Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford, respectively), who were seemingly fired under mysterious circumstances by NBS chairman Jack Rudolph (Steven Weber) years ago. Now back on the show that made them famous, Matt and Danny have to juggle TV politics with U.S. politics all while keeping their talented cast, “the big three,” (Nate Cordory, D.L Hughley and Sarah Paulson) happy and out of trouble while making sure they churn out funny skits and high ratings while avoiding the network chopping block. Meanwhile, Matt tries to re-spark his failed relationship with Harriet Hayes (Paulson), a devote Christian and constant butt of his jokes (both in and out of the show), and Danny pursues Jordan, who has a few secrets up her sleeve.

The Lowdown

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip could have been an outstanding show, but instead it turned out to be just an okay show with the occasional stroke of brilliance. The heights and falls all stem from the same source; creator/writer Aaron Sorkin. There’s no denying that Sorkin knows his way around a word processor and he’s been turning out quality banter ever since the curtain first rose on the premier of A Few Good Men way back in 1989. Sorkin doesn’t disappoint here, once again creating complex characters that are smart, driven, successful, ambitious and witty. The secret to his success as a television writer is his ability to give his characters specific motivation while uniting them under one shared ambition (a sports TV show for Sports Night, running the nation in The West Wing, doing a live variety show here). Everybody wants something of their own but they also want the show to succeed and they’re almost always willing to set aside their differences (after much lengthy bantering) for Sorkin’s idea of “the greater good.” In Studio’s 60’s case, the greater good was that the show (and the network) must go on.

Or, Hey, can you guys tell me where I can hide?  I'm Illegal Seafood.
"Hey, sorry, excuse me. Have either of you seen John Goodman? I’m his dinner."

Backing up Sorkin’s impressive dialogue and characterizations are his tremendous cast, all of whom have their moments to shine when given the right material. I’m going to single out two standout actors; first, Steven Weber. Here’s an actor I’ve absolutely hated in a role before (Mick Garis’ awful ABC version of The Shining) and have never really admired in anything else. Here, he’s a force to be reckoned with; biting into his dialogue with delight and spitting it back out with controlled but immeasurable glee. Weber gets the character of Jack Rudolph completely, understands what makes him tick and knows that he’s not a stereotypical villain. Although Rudolph isn’t always in line with the creative side of Studio 60 (or NBS) he always has a unique point of view, he has a soul, he has his own moral code and he always does his best to get what he wants. And sometimes he even wins some of his arguments because he’s right! Pretty impressive qualities for the heavy of a series to have. Seriously, I could watch a whole show about this character, and the series seemed to elevate whenever Weber was on screen. I look forward to more work like this from in the future. The other big surprise comes from Matthew Perry, who handles dramatic scenes with ease and totally erases the whacky, flailing antics of Chandler from Friends within the first few minutes of the pilot. Matt Albie is a funny guy, but it’s not the same humor as Perry’s old TV and movie shtick. The main difference is that Albie is angry. Angry at NBS for firing him (and censoring him). Angry at his ex-girlfriend for being too religious (he feels Christianity is dividing the country rather than uniting it). Angry at his government for making bone-headed political mistakes. Angry at himself for coming back to a show he swore off with pride. Perry really sells this character and handles even some of the more embarrassing material Sorkin provides for him later in the series.

And that’s the real problem. Studio 60’s first ten episodes are strong and grow stronger as they go along. Then, a strange thing begins to develop. The show’s weaknesses become glaring and distracting. The Sorkin archetype is the kind of character who is at the top of their game, best at what he or she does; people who don’t do their best are lazy failures who should know better. While he tries to make some of these characters sympathetic (the press, “lesser” show writers Ricky and Ron) they often come off as dim bulbs used simply for Sorkin to spout off on things that piss him off about TV and the U.S. Worse, Studio 60 is an SNL-styled variety show, but Sorkin takes a huge misstep when showing us the material from the show. His skits come across as bad SNL parody, worse then even MAD TV (and that’s bad!). It soon becomes difficult to believe that Matt, Danny and the fantastically talented cast are as good as he constantly tells us in dialogue when their skirts are unoriginal, contrived, dated (Juliette Lewis???) and simply unfunny. The frustrating thing is that the actual show is often quite funny, but it’s a different kind of humor and the skits always suffered in comparison, making it hard to believe that Matt and Danny were the godsend of comedy writing and directing, or that they were even keeping consistent ratings.

See....she's talented!
Day 7 of Christie Lambert Being Taken in the Night. Prime Suspects? The Invisible Man and Pinocchio.

This speaks to Sorkin’s central problem as a writer; he’s tremendously arrogant and writers arrogant characters. He had an easier time with this when he was writing The West Wing because a character like the idealized liberal-god President Bartlett was a brilliant politician and we consistently saw that in action. It also tied into a greater sense of wish fulfillment from the TV nation (we wanted a leader that well spoken, that brilliant, that qualified, that conflicted, that strong and that human). Here, the characters are arrogant about being tops in the entertainment industry, which just comes off as crass and superficial. They come off as arrogant about being funny, which just simply isn’t true and makes them look smarmy and self-satisfied. They come across as arrogant in their relationships, which just comes off as creepy.

If the show dealt with the theme of failure on a more regular basis, it could have been ten times more interesting. What if Matt and Danny weren’t at the top of their game and had to really struggle to get the show back where it needed to be? What if they were truly overwhelmed by the show? What if the cast members were unruly pricks who bickered with each other and desperately clamored for airtime? What if none of the characters had time for the relationships that they wanted? That could have created real drama out of juggling their work lives with their personal lives. Everything is way too easy for these guys and I just don’t buy it. For all the stories of the insanity behind the scenes of SNL, Studio 60 feels like a walk in the park, and that’s even with episodes featuring cast members stuck in jail three states away, writers popping pills and the director locked on the roof!

Catering on Rosanne was a bitch...and so was Rosanne.
The diner patrons reacted negatively after John informed them they were dessert.

For all the writings detractions, however, the able cast often saves the day with earnest performances. Saddled with a romantic entanglement thanks to Peet’s real-life pregnancy, Sorkin was forced to write that into the show and push a somewhat rushed romantic relationship with Jordan and Danny. Despite the fact that this material is often predictable and contrived (a pregnancy scare in the series finale? Come on!), Peet and the always reliable Whitford act their asses off in these scenes and really make the audience care, but this forced relationship takes time away from the more unique, warm male bonding between Matt and Danny. How often do we see two middle-aged men who clearly love each other as much as these guys do on a television drama? That’s the real romance of the show. Just think about where these actors could have taken their roles with better material! I wish the show (and the writer) had been able to grow enough to give it to them. They deserved it.

The Package

This is an attractive package, well designed and laid-out, with classy black and gold and a nice group picture highlighting the impressive cast. The six discs come in three slim plastic sleeves featuring more full-cast shots and episode descriptions. Sound and image do not disappoint one bit. The extras, however, are a little on the skimpy side. The commentary for the pilot episode does little to skew the perception of Sorkin as a somewhat arrogant talent. I’m guessing Sorkin and Schlamme recorded this before the show was cancelled, but it comes across as far too self-cogratulatory regardless. To his credit, Sorkin is clearly incredibly proud of his cast and partner-in-crime director, and both he and Schlamme point out some interesting bits of background information (like the fact that many of the series regulars were used as background players for the pilot, and that they had very little set for the first episode—only one hallway!). The behind the scenes documentary would have been much more enlightening if it had dared to question why the show failed to reach audiences.

It was a very short show...
Hell needs entertainment too.

Bottom line: worth checking out (or renting) if you’re a Sorkin fan or really like behind-the-scenes type shows. Otherwise, watch the brilliant Network, one of Sorkin’s superior influences.

6.4 out of 10