[Written by Jeremy Grayson]
You like good TV, don’t you? I mean, you obviously do, or else you wouldn’t be on this site. We at Critically Touched write a lot about good TV, and great TV, and all the TV in between. Rarely, however, do we take the time to write about bad TV.
And the reason should be obvious. Most of us don’t watch bad TV, at least not to any great extent. Most people stopped watching Cavemen or Mixology after the first episode, and never looked back. The only times we catch ourselves regularly watching bad TV is in the form of guilty pleasures (and hey, those are at least pleasures), or shows that were once good, and stayed around well past their expiration dates. (Looking at you, How I Met Your Mother.) Beyond that, however, we prefer the time we spend in front of our television sets – or laptops, or phone – to be qualitatively worthwhile.
Still… I’d be lying if I said I’ve never regularly watched a bad TV show. In fact, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a certain TV show that I strongly disliked yet still watched every episode. Let me introduce you to the one-season blunder of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
Debuting on NBC in fall 2006, Studio 60 was Aaron Sorkin’s much-hyped follow-up to The West Wing. Set backstage at a Saturday Night Live-type sketch comedy, the show followed the cast and crew as they attempted to piece together a string of funny, biting, yet socially relevant sketches each week. If that premise sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it was the exact same premise as another TV series that debuted on NBC in fall 2006.
Yes, Studio 60 made its premiere in the same season, on the same network, as Tina Fey’s 30 Rock. But despite similar premises, the two shows were radically different in character and tone. 30 Rock was a half-hour comedy, while Studio 60 was a full-hour drama, featuring the same beats and stylistics that Sorkin had fine-tuned on The West Wing.
You may have figured out what initially drew me to this series. As a huge West Wing fan, I was naturally interested in watching Sorkin’s next dramatic TV venture as well. Oh, I heard people talk ill of the show, but at the end of the day, it’s still Aaron Sorkin. How can it go wrong?
Well, as it turns out, there are many ways it can go wrong. Twenty-two ways, approximately.
If you’re familiar with Sorkin’s general oeuvre, chances are you’ve heard the basics surrounding Studio 60’s reputation. Perhaps you’ve heard people call the show sexist. (It is.) Perhaps you’ve heard them call it preachy. (It is.) Perhaps you’ve heard that Aaron Sorkin constructed the series as a way to get back at every Hollywood suit and personality who ever wronged him. (He did.) But none of that gets to the root of the problem with this series:
You see, Studio 60 is annoying. Really annoying. It’s perhaps the most frustrating show to ever make it to the airwaves. Nearly every storyline, nearly every character arc, seems perfectly designed to infuriate the viewer. It’s incredibly pretentious, too – more so than the worst of The West Wing. The writing is forever trying to pass itself off as brilliant, yet it rarely rises above mediocre.
So, you may ask: If I hate this series, why did I subject myself to every last episode?
Well, I’ll say this about Studio 60: It may be a bad show, but it is a fascinatingly bad show. Not a guilty pleasure, not a so-bad-it’s-good series. No, it’s simply amazing to try and calculate the sheer number of ways this trainwreck of a TV series derails itself, over and over again.
A mere overview of the series cannot do it justice. Thus, I have decided to undertake what may be the most difficult task in my five years at Critically Touched: Reviewing every single Studio 60 episode ever.
In writing these brief yet biting reviews, I hope not merely to condemn the series (though it’s certainly worthy of condemnation), but to explore just how and why it went so very wrong. Granted, I will probably go nuts after analyzing the first six episodes, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.
(There will be some spoilers. But that shouldn’t matter, because avoiding spoilers implies that you actually want to watch this series. Don’t make the same mistakes I did.)
First, a brief overview of the players involved…
Matt (Matthew Perry): Perhaps the most obnoxious lead character ever to headline a TV series – or at the very least, the most obnoxious one who is legitimately meant to be likable. Perry (in the only hourlong TV starring role of his career) does his best to elevate this writer-producer who is one of the most brilliant comedic visionaries to ever hold a pen. Or so the show tells us.
Danny (Bradley Whitford): Have you ever wanted to see a version of Josh Lyman with all the fun and back-handed snark scrubbed out? Apparently, someone did. Danny is the director-producer who functions as a yes-man to Matt and provides a shoulder to alternatively shrug and cry on.
Jordan (Amanda Peet): The new president of entertainment at the network where Matt and Danny work. She knows astonishingly little about the TV business, and constantly butts heads with higher-ups in her attempts to reshape the world of television. Although she initially appears buttoned-down and professional, her girly side inevitably bubbles up before long.
Harriet (Sarah Paulson): She’s a Christian, a conservative, and a woman. In a Sorkin show, those three ingredients would combine to spell “disaster” all on their own, but they’re compounded by the fact that she’s also a star comedian, as well as Matt’s once-and-future love interest. These two share lots of screentime where they lovingly bicker and yell and argue… and yet you just know that they’re meant for each other. Quite possibly the worst character in Sorkin TV history.
Tom (Nate Corddry): Tom doesn’t get much to do on this show, but after a few episodes, you’ll appreciate that. He mostly just appears in unfunny sketches and worries about his brother, who is STANDING IN THE MIDDLE OF AFGHANISTAN.
Simon (DL Hughley): Simon is like Tom, except black. He also appears in unfunny sketches. He spends time reconciling with his ex-wife, because someone on this show has to.
Jack (Steven Weber): Jack is the network chairman. He hates all the other characters. He is also by far the best character on the show. I wish this was a coincidence.
Cal (Timothy Busfield): Yep, it’s Danny from The West Wing, playing the nicest gosh-darn producer you’ll ever meet. Seriously, the dude is sweet as a teddy bear. If only he didn’t have the personality to match.
There are a number of other characters on the show as well, but you’ll forget about them really quickly. As well you should. And now, the synopses:
1. Pilot: Believe it or not, the show’s pilot actually received good reviews when it premiered. Critics were clearly pining for the pre-Wells days of The West Wing, and were immediately sucked into Sorkin’s latest whip-smart backstage ensemble drama. To its credit, the teaser sequence isn’t half bad – we watch as the show-within-a-show’s creator (a Lorne Michaels-type played by Judd Hirsch) has a meltdown on live TV, complaining that modern political satire has lost its teeth. (It’s an effective message, and would be even more so if the show decided not to repeat it another dozen times throughout the season.)
Then we meet two former <S60 writers – Danny and Matt – who are, you see, incredibly good at comedy. So good, in fact, that they’re coaxed back to S60 by a new network President (Amanda Peet) years after quitting, in order to reignite the show’s satirical edge. We also learn that Matt used to date series castmember Harriet, and the two are currently on bitter terms.
Matt and Harriet, in addition to being horribly obnoxious characters (you’ll get to hate them as the season progresses), are thinly-veiled avatars for Sorkin and Kristin Chenoweth, who dated some years before the show premiered. If you think it’s weird that Sorkin would inject an old relationship of his into a primetime drama… get used to it. There’s plenty more “fictionalized versions” to come.
2. The Cold Open: Matt and Danny are reinstated and prepare for their first new show. Meanwhile, Jordan butts heads with network executives over a controversial sketch called “Crazy Christians.” (We never see the sketch in question, but trust me – after a while, you’ll start to wish all this show’s sketches occurred offscreen.) Ultimately, Matt’s first new episode as head writer doesn’t open with “Crazy Christians” (although the castmembers do form a prayer circle before the show starts, because hashtag-Religion) – instead, it opens with an elaborate musical Gilbert & Sullivan spoof called “We’ll Be the Very Model of a Modern Network TV Show.” Memo to Matt: Putting the phrase “intellectual reach-around” into your chorus does not make the song funny.
3. The Focus Group: Rob Reiner hosts an incredibly unfunny episode-within-an-episode, the lowlight of which is a faith-mocking sketch called “Science, Schmience.” Elsewhere, Jordan frets over a ratings dip in Danny and Matt’s second episode. I won’t give away the ending, except to say that it directly rips off the ending of “Mandatory Minimums.”
4. The West Coast Delay: A Vanity Fair columnist supposedly based on Maureen Dowd – another Sorkin ex – visits the set. (She’s played by Christine Lahti, the wife of Thomas Schlamme. No, I will not read any subtext.) Meanwhile, two sketch writers unwittingly steal material from another comedian, and the show needs to interrupt the taped West Coast feed to prevent it from getting on the air. This is where dramatic tension comes from, kids. One of the two plagiarizing writers is a dig at former West Wing writer Rick Cleveland (who famously feuded with Sorkin over the credit for “In Excelcis Deo”) and is named “Ricky Tahoe.” Fun with geography!
5. The Long Lead Story: Tom dresses as a lobster. Jordan rejects a proposed reality series about a bunch of couples living in the same house while sleazy people try to break them up. Lauren Graham shows up and barely even gets a line. (Seriously – if anyone is equipped to handle Sorkin dialogue, it’s Lauren Graham.)
6. The Wrap Party: A direct follow-up to “The Long Lead Story,” which would be interesting if there were anything worth directly following up. Instead, we spend a lot of time with Cal and a hobo who wanders into the building. Or… is he just a simple hobo? Meanwhile, Tom gives his parents a tour of the studio, although they care less about comedy and more about the fact that his brother is STANDING IN THE MIDDLE OF AFGHANISTAN. Lauren Graham still doesn’t get much to do, but Danny calls her “a hot buttered biscuit.” That should count for something.
7, 8. Nevada Day (Pts. 1 & 2): A 45-minute story, torturously stretched to 90 minutes. Through a string of overly convoluted events, Tom gets arrested while driving through a small town called Pahrump. If that name strikes you as funny, you’ll probably enjoy the other jokes in this episode, such as the redneck prosecutor who forgets to put the safety on his paintball gun (oops!) and the fact that Tom is dressed as Jesus. Meanwhile, Harriet gets in trouble for an interview which paints her as homophobic, but it’s okay, because she was misquoted. But she still gets confronted by a gay man who screams a bunch of obscenities at her. Lovely.
9. The Option Period: The two plagiarizing writers from “The West Coast Delay” leave S60 to develop a sitcom based on a recurring sketch of theirs, because clearly something named “Peripheral Vision Man” needs to be its own TV series. Matt tries to encourage them to stay, because he cares, which is a good deal more than can be said for me. Harriet considers doing a lingerie photo shoot to improve her image, but we’ll forget about that.
10. B-12: This episode introduces Mark McKinney (of Saturday Night Live and Superstore, among many other projects) as S60’s new head writer. McKinney’s a funny guy, so the show obviously characterizes him as a guy who “never smiles.” This is also one of the few episodes to make good use of Lucy Davis (Dawn from the UK Office), playing a snarky young writer who writes an ill-timed sketch. Davis will eventually be reduced to typical girly-girl clichés, so enjoy her funny side while it lasts.
11. The Christmas Show: If nothing else, this episode proves that no matter how annoying the characters may be, Aaron Sorkin knows how to capture the Christmas spirit. Sure, the episode is treacly and manipulative (there’s a whole subplot centering on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina), but “In Excelsis Deo” wasn’t exactly shy about wringing tears, either. Judged on a curve, it’s one of the show’s better episodes, although it does end with Danny professing his love for Jordan with the words “I’m comin’ for you.” It’s sweet, in a creepy, stalker-ish way.
I’m beginning to suffer from snark overload. We’ll return with Part 2 in a few weeks, and take a look at the show’s (incredibly, even more frustrating) second half.