Judge Brett Cullum found a markdown sale, so here's his review of Studio 48.99 on the Sunset Strip.
Art is getting its ass kicked!
When it was announced two shows were to debut in 2006 about comedy sketch shows, all bets were on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip to be the breakaway hit, outlasting Tina Fey's similarly themed 30 Rock. NBC won a bidding war among network executives for the hour-long drama, and before it premiered was considered the hottest property of the new fall season. Studio 60 was created by Aaron Sorkin, who masterminded The West Wing, and it looked like he would have another highbrow hit on his hands. Critics fell all over themselves to sing its praises based on the pilot. The cast was strong, the writing was sharp, and the time slot was well-chosen. The series started strong with Judd Hirsch (Taxi) having an on-air meltdown in an homage to the timeless Network. It was an indictment of stupid television, and it seemed almost sacrilegious to use as a teaser to launch a broadcast series. The first hour was brilliantly cruel and completely compelling. It looked like intelligent television might win out, but halfway through the season the ratings were clear. 30 Rock was a hit, and Studio 60 would be lucky not to get the ax in midseason. Sorkin's show captured 13 million viewers when it debuted, but then began to erode its audience from week to week at a rapid pace. By February the series was put in hiatus, and would not return to the schedule until after sweeps. It limped to the finish line of its first year with the last episodes being dumped in June. So now we have Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: The Complete Series which will complete the entire broadcast run at twenty-two episodes. It's a collection you can file next to your favorite "brilliant but canceled" series, and mourn the fact that this is all we'll ever get.
Facts of the Case
The series was about a lot of things. Mainly the long arc dealt with a comedy sketch show named Saturday Night Live…um…I mean Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and how it survives radical change. In the first episode two new executive producers take over the television war horse, because Lorne Michaels…um…I mean Wes Mendell (Judd Hirsch) has an on-camera nervous breakdown where he admits the show is no longer funny or relevant. Matt Albie (Matthew Perry, Friends) and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) are two young hot shots with their fair share of baggage including having been fired from the staff years ago, and they are put in charge of the series. Not only is Danny recovering from drug addiction, but Matt's estranged true love is the lead woman in the cast named Kristin Chenoweth…um…I mean Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson, The Notorious Bettie Page). NBC's new female executive Jamie McDermott is leading the charge…um…I mean the fictional NBS's new female executive Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet, The Whole Nine Yards) is leading the charge. She is fighting a cultural war to save television from itself by concentrating on quality and less on crap. It's going to be an uphill battle since her network is controlled by an evil corporation with Jack Rudolph (Steven Weber, Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical) working as their mouthpiece. Can Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip be saved?
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is a show that was easy to root for, but ultimately undone by the very things that made it so good. The main problem was it was railing against the very medium it was on. "Television doesn't matter" and "these people are complicated" are hard concepts to sell week after week, and eventually the show lost its teeth and its audience. It seemed to be about nothing important, and at the same time it desperately tried to convince us it was about something important. There were amazing scenes of great dialogue delivered by intriguing characters, but they didn't seem to be hanging on to anything else but that. Skits shown from the fictional sketch show were unfunny (perhaps purposefully painful), and audiences scratched their heads wondering if this was intentional irony or just Sorkin's lack of comedy. They asked us to feel for people who had everything, and it was hard to pity successful television executives and cast members of a show any actor would kill to be on. Yet for all the posturing and trademark Sorkin "let's walk down the hall and talk as quickly as we can," Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip made you think. It was an intensely smart show which addressed politics and the human condition in the most unlikely setting.
The first half of the series is where you'll find all the brilliant bits, and the pinnacle is in the very first hour. The pilot is undoubtedly one of the finest episodes of any series ever aired, and it moves with an uncanny grace and nerve the series never lived up to again. It did come close several times, and the entire run is smarter and deeper than 99.9 percent of what's currently on the airwaves. What I enjoyed most was the chance to see how unhappy comics are back in the wings and off the stage. For years we've seen tragedy after tragedy befall brilliant comics from Saturday Night Live, and this is a show that dramatizes how all of the sadness happens when you're in funny business. The show studies its characters and allows them to be flawed, but loves them all the same. Politics, race, religion, drug abuse, media pressure, shady business deals, everything gets thrown at the cast who soldiers on bravely and gamely.
The core ensemble alone makes the show a classic, and the performances are all first rate. Matthew Perry turned down the lead role of Matt initially, but Sorkin would not let him go. He wrote the part specifically for the actor pulling largely from the author's own life, and it's easily the former Friends co-star's best dramatic work to date. Bradley Whitford had worked with Perry during a run on The West Wing, and their chemistry as best friends is warm and honest. Amanda Peet makes an interesting choice for the castrating female executive. I can't say she always works in the role, but she makes the character far more likable than what is ever on the page. Steven Weber plays the bad guy with his slick network executive, but softens when needed giving Jack Rudolph many notes during the run. D.L. Hughley (Scary Movie 3) and Nat Corddry (The Nanny Diaries) are two of the most memorable cast members, the man of color and the nerd. Then there's Sarah Paulson as the right-wing Christian who is the object of Matt's affection. She plays the role sympathetically, and never lets the more moral passages get weighted down. Timothy Busfield (thirtysomething) is Cal, the show's fearless runner. This core remains the same from episode to episode, but guest stars often up the game considerably. Sorkin regulars such as Felicity Huffman (Sports Night) and Allison Janney (The West Wing) both appear as themselves, playing guest hosts of the fictional show. Peppered throughout are actors you'll wish could return, but alas it seems this is it for the series.
The DVD set is six discs inside a cardboard sleeve held in three slim line cases. The picture quality is solid enough, and the show looks about as good as when it was broadcast in high definition. I'd say it was one notch down from that broadcast format, but still vibrant and warm with a nice look for DVD. It does seem the sound is better modulated than what I can hear from old DVR recordings. Maybe it's just my imagination, but the dialogue seems clearer than when the show was broadcast. It's a five channel surround mix that preserves the multiple character conversations well. It's a very solid presentation, even including a logo and cast photo that pops up when you hit "stop."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As brilliant as the show is, the extras here are weak and not as robust as they should be given the pedigree of the series, and they never address the all-too-swift cancellation. First up is a lively commentary on the pilot episode by Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme. They tell us a lot about the conception of the show, and chat happily about how they assembled the cast. It's great, but it was recorded while the two were still shooting the show during midseason. They have no clue it's going to be canceled, and we don't get any closure about how they feel about the series lasting only one season. On the final disc we get a fluffy featurette entitled "In Depth: The Evolution of Studio 60." It talks about set design and technical aspects at length. When the actors are interviewed we only get to hear about why they took the roles, and they all seem to be caught as the production was in full swing. No cast members get to chime in on the death of the series, and it feels all too self-congratulatory since it was produced while the show was airing. The extras avoid the elephant in the room, and do not let us know anything deep about a show that deserves to be examined.
Now I don't think the show was perfect, and it seemed the series did let go of some edge in the last half of the run. The pilot remains the shining moment, and the further along the episodes go the more they seem to slide away from the brilliance the initial show displayed. Ironic when you consider the opening rant that launched the program, talking about how television had lost its voice and importance. Rather than concentrating on the initial debate of "does comedy and stupid television matter," the show tipped into places it should have stayed away from. Two areas—sex and politics—began to take over a show that should have been about culture and art. One thing I noticed is all the relationship drama moved front and center at the halfway point as if the series was being refocused perhaps in an effort to boost the ratings. I was extremely dissatisfied with how easily the complicated couplings were smoothed out again and again, and the finale wrapped up most of these problems too easily. I didn't want simple answers from a series that promised to be just a bit more literate than Grey's Anatomy or Felicity, but in the end played out even less realistically than those two. Sorkin had promised this show was going to save television, but he gave in and started writing romantic comedy plots that truly are not his forte. Then the politics started showing up. During the run of the multi-episode arc about a cast member's brother becoming as a prisoner of war, Studio 60 drifted into a place that seemed laughably self-important. These people made fun of politics, and it seemed odd to picture the cast as powerful and insightful in the same way as the characters from The West Wing. I didn't always buy the political angles, and they were as silly as the romantic bits. Seems Sorkin's mind is still in his dream White House too often.
Several fascinating things happen, and it seems the show forgets quickly and never mentions them again. They build dramatic momentum, and then stop it cold to move on to something else. Where did the unctuous writers who created the early tension with the two new producers go? What happened to the rival show they launched from a skit? We see the writers confront Matt, and then they vanish. Jordan gets a female nemesis who threatens her job security with ideas for trashy reality shows, but we never get a resolution to this plot either. Seems like that would be a great target for Sorkin, how an exploitative reality show trumps good drama. It happened to him when The Bachelor began to pull better ratings than The West Wing. A sexual harassment case is talked about at length, and then never explored when there's obviously something there to discuss at length. Cast outside of the core leads who seemed to be a focus in earlier episodes slip away and only prowl the shadows. Honestly the show seems to have little continuity except in broad strokes, and you could watch these episodes in almost any order. The only things you would miss in that strategy are the lame romance developments. Characters seem to come and go all too quickly, and many of the most fascinating personalities only appear in one episode.
In hindsight the show is a bittersweet experience, one that fails to deliver all it had the potential to do in spades. A great cast is given great lines, but they don't get to talk about things deeply enough to matter. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: The Complete Series shows a lot of promise, but never says anything concrete about the state of television and how it matters. Seems like it should have been a series that redefined the hour-long drama, but in the end it was Aaron Sorkin moving his now-familiar formula out of the Oval Office onto a television set. Yet for all its faults, the series was refreshingly smart in many ways. The dialogue crackled with intelligence, and the cast was stellar. It's a joy to see these performances captured on the DVD format. What a shame this show wasn't given time to develop into its own voice, but at least we can enjoy the year of it we got.
What isn't a cause for celebration is the DVD set never asks or answers the hard questions caused by the one-year run. The extras are all self-congratulatory fluff produced long before the decision was made to cancel Studio 60, and that prevents this from being anything substantial for those of us wondering how art got its ass kicked once again by ratings. In the end it does exactly what the show did, and only throws out some interesting ideas which it never provides any closure for. It's a handsome set when you consider the technical merits of the transfers, and the fact we get all the shows without commercials. You're left wanting more, and wondering why you never got it. In summary that's probably the best way to encapsulate everything that was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
Guilty of being the smartest show of 2006 that was axed without any hesitation. You gotta love the network, because they have made this court moot. They've already passed judgment on this show. Yet perhaps Sorkin is just as guilty for not giving the show a clear direction.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary on the Pilot by Writer/Creator Aaron Sorkin and Producer Thomas Schlamme
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