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November 10, 2006

Studio 60 deserves praise, but will audiences follow?

I’ve never smoked crack cocaine, so I may not really be in the proper element to appreciate the genius of Aaron Sorkin during his work on The West Wing. However, now that Sorkin appears to be clean, I feel all right writing about his new series, Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip. While many cast members from the Bartlett administration are now on Studio 60 and many similarities exist between the two shows, it is overly simplistic to label Studio 60 as merely The West Wing Goes to Hollywood.

Studio 60 gives the viewer an inside perspective on a Saturday Night Live-like sketch comedy series. The characters exhibit the trademark wit always present in Sorkin’s unique world. The writing equals that of Sports Night and The West Wing, two of Sorkin’s television babies. Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford are forces in every one of their scenes. Perry makes it clear that there is life after Friends. And when I say that, I don’t mean a partnership with Bruce Willis in The Whole Eleven Yards.

Amanda Peet and Timothy Busfield help create the ensemble camaraderie that translated onto the screen during the best seasons of The West Wing. Sarah Paulson and D.L. Hughley play the stars of the show to perfection. While certain episodes sometimes fall into sentimentality, the depth of Sorkin’s writing has never been better.

Despite great writing, acting, and storylines, rumors still abound concerning Studio 60’s imminent cancellation.

NBC recently denied reports of Studio 60’s demise; however, rumors persist as ratings continue to suffer. CSI–Miami outdrew Studio 60 by nearly 10 million viewers two weeks ago (17.5 to 7.7). I can only attribute that to the collective stupidity of our country. I mean, c’mon, CSI–Miami? Are we kidding ourselves? Girl gets killed and/or raped and the third seemingly good guy interviewed is the killer. This gives the audience what they want and need; conflict, mystery, and resolution. The nuances of Studio 60 may not fit any longer on network television. For the sake of being topical, Trey Parker and Matt Stone are right. In a recent episode of South Park this season, when lampooning 9/11 conspiracy theories, the show asserted that 25 percent of the country are morons. They have to be right. Why else would Studio 60 lose out to CSI–Miami?

In the latest episode of Studio 60, the show dealt with race, family, and history. Hughley’s character cornered Perry in an attempt to get more black writers on the show’s staff. The conversations between the two highlight what Sorkin does best: arguments. He has a knack for finding holes in each side and still making the dialogue interesting. The show creates parallels beween the difficulties of writing politically charged humor today, and the fears of writers during McCarthy-era Hollywood. Legend Eli Wallach guest-stars as a blacklisted comedy writer. Wallach is wonderful in his portrayal of the writer, but this type of storyline may in the end hurt Studio 60’s chances of staying on the air. While obviously original and intelligent, references to the 1950s just do not appeal to as many age groups as they used to. Younger audiences may not appreciate certain plots that deal with the present in reference to the past.

If Studio 60 joins the club of television shows written ahead and cancelled before its time, it may give Sorkin a convenient exit from network television. HBO is the perfect refuge for brilliant television writers seeking artistic paradise. The limits placed upon the medium would loosen and the demographic of his audience would change for the better. A Sorkin show will always thrive critically, but HBO would give it the commercial success that is difficult to achieve on NBC. Most people who watch any number of the great programs on HBO (The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm, etc.) understand CSI–Miami for what it is: a show with a perfect formula for gaining commercial appeal. That does not appear to concern Sorkin. In contrast, one Studio 60 episode focuses on controversial, but intelligent, material in the face of conventional wisdom at the risk of ratings.

Finally, the death of Studio 60 reinforces the changing of the guard in network television that has been happening over the last several years. Television executives are no longer looking for the next Seinfeld because they can easily find the next Survivor.