Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer
If you are somehow, both a television lover and a thinker, then you have at least one instance in your past where you had to witness a show you found brilliant and wonderful nevertheless die an unjust death born of anemic ratings. For me, the first such occasion I can remember was with The Critic, a short-lived animated series on ABC (and later on Fox, I think) starring Jon Lovitz as a little-loved and over-intellectual film critic named Jay Sherman. Sherman’s criticism was panned as too intellectual for an audience that wanted to watch sequels and big-budget thrillers, and his ratings always suffered. In what I always thought was life imitating art, The Critic too never got good ratings and lasted a total of 18 episodes over two networks, due to it being too smart for the majority of television viewers. (At least, that’s what I thought at the time. A recent viewing of the series showed me that it relied a bit too much on stupid movie parodies and fat jokes. I guess that it was too smart only when viewed by a fourteen-year-old.)
Over the years, there have been plenty of other shows where the ratings were inversely proportional to the critical acclaim. My So Called Life, Freaks and Geeks and Firefly each lasted less than a full season. Arrested Development lasted for two and a half years, though it seems as though Fox was threatening to cancel it every week. And for two ratings-challenged, we were blessed with Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night.
Sports Night, to be perfectly blunt, was an absolutely terrific show. It featured some the best writing I have ever heard on television; there was at least one point of every episode when I marveled at Sorkin’s way with words. The characters were incredibly well fleshed out, their relationships were complex and interesting, and the situations resonated for everyone. Most importantly, while sports were featured in every episode in one fashion or another, the show was in no way about sports. Instead, the metaphors and themes of the games were used to draw parallels with life. An episode ostensibly all about the excitement of an aging track star finally breaking a world record ends with a younger player coming from nowhere to walk away with the gold. An exclusive interview with Michael Jordan (where he will only speak about his new cologne) leads to a debate about art versus commerce. And so on.
Anyone who saw Sports Night agreed as to its unparalleled quality, and yet it never had a chance to make it in a television landscape that favors easily accessible, homogenized fare. I personally have watched the entire series twice thanks to DVD, and I am impressed with it more with each viewing. It also made me an Aaron Sorkin fan for life.
(Confession: What I just wrote about my feelings for Aaron Sorkin is true, and yet I admit that I never saw The West Wing. Not even once. It premiered during my first year out of college; a year that featured a lot of driving to see my out-of-state girlfriend, and little if any TV viewing. By the time I was in a place where I could ostensibly take on another show, The West Wing had a loyal following, and a dozen subplots.)
This television season brings us a new Aaron Sorkin series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. I have watched only the pilot episode, but I can already tell you that, like Sports Night, it is an inspired, wonderfully-written, and well-acted show. And, much as it pains me to say it, I think that it might be the next show to be added to the above list, as a show that’s just too damn good to last.
Studio 60 centers around a late-night flagship sketch comedy show (that bears more than a passing resemblance to Saturday Night Live.) The show, we learn, has been around for twenty years, but has evolved from a forum for cutting-edge political and social satire into a lobotomized show that substitutes “safe” for “funny.” It has become, in other words, exactly the sort of show that remains on the air, long after the Fireflys and Arrested Developments get cancelled. When the network decides to pull the best sketch in years from the show for fear that it might offend people, the executive producer steps on camera and delivers a tirade aimed at his network, and the state of television in general. To say that this scene channeled Peter Finch’s on-air outburst in Paddy Chayefsky’s Network would be extremely trenchant and knowledgeable, but for the fact that every article already written on this show makes the same observation (not to mention that the characters in the show make this same reference repeatedly).
Realizing that they have a huge potential PR catastrophe on their hands, the network executives (led by their new, young, attractive female president) decide to hire two brilliant writers to run the show, and bring it back to relevance. The catch? These writers were fired from Studio 60 four years earlier over content disputes, and have since gone on to bigger and better things. In addition to that, one of the stars of Studio 60 is the ex-girlfriend of one of the writers (Matthew Perry), and the wounds of their rift are still very open and raw.
On paper, Studio 60 shares a lot in common with Sports Night. Both shows are centered around struggling TV shows (just like The Critic!! Coincidence?), and both shows use television as a metaphor for larger and more important issues. Most interestingly, both shows have characters that mirror Sorkin himself, and serve as his mouthpiece in the show.
In Sports Night, it would be easy to assume that Sorkin wrote himself into Dan Rydell, the show host played by Josh Charles. Rydell was by far the most complex and interesting character in the show, dealing with feelings of inadequacy and resentment despite rising to the top of his chosen profession. His were always the best scenes in the show, and allowed Charles to show off his versatility as an actor time and time again.
Having said that, it is clear upon repeated viewings that Sorkin actually thrust himself into the character of Jeremy, the nerdy AP/stats guru played by Josh Molina. Jeremy should have been an arrogant, know-it-all prick, and yet in Sorkin’s hands he became the spiritual center of the show. He is often the voice of reason amidst the chaos that develops, and his opinions are often granted far more weight than one of his position would normally warrant. There are entire episodes of the show that are told exclusively from his perspective, as he writes letters to his sister. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but Jeremy spends the entire series either dating, or fighting off the advances of, the incredibly hot Northwestern grad show producer Natalie, played by Sabrina Lloyd. (Oh, except for the brief series of episodes in Season 2 when he agonizes over whether or not to sleep with a beautiful porn star who’s throwing herself at him; EXACTLY the sort of conundrum that all of us nerds have gone through in our lives.)
In Studio 60, I have concluded after only one episode that Sorkin has put himself into BOTH the main characters Matt and Danny, played by Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford respectively. In Matt he has created a brilliant maverick writer, whose accolades pile up even as he still holds bitterness for past failings. In fact, he has been fired from network television writing for being too cutting edge. In Danny, we have another brilliant talent, but one who is haunted by demons with which Sorkin is intimately familiar. (Danny, we find out, is unable to direct the movie that he and Matt have planned on due to a failed drug test. At one point, he says “I had eleven clean years. Now I have eight days.”) If it’s true that you write your best material when you stick to what you know, then perhaps Sorkin has truly found an outlet that will bring out his absolute best.
And yet, that fact is perhaps even more proof (in my mind, at least) that Studio 60 is doomed. It is a smart, challenging show that does not pull any punches or dumb down any of its messages. Add to that its similarities to the similarly brilliant and ultimately short-lived Sports Night, and I already find myself preparing for the inevitable “Save Studio 60” online petitions.
In short, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is brilliant; check it out before it’s too late.