TV for Movie People: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

In the wake of Aaron Sorkin‘s Oscar win for his brilliant screenplay for The Social Network, I thought I’d take the opportunity to look back at what I believe to be the most underrated work of Sorkin’s illustrious career. After bursting onto the scene as a Hollywood screenwriter and playwright, Sorkin first entered the world of television drama in 1998 with his critically acclaimed but sadly under-watched series Sports Night, a series that so defied the conventions of television writing that producers included a laugh track in the show’s first season before shifting to marketing the show as a straight drama in season two. By the time audiences finally caught on, Sorkin’s mind-blowingly awesome pilot for The West Wing had received a full series order in 1999 and Sorkin was officially on his way to becoming one of the biggest names in the history of television drama.

After a break from television that included work on a few Hollywood screenplays and a dalliance with drugs, Sorkin returned to television when his pilot script called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was picked up by NBC in 2006. The show combines elements of both Sports Night, a show built around the production of a live television show and the camaraderie that goes along with it, and The West Wing, a show about the private lives of public figures and also a show that used personal relationships and character-driven dialogue to frame debates about relevant social issues.

Studio 60 focuses on the cast and crew of a highly popular late night sketch comedy show with a long legacy of smart social and political satire (ring any bells?) and the network executives at the fictional network that airs the show, NBS. On its surface level, it’s a show about the inner workings of a major network television show, the dozens of factors that play into what can and can’t go on the air, what defines success and failure, and all the many things unrelated to quality that determine what goes out over the airwaves.

For the length of the show’s first and only season, our main characters are the show’s two producers, both of whom are based loosely on Sorkin himself. Danny Tripp (played by West Wing alum Bradley Whitford) is the level-headed brains of the operation while Matt Albie (played by Matthew Perry) is the comedic voice of the show, though he struggles with both drug addiction and the lingering angst created by his relationship with his star cast member and former girlfriend Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson).

As Studio 60 is a largely autobiographical piece for Sorkin, many of the characters are based on people that figured prominently in Sorkin’s career and Harriet, as many have noted, is likely based on actress/singer Kristin Chenoweth, with whom Sorkin had a brief relationship prior to her stint on The West Wing. Like Chenoweth, Harriet is a devout Christian which leads to problems with her career as a mainstream entertainer, particularly when she angers her gay fanbase by appearing on an episode of The 700 Club. While Paulson doesn’t quite equal the acting chops of her formidable co-stars, the Harriet character from a screenplay standpoint is a brilliant Sorkin creation and her passionate back-and-forth with Perry’s Matt Albie is the emotional and philosophical core of the show.

Co-starring with Harriet in the cast of the show-within-the-show are D.L. Hughley, who puts in a surprisingly sincere and strong performance as the show’s veteran performer, and Nate Corddry (brother of The Daily Show’s Rob Corddry) as the impressionist of the cast (a role he plays quite well) who becomes a major focus of the second half of the season when his brother, a soldier in Afghanistan, is captured and held hostage. Corddry’s performance is heart-wrenching and gives Sorkin the perfect venue to talk about the personal consequences of what he believes to be a media-driven war.

Perhaps the most interesting piece of this complex and multifaceted puzzle of a show is what could be called the “business side” of show business, the network executives played by Amanda Peet, Steven Weber and TV veteran Ed Asner. Peet plays the head of programming at the fictional NBS, a TV producer’s dream who believes it’s her job to ensure that the goal of her network should be to create the best quality programming possible and that money will follow quality. Her boss, NBS chairman Jack Rudolph (Weber) disagrees and clashes with Peet throughout the series, arguing with surprisingly strong rationality for the idea that a network is a public company with shareholders and that its job should be to create profit. While Rudolph is clearly meant to be the “bad guy” in this relationship, Sorkin often shows him to be the wiser of the two on some matters and he makes it evident that men like Rudolph don’t attain their power and prominence without being very smart and very aware of the realities of their business. Asner’s Wilson White is the head of the parent corporation and is merely a recurring character but further adds to the complexity of the dynamic of putting on a simple little television show by reminding us that sometimes massive business deals, even international trade agreements can hinge on the public perception of a television network and the shows it airs.

Sorkin’s willingness to be daring and challenging in his approach to discussing the sometimes dirty business of network television was summarized perfectly in the very first scene of the pilot episode of Studio 60. In this clip, the show’s Lorne Michaels-esque producer Wes Mendell (Judd Hirsch) suffers a nervous breakdown in a scene that establishes right out of the gate just how high the stakes are for all the characters we’ll be following on this show.

Studio 60 ultimately wasn’t able to retain its enough of its massive early audience to get a second season from NBC, something that thankfully was understood early enough in the writing process that Sorkin was able to write the final few episodes accordingly and build towards a satisfying conclusion, a gift many canceled shows are never afforded. Some have blamed the wild success of another new series in 2006 that aired on the very same network, Tina Fey’s now massively successful sitcom 30 Rock, which was foolishly perceived to be very similar to Studio 60 both in concept and in name.

In truth what probably spelled the end for Studio 60 were two fundamental issues that were woven into the very premise of the show. One of them was an error on Sorkin’s part; the show-within-the-show never quite lived up to the hype Sorkin places around it with his dialogue and backstory. It’s supposed to be the Saturday Night Live of its world but what little we see of it is dull, unoriginal and dreadfully unfunny and that’s a difficult barrier for an audience to overcome when it comes to suspending disbelief. Secondly, and I believe most importantly, Sorkin’s main theme throughout this series is the reconciliation between conservatives and liberals, a message that in 2006 fell on very deaf ears. It was a show about the Iraq War, the media’s role in allowing it to happen, the neutering of creativity and artistic freedom by the buying power of Evangelical Christians. While this is fascinating stuff that Sorkin deals with in an intelligent and compassionate way, they are not topics that network television audiences want to spend an hour of their precious leisure time thinking about.

If you’re a fan of Sorkin’s brilliant work in either The Social Network or Charlie Wilson’s War, it’s important to remember that, as I’ll often point out in this blog feature, there are hours and hours of his writing available in the form of television drama, a form that doesn’t get the same level of respect as an Academy Award-winning screenplay but is no less stunning and engaging when it comes to dialogue, character development, storytelling and in the case of Sorkin, thoughtful political and social commentary.

Where to Watch It: The complete series is available for Instant streaming on Netflix.