Review: Studio 60 on Sunset Strip
At the edge of the awards banquet he strode - one of the few people there besides me who didn't belong in a tuxedo. He looked edgy and nervous like a psycho loner walking off some kind of amphetamine buzz. The room was full of calm silver-haired men with deep tans - powerful handsome older gentlemen with their gorgeous young wives. The hyper man on the edge of the room didn't appear to fit, and in Beverly Hills where the valets can look like movie stars, he was a decidedly unattractive sort of person. But he more than belonged. This strange wired-looking guy represented the best of television writing. The banquet was the Producers Guild Awards and this was Aaron Sorkin, best known for the show "West Wing".
There was a time, according to show biz legend, when Sorkin - high on cocaine, mushrooms, and God knows what else, would hunker down in an expensive hotel suite and bang out some of the most compelling television ever. "West Wing" at its best was brilliant, and it was Aaron Sorkin who made it happen. There were usually two or three stories in each episode and there was nearly always an emotional climax to the most dramatic of the sub-plots that was stirring, surprising, and executed perfectly. Aaron was a foreshadowing god. He loved the witty, wordy dialogue of the show, but what he really excelled at was creating an hour-long tension that would often resolve itself with a multi-layered twist that made sense and could be downright inspirational. After he left the show, the difference was obvious. Sure, the same trademark moves were attempted but the results were usually out of whack. In short, Aaron could bring the television magic.
Now he's got a new show, "Studio 60 on Sunset Strip", and the hype machine has instructed us to find it hip. The Heartland has not taken to it, and that is explained away as the inevitable result of the show's profound bi-coastal sophistication. Maybe, but I think the Mid-West may be onto something. While the cast is strong, the new work seems weak. The great thing about "West Wing" was the incredible scope. The problems covered anything in the world so it was big and as bold as it wanted to be. Just hearing the theme song was more moving than most dramas.
The new effort is a behind-the-scenes look at an SNL-type show, so the drama is inescapably tied to sketch comedy. Frankly, watching the "genius" writer character struggle to come up with sketches is ludicrous. There's nothing that he produces that justifies his description as a great artist. Instead of West Wing-level issues like nuclear war, and assassination attempts, we have the tension of whether the weekend update bit is going to get them in trouble, or whether to cut the Nancy Grace parody.
Of course, it's still Aaron Sorkin. He still has the ability to engineer those climatic moments but they seem to overpower the subject matter. I believe one recent plot was about who wrote a question that was asked of a focus group looking at the SNL-type sketches. It was Sorkin-level execution but the gravitas the characters felt, did not extend to the viewing audience. Come on. A TV focus group's reaction to comedy sketches? You'd have to be demented to get too worked up about that.
Maybe it's because I think SNL - for the most part - is lame, was lame, and will always be lame. It could be my problem - I guess I'm just not a big fan of sketch comedy. Sure, if you take the best of the stuff during the golden era you had something, but I saw some of those shows the first time around. With comedy you don't get away with sucking for 15 minutes between good work. Call me a snob but I think most sketch comedy is horrendous. This new "Studio 60" show is in trouble - in my opinion - because the essential driving plot mechanism is whether or not the sketch with the lobster costume is going to come in long enough. After the greatness of "West Wing", it seems so insignificant. I find myself asking, "Who cares?"