“Only the good die young” as the song goes. Over the years there have been a number of TV shows that have made an impact on us here at 25YL, which we have been sad to see struck down in their prime. A season or two that grabbed us, and…that’s it. Whether there is some sense of completion, or we are left dangling by a finger from the side of a cliff, these are shows that we think are worth remembering, re-visiting, or even watching now for the first time. This week Cat Smith takes a look at Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
Look, it’s not like I don’t understand why Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was cancelled. I didn’t like it much the first time through either. I came to the Sorkin party late and was just coming off my first binge-watch of The West Wing. I was hoping his follow-up show would work as methadone for the White House show I had grown to love with all my soul. And I hadn’t seen Sports Night yet, so I didn’t realise that Aaron Sorkin’s TV shows are essentially the same premise over and over: a behind-the-scenes look at a group of witty, committed people trying to produce a thing. Sometimes it’s the news (sports or cable); sometimes it’s the inner workings of the White House. In the case of Studio 60, it’s essentially Saturday Night Live.
I’m fine with that. It’s a premise that works better with some things than with others, and Sorkin has certainly refined his process over the years. Go back and watch The American President some time. It’s basically rehearsal for The West Wing. When The Newsroom happened years later, it was a great deal more successful than either Studio 60 or Sports Night. Those two predecessors were his warm-up acts for The Newsroom, though obviously no one (including Sorkin) could have known that at the time. The Newsroom even recycles a couple of bits of dialogue verbatim from Studio 60, and Sports Night is certainly good—I’d never say otherwise. But unlike Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip has carved itself a place in my heart independent of The Newsroom, its superior HBO follow-up.
It’s not that Sports Night is lesser to me because I don’t care about sports. Aaron Sorkin is such a good writer that you honest-to-God don’t care if you’re not a fan of his premise. I’ve never been large with SNL either. I’ve certainly had an appreciation for some of its highlights over the years, but sketch comedy has never been my jam. I prefer to get my laughs accidentally, from witty dialogue as opposed to deliberate comedy. Most of the people I know who did like Studio 60 were fans because of the premise. They were already fans of sketch comedy and the behind-the-scenes factor was gravy. And because they were there for the sketch comedy, they were often surprised to discover it wasn’t the focus after all. For them, the meta-show about the making of the show simply got in the way.
For me, it was simply that the timing was wrong. I was so used to Bradley Whitford as Josh Lyman that Danny Tripp had a hard time settling into my head. And when they had Allison Janney on as herself, that just twisted the knife of The West Wing being gone. Sure, it was adorable to see her opposite Timothy Busfield again, but he had to grow on me too, and his lack of a beard only helped separate him from Danny Concannon up to a point. The timing was just wrong.
I’m a rewatcher by nature. Something that I only liked a little the first time round will impress me more and more each time through. That was definitely the case with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve rewatched it at this point, and every single rewatch has made me notice and appreciate new things.
First of all, there are the women. Critics of Sorkin call him sexist, and while I do agree that sometimes he is fettered by his own gender and privilege, I’ve never seen him as sexist. He loves to write these women who are fiercely good at their jobs. They are smart, savvy, and absolutely professional, while at the same time being utter goofballs when it comes to anything personal. But he writes his men that way, too. You only have to watch Sam Seaborn for five minutes to know this is true. On Studio 60, we’ve got Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet). She’s the president of the network, and she’s absolutely brilliant at it. Even when she comes under attack in the media because her ex-husband is an attention-seeking dirtbag, she’s graceful and totally competent. She’s got a witty, snarky answer for everything, even when wit and snark are maybe not the best ideas.
For example, at one point, her dirtbag ex tells the press that Jordan doesn’t like children. Not only that, he says she doesn’t want to have kids and would never hire a woman who has kids. When Danny Tripp asks her how she plans to respond to this, her answer is, “well, I’ve been reading this cool book called Oliver Twist, and it sounds like the best thing for me to do is to get a bunch of them together in a root cellar and get them to work for me as pickpockets.” A few episodes later, she turns out to be pregnant. It’s the result of a one-time slip-up with the dirtbag ex, so the kids thing kind of takes care of itself.
Jordan’s pregnancy brings me to what I have to admit is one of the flaws in the series. It’s not the pregnancy itself, as Jordan is utterly into the prospect of motherhood and watching a woman as sophisticated and hyper-intelligent as she is fumble around pre-baby jitters is endearing (at least, it is to me). What is less believable is Danny’s attachment to this baby that isn’t his.
Bradley Whitford never blew my skirt up on The West Wing. I loved Josh Lyman as much as I loved everyone in the Bartlet White House, but he was never an object of my starry-eyed affection. Danny Tripp, however, I crush hardcore. Maybe it’s because he is so adorable in his wooing of Jordan when he first falls for her. And the fact that he is so very keen to be the father to another man’s baby is certainly both possible and appealing, especially to a single mom like me. But there isn’t even a moment of hesitation for him. From the second he learns of Jordan’s pregnancy, even before they get together, he is in love with that baby. It doesn’t really make sense. But you know what? I don’t care. My Danny/Jordan ship is an armada, and I don’t care if it makes sense. Both actors are committed to it, it’s gorgeous, and I forgive it.
I’ve never seen an episode of Friends in my life. My experiences with Matthew Perry are limited to that movie he did with Salma Hayek (Fools Rush In), and his small handful of West Wing episodes. And Matt Albie is clearly an author-insert character. At this point in his career, Sorkin had worked in and around television and politics so much that he had plenty to say about both. Matt Albie (and Studio 60 as a whole) are his excuse to do so.
When 9/11 happened, they were about to go into Season 3 of The West Wing. When you’re doing a show about the White House and something like that happens, you can’t ignore it. The out-of-context episode “Isaac and Ishmael” was a rush job for Sorkin, and he wasn’t particularly happy with it. Set a few years later, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip gave him the opportunity to address that issue properly. And let’s be real, the idea of coming up with a comedy show after an event like that is daunting at best.
Quick personal anecdote—I was working as an actor at the New York Renaissance Faire when the Towers fell. It happened on a Tuesday, and by Saturday, I and the rest of the cast had to be prepared to go out there and make people laugh. It was tough, but it was important. The patrons thanked us for it, and so did our own souls.
Matt and Danny also serve as a platform for two of Aaron Sorkin’s favourite issues—addiction and bromance. Their friendship is akin to that of Leo McGarry and President Bartlet. It’s a beautiful love between two straight men, who are partners as well as best friends. And in this case, the addiction isn’t just on the one side. At the top of the show, Danny is in recovery for drug addiction. He stays that way. It’s Matt who slides into overuse of pills and vodka when things in his love life take a turn. He’s able to shake it by the end, and that’s another flaw in the show that I forgive. He realizes he’s not any funnier high than he is straight, and he quits cold turkey. We even get a list of expected withdrawal symptoms from his assistant (Merritt Wever). Strangely, we never actually see them. And, strangely, I don’t care.
I’m so glad that Ryan Murphy (and her own immense talent) have made Sarah Paulson a household name these days. Truly. However, as much as I love her on American Horror Story, my heart can’t help but break a little for her lack of funny. Sorkin based her character, a comedienne who is also a practicing Christian, on then-girlfriend Kristin Chenoweth. My great love for Harriet Hayes is akin to my love for Arnie Vinick or the other Sorkin Republicans—they aren’t intolerant or crazy. She’s a person of honest and absolute faith. However, that doesn’t stop her from acknowledging the funny in a sketch called “Crazy Christians.” Plus, she’s gorgeous, and convention has long screamed at us that beautiful women aren’t supposed to be funny. I have tweeted SNL multiple times to beg them to have Paulson on to host. It would be the closest I will ever get to having my beloved Harriet back.
Whenever I watch Studio 60, I almost feel badly for half the actors. Nate Corddry and Simon Helberg are tremendously funny guys. This show allowed them to show off range and depth for which they are going to have trouble finding opportunities again. Some of the cast had actual roots in sketch comedy and were allowed to give input on the writing. It’s a huge gift to an actor. I’m pretty sure they all appreciated it.
I can’t leave without giving Steven Weber his own shoutout here. You want to talk TV crushes, I think Jack Rudolph has to be in my top 10. He’s the chairman of the network. He’s a cutthroat, ball-busting corporate executive. And it would have been so easy for Sorkin to have left him there: a guy in a suit. Weber certainly wears one well. But Jack Rudolph is a real person. He’s smart, funny, urbane, and really quite sympathetic to others, even as he’s bossing them around. He knows the rules of corporate Hollywood. He knows when he has to abide by them, and when they need to be quietly broken. Inside the expensive suit is a guy who cares. Plus, every time he refers to Jordan McDeere as “J-Mac,” my love for him has no choice but to grow.
So yeah, I get why Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was cancelled after one season. On the surface, it was about making a sketch comedy show, and if it had left it there, it might have actually done better. Modern audiences don’t like to work that hard. But Studio 60 is about more than one thing, and to truly appreciate it, you need to accept and love both the comedy and the socially conscious drama of it. And maybe you can’t do that, or don’t feel like it. That’s okay, too. As with so many other things having to do with this show, I don’t care, I forgive you, and I love you anyway.