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Walking and Talking: The Quick Wit and False Heart of Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

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Walking and Talking: The Quick Wit and False Heart of Aaron Sorkin’s <em>Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip</em>

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Aaron Sorkin’s return to hour-long network drama after leaving The West Wing in 2003, opens with a monologue about what’s wrong with the state of television—the industry and the art form. The monologue, as delivered by veteran actor Judd Hirsch, is beautifully written, perfectly acted, rivetingly shot and edited (climaxing in one of the better “cut to credits!” bits seen on the small screen) and almost totally false. In a way, it’s a perfect encapsulation of the show itself, which veers from feeling like one of TV’s best shows to one of its most mediocre, often in the same scene.

What’s frustrating about Studio 60 (10 p.m. Mondays, NBC) is that it’s just good enough to be called one of the season’s top pilots. The actors all bring their “A” games (particularly Wing alumnus Bradley Whitford and Matthew Perry, who have a nice, comfortable chemistry), and cporoducer-director Thomas Schlamme can still put over a walk-n-talk scene (one where the characters pace the hallways of their workplace while doling out exposition or clever bon mots) like no one else, even if it’s starting to feel a bit stale (since every show uses the technique now). Sorkin’s script accomplishes a pilot’s main goals, doling out exposition and setting up characters quickly and judiciously. Sorkin’s also not afraid to poke fun at himself, openly admitting that a major plot point is essentially the same one that opens Sidney Lumet’s Network. It’s easy to be won over by this show. It’s “smart,” in that way The West Wing was, making you feel like you’ve hung out with some interesting folk who are passionate about their jobs. The initial impression after finishing the pilot is “Wow. That was really something.” But as soon as you think about Studio 60, it starts to dissolve. For starters, Network is still watched today because Paddy Chayefsky’s script anticipated many of TV’s most problematic future developments, including the rise of the cable news personality (as opposed to the traditional anchor) and the advent of so-called reality TV. When Sorkin invokes Network via structural similarities and lines of dialogue, he invites unflattering comparison, for the simple reason that Studio 60 is far from prescient. If anything, the premiere makes one wonder if Aaron Sorkin simply stopped watching television after he left West Wing.

It’s hard to shake the sense that it’s all about Sorkin himself. In recent interviews, Sorkin has said that the characters come from experience, but he’s inventing the situations. Fair enough. But the central characters return from a hiatus of some years to a television show they used to work for, and said characters appear to borrow elements from Sorkin and Schlamme’s lives (from drug addictions to the women they used to date). The implication—and it’s not really an implication, considering one character actually comes right out and says it—is that the Sorkin and Schlamme stand-ins are coming to fix the show that the plot centers around and, by proxy, fix television. Message: Aaron Sorkin has returned to save TV from itself.

The problem is that the TV landscape the Hirsch character cites doesn’t bear much resemblance to TV as we now know it. Yes, there have been smutty reality shows (Hirsch cites Who Wants to Screw My Sister as the next step) and the Iraq War came prepackaged with theme music, but these references are woefully out of date. (It’s curious that Sorkin singles out the rather large genre of “dating reality,” since The Bachelor managed to torpedo The West Wing in the ratings in 2002.) For the most part, smutty reality shows have been banned to the far reaches of cable. Many of the most popular unscripted series are dumb, of course (American Idol, anyone?), but they’re not the near-pornography Sorkin describes. Idol is all about wish-fulfillment and a misbegotten sense of the American dream, but it’s also a standard example of one of TV’s oldest formats, the talent show. The other popular unscripted series run the gamut from social game shows (Survivor) to life-improvement projects (Extreme Makeover: Home Edition), but the “how low can you go” brand of reality show breathed its last as a major influence when Fear Factor ceased to be relevant.

What’s more, there’s a lot more quality TV than Hirsch’s monologue allows. Flip around and you’ll see projects as wide-ranging as ABC’s Lost, NBC’s The Office and Veronica Mars (the CW by way of UPN). Even the guilty pleasures have gotten more ambitious (Fox’s terminally dumb Prison Break). And that’s only on the broadcast networks; add cable to the mix, and the choice of quality series increases exponentially.

Sorkin also wants to talk about the culture wars in Hirsch’s monologue, but he gets a lot of that wrong too. The stated idea is that Christians will throw any show that dares make fun of them before the FCC, but that’s not true (the Constitution having something to say about the matter). The Simpsons has made fun of Christians through the character of Ned Flanders, and he’s celebrated by at least some evangelicals. In reality, the shows that get flagged for the FCC by groups like the Parents Television Council run the gamut from the Super Bowl to Without a Trace to awards telecasts. The PTC is less interested in how a show presents its main constituents and more concerned with the possibility that the series might show a breast. This attitude may be deplorable, but it’s very different from Sorkin’s characterization.

It may seem excessive to harp on one monologue that takes up less than two minutes of screentime, especially when it’s eventually subsumed by another, larger plot that makes more sense (that of the wunderkinds returning to the show). But the monologue belies something false at the show’s heart, and to understand that better, we have to look a bit at the career of Aaron Sorkin.

Sorkin, of course, came to TV via theater (A Few Good Men) and then movies (A Few Good Men again and The American President). His first network series, ABC’s Sports Night<, was a show about a scrappy underdog cable sports news show that tried its best to put interpersonal conflicts aside to get the news (often with a side of politics) out. The show lasted only two seasons, and in many ways, it is the purest expression of the Sorkin formula—two wisecrackin’ guy best friends (Peter Krause and Josh Charles) who are supervised by a whipsmart and commanding woman (Felicity Huffman, a role filled on Studio 60 by Amanda Peet) who is in turn overseen by a sage, older man who has been ravaged by the battles of his youth (Robert Guillaume). Surround these leads with supporting characters who also really love their jobs, and you’re good to go.

Sports Night worked because it returned a sense of theatricality to television. Sorkin’s characters speak in the flourishes and metaphors of the stage. In many ways, they’re stereotypes waiting for the right brush strokes to turn them into archetypes; indeed, the stories that often felt the most out of place on a Sorkin show were the soapy ones, as though he never knew what to do with his characters’ sex lives (mostly, they didn’t have any). A good Sports Night felt like a good one-act play—you’d get a few clearly defined situations and one character would resolve them with a heartfelt monologue. Schlamme wed this format to the walk-n-talk, which made the whole thing feel less stagebound.

The West Wing, which was Sorkin’s finest work for its first two seasons, upped that ante. It debuted in 1999, the same year as The Sopranos, the series ran in the opposite direction from the gangster drama’s skewed realism, offering a theatrical romanticism that played well in the waning days of the Clinton administration. The formula got a bit of a shake-up (costars Martin Sheen and John Spencer doubled up playing variations on the wise old man character) and Sorkin amped up the theatricality, the better to fill a stage of unprecedented scale (in the acclaimed episode “Two Cathedrals,”  Sheen’s president Josiah Bartlet chewed out God in Latin). Even though this was, in the end, another Sorkin series about brainy idealists who love their job, the job was running the free world, which justified the characters’ passion (and corrected the greatest problem with Sports Night). Self-importance came with the territory.

Throughout the first couple of seasons, Sorkin seemed content to mix his theatrical ambitions with earnest discussions of the ins and outs of American government. Then the Sept. 11 attacks occured shortly before the premiere of Season Three. Initially, Sorkin insisted his fictional universe wouldn’t respond, but then he and the production crew quickly whipped up Isaac and Ishmael, an episode that tried to fit global terrorism within the show’s standard “let’s talk about our differing viewpoints and educate everyone about what to really think” formula. Everything went downhill from there. The political and cultural climate changed so drastically that The West Wing didn’t resonate anymore; absent a feeling of relevance, it became much easier to identify and fixate on flaws that had been there: chiefly preachiness, condescension and an at times smug belief in the correctness of its own politics.

The problem was that Sorkin had a bully pulpit, and after Sept. 11, he was less inclined than ever to use that pulpit for nuance. His conservative characters, who were always cartoonish, lapsed into caricature (for example, the Republican candidate for President in season four). Some of the leading characters were stranded in the middle of America while campaigning and managed to take shots at the colorful rubes that presumably populate every state between New York and California before learning that there was Good in the Heartland of America. Even the terrorism plots were misjudged, dangling over a precipice of bad story construction while Fox’s 24 offered America the same menu of hot button issues, plus action-packed catharsis. On top of that, Sorkin’s cinematic staginess seemed increasingly stale to viewers who’d grown to prefer the gritty faux-realism perfected by The Sopranos and the genre mash-up popularized by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After four seasons, Sorkin left (or got fired), his longtime creative partner John Wells (ER) took over, and the series slogged toward its final curtain. As for Sorkin, despite his acclaim, he ended up having less impact on hourlong drama than other, equally celebrated producers (for instance, Steven Bochco and David E. Kelley). In fairness, this might have been partly because his style was so hard to mimic. Strip away his penchant for writing really, really fast dialogue and his way with a quip and you get a bunch of barely filled-in characters strutting around a soundstage and shouting polemics at each other.

In the end, though, The West Wing was influential not because of its content, but because of its visual style; it found a way to make long expository scenes seem exciting, or at least not dull, and subsequent shows took note of that. (Oddly enough, the only significant TV drama that one-upped Sorkin’s brazenly theatrical dialogue was David Milch’s Deadwood, a show whose other striking characteristics—chief among them, an resistance to stereotypical characters and an embrace of moral ambiguity—bore no resemblance to The West Wing whatsoever.)

So now Sorkin has returned, but unfortunately, the pilot script for Studio 60 feels feels like it was written the day after he left The West Wing. The familiar formula is present and accounted for, albiet tweaked a little (it’s not giving away too much to say the wise old man is fired—though we can expect future guest shots, one would think). The characters trade witty barbs about What’s Wrong And What’s Right With America Today while walking and talking. But none of them are delineated as human beings beyond a few cursory flaws (including drug problems and, wrongheadedly enough, Christianity). Articles about Studio 60 trumpet how smart the show is; the cast is eager to tell us that Sorkin wrote a smart, smart script, possibly too smart for television. This is largely misleading because Studio 60, like most of Sorkin’s output, would rather congratulate the audience for being intelligent than demand that they use their intelligence. As was the case with Sports Night and The West Wing (and A Few Good Men, for that matter), Sorkin can’t resist telling viewers exactly what to think and feel about every character, situation and issue. There’s little subtext or nuance. There are big words, and the dialogue flies by quickly, but if all one must do in order to be considered smart is to have a large vocabulary and know how to turn on closed captioning to catch all the snappy patter, then the gates of the intelligentsia have opened far too wide.

Much of the “smart” talk seems to revolve around the fact that there’s a Christian character on Studio 60, star castmember Harriet (Sarah Paulson), who’s willing to stand up for her beliefs. But this aspect feels patronizing (Harriet seems almost to condescend to the people who would listen to her sing on The 700 Club). Intentionally or not, Sorkin’s script views her as someone who can and should “overcome” her Christianity to perform a sketch titled “Crazy Christians” because it’s funny. There’s something to be said for setting aside personal grievances in the name of art, but Studio 60 (like The West Wing before it) misidentifies its characters’ actions as bold and brave when they’re actually confused. Sorkin doesn’t seem to understand that Middle-American Christians resist compromising their religious beliefs not because they’re prigs, but because their faith is the bedrock of their lives. When Sorkin has that character assault that bedrock in the name of comedy sketch, he turns the core of that character’s personality into a flaw that must be overcome. Studio 60 tries to sell this as complexity—look, here’s someone who loves both God and great sketch comedy!—but it rings false. One can’t serve both God and mammon.

Despite everything that Studio 60 gets wrong—and it should be noted that the pilot won’t give anyone faith in Sorkin’s ability to write sketch comedy—it gets just as much right. To fault Sorkin for a lack of subtlety in a medium as unsubtle as television feels like a bit of a cheat. It’s nice to hear his rapid-fire banter again (nobody does it better), and it’s good to know that Sorkin has managed to preserve his egalitarian views; in his world, it doesn’t matter what race or gender you are, as you come ready to work. It’s impossible to walk away from the pilot and not want to see the next episode. But the hard truth is, Studio 60 has more flaws that require immediate repair than any other drama in its weight class; the short list includes the potentially fatal mix of smug certitude toward, and near total disconnection from, the present day realities of the medium it’s criticizing. While there’s room for this style of broad theatricality on TV, it needs to come with a measured dose of realism; that’s missing right now, and there’s no point losing sleep awaiting its arrival. This is Sorkin-land, and we’re all going to be lectured to.

House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.