Taking Off
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
Taking Off is a series of columns looking at the oft forgotten beginnings of some of your favorite TV shows from recent years. Some shows got better after their lift off and some got worse after years on the air. But they all share a beginning. Pilots sell the show not just to network executives but to audiences. Characters and themes often show where the program wants to go, but rarely is the path so clear cut. So let's look back this week at"¦


"Change the channel."-Wes Mendell

Despite Studio 60's failure to be the big hit that NBC executives were hoping for, it was a massively successful concept. Of course, concept doesn't pay the bills, at least if you work in television. Aaron Sorkin's pilot episode of the behind-the-scenes drama about a late-night comedy show tackled so many issues as effectively as any show that's had years of character development and story to its advantage. Probably the only accidental commentary from Sorkin was how much the pilot said about the future of the series.

The cold open to the pilot is quite simply the best start to a series there has ever been. Yes, that includes Lost and Sorkin's own, more famous series, The West Wing. The amount of information Sorkin is able to cram into just a few minutes without anything feeling forced is staggering. Using the hectic pre-show mood going on in the eponymous studio, we see "Studio 60" cast member, Simon Stiles (DL Hughley) warming up the crowd while simultaneously getting the audience up to speed before the live broadcast starts.

The show within the show has been on since 1996 and seems to be the younger, less popular brother to Saturday Night Live. We learn that decisions regarding which sketches go on air are made literally right before the show goes on. Executive Producer, Wes Mendell (Judd Hirsch) is told by a Standards and Practices lackey (Michael Stuhlberg of A Serious Man fame) that a sketch that will offend religious viewers must cut. Mendell is insistent on keeping it in the show as it is the most inspired thing they've had on the show in ages. But Mendell is powerless as S&P run the show essentially and he has to fold.

Hirsch's performance in the pilot is incredible subtle and over the top (as you'll see later) and he, and Sorkin's script, are effectively able to create a character that has become absolutely sick of the creative stifling of the industry. Mendell warns guest host, and Sorkin favorite, Felicity Huffman that the monologue that's written for her is bad and not her imagination. As the show starts with a tired Bush/Cheney sketch Nelson interrupts. Words cannot describe the power of this scene. That's why there's YouTube:

Of course Mendell is fired and it's up to newly hired Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) to clean up the mess. She turns to former writers, Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) to right the Studio 60 ship. It's revealed the two have become wildly successful in the world of film. Thanks to some strong arming from Jordan and information regarding a failed drug test from Danny, the two are on board. Of course it is way more complicated than that-this is an Aaron Sorkin show.

Like any great writing, there is much more beyond the simple premise for Studio 60. The first clear objective of the show is to talk about the television industry, something Sorkin has become intimate with, for better or worse. Hirsch's opening "Network-esque" monologue provides a good base of the problems Sorkin has with much of the industry. The two parties Sorkin points to specifically are the FCC and the religious right. This is something that Matt Albie battles with throughout the tenure of the show.

The only thing more obvious in the pilot than Sorkin's criticism of the industry is the references to his personal and professional life. Matt Albie and Danny Tripp both contain parts of Sorkin. Albie is the genius writer who blows away audiences with his writing on the big and little screens. Albie is also just out of a relationship with Studio 60 cast member, Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson) who is both very religious and very conservative. Hayes was a clear stand in for Sorkin's real life ex, Kristen Chenoweth who fits the description of Harriet Hayes down to the blonde hair and singing career. Apparently many arguments that Harriet and Matt had were lifted from real life arguments between Sorkin and Chenoweth. Like Sorkin, Albie was not fired from his position; he chose to leave his show because he was being strong armed out of the position for other reasons, perhaps a reference to Sorkin leaving The West Wing. Tripp's past drug addiction mirrors Sorkin's same issues with drug use. Even little things like having Huffman as the guest host (she was the star of Sorkin's series, Sports Night) and naming one of the cast members Tom Jeter (Nate Corddry) likely after Derek Jeter of his beloved Yankees.

None of these self indulgences is particularly distracting because the writing is so strong and if one writer has earned the right to be so self referential it is Sorkin. Studio 60's pilot was incredibly promising as it seemed it would take the viewing public behind the scenes and show us the world of working in television. But it was not to be and the reasons are pretty much spelled out in the pilot.
Studio 60 rated very highly with wealthier homes but was never able to find a large audience but because of the network's meddling, it never really had a chance. Sorkin would have been best served to show NBC executives his pilot to give them an idea how creativity was being stymied by the business people behind the shows. The pilot laid out all these great ideas for the show to run with and for a while they did.

The Albie/Hayes relationship allowed Sorkin to have fun writing dialogue that has liberal and conservative trading quips. There were some touching episodes and characters were starting to take shape. The problem came when in a ditch to get ratings up, the show lost what makes an Aaron Sorkin great. The predictable love entanglements were rushed to get people to watch and were thrown at the wall in the very first season. Sorkin takes his sweet time with the will/they won't they storylines. Another part of the show that turned off viewers was the sketches themselves. People familiar with Sorkin likely knew the point of Studio 60 was to be an awesome sketch comedy show, but many people thought they would get some big laughs form genius writer, Matt Albie. Sorkin is a very funny writer, but he does not do sketch comedy well at all and it showed. This undoubtedly turned people off to the program and made people doubt Matt Albie's position as "genius comedy writer".

The changes to the show hurt the series' chances two-fold. First, the people who loved Sorkin were turned off by tactics that a much lesser drama would take (though Studio 60 was the first Sorkin show I ever watched, I fell into this group). So the core fan base was alienated-this is never a good sign. The people the networks thought they'd be reaching out to by tinkering with the show were also alienated by Sorkin's writing which of course still had a large presence. After re-watching the pilot for this column, I felt that excitement for what was to come from such a sharp script and already developed characters. All that followed was flashes of a brilliant show that never was able to materialize.

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