Saturday, 29 May 2010

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

"It's not our job to appeal to the lowest common denominator, Doug - it's our job to raise it."
President Jed Bartlet, The West Wing
“They tell us there are only two sides to be on
If you are on our side you're right if not you're wrong
Where is the questioning where is the protest song?
Since when is scepticism un-American?
Dissent's not treason but they talk like it's the same
Those who disagree are afraid to show their face
There are reasons to unite
Is this why we unite?
If you hate this time
Remember we are the time!
The good old boys are back on top again
And if we let them lead us blindly

The past becomes the future once again”

Sleater-Kinney: Combat Rock, 2002

Being so closely associated with “The West Wing” (Aaron Sorkin created both shows, Bradley Whitford stars in both, and the show is even references directly when Allison Janney guest-stars at one point) was one of the biggest burdens “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” had to bear. It was constantly compared, and found lacking for some reason. One show was about the President of the United States and how politics and policy works, the other is about the production of a weekly comedy show.
The thing is: they have a lot in common. “The West Wing” was a seven-year long liberal dream about an America in which George W. Bush did not win the elections. It was an alternative history in a way, of a world in which the President did not make the news by saying “nucular” but was a Nobel-prize-winning economist and exactly the kind of nerd Sarah Vowell once evoked in one of her essays. “Studio 60” is very clearly set in the world in which Bush won the elections, 9/11 happened and the US is involved in two foreign wars, but at the same time, it is a liberal fantasy about what network television could be if different people were in charge.
“Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” is just as eloquent and precise in portraying the inner workings of its subject matter as “The West Wing” was. This is a series about a weekly late-night comedy show, clearly modelled after NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” (although SNL exists as a competing program in the universe of “Studio 60”) – about the writers, actors, producers and network executives and their respective motivations, how they occasionally collide and, in much the same way “The West Wing” compelled viewers for seven years, how personal relationships and history play into their jobs.
 There is an idealistic new president of a network (Amanda Peet) who decides to buy a drama series about the United Nations instead of some presumably more lucrative reality show (in a way, this seemed to mirror the process Sorkin must have gone through with his idea to “make a show about how the White House works”). There are two former writers/producers (Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford) who’ve been fired over one political sketch (the show plays out on two different timelines, one slowly revealing why they were fired in the first place, the other what has changed now, years later) and are now coming back with a lot of baggage to give the old format a new direction.
“I hate being irrelevant” –Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford)
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip asks the same question The West Wing does: can you make good policies and still get enough votes to go on? Can you produce a high-quality comedy program that is critical of the current political climate and not lose ratings or the support of your network? Matt and Danny operate in a very specific climate, and we see them fail right after the war in Afghanistan started, when balancing remaining relevant and critical and serving the interests of advertisers and the influence of pressure groups. This time around, the climate has changed because of a new, supportive network president who risks her own career for quality programming.
The “policy”, the content of the show, is just one issue the show tackles. It remains lively and interesting because it combines elements of drama and comedy, although occasionally less successfully than “The West Wing” did, but then, that is probably the point of a serious show about a Friday night comedy sketch show. The undercurrent is the strive to remain relevant (it somehow feels strange to watch this show and then consider “SNL”, a show that was culturally relevant for a second when Tina Fey posed the question whether a woman already a parody of herself can still be parodied), but it also about two men growing up with the responsibility they bear. Matt (Matthew Perry), the creative head, is in love with a woman who does not share his politics (Sarah Paulson plays Harriet Hayes, a devout Christian and the star actress of the show – She’s a little bit like Republican White House associate counsel Ainsley Hayes).
Harriet: “If Al Gore had won the election, if President Gore had sent his top emissary out here, say he sent Bill Clinton out here to talk to leaders in Hollywood about how the entertainment industry could help right now – would you have had an objection?”
Matt: “Hm.”
Harriet: “Would you?”
Matt: “No.”
Harriet: “And what's your smug rejoinder?”
Matt: “I don't have one. I'm saying no, you're right, I wouldn't. I'd flock to that meeting, and so would almost everyone else I know. You wouldn't have been able to get a seat.”
Harriet: “You don't find that hypocritical?”
Matt: “I do. I think you are making an excellent point.”
Harriet: “I seem to have made peace with it.”
Harriet: “Matthew – what?”
Matt: “You think I have contempt for my government. Harry, if I do, it ain’t nothing compared for the contempt my government has for me.”
Harriet: “Your government doesn't know who you are.”
Matt: “I know. But that doesn't stop them from getting votes by calling me a lazy, pampered, anti-American, anti-family, immoral, perverted, dishonorable, weak fairy.”
“Studio 60” is also about responsibility and respect: The responsibility to provide content others don’t, and the idea that it is essentially patriotic to be critical of the government, not an act of treason.
Also, it only survived one season, and although all the characters have a complete arc, it’s hard not do consider the relative success “30 Rock” has enjoyed over these years in comparison. “30 Rock” is about the production of a late-night sketch show, but it’s not about politics. It is, in a very subtle way, about the struggle of the business side of network television with the creative personnel, a divide that in “30 Rock” translates into Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, but “30 Rock” never raises any questions about relevance. Maybe, “Studio 60” was a little bit too ambitious and tried to cover too much territory. However, seeing Allison Janney as a guest on the fictional show “Studio 60”, reunited with Bradley Whitford and Timothy Busfield (who played White House correspondent Danny and love interest of Janney’s CJ Cregg) alone makes this show completely worthwile.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”, 2006-2007, Creator: Aaron Sorkin, featuring Matthew Perry, Amanda Peet, Bradley Whitford, Sarah Paulson, Steven Webber, D.L. Hughley, Nathan Corddry, Timothy Busfield, Nate Torrence, Lucy Davis, Ayda Field, Simon Helberg, Merritt Wever.


The Kid In The Front Row said...

great article! I love studio 60.

flame gun for the cute ones said...

Thanks! I just checked out your blog and there's so much good content on there! The West Wing, interviews etc. Brilliant.