In hindsight, it should have been obvious that Aaron Sorkin’s drama “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” was doomed from the outset.
At a time when American audiences would rather tune into mindless reality programming like “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” and “Age of Love,” the clever soapbox series struggled to find its niche.
Perhaps it has to do with the current state of the country. Modern audiences might not want to see politically-charged, depressing fictional situations sandwiched between newscasts about politically-charged real-life situations that are depressing enough in themselves. (Hence, “Dancing With the Stars” and “Hey, Paula”?)
This time last year, television fans and critics were practically salivating at the thought of a new Sorkin drama, and it was one of the most highly-anticipated shows of the fall. But after a stunning pilot episode, the show floundered, losing nearly half its initial audience by the sixth episode. It plummeted in the ratings enough that NBC pulled it from its Monday night slot after just 11 episodes for a seven-week hiatus. (It returned briefly in February for three episodes before a continuing ratings free-fall prompted NBC to announce it was pulling the plug for good).
Sorkin’s shows have always had a smug touch of self-importance, but “Studio 60” took itself a little too seriously. The subplots, for the most part, revolved around comedy sketches about foreign policy, for instance, not foreign policy itself â€” but you’d never know it from the dramatic background music.
“Studio 60” treated Hollywood television with the same reverence that Sorkin’s tour-de-force, “The West Wing” treated D.C. politics, and the sentiment didn’t translate well. Or at all, for that matter. Let’s face it â€” audiences aren’t going to empathize with a earnest, drug-addicted television writer trying to bang out a sketch as much as they will with an earnest, drug-addicted chief of staff trying to prevent an international crisis. And they shouldn’t be expected to.
The witty banter that elevated “West Wing” bogged down “Studio 60” â€” to no fault of the actors. Bradley Whitford, Matthew Perry and Steven Weber turned in exceptional acting week after week, but still the show fell flat. The best performance all season came from a non-regular: John Goodman as a small-town sheriff early on in the series.
None of the regulars was particularly likeable or even empathetic. Romantic entanglements between Danny (Whitford) and Jordan (Amanda Peet), and Matt (Perry) and Harriet (Sarah Paulson) were less than exhilirating.
The show’s idea of a “complicated” character, Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson), turned out to be rather boring. Her religious sermonizing got old by the third episode, and audiences can’t be blamed for scratching their heads at the notion that such a pious woman would be starring in a late-night comedy show in the first place.
Still, that didn’t prevent Paulson from earning a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Acrtress in a TV series.
It’s true that “Studio 60” never had the same snap, crackle, pop of “The West Wing.” But for its small, devoted fan base, “Studio 60” was a breath of fresh air, dripping with Sorkin’s signature snappy dialogue and seemingly endless tracking shots. Sorkin and director Thomas Schlamme earned nods from the Writers and Directors Guilds of America for their work on the show.
NBC threw Sorkin a bone by playing out the remaining six episodes of the show in May and June. The last few of which became a miniseries of sorts with, ironically, the most interesting subplots of the entire season â€” a main character’s brother being held as a POW in Afghanistan and Jordan’s near-fatal hospital stint and childbirth.
A DVD set of the entire series, plus extras including commentaries by Sorkin, will be released in October, according to NBC.
In the end, “Studio 60” became a mirror of the show it revolved around â€” a noble effort by a brilliant writing team that often failed to connect with the audience upon whose support it relied.