Gazing back at the series, Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip fared poorly for a couple of reasons. The first is that the drama is so relentlessly and dogmatically “liberal” that even the most dedicated progressives (including this author) would still find it maudlin, preachy and condescending. It comes off as hectoring and certainly preaches to the converted. One-sided drama, whether from the right or from the left, is rarely very engaging (unless produced by my hero - and a national treasure - documentarian Michael Moore).
That the sketches themselves when briefly presented on the series are staggeringly unfunny doesn’t exactly help matters either. This is one of those cases where the Emperor wears no clothes, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is more often than not self-important tripe. It’s elitist, and on occasions, insulting.
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip follows neurotic TV producer and writer, Matt Albie, played by Matthew Perry, who feels gun-shy and diffident after he was called unpatriotic following the attacks of 9/11 (paging Bill Maher: someone stole your biography...). However, Matt now has the opportunity at network NBS to get his brand of liberal politics back on the air for this new sketch comedy series. On his side, but feeling pressure herself, is Amanda Peet’s newly appointed network programming chief, Jordan McDeere. She wants to do important work, create "meaningful" television (like a pet project about life behind-the-scenes at the United Nations), but her colorful past (including a drunk driving incident; which gets her unwanted attention on Access Hollywood) prevent her from being taken seriously in the industry. She is also stifled by her Machiavellian network boss, Jack Rudolph, played with diabolical glee by Steven Weber.
Meanwhile, Perry’s character, Matt, is paired with producer Whitley Bradford’s Danny, who has grappled with cocaine addiction, but is now older and wiser and serves as the guru of the bunch.
Among the other characters are a black comedian named Simon played by D.L. Hughley, who wonders why there aren’t more black writers on the comedy show; and a Christian “Red State” comedian played by Sarah Paulson, Perry’s on-again/off-again girlfriend, Harriet. She finds some of the liberal humor, like the skit “Science Schmience,” offensive to her religious beliefs, but her character is basically the "straw man" stand-in for conservative beliefs, easily buffeted and knocked down by The Wisdom of Liberals.
In one episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, intern Tom Jeter’s (Nathan Corddry) family arrives from Ohio and is treated by the drama as uninformed rubes. It’s as though they are from another planet and so the audience can feel smug and superior that they, in their liberal wisdom, are smarter than these backward folks. The episode actually attempts to create moral equivalency between one son, who is serving in the military in Iraq, and the other son who is a comedian working on TV. Frankly, this attempted comparison reveals that President Bush isn’t the only one living in an ideological bubble. I believe writers are incredibly important in a free society (and I wholeheartedly support the goals of the writers' currently on strike...), but writers are not putting their life on the line every day to defend a free country. Their mission in Iraq may be flawed, but the soldiers there have sacrificed a lot to serve this nation. The writers of sketch comedy? Not so much...
The same episode finds Simon complaining that there is not one black writer on the show, and so he and Perry’s character trek to a comedy club to meet a hot young comic who is a walking/talking stereotype of black humor (his stand-up material is all “bitches” and “hos”). They then decry how bad this humor is, and in self-important, grandiose language, discuss the issue of why so often African-American humor is based on bad and demeaning language. A more obviously "white friendly" African-American (one who bombs in the night club), is selected instead, apparently because he will stick to the agenda of bleeding heart liberal humor.
And that my friends, is your sermon for the week.
Another episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip finds Christine Lahti guest-starring as a hard-hitting journalist who is covering the show, and who reminds viewers that – nudge, nudge - “popular culture is important.” Sting guest stars in this episode as the show’s musical guest and performs a number that plays as background for Harriet and Perry to reconnect. Here's the thing: I totally agree with Lahti's comment. Pop culture is important. I've devoted my adult life and career (and this blog, and my books...) to popular culture. It tells us where we've been, where we are, and where we might be headed. Film and TV at their best are indeed artistic ventures, worthy of examination and analysis and functioning as valuable, nay indispensable, parts of our society. But Studio 60 is so self-satisfied, so smug in its "correctness" and "value" that even a guy like me - the biggest defender of horror movies you could find blogging today - winces at the self-righteousness of the enterprise.
Aaron Sorkin is known for his whip-smart dialogue, and while it is true that everyone on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip speaks with poise (and a great vocabulary...) at virtually warp speed, none of the character say anything worth listening to; especially for audiences outside of Los Angeles. Instead, every character sounds identical, like an attack of the Sorkin Clones, and everyone mouths inconsequential jargon about “focus groups,” “audience retention” and other behind-the-scenes industry lingo. It may be smart, it may be knowledgeable but it is monumentally uninteresting and ultimately irrelevant; lacking any immediacy or connection to the human experience.
It would be very tempting for me to write a book about the heroic, self-sacrificing efforts of a noble North Carolina writer as he brings his meaningful and artful movie and TV reviews to uninformed readers across middle America. But it would also be self-indulgent and that’s the problem here. Sorkin has succumbed to that very temptation. Again, I feel it important to re-establish that I am - check my reviews, please - a pretty progressive, dare I say "liberal" guy. But this show rubs even me the wrong way and strikes me as very, very misguided. Here's the deal in a nutshell: Borat (2006) makes all the same points about the evils of the Bush Administration ("I support your War on Terror!") but it does so with wit, with humor and without climbing on a soapbox. Studio 60 lectures and points fingers instead. I was once called a liberal of the "brain dead" variety by a crazy fan who didn't like my critique of a science fiction series. If I truly were, I guess I would like Studio 60 more...
Wow, that was hard to write. Let me do a gut check real quick: Yeah, I still despise President Bush and want him impeached. I still think the War on Iraq was wrong. I still believe the War on Terror a stupid frame for a legitimate attack on Afghanistan. I still support gay marriage. I am for the legalization of marijuana. And yes, I still support amending the Constitution to include universal health care as a guaranteed right for all citizens (after all, you can't pursue life, liberty and happiness if you're sick and can't afford the doctor bills).
Yep. Still liberal. But Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is so dogmatic and patronizing it almost converted even me.