Wednesday, December 12, 2007

DVD REVIEW: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006-2007)

One the most highly-anticipated new dramas of last season, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, from The West Wing (1999-2006) mastermind Aaron Sorkin, was considered, to coin a phrase – a “slam dunk” - to achieve critical acclaim and audience interest. Ultimately, that didn’t prove the case and the self-important series was quickly eclipsed in popularity and hosannas by other newcomers, including NBC’s own Heroes and Friday Night Lights. Now the "Complete Series" is available for your viewing pleasure (or derision...) on DVD.

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).

Perhaps more problematic than even its political sermonizing, however, is the fact that the subject matter of the series itself - TV producers creating a Saturday Night Live-style “sketch” program – is treated as though it is literally life and death stuff. The characters are handled not just with incredible seriousness, but nearly religious reverence; their every decision scrutinized as heroic and meaningful and important, as though there could be no higher calling in this day and age than to educate dumb Red State Americans, to bring the glories of liberal sketch comedy to the unwashed masses of the middle United States.

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.


  1. Anonymous12:20 PM

    A wonderful old film getting its just due. Thank you.

  2. Anonymous8:14 PM

    Since my semester is over, and I have a little time, I’ll take the bait.

    John, as you know from our conversation last week, I am in the midst of watching the cancelled Studio 60. (Just finished episode #8) and as you know, so far, I really like the show. I have only seen 8 episodes, so it could drastically turn on me.
    I know the critics have bashed it for various reasons, but unlike your review, I do not find it preachy at all, or at least the “preachy-ness” does not bother me. I think the relationships seem authentic and the content relating to politics and religion could have come straight out of a casual social interaction within my peer group, including conversations I have with you. Compared to most of the other crap I see on television, Studio 60, at least so far, is very entertaining and funny (not counting the sketches). It does not deliver many new ideas to the choir but it does a great job at creating believable relationships among the characters and that’s where it could have bridged gaps between “liberal elite types” and thinking middle and working class Americans. If the show was more subtle or symbolic with its liberal ideas it would have been attacked for being to “artsy” or pretentious in a completely different way then you describe. But apparently taking ones liberal ideas to the soapbox the way Studio 60 does is an equally unforgivable sin.

    Concerning the episode used as an example, I’m not sure I get your points. I’m not sure the audience is made to feel smug and superior when watching Tom’s family onscreen. Yes, obviously his parents don’t get out much and his mother innocently makes a subtle racist remark to Simon about her husband having a crush on Halley Berry, but that is all so very real. It is that reality that makes moments like that in the show so good. And then at Tom’s vocal embarrassment of his parents, Simon makes an overtly Marxist statement to Tom, telling him, “he works for a living, don’t be an Ass!” I don’t think the scenes were made to diminish the working class characters but instead to highlight the very different worlds they occupy compared to the main characters in Hollywood.
    Just recently watching that episode, I am also uncertain as to where the issue of moral equivalency between the Jeter brothers is suggested.

    I’m trying to tell you that you’re standing in the middle of the Paris Opera House of American television!

    MR. JETER:
    That’s swell, Tom, but your little brother is standing in the middle of Afghanistan!

    All right, it’s okay. It’s okay.

    I thought this interaction made a good point in showing the anxiety of Mr. Jeter, making him sympathetic and able to make a clear moral contrast between his sons’ occupations. The episode later realistically shows the strained relationship between a working class father and his son – the artist.

    The other issue I don’t understand is the “white friendly” distinction made between the two black comics.

    Willy Wilz:

    See, I love the fact that y’all insist on paying your damn bills on time. White people go out of town, they pay their light, car, gas, rent, everything. Months in advance, just in case they get waylaid in Honolulu or something. When black people go out of town, we say, “See you in court, bitch!” Matter of fact, if you the landlord and black people go out of town, guess what? You just got your bitchass chumped. But I will say this, black people make more black people. We love to have kids, man. I got babymamas on top of babymamas, for real. I done ran out of names for my kids, man, my next son’s name is “Oops.” If I got one more kid I can start my own football team –


    …and to be completely honest with you, where I come from, you could do a whole lot worse. I’m not sure I’m in step with the rest of the African-American community. I mean, I carry the scars of slavery just like everybody else, but somehow, it’s important for me to know that, while slaves, we were good while stacked up to other slaves throughout history, and I don’t know if we were. You know, I’m looking at the Pyramids of Egypt, which were built by slaves, and I’m thinking to myself, “Whoa. Nobody told us we could use geometry.” God sent the Hebrew slaves Moses, and don’t get me wrong, I like the Emancipation Proclamation, but the Hebrews got a burning bush, plague, slaying of the firstborn, parting of the Red Sea… we got a memo. “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.” All right, thanks and everything, but you were phoning that in, and you know it. . . . I don’t think the way I’m supposed to think. You know, I went to the barbershop, sat down in the chair, and the barber picked up a pair of scissors and lit up a joint at the same time. Stuff smelled out of this world. I mean, someone spent a lot of time into the growing of this weed. This is one-hit pot, and he tells me he can sell me some for ten dollars. I should be thinking, “Here’s a wasted guy with a pair of scissors pointed at my head,” but what I’m thinking is, “How can he sell so fine a product at such affordable prices?”

    If Darius is more “White friendly,” is it your impression that Willy is more “Black friendly?” My own intuition feels that Darius is the one who is refusing to “shuck and jive” and not play to the sterotypical models and methods that Willy is apparetly using to be streamlined into a contract with a corporate label, proabably controlled by whites.

    Danny and Simon’s decision to go with Darius was the liberal choice. I believe that the liberal ideas that are going to carry us away from the current national mindset are going to require people to think and evolve a little more then Borat requires of us. I understand that Studio 60 or any other television show is not going to socialize us to the same degree as literature, but at least it was trying to take some very basic liberal concepts and connect them via pop culture (both in content and delivery method) to a larger audience. Shows like Studio 60 and Ali G/Borat both have the potential to raise consciousness, but they generally appeal to different kinds of audiences. And since a show like Ali G (which I love by the way) is unable to tease out the nuances of race and class the way Studio 60 does in the two examples above, I still think there should be a place for at least a pseudo-literate liberal show like studio 60 in the media-sphere of corporately controlled networks dominated by mindless “reality” TV.

    I feel like I’ve been on a soapbox myself.

    Anyway, I know you are the TV expert, but I still say Studio 60 is a better show then Firefly.


    Your pretentious, pompous, and media illiterate friend,


  3. Hey Rick!

    You took the bait! You took the bait! I win! I win.

    No, ergh. Glad you wrote. Seriously: you can get on a soapbox here anytime, buddy. I love it. You're not media illiterate, pretentious, or pompous...we just happen to disagree on this show.

    I'm still getting you back for Space:1999

  4. Michael A. De Luca8:28 AM

    I wanted an SNL satire along the lines of "Network". Instead, I got a boring romance coupled with unfunny sketches. But anyone who does harbor admiration for Pat Robertson or the Bush Administration will still have a hard time garnering my sympathy. I have too many images of waterboarding fresh in my head at the moment. It was good to see Eli Wallach as a member of the Hollywood Ten, though. Happy holidays, John.

  5. Robert H.3:23 PM

    Problem with STUDIO 60:

    1) Every character in the show is so smug and preachy, you want to smack them in the head repeatedly with blunt objects.

    2) The lead characters are thoroughly unlikeable - interesting, but it sort of hobbles the prospect of a long-running show.

    3) Every character ends up sounding the same - great in THE WEST WING and SPORTS NIGHT; not so great in STUDIO 60... the dog needs to learn a new trick.