It had every possible advantage going for it: the writer/creator, the director and the cast. It even had the “Snuffy” (more on that later).
The first couple of episodes proved to be fantastic, but after that it derailed so far up its own ass that the stench remained even when a later episode or two (particularly the Christmas episode featuring displaced New Orleans musicians playing a tear-jerking rendition of “O Holy Night”) lived up to the premise’s promise.
What wasn’t to like about it, at least on paper? Aaron Sorkin – the brain behind A Few Good Men, Sports Night and a certain presidential drama that’s only one of the top five TV programs of all time, The West Wing – was ready to return to TV after leaving the Bartlett administration after four seasons. We figured he’d had plenty of time to rejuvenate his creative senses, and since he was taking on network television, he’d have plenty to say.
Plus, he had Thomas Schlamme behind the camera. Schlamme helmed many fantastic episodes of The West Wing, gaining much credit for the look and feel of the show. His direction set the pace of a series known for its constant walking and talking, usually (actually, almost always) at the same time.
Then there’s this cast, a veritable who’s who of TV and/or comedy stars: Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, Amanda Peet, D.L. Hughley, Sarah Paulson, Nathan Corddry, Timothy Busfield and Steven Weber. (Many others make up the show, but imdb.com them on your own time).
Studio 60 also had a secret weapon: the music of W.G. “Snuffy” Walden, the man who brought us the sweeping theme music of The West Wing. Nothing beat the excitement of the opening minutes of each TWW episode, as a militaristic drum march showed us a recap as a cast member gravely intoned “Previously on The West Wing.” Then we’d get the usual 3-4-minute pre-credit opening, which usually prepared us for the rest of the episode. As the drama built in those 200-or-so seconds, we’d keep waiting for a big line to climax the opening, the tension growing until the opening notes started in the background and into The Best Opening Credit Music Ever.
By the time the music stopped, I was ready to not only rock and/or roll the vote but to write something so awe-inspiring as what I’d just watched. Then, I’d get exceptionally depressed as I realized that even given 100 years, I’d never write anything as grand as a five-minute clip of The West Wing.
So, you see, I was more than a bit anxious to watch Studio 60, which should have been a great blend of comedy (it was, after all, set behind the scenes of a fictional sketch comedy show, a la Saturday Night Live) and drama (particularly the downfall of quality American TV). I couldn’t wait to see this show. Now, even after a lengthy hiatus, I’m not sure I even want to sit through the final remaining episodes.
What happened? Well, perhaps the most glaring problem was Sorkin forgot to make it funny, which is a bit of a dilemma on a show featuring a comedy program. On Studio 60, the show-within-a-show was supposed to be the flagship program of a struggling network. The SNL-inspired show was intended to be water-cooler cool, something that everyone would be talking about the day after it aired.
Never mind the fact that a) no sketch comedy show has been important since the late 1970s; and b) the show-within-a-show on Studio 60 aired on Friday nights, the graveyard of network TV, which pretty much eliminated any water-cooler buzz, primarily because NO ONE WORKS ON SATURDAYS.
The sketches that Sorkin wrote (please don’t call them skits, as a character angrily lectured earlier in the season) wouldn’t have been good enough to air in the 12:55 a.m. spot on SNL (or even at any time on Mad TV). How was that possible? Sorkin wrote painfully funny bits in almost every episode of The West Wing. That was a surprising aspect of that show – how he could blend drama and comedy without sacrificing the other.
But when he set out to write a comedy, he just couldn’t do it. Maybe next time he should try to write the World’s Most Serious Show Ever, and we’d wind up with a laugh riot.
The biggest problem at heart, though, turned out to be the fact that, as I mentioned earlier, the show was up its own ass. It was pompous. It was pretentious. It was preachy. The Southland Christian Church Hour that airs every Sunday at 10 a.m. is less preachy than Studio 60. Every week, Sorkin would belittle network TV and its viewers, reminding everyone just how smart he is and how brilliant his show is. He listed what ailed TV, then went on to put out a boring, talkative show that lacked any respect for its viewers.
In the end, the show lost millions of viewers from the well-watched pilot episode, ultimately finding itself canceled. NBC is burning off the remaining episodes, while Sorkin will probably only nod his head and say “I told you so,” thinking that audiences just weren’t smart enough to “get” what he was saying.
Which would have been true, had he actually been saying something worth listening to.