I watched the pilot of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip with my wife and when it was over she said, "He's back". He being Aaron Sorkin the Emmy Award-winning executive producer-writer of The West Wing. Sorkin along with Emmy Award-winning executive producer-director of The West Wing Thomas Schlamme brings us an intelligent look at the television industry. To call Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip a "backstage look at a late night comedy show" is not doing the show justice. This show examines Television's creative talent, decision-making executives, arbiters of standards & practices, the audience and that’s in the first five minutes. We open with Wes Mendell (Judd Hirsch) having an argument with Jerry Jones (Michael Stuhlbarg) the network censor over a smartly written sketch that could potentially offend religious people. After the censer pulls rank the controversial sketch is pulled and replaced something unfunny and lame. When the show goes on live, Wes walks on camera dismisses the cast and delivers a controversial rant similar to the "I'm as mad as hell" speech delivered by Peter Finch in the 1976 movie Network about the television industry.
"Ah, it’s not going to be a very good show tonight and I think you should change the channel. Change the channel. Right, right now. Turn off the TV ok. No, no, I know it sounds like this is supposed to be funny but tomorrow you’re going to find out it wasn’t and by that time I’ll be fired. Now, this is not, this is not, this is not a sketch. This show used to be cutting edge political and social satire, but it’s gotten lobotomized by a candy ass broadcast network hell-bent on doing nothing that might challenge their audience. We were about to do a sketch that you’ve seen already about 500 times. Yeah, I know. Now no one is about to confuse George Bush with George Plimpton. Now we get it. We’re all being lobotomized by this country’s most influential industry. It’s just throwing in the towel on any endeavor to do anything that doesn’t include the courting of 12-year-old boys. Not even the smart 12-year-olds, the stupid ones, the idiots. Which there are plenty, thanks in no small measure to this network. So why don’t you just, change the channel, turn off the TV. Do it right now, go ahead. Oh, I get it. There is a struggle between art and commerce. Well there has always been a struggle between art and commerce. Now, I’m telling you, art is getting its ass kicked. And it’s making us mean. And it’s making us bitchy. It’s making us cheap punks, that’s not who we are! People are having contests to see how much they can be like Donald Trump. We’re eating worms for money. Who wants to screw my sister! Guys are getting killed in a war that’s got theme music and a logo. That remote in your hand is a crack pipe. Oh yea, every once in a while we pretend to be appalled in some way. Pornographers, its not even good pornography, it’s just this side of snuff films. And friends, that’s what’s next because that’s all that’s left. And the two things that make them scared gutless are the FCC and every psycho religious cult that gets positively horny at the very mention at a boycott. These are the people that they’re afraid of. It’s prissy, feckless, off the charts, greed-filled whorehouse of a network. And you are watching this thoroughly unpatriotic..."
Then the show’s director (Timothy Busfield), under pressure from the censer cuts to the show’s opening titles.
I have three thoughts,
1. I have been saying a lot of this stuff on my blog for the past two years.
2. If you don’t like what you see, like the man said, "Turn off the TV". Why is this so hard to understand?
3. When people say that Hollywood is out of touch with America, I know they mean the creative people in front of and behind the camera. My question is, are network’s Standards and Practices people any more in touch with America?
Back to the show. Wes’s tirade gets him fired by the network chairman Jack Rudolph (Steven Weber) and the recently-promoted network president Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) rehires Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) who left the show four years prior over disagreements with network executives. To make things more complicated Danny has a history of drug problems and Matt has recently ended a relationship with on of the show’s performer Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson) who is also a devout Christian, but stood by the controversial sketch (Titled: Crazy Christians) because it was funny. The episode ends with Jordan telling Matt to air the sketch next week.
The pilot struck a perfect balance between the premise and the introducing the main characters. I liked what I saw and feel that more shows should be like this, not a copy of this show but something that goes along with the spirit of the above rant. Still with all I just said I never judge a show by it’s pilot.
In the next episode we see the first day at work for Jordan, Matt and Danny. The Crazy Christians sketch is going to air. There are protests from Christian groups and some network affiliates are refusing to air the episode. We also get to meet the supporting cast including hack writers Ron Oswald (Evan Handler) and Ricky Beck (Carlos Jacott). The show (within the show) opens with a musical version of the shows recent problems sung to Gilbert and Sullivan’s I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General that proves to be a great closing to the show (that we are watching).
The question has to be asked, "Why should I care about people who work on a late night comedy show?" It's true they don't save lives like the characters on E.R., run the country like the characters on The West Wing or keep the streets safe like the characters do on countless crime dramas. Instead the late night comedy shows make us laugh at the end of a long hard day. Through satire they show elected officials how the public sees them. Sadly, they are some people’s only source of news and in times of crisis they remind us that it is okay to laugh. I also have to ask those who are accusing the show as being Anti-Christen to count all the Christian characters you see on TV. Then with your other hand count how many Christian characters are presented in a positive light on TV. My hope is that Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip becomes the next great water cooler show. Unlike other water cooler shows where people just talk about what the characters did, here we can shift topic of conversation to the issues discussed on the show. This show could be bigger than The West Wing, if Aaron Sorkin is kept in charge and left alone to do his job,
To quote Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet), "Well, there are gonna be some horny psycho-religious cults tonight".