One of the popular pastimes of the fall season has been discussing the high-profile foundering of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” (NBC, Mondays, 10 p.m. ET). Headed by Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme, who had critical success with “Sports Night” and both critical and popular success with “The West Wing,” and starring Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, and Amanda Peet, “Studio 60” began with good reviews and a large pilot audience.
Since then, however, the audience has dropped weekly, cancellation rumors swirled for a while, and critical response has become substantially more mixed. Talk of cancellation was squelched last week when NBC confimed it was picking the show up for the full season . But this is a project in trouble, despite a quality pedigree and an aggressive marketing campaign on multiple fronts.
One of the most popular explanations of the show's woes is that “Studio 60” tries to take comedy too seriously, or that’s too “inside.” “The West Wing,” some say, succeeded because it treated with appropriate gravity the important issues facing a president and his staff. But you can’t treat a “Saturday Night Live”-style show with the same gravitas and expect to be successful, both because the seriousness is out of place and because no one cares that much what happens in putting together a comedy.
This theory may be popular, but it's also wrong. The problem isn’t that “Studio 60” is taking comedy too seriously. It’s that the show isn’t taking comedy seriously enough. Despite aiming for intelligence and meaning, the show simply shows no signs of knowing enough about comedy to be credible.
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Television and the internet are all full of beloved comedy institutions analogous to the fictional one in the show. Obviously, there is “Saturday Night Live” itself, but don't forget “The Daily Show,” “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” and other outlets like The Onion. Even a moderately media-savvy viewer has read a lot about them. Every time Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert is interviewed, every time we see the endless list of writers when Conan’s staff is up for an Emmy, and every time another book about “SNL” is released, we learn a little more about what these environments are like. And what have we learned? They are explosively creative, collaborative, jealous, and fixated on one thing to the point of madness: being funny.
Too many Model U.N. alums, not enough pizza boxes
Nobody who works on the fictional “Studio 60” seems to spend a lot of time on being funny. Nobody on “Studio 60” seems to even worry that much about being funny. It’s been noted in plenty of places that the sketches we’ve seen have been painfully dull, which certainly detracts from the believability of the fictional universe. But even more destructive than the bad sketches is the fact that the environment portrayed on the show does not reflect any understanding of comedy writing or the people who do it.
The failure to delve deeply enough is a huge missed opportunity. It’s no secret that the world of comedy includes an enormous number of deeply damaged people. How does a project like the fictional “Studio 60” not have one genuine cynical misanthrope on the entire staff? Why does everyone working on the show seem likely to have attended Model U.N.? Where is the manic energy? Where are the pizza boxes?
The fictional show’s writers, other than Perry’s suspiciously Sorkinesque character, Matt Albie, have been mostly written off as a collection of hopelessly untalented hacks who needed Albie to step in and perform miracles. This essentially creates a world in which what is “Saturday Night Live” is being written by one erudite guy sitting in a nice, clean, room.
From time to time, he makes witty remarks about his dislike of conservatives, debates social issues with passing co-workers, worries over whether the public is smart enough to appreciate all he has to offer, obsesses over his former girlfriend, and ponders his place in American society. It's striking to note how similar the “Studio 60” workplace is to the workplace of “The West Wing.” The same kind of guy winds up working as an “SNL” writer who might otherwise wind up working as the White House deputy chief of staff. He’s serious, all right.
But fans who tuned in from the beginning cannot have tuned out because the show took itself seriously — or even a little overly seriously. Sorkin is, after all, a gravitas kind of guy. He opened the well-received pilot with a heavy-handed monologue from a fed-up producer about how we’re sinking into a vast cultural morass, and it’s all the fault of bad television — especially bad reality television. The implication that this show had come to save us from all the othershows we foolishly enjoy promised a relentless seriousness of purpose that has hung from the neck of every episode like a distracting cowbell ever since.
The misstep hasn't been seriousness. It's been borrowing that seriousness from external issues, rather than drawing it from the staff and their commitment to their work. Mostly, Sorkin has reached for importance by dousing the scripts with overwrought discussion of public-policy issues. He has covered how the fictional “Studio 60” runs into racism, religious prejudice, and conservative excesses. He has, in only seven episodes, centered plots around the war in Afghanistan, the blacklist, homophobia, and drug laws. This show is as serious as a heart attack. It would arguably be impossible to create a show about comedy that was less fun than this.
What the show has not taken seriously, however, is comedy itself. Doctors on “ER” are serious about saving lives. Cops on “Hill Street Blues” were serious about enforcing the law. Attorneys on “Law and Order” are serious about winning cases. At least part of the time, the comedy professionals on “Studio 60” should be serious about comedy. They should discuss it as comedy itself. Not as a contribution to red-state/blue-state politics, not as part of the greater struggle against corporate thugs, not as an attempt to elevate the culture, and not as an attempt to stand up to oppression. They should discuss it and take it seriously as comedy. We should be hearing talk about mechanics here — timing, structure, and well-known rules — just as we hear about surgeries and illnesses on a medical drama. It just isn’t happening.
This is the problem. These people have a passion that consumes their lives, and it is nowhere to be found on the show being written about them. The problem isn't the characters on “Studio 60” care too much about comedy; it's that they work on a comedy show and rarely even discuss comedy except in political contexts.
The show has been criticized for pretending the stakes could really be as high on an “SNL”-style show as they are in the White House, which is clearly nonsense. The stakes are enormously high for creative people, who drink, cut their own ears off, and go mad because they want so badly to be brilliant.
What "Studio 60" needs in order to be successful is a working vocabulary and understanding of the kind of workplace in which it is set. Without that, it cannot work. It's not that viewers aren't willing to care about comedy, but because no one in the audience can care if it isn't even compelling to the characters.
Linda Holmes is a writer in Bloomington, Minn.
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