In the US: Mondays, 10/9c, NBC. Starting September 18th.
In the UK: Acquired by Channel 4, with possible More4 first screening. No date yet.
For a lot of people, this has been the preview we’ve all been waiting for – for roughly three years. Ever since Aaron Sorkin got thrown off The West Wing, addiction to the unique skills of one of America’s finest writers has had millions around the world craving even the slightest piece of new dialogue or characterisation.
Now comes a complete series, 13 episodes commissioned so far, with a cast to die for and a budget to match.
Has it been worth the wait? Erm, maybe.
At the heart of Studio 60 at the Sunset Strip is a late-night ‘comedy’ show based on the real-life long-running US sketch show, Saturday Night Live (the show that launched the careers of everyone from Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and Eddie Murphy through Mike Myers, Jack Black and Will Ferrell).
‘Studio 60 at the Sunset Strip’ is in trouble: its producer (Judd Hirsch) has had a Network moment, gone on stage during a live broadcast and incited viewers to turn off their television sets because the show’s so poor. Newly appointed network president Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) has to take radical action to save the show and the reputation of the network, so calls on the services of the show’s former star writer Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) and director Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford).
The trouble is they don’t want to help, since they’re both doing very nicely now, thank you. Except Tripp has something he needs to tell Albie, something that might change all of that and mean they might need to return to ‘Studio 60’ after all.
Studio 60 is dripping with comedy geniuses. It has so many comedy geniuses, it can even get Grade A talent like Evan Handler to stand around for an entire episode, looking concerned, but with no actual lines of dialogue. That’s just what a talent surplus it has.
What’s curious about this, though, is that Studio 60 isn’t actually very funny. To a certain extent, that’s because it’s not supposed to be. Despite being lined wall-to-wall with people who can make you laugh without even saying a word and despite being set behind the scenes at a comedy show, Studio 60 is actually a drama with occasionally amusing lines of dialogue.
So the first thing I’d advise before watching the show is to reset your expectations or else you’re going to be disappointed.
As said, there is plenty of talent here. Matthew Perry is probably the biggest revelation. While his ability to do Chandler-free acting was to some extent a known quantity from his guest appearances on The West Wing, it’s only here that we get an idea of his versatility.
While Matt Albie looks like Chandler and has some of his facial mannerisms, Albie has none of the neuroses or self-doubt of Perry’s Friends character; his previous relationship fell apart not because his partner (Sarah Paulson), one of the ‘big three’ talent of ‘Studio 60’, pronounces words incorrectly or has a slightly wonky nose but because she appeared on much frowned-upon right-wing evangelical Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club to promote her album of Christian music, something that went severely contrary to Albie’s sense of right and wrong.
His friendship with Whitford’s character is also impressive. In many shows, two characters are called friends, but with few real clues to as to why they actually are friends. Either the characters bicker the whole time (cf Psych and even Friends) or there’s just no chemistry between them – you get the feeling they’ve only just met, rather than been lifelong pals (cf just about anything).
Maybe it’s the two actors’ similarities (both are talented writers as well as actors) in real-life that have drawn them together, but watching Studio 60 you really can believe their two characters are friends. The writing certainly helps with this impression, with both constantly helping the other, being self-sacrificing and generally being nice to each other.
Whitford’s Tripp has more similarities with Josh Lyman than Albie has with Chandler Bing, but again, it won’t be long before you notice they really are different. Tripp is weaker than Lyman but less mistake-prone, and as of yet, has had less to do than Albie, who is the show’s focus (an Aaron Sorkin show where the initial lead character is a writer? Unheard of!). But Whitford is clearly Perry’s acting equal, so it should be an even-handed series when it arrives.
The rest of the cast are somewhat in the shadow of the two leads, although Amanda Peet is clearly the show’s other axis – with Albie and Tripp handling the talent, she’ll be the one dealing with network politics. She’s perhaps a little too light at the moment, lacking any real gravitas – to make a West Wing analogy, while she is indeed a president – and has her own situation room, in fact – she isn’t the President by any stretch. However, her character is described as a charming high flier and is clearly astute, so how much of that lightness is her character’s ‘feminine wiles’ placating and disarming her opponents is debatable.
The writing is surprisingly the show’s weakest link. Unlike the pilot episode of The West Wing, say, which had sparkle in every corner and witty and clever dialogue on every page, Studio 60‘s dialogue is mostly exposition. There are good moments throughout, particularly those involving network president Jack Rudolph (Steven Weber). Perry gets most of the funny lines and Peet gets the clever lines, but there just isn’t the sheer density of top dialogue you’d expect from a Sorkin script. And surprisingly, many of the jokes he does give us fall flat.
There are few of Sorkin’s trademarks in the script, but the observant will still spot them: the intelligent characters always hating bad writing and always being able to spot and revere good writing; the scrupulous pains taken to point out that not all Christians are loopy; his slightly slanted take on male-female relationships; the inclusion of a drugs-related flaw in one character’s psychological make-up; and snatches of dialogue that might as well have been done to camera by Sorkin himself (“We won’t film in Vancouver. Vancouver doesn’t look like anything. It doesn’t even look like Vancouver. It looks like Boston, California”. You can already imagine the budget meetings where Sorkin was being persuaded to film Studio 60 in Vancouver, just like every other US show seems to be these days, can’t you?).
The only other thing I’d mention is the flat direction. Without wishing to dwell on The West Wing too much, that tried its very best to be cinematic, with sweeping shots, wide vistas and clever tracking as characters went about their business. With the exception of a couple of shots, mainly to emphasise the fact the show isn’t being filmed in Vancouver, the show is visually very flat, very TV, with quick cuts between locked off close-ups and mid-shots. It’s also very dark, perhaps unsurprising given the whole episode is set on a Friday night, but I hear there are these amazing things called light bulbs that can be used for interiors to make them lighter…
All in all, Studio 60 shows promise, but most of that we have to take on trust. The pay-off is going to be when Perry and Whitford are in charge of ‘Studio 60’ and are able to show off their talent and get some interplay going with other characters. Knowing that Aaron Sorkin is in charge, we all suspect the following episodes are going to be great and most will stick around. But for the casual viewer, the first episode offers only a few reasons to tune in, most of them being Matthew Perry.
I’m hoping that the show will be good. The talent all suggest it’s going to be good. But we simply aren’t going to know until the second episode at least. Tune in, then, for my traditional third-episode verdict to see if Studio 60 really does live up to expectations.
Just as a little treat for you all, you can watch the entire first episode of Studio 60 on YouTube. Enjoy!
UPDATE: Apologies, but the YouTube vids keep disappearing since people’s playlists keep getting deleted. I’ll monitor this entry to make sure it’s as up-to-date as I can, but you might do better going to YouTube and watching the videos individually.
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
Matthew Perry (Matthew Albie)
Bradley Whitford (Daniel Tripp)
Amanda Peet (Jordan McDeere)
Steven Weber (Jack Rudolph)
Sarah Paulson (Harriet Hayes)
D.L. Hughley (Simon Stiles)
Nathan Corddry (Tom Jeter)
Evan Handler (Ricky Tahoe)
Carlos Jacott (Ronald Oswald)
Timothy Busfield (Cal)
Warner Bros. Television
Aaron Sorkin The West Wing, Sports Night
Thomas Schlamme The West Wing, Sports Night