Three posts in one night is probably too much (especially if I end up not posting for a month or something) but I thought of this earlier and anyway I’d like to have something a visitor to the blog could relate to.
I’ve just watched an episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip – which is what Aaron Sorkin did next after The West Wing. It’s a TV show about a TV show (a Saturday Night Live type sketch show) and it never really found enough of an audience to stay on the air. They let it play out the season meaning that if you watch the whole thing you get a sense of closure but clearly in many ways it was a flop.
I love it. And the title of this post is kind of unfair since there’s a lot there to love. It’s as well written as West Wing, more consistently probably in my view. And I think the reasons it never got the ratings probably aren’t what I would think of as its weaknesses. So why am I calling it a ‘guilty pleasure’ – a term usually used when something’s not great but you like it anyway?
Studio 60 is like The West Wing, very like The West Wing. So much so that it could be the West Wing does a TV show. Obviously the writing has the same tone and humour, given its from the same writer, but its not just that. It tackles many of the same themes – there’s a lot of politics in there, ostensibly because political sketches on the show with the show, but mostly, you feel, because that’s what Sorkin likes to write about. One of the stars is Bradley Whitford, Josh from TWW. It often has a slightly preachy, pompous tone. The episode I watched tonight had one the comedians take his parents on a tour of the theatre they use (the eponymous Studio 60) and tell them the history of place, and the history of broadcast TV in a very tour-guide kind of way. In a word, it’s often a bit too worthy. Which would be fine, except, an overly earnest tone, a sense of “this is real serious and important stuff” is understandable and forgiveable in a show about the government of the USA. That tone in a show about TV comedy is a little over the top.
Not only that but they sometimes re-use ideas and even lines from TWW. In an earlier ep, Whitford’s Danny Trip, Exec Producer, tells a roomful of writers that “This isn’t TV camp, it’s not important to us that everyone gets to play.” Replace “TV camp” with “government camp” and you have a line from a WW ep. Also, in tonight’s show, there’s a rather sentimental sub-plot about a mysterious old man who’s caught trying to steal a photo. Clearly not really a threat, they investigate and find out that he was a blacklisted writer from the 50s who got a single sketch on the show before his career was ended. The episode ends with Matt (current head writer) and Danny magnanimously not only offering him the photo, but allowing him to sit in the writers’ room and tell stories of the past.
Whilst not identical, this bears remarkable similarities to the WW episode where an old French lady “freaks out” on a tour when passing a particular painting in the Whitehouse. Turns out it was painted by her father, stolen by the Nazis and ended up as a gift to the US President. That show ends with the painting being made a gift to the old lady. It may not be precisely the same, but it hits all the same notes.
Add to this that there are a large number of references that parallel stuff in Sorkin’s own life. From the head writer who writes the show virtually single-handed (something he did in the WW’s early years), the relationship Matt has with the conservative evangelical Christian Harriet (again it mirrors a real relationship), drug problems and of course, one assumes, all the politics of the day to day dealings between the TV network and the show.
So, to put all this together, it is incredibly self-indulgent. It’s like he’s sharing his favourite in-jokes and re-writing his favourite parts of the West Wing. So why, after all this, do I still love it?
(Oh and I nearly forgot to mention that the show within the show, is awful. Not funny. It’s just not Sorkin’s type of humour at all, and that really shows.)
I love it because it’s warm-hearted. Everyone, upto and including the scary big network boss and bilionaire tycoon owner, is ultimately a good and decent person. Whilst this should be annoying it’s actually quite pleasant. You enjoy being with these people because you root for them.
I love it because the humour on the show itself (not the show within the show) is great. It’s all that great dialogue that Sorkin does so well.
I love it because the comedic chemistry between Whitford and Matthew Perry, who plays Matt, is just superb. They just work really well together, you totally believe this is a creative partnership responsible for some smart, clever movies and TV shows.
I love it because of Matthew Perry’s acting. I could describe how good it is in a number of ways. The most concise would be that I defy anyone to watch him for more than a couple of minutes and still remember who Chandler Bing is. And yet Matt Albie is just as perfectly formed a comic character.
I love it because the stuff that works, really works and it all gels together into this warm, funny, sometimes slighty too serious, sometimes slightly too sentimental, clever show.