The worst best show ever

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was the other NBC show about the behind the scenes workings of a SNL-style live sketch show. Unlike 30 Rock it lasted only one season, 2006-2007. Recently having gone back to watch some of it, I’m still struck by what a unique (if minor) place it holds in the annals of entertainment history: it’s the best show ever that is almost unwatchable.

Studio 60 is slickly produced, well acted and sharply written. It is also the single most blithely arrogant, condescending and self-serving piece of mainstream entertainment I’ve ever seen. There are two reasons for this, and creator/producer/writer Aaron Sorkin is at the forefront of both.

Sorkin is one of the most talented writers working today. When it comes to dialogue he is second to none. He’s intelligent, eloquent; frankly he’s brilliant at what he does. But I don’t need to tell him that, because he tells me that. And that’s the problem: his work absolutely screams “Look how great I am!”. The mans history is that of stories featuring arrogant characters strutting around while showing off how knowledgeable and clever they (read: Sorkin) are.

When applied in the right context this formula of his works. I hold no show in higher regard than I do The West Wing, his most prolific work. In the context of that show the quip-filled, bustling, speechifying characters feel right at home. It’s what you’d expect from smart, busy people working in the president’s inner circle. His other political works, The American President and Charlie Wilson’s War, are similarly successful using the formula because they’re believable. The same goes for A Few Good Men, a film about military lawyers.

Studio 60 is nowhere near the right context for this formula. The actors, writers and executives of a variety show do not walk around endlessly talking about religion, gay rights, the Iraq war and a host of other hot button issues. It just isn’t believable, not for more than a moment. When people on The West Wing were doing this they were walking around the White House; the people here are walking around backstage in a studio, and yet all the same they act as if the fate of the world rests in their hands. It’s honestly laughable.

So that’s the first reason Studio 60 doesn’t work: the Sorkin formula in this context is unsustainable. The other is that this show is literally a cross between a one person circle jerk and a revenge fantasy. Sorkin isn’t just content here to have his characters relay his talking points on the big issues, as per his norm. No, with Studio 60 he went a step further, boldly going where no producer has gone before. He created a show that is, at its core, all about wish fulfillment. Whose? Three guesses.

The openness of it is really pretty shocking. He inserted himself as the character played by Matthew Perry (a brilliant, unappreciated writer, natch). He put his longtime directing collaborator in as a character. He put his ex-girlfriend in as a character. The loose details of this are here, but suffice to say he took the old axiom of “write what you know” and turned it into “write what you know… and then play out your own fantasy outcome”.

Studio 60 is the ultimate example of self-serving art. It is a show that is impossibly smug, so convinced of its own brilliance that it needn’t concern itself with pesky dramatic requirements like verisimilitude and identification with characters. For all the technical accomplishment of its actors and writer, Studio 60 proves that when it comes to the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, turnabout is fair play.

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