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Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and the limits of Aaron Sorkin's imagination

Twilight of the elites


Emily VanDerWerff

Oct 19 2020

15 min read


The moment that most exemplifies the failures of Aaron Sorkin’s 2006-07 series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip — the only TV series the hugely acclaimed writer has created to last just one season — isn’t the infamous Gilbert and Sullivan parody that closes out the series’ second episode.

Don’t get me wrong. The parody is still awful. A riff on “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General” from The Pirates of Penzance, the musical number is one of the great “the emperor has no clothes” moments of TV history. The gap between what we’re told we’re seeing (groundbreaking, earth-shattering comedy genius) and what we’re actually seeing (a mostly pleasant if not all that impressive Gilbert and Sullivan parody based around one of the duo’s most familiar numbers) is so vast that the show trips over its shoelaces and falls into it.

No, the problem comes about 20 minutes earlier, when Sorkin stand-in Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) first comes up with the idea in the midst of a typically fraught workplace discussion in his office. The Studio 60 staff (okay the men on the staff) are arguing about how to open the first show that Matt and his longtime compatriot Danny Tripp (Bradly Whitford) will showrun, after their immediate predecessor had a spectacular, Network-esque meltdown on-air.

The idea is that the cold open should display just how good the show will be to stay out of the headlines. (The degree to which everybody in the Studio 60 universe cares about this one sketch comedy program is a little silly.) “We’ll be model citizens!” says director Cal (Timothy Busfield), and Matt says, “We’ll be model—” before trailing off. “We’ll be model—” he says again, before doing a hard pivot into “You know who did the best frat humor of all time?” His coworkers suggest “Rudy Vallee” and “Groucho Marx” before Danny says, with great resignation, “It’s W.S. Gilbert.”

Leave aside for a moment that I don’t know that anybody would answer “Who did the best frat humor of all time?” with Rudy Vallee or Groucho Marx (or W.S. Gilbert, for that matter). What’s even stranger about this sequence is how it railroads the audience to a conclusion Sorkin has predetermined. We don’t get space to fill in our own answers to the question. Aaron Sorkin is speaking.

This use of predetermined answers could work on The West Wing, because that show had actual dramatic stakes and because most of us don’t know everything about the inner workings of the government. But a predetermined answer to “Who wrote the best frat humor of all time?” doesn’t work nearly as well, because it’s a question that can be answered a multitude of ways, where the actual stakes are incredibly minor, and where you, yourself, might have an opinion on the matter. If you don’t think W.S. Gilbert wrote the best frat humor of all time, you’re automatically at odds with the drama’s desired outcome.

But even after all of that, what I’m mad about isn’t the answer “W.S. Gilbert.” What I’m mad about is a polite chuckle.

If Aaron Sorkin is a Baby Boomer, then he’s one of the very youngest ones. Born in 1961, he just misses the cutoff for Generation X (according to the Federal Reserve Board, which says the Baby Boomer generation spans 1946 to 1964) by a handful of years. But his work is so steeped in the world the Baby Boomers grew up in — a weird blend of the elitist, “high culture” movements their parents paid lip service to supporting and the cultural earthquakes that were rock music and television — that you’d be forgiven for thinking he was born in 1951 or something similar.

Sorkin’s work has an out-of-time quality that I typically would enjoy. It feels at once of its moment — or at least it did when he was at his peak — and like it’s arrived to us fully formed through some portal to the past. A lot of my favorite art has this quality to it, where it seems like it belongs to the present and the past in equal measure. (For an example of something I’ve watched recently, the miniseries Over the Garden Wall could only have been made for TV in the 2010s, but it feels a little like it arrived direct from 1912 all the same.)

Sorkin’s blend of screwball pizzazz, show business savvy, and romantic idealism feel straight out of a Frank Capra movie, but he’s always trying to talk about what’s important right now. That’s why The West Wing and The Social Network hit the zeitgeist so dead on — they were at once modern and deeply traditional, the sorts of things that could be enjoyed equally by people from all sorts of ages and walks of life.

But Sorkin’s art is rooted in a fundamentally myopic view of the world, and his own worldview might be just as myopic. In Aaron Sorkin’s world, the system is more or less okay, and the only thing that’s wrong with everything is that we no longer listen to the people who know how to run that system. If we just stepped back and listened to the elites who used to make things hum, well, wouldn’t we be a whole lot happier?

Sorkin’s shows, in other words, mistake information for understanding. If you know about something, and if you can explain what you know succinctly to other people, then you must understand it. But understanding goes beyond knowledge. It’s some combination of knowledge, thoughtfulness, and empathy. You can’t really understand something until you understand the ways in which it might affect people outside of your models, because people always behave differently than you expect them to.

But if you can go out of your way to deliver information at a blistering pace, people will mistake you for being smart. (Take it from me, a person who got through college using this exact strategy.) A lot of intelligence in America — especially if you’re a white guy — is seeming like you know what you’re doing and having a confident air to you. And when you’re so used to being treated like a genius simply for acting like one, it can be easy to forget the limits of your own understanding.

All of which brings me back to that polite chuckle.

“We’ll be the very model of a modern network TV show,” Matt says. “We hope that you don’t mind that our producer was caught doing blow,” says cast member Simon Stiles (D.L. Hughley). Director Thomas Schlamme cuts first to Danny looking on as if wheels are turning, then to Cal, who chuckles just a bit at what he’s heard. And then everyone springs into action, racing off to make the musical number happen, based entirely on the vague sense that this is all very clever.

Earlier in the episode, Matt had attended a meeting of his writers room, where he was pitched idea after idea around the same basic notion that George W. Bush was an idiot. None of these ideas are particularly good, but they do elicit belly laughs from many of the other writers. Yet Studio 60 is the kind of show where a polite chuckle from someone knowledgeable (a middle-aged white guy with a long, professional career) means more than big laughter from a bunch of yahoos in a writers room.

For many years, the big complaint about Studio 60 has been that it was Sorkin’s attempt to harangue people about everything from the state of television to the end of his romantic relationships. I’m sympathetic to this idea, but the more I watch the series’ only season, the more I realize that Sorkin isn’t using his bully pulpit at all. He’s constantly aware of how much he’s losing his bully pulpit.

Loosely speaking, Studio 60 is an old man show, made by someone who was in his mid-40s when he made it. Yes, loosely, its story parallels the story of Sorkin and Schlamme returning to network TV after Sorkin was removed from The West Wing at the end of its fourth season. It’s a show that, at its core, wonders just what’s the matter with kids today.

What surprises me, however, is that the show is surprisingly self-aware about this. In the second episode, Matt lectures the writers room about how everybody needs to start dressing more professionally, because they are all adults, before his ex, Harriet (Sarah Paulson), storms into the room and calls him a whoremonger. It’s an obvious joke, but it also undercuts Matt’s pretensions. He is, at his best, a character who insists that everybody should do as he says and not as he does. (Notably, he doesn’t precisely wear a suit and tie across the rest of the series or even across the rest of this episode.)

Sorkin doesn’t know a lot about television. He gets incredibly basic things wrong all over the place, and if you know the medium at all, it’s glaringly obvious. He also gets lots of things wrong about right-wing Christianity, one of the core themes of the show. (Harriet, see, is a diehard Christian, though one who exists mostly to fit various story functions.) So he keeps falling back on telling stories drawn from his own life, because he seems to know how to tell those stories.

But he’s more self-deprecating about this than you’d expect. Matt and Danny are out of step with the times, and there are so many jokes about how they’re out of step with the times. In a show more capable of rolling with the punches, this could have become the core of a fizzy, enjoyable showbiz farce. Indeed, in the first six episodes, there are moments when the series almost achieves that frisson, particularly in its fourth episode, in which the characters need to break into the show’s West Coast broadcast to remove some plagiarized material. It’s the kind of backstage story Sorkin writes well, full of weird little details about how live TV is made and good character beats. This is not a perfect episode of TV or even a particularly good one, but a writer less content to rest on his laurels would have realized he had something here.

The problem is that Sorkin uses self-deprecation not as a way to say, “Yeah, sometimes I don’t get it!” but to say, “Yeah, sometimes I don’t get it, and that’s your fault.” He grew up in a world where you might turn on the TV and discover that instead of a wild sketch comedy show, you’d gotten a Pirates of Penzance production, and you’d better be happy about it. This was the original Golden Age of TV, and many of Sorkin’s heroes (notably Paddy Chayefsky) were writers in that world. He believes, so deeply, that if we could just get back to that world, everything would be okay, that he misses how disruptive it would be to go back to that world. He’s a progressive whose sensibilities are fundamentally rooted in conservatism.

The cast of Studio 60 in happier times — aka when their show was on the air. (Credit: NBC)

The weird thing about Studio 60 is how close it comes to having one of the best characters Sorkin ever created: Amanda Peet’s Jordan McDeere. The best version of the show probably follows Jordan as she tries to turn around the struggling NBS network with a mix of quality programming and old-fashioned guts. Sorkin is really good at writing bureaucratic machinations, and the inner workings of a broadcast network are full of bureaucratic machinations.

In the early going of Studio 60, I was surprised how much I adored Jordan and Peet’s performance. I had no memory of her from the show’s initial run, but the pilot really does position her as a lead equal to Matt and Danny, someone who will take us inside the business side of television while the other two explore its creative side. And for the first few episodes, Sorkin tries his level best to write a character who is complicated and interesting, while also fending off adversaries at every turn.

Fundamentally, however, Sorkin can’t quite bring himself to imagine a woman who is both good at her job and capable of having a personal life she feels equally in control of. To be fair, he likes writing characters of all genders who are caught between professionalism and personal disaster, but he especially likes doing this with women. Soon enough, Jordan’s storyline is dominated by a gossipy book written by her ex-husband that everybody in the world seems deeply invested in (for some reason?) and her out-of-nowhere romantic connection with Danny.

I don’t know that I’d say Jordan McDeere’s slow descent into a nothing storyline is a grand TV tragedy, but in watching the show this second time, I was surprised to find how much I liked her and how much I wished the series had done literally anything else with her. She, at least, had the makings of a protagonist.

Here’s something that’s been true of Sorkin’s work for way too long (even in his heyday): He is largely incapable of writing interpersonal conflict. His characters might face down literal world-shattering stakes, and they might have to deal with recalcitrant guest characters, but when push comes to shove, they always end up seeing things the “right” way. By the end of any given episode of a Sorkin show (and many of his films — though notably not The Social Network), the characters have realized just how wise one of the very educated white guys in their midst has always been.

What I’ve realized in rewatching Studio 60 is that what bedevils this show bedevils all of Sorkin’s work: He believes that life has answers, and if we just stopped arguing with the people who know those answers, we’d be better off. I suspect that he would tell you this view is myopic if you really pushed him on it, but I also suspect that he believes, deep down, that things were better back when everybody just listened to people like him.

But that’s the thing. If somebody asks you, “You know who wrote the best frat humor of all time?” you expect that to be the start of a conversation, not a question they’re going to answer for you. Aaron Sorkin can still write patter as well as anybody, but he is fatally trapped by the fact that when he says something, he doesn’t expect you to say anything back.

What I’ve been up to: Clearly watching Studio 60!

But I also wrote this tribute to the wonderful weirdness of Neil Cicierega, one of my favorite internet artists:

Cicierega — whose other projects include everything from the Potter Puppet Pals videos of the 2000s to the weirdo band Lemon Demon — is beloved by tons of internet dwellers for just how thoroughly he’s created art out of surfing the web. The Mouth albums are the strongest examples of his uncanny knack for transformation: They are composed of lots and little bits and pieces of other things, in a vaguely similar fashion to how it feels to watch one weird piece of pop culture from your childhood on YouTube, then watch 52 others in rapid succession. But they also have an irony-poisoned sense of humor that reflects the bleak reality of having every bit of information imaginable at your fingertips without any of its context.

Read me: E. Alex Jung’s profile of Sohla El-Waylly at Vulture is terrific writing about the collapse of the Bon Appétit YouTube channel, what it means to be a woman of color in a white-dominated media, and cooking good food. It’s a must read.

As we talk about Bon Appétit, El-Waylly’s mood darkens. She’s still processing what happened, because it raised existential questions of value — who deserves what and how much. Sometimes she wishes she had never taken the job. “This stuff really gets in your soul,” she says. “My husband, he’s half Bolivian and half Egyptian, and we’ve been talking about how we’ve internalized these things. That we really think we are worthless, so you don’t want to ask for more.”

Cooking as a brown person in America is complicated because audiences and diners do expect a particular kind of performance, whereas white men have the latitude to do whatever they want. “The fact is Brad’s show did do very well,” she says, referring to Brad Leone, one of the first stars of the Test Kitchen, who hosts It’s Alive With Brad. “For some reason, people like watching a big dumb white guy. But why? What does that say about the audience? Why do you want to watch this incompetent white man when we have one in the fucking Oval Office?”

Watch me: Remember when I wrote about the play What the Constitution Means to Me in this very newsletter several months ago? If you were curious to check out the show, a filmed version of its Broadway production (directed by Marielle Heller!) is now available on Amazon. It’s honestly one of the best-structured pieces of writing I’ve ever encountered, and I always leave it inspired both to change the world and to write something as personal and as passionate.

And another thing… This has been my go-to recipe for red sauce for a decade now. I have modified the version here heavily, but it’s best to start with the core recipe and go from there, in my experience. It’s terrific stuff.

This week’s reading music: “Bottle It Up” by BAILEN

Episodes is published once per week and is about whatever I feel like that particular week. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.

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