TV Catch-Up Week: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

My best mate went to the US to work and live before I did. When I went to visit him, he knew the head cue card guy at Saturday Night Live who got us in – we got to watch the rehearsals (around 2pm) and then we were in the green room for the first half of the show, before being allowed to come down to the studio floor for the last third of the show. It was magical. Steve Buscemi was hosting – I had watched him practise his monologue and some sketches from about ten feet away – and, as we stood in front of the audience, I could see Willem Dafoe not too far away, just watching the show like we were. (We even went to the after-show party, where my mate was next to Buscemi at the urinal – Buscemi was still smoking and drinking a beer while he used the facilities – so probably qualifies as one of the coolest things I have ever done in my life.) The point I’m making is that the atmosphere was amazing and the perfect setting for a show, which is what Aaron Sorkin does with Studio 60 (based as it is on SNL).

Even though I know that this was cancelled after one series, I couldn’t wait to see it. I had to wait for the terrestrial airing on Channel 4 (More4 started showing it while I was on holiday) and, despite the fact that they are showing it at midnight (and in double episodes – obviously, this show hasn’t been getting the ratings on More4 that they hoped, which is a crying shame), it is still one of the best shows on television at the moment.

The double episode that begins the show sets things up perfectly – Judd Hirsch does a Network (a point that is referenced) in the middle of a live airing of Studio 60, on the night before Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) becomes the president of the National Broadcasting System. To change things and to counter the charges of dumbing down made by Hirsh, she gets Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) and Matt Able (Matthew Perry) to run the show – Matt is a hot writer who started on the show but was fired four years ago and Danny was a segment producer who went with him and is now a film director but can’t do a film due to having tested positive for cocaine (they agree to do the show while he gets clean for 18 months, which is when he will be bonded to direct a film again).

There is some autobiographical stuff in this – Sorkin is a writer like Matt (writing by himself, ignoring the room of writers, fired from a show that he made famous) and has a cocaine problem like Danny, and the concept itself is his personal dream for quality entertainment and not dumbing down.

The show is similar to The West Wing – both places are high-intensity situations where people who are passionate about what they do and have to survive under pressure from the public and people in power; there is a similar vibe, with the fast talking and the intelligent people who have an internet knowledge of trivia and are very funny when they quip, doing the patented ‘walk and talk’ because there is so much to get through in the hour.

The actors are very good – Perry and Whitford are amazingly good, and their chemistry as two old friends in the business is perfect; the cast of the show within the show is spot on (DL Hughley brings his previous experience to the role and Sarah Paulson is fabulous as Harriet, the talented comedienne and star of the show). The only one who seems out of place is Peet, particularly the first episode where she is constantly brought bad news, and the camera lingers on her face as she ponders on it – she looks completely gormless when this happens; she also doesn’t have the same ability with the dialogue that Perry and Whitford do.

What this show is not is a straight comedy (which seemed to be one of the main criticisms about the later programme) – it is, like The West Wing, a fast-paced drama about a tense workplace with people who can be very funny at appropriate times. The show is moving and smart and interesting and occasionally moving; it makes me feel clever and better about myself just watching it. Yes, it is about a comedy programme, and it can be very funny, but it is not a comedy per se; if you want satirical sketches, watch SNL – this is something else. In my dreams, I am as sharp and funny and quick as the people populating Sorkin’s dramas, let alone be able to write as he does. Studio 60 is a wonderful and entertaining piece of television that makes the airwaves a better place.

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