Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Five years ago, Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme were riding high with the best drama on Television, The West Wing, which is hands-down my favourite show ever. When word got out about a new Sorkin/Schlamme project set for the ’06-’07 season, I was more excited than a monkey at the banana harvest. Expectations — mine and everyone else’s — were sky-high for this new series, a behind-the-scenes drama about an SNL-type sketch comedy show. It would be the finest new show since The West Wing debuted in ’99, Sorkin would once again raise the bar in prime-time entertainment and the collective intelligence of the human race would be elevated to the stratosphere.
Ok, not so much. While Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip premiered with much fanfare and critical praise, the series quickly slumped and never recovered. That made me angry, like a monkey whose monkey-mom made him stay home from the banana harvest. It’s just not fair! So this review is about a good show killed by hype. Alas, Studio 60, you died too young.
Like Sorkin’s Sports Night, Studio 60 is a show-within-a-show concept, which tells stories about the people behind the titular fictional comedy series. Its highly enjoyable pilot throws down a gauntlet when the sketch show’s executive producer (Judd Hirsch, Taxi) storms on stage during a live broadcast to rant about the worthless crap presented as entertainment by his and every other TV network. That’s quite the bomb-drop for Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet, Martian Child), who’s celebrating her new position as President of NBS, Studio 60‘s network. She takes action immediately, enticing writer Matt Albie (Matthew Perry, Friends) and producer Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford, The West Wing), who were once fired from the show, to return to run Studio 60 and return it to its glory days as NBS’ flagship series.
Studio 60, the show, not the show-within-the-show, had a lot going for it. It had Sorkin’s unquestionably good writing, Schlamme’s walk-and-talk style, a fantastic cast and NBC’s hype machine, among other things. A similar combination worked for The West Wing, but Studio 60 obviously didn’t catch on. While I still think this series was pretty solid, it was far from Bartlett’s White House and all of its important business. That’s my main complaint, actually — Studio 60 presents brilliant people talking about important issues as they devote themselves to their work. Unfortunately, that combination makes far more sense when it’s set at the highest level of politics than behind-the-scenes at some late-night comedy show.
My second issue with the series is the nature of Studio 60, not the show, but the show-within-the-show. We see very little of the sketch material in these 22 episodes, and yet even the few minutes here or there aren’t particularly funny, at least not in the popular sense. A friend of mine is convinced the humour is just too high-brow and witty for the average viewer, and I’m inclined to agree. So when Joe Monkey was watching, the show-within-the-show was just another aspect of the series that didn’t fit. If I had been in Sorkin’s shoes, I would have hired a few talented sketch writers to nail down some truly hilarious bits. But then, we know how well Sorkin works with other writers, so perhaps that just wasn’t an option.
Watching Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip now that the fat lady is long gone and her final notes reverberate no more, I can see what went wrong. But I can also see what was good about the series, which makes me wish it had a little more life left, to explore what might have been. The kicker is that once Sorkin and company knew they were going to be cancelled, the quality of the material increased substantially. Obviously, Sorkin felt he could take greater risks at that point, since there was nothing left to lose — it’s just a shame the 11th hour efforts didn’t earn Studio 60 a reprieve, because when the credits roll on episode 22, it’s clear the series could have been something special.
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip – the Complete Series is presented on six discs, with each of the 22 episodes in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen format. I never saw the show in HD, but I’m inclined to assume it didn’t look much better than it does here. This is TV-on-DVD at its finest — sleek, sexy and all-around technically on the mark. Colours are consistent and accurate, the picture is sharp and detailed and there are no apparent compression or source artifacts. Great stuff.
Audio is English-only, in Dolby Digital 5.1. It’s not particularly bombastic, obviously, but the dialogue, score and soundtrack sound pretty great. The presentation is full and satisfying, despite the fact that your sub will likely be dormant most of the time. Remember, this is a walk-and-talk drama, so just appreciate the clarity of the dialogue and ambient effects as you wonder why the series never took off.
If the demise of Studio 60 was a disappointment to you, you’re not going to be happy about the lack of extras on this set. All we get is a pilot commentary by Sorkin and Schlamme, and a shallow featurette, In Depth: The Evolution of Studio 60. Yes, the commentary is insightful and interesting, and sure, the featurette has a decent range of promotional and technical content, but there’s a big problem here. Neither of these extras were created after the cancellation announcement, so neither addresses the topic fans really want to hear about: what happened, why, and what do the folks involved have to say about it?
I liked Studio 60, and I wish it hadn’t been cancelled. You may disagree, but there’s no denying the quality of its cast or the off-screen talent of Sorkin, Schlamme and the rest. With all of the crap that does make it past season one, it sucks to watch great potential amount to commercial failure. If it’s any consolation, this DVD set at least presents the entire series with quality picture and sound, though I wish we’d seen in the extras deparment.