||STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP
American dramedy television series which takes place behind the scenes of a fictional live sketch comedy show.
22 episodes of 45 minute duration. NBC (US) 2006-07
Billed as the “can’t miss” series of the 2006-07 season, this was acclaimed producer Aaron Sorkin's first new project since the departure of his successful political drama The West Wing. But Studio 60–a fictional behind-the-scenes look at a weekly live satirical variety show–could not repeat the success of his Emmy-winning predecessor. Viewers were lukewarm to the concept at best; critics who raved about the pilot began pointing out the shows faults with each new episode; and NBC's declining fortunes in prime time sealed its fate.
Studio 60 was created out of Sorkin's love for NBC's venerable late-night sketch comedy series Saturday Night Live. Sorkin, who wrote the feature films “A Few Good Men” and “The American President,” launched his TV career in 1998 with SportsNight, a comedy-drama about a cable sports network programme that lasted just two seasons on ABC. The traits that would become Sorkin production hallmarks were front and centre on SportsNight–walk-and-talk scenes; unusual camera shots; rat-a-tat dialogue; and complicated personal and professional relationships. With The West Wing, Sorkin found the perfect formula that not only drew large audiences and burnished NBC's reputation as the home of quality drama. (See Television Heaven for more on that series.)
When Sorkin decided to take an insider look at television, it was somewhat of a risk. Comedy series based on television such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Murphy Brown proved to be hits, but dramas about the TV industry were not–including W.E.B (NBC, 1978) and WIOU (CBS, 1990). Still, Sorkin's reputation and concept resulted in a bidding war between CBS and NBC, with the Peacock Network winning the right to air Studio 60.
Sorkin assembled a strong cast for the series. Matthew Perry–fresh from Friends and theatrical films–returned to series television as Matt Albie; while former West Wing co-star Bradley Whitford played Matt's writing partner and long-time friend Danny Tripp. In the series pilot, Matt and Danny–who were fired from Studio 60 several years earlier–were hired back by the fictional National Broadcasting System after long-time executive producer Wes Mendell (Judd Hirsch) went on a rampage over the state of American television during a live broadcast; his monologue denouncing the state of American broadcast television was more than reminiscent of Howard Beale, the fictional “mad prophet of the airwaves” in the 1976 theatrical film “Network”:
“This show (Studio 60) used to be cutting edge political and social satire, but its gotten lobotomised by a candy-a-s broadcast network hell-bent on doing nothing that might challenge their audience. We were about to do a sketch you’ve already seen 500 times. Yes, no ones gonna confuse (President) George (W) Bush with George Plimpton, we get it. Were all being lobotomised by the country’s most influential industry, which has thrown in the towel on any endeavour that does not include the courting of 12-year-old boys. And not even the smart 12-year-olds, the stupid ones, the idiots, of which there are plenty thanks in no small part to this network. So change the channel, turn off the TV. Do it right now.....(A)nd there’s always been a struggle between art and commerce, but now I’m telling you art is getting its a-s kicked, and its making us mean, and its making us bitchy, and its making us cheap punks and that’s not who we are. Were eating worms for money...guys are getting killed in a war that’s got theme music and a logo. That remote in your hand is a crack pipe....”
Both Matt and Danny had personal problems. Danny was a recovering drug addict (not unlike Sorkin, who was arrested for drug possession during The West Wings run), while Matt had just broken off with Studio 60 ensemble player and rising star Harriet Hayes, a born-again Christian whose conservative views clashed with Matt’s liberalism. (Harriet was based in part on Sorkin’s real-life relationship with actress Kristin Chenoweth.) Other performers on Studio 60 included comic and lady’s man Simon Stiles (D.L. Hughley) and his more reserved cast mate Tom Jeter (Nate Corddry). Overseeing the show was NBS network chairman Jack Rudolph (Steven Weber), a profit-minded executive who wanted no drama and the new and outspoken head of prime time programmes, Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet), whose attempt at scheduling quality programmes was thwarted by Rudolph’s demand for shows that promised instant success.
With its star cast, large ensemble and lavish sets, “Studio 60" was the most expensive dramatic series to air on a broadcast network at that time. NBC needed it to become a solid hit with a large number of affluent viewers–the same formula that helped The West Wing succeed. In May 2006, just months before its premiere, NBC aired the Studio 60 pilot to advertisers and television critics. The response was overwhelming. “Broadcasting and Cable” magazine named the series its “best overall new programme.” Critics liked the snappy dialog, the chemistry between Perry and Whitford, and the supporting cast.
NBC also made the pilot available to subscribers of the DVD service Netflix, and posted the pilot on America Online in an effort to generate audience support. On September 18th, 2006, just over 13 million Americans watched the first episode, placing it second to CBS dominant crime drama “CSI: Miami.” But according to Nielsen Media Research, many Studio 60 viewers switched off after watching the first half-hour, an ominous sign for a new programme.
Unfortunately, it was not a fluke. By the fifth episode, Studio 60 was drawing just eight million viewers; the only bright spot was that the series became the most-watched among audiences between 18 and 49 years old, who made at least $75,000 a year. That upscale audience persuaded NBC to order a full season of 22 episodes with the hope word of mouth will prevail.
But with each new episode, critics accused Sorkin of preaching to his audiences instead of entertaining them. Sketch comedy fans were not happy with the bits and pieces of the fictional Studio 60 show that aired, calling them unfunny and flat. (To be fair, sketch comedies such as Saturday Night Live were also criticized for uneven content.) Sorkin took the criticism to heart; he began tinkering with the format and put more emphasis on the volatile relationship between Matt and Harriet, and the growing romantic attraction between Danny and Jordan.
The changes didn’t help. By the February 19th, 2007 episode, just over six million people were watching–a drop of more than half the audience from the pilot episode. Worse, NBC’s prime time ratings continued to languish in fourth place (behind CBS, Fox and ABC); with many new series doing poorly and only three dramas–Law & Order: Special Victims Unit; ER and the science fiction fantasy Heroes-- ranking in the top 30. Even though Studio 60 followed Heroes on Monday nights, it could not hold on to that shows growing audience. NBC quickly put Studio 60 on hiatus; the series did not return to the network until after the crucial May sweeps. By that time, the network had announced Studio 60 would not return for a second season.
That same season, NBC decided to field a second behind-the-scenes look at a sketch comedy series. Unlike Studio 60, it was a half-hour sitcom. 30 Rock, created by its star Tina Fey (a former cast member of Saturday Night Live), dealt with the employees of a fictional sketch show at a real network–NBC. (The title referred to NBC’s famed New York City headquarters and studios at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.) With co-star Alec Baldwin as network executive Jack Donaghy and Tracy Morgan as self-involved show host Tracy Jordan, 30 Rock overcame poor ratings in its first season to become an Emmy-winning comedy and a critical favourite. Its self-mocking style about television and stardom had more appeal to both network executives and audiences than the serious tone of Studio 60. In a 2008 interview for “GQ” magazine, Sorkin discussed the shows failure:
“I made too many mistakes. I would give anything to go back and get another bite of that apple. Basically, to use a sports analogy, you can have the best team in football playing the worst team in football. But if the best team in football throws four interceptions, they’re not going to win.... I’m helped by a staff of people who have great ideas, but the scripts aren’t written by committee. I was too angry when I wrote Studio 60. The show became like the cover of Abbey Road. Everybody was trying to figure out who this character was in real life or what that incident was trying to be. But the anger—it was a post-9/11 anger. We were going through a time when the television networks were so sensitive toward appearing patriotic. And patriotism was just being questioned all over the place. It just seemed like the wheels had come off our national culture.”
After Studio 60 left the airwaves, Sorkin did not return to television. Instead, he wrote a screenplay, which evolved into a play about the American credited with the creation of the worlds first totally electronic television system. “The Farnsworth Invention” (based on the memoirs of Philo Farnsworth’s widow Elma) was initially tried out at California’s La Jolla Playhouse before its Broadway premiere at New York’s Music Box theatre in December 2007, with Jimmi Simpson as the title character. But reviews were mixed, and “The Farnsworth Invention closed in March 2008. Sorkin then turned his attention back to film writing; he penned the 2007 Tom Hanks-Julia Roberts movie “Charlie Wilson’s War.” A year later, Sorkin signed with Dreamworks Studios to write several additional films, including one about the creation of the popular social Web site Facebook.
Questions Site Information Contact
Return to Top of Page