[25 November 2007]
Aaron Sorkin’s 2006 Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is essentially The West Wing meets Hollywood with slightly more humor and an emphasis on cultural, rather than electoral, politics. The show takes place behind the scenes of a Saturday Night Live-esque comedy show, and focuses on the sticky business end of comedy as cultural critique, as well as the relationships of the actors, producers, and staff putting the show together. At first, it’s virtually impossible to look at Matthew Perry without thinking “Oh my god, it’s Chandler”, closely followed by “Where’s Monica?”
But I quickly became comfortable with and attached to his character, Matt Albie, (executive producer and head writer of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) as well as to his partner Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford). Perry certainly demonstrates that he has a range of comic and dramatic ability that extends far beyondFriends, and Bradley Whitford is as wonderful as he ever was in The West Wing, Adventures in Babysitting, or Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise.
Part of the thrill of watching Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is certainly the fact that it is a behind the scenes exposé, allowing viewers to wonder, “is this really how it is on Saturday Night Live” or “should I become an executive producer of a TV show so I can hang out with funny people all day who are also really into politics?” Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is very self-aware about its position as a vehicle for an inside look into the world of a comedy sketch show. For example, guest actors play themselves (most notably Sting, whose guest appearance consists of him sitting on stage playing a lute), and both Saturday Night Live and The West Wing are mentioned in the dialogue.
The show does such a good job of establishing its place in Hollywood, as the viewer knows it, that it seems like it actually may exist, too, and is therefore very believable. The entire cast, down to the extras, shows talent and promise, and though at times there is some over-acting and over-sentimentality during some of the more political scenes, the performances of the lead characters are stand out.
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip received mixed reviews during its time on the air, and was often criticized for not being as good as The West Wing. Rather than compare the show to its more famous and well respected “older brother”, if you will, if one can watch Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and try not to think about how much better The West Wing is, they might be pleasantly surprised. It is true that the show can’t seem to find its place between comedy and drama. Some episodes seem entirely devoted to making the viewer laugh (such as “Nevada Day” parts I and II, in which the characters end up in Pahrump, Nevada due to a series of wacky hijinks involving a half smoked joint, a speeding ticket, a Jesus costume, and an Emmy winning performance by John Goodman as Pahrump’s resident judge) and some episodes seem to forget the comedy completely and embark on political drama that seems more at home in The West Wing than in Hollywood (e.g., the impossibly fast-thinking, perfectly articulate historical / cultural-political-loaded response to any subject regarding the ever-present culture wars, past and present).
Though it would be nice to believe that members of a comedy sketch show are constantly involved in social and political debate, and they’re quick to pull historical examples or speech-stopping-one-liners out of their proverbial hat (as we became accustomed to in The West Wing), the show is more believable and likable when comedy is at the forefront. The effort to incorporate such heavy-handed cultural politics into the show is admirable, and sometimes, it’s successful.
But all in all, Aaron Sorkin failed to find the right balance between the cultural political intent and the simple, entertaining comedy, though perhaps he would have achieved this had the show been given a second season. Despite its purported faults (critics were divided), Studio 60 Live on the Sunset Strip holds up well on DVD, as viewers can quickly proceed to the next episode without losing momentum, without losing the smart, subtextual thread of the prior episode.
On DVD, viewers are likely to develop a deep attachment to the characters and feel compelled watch all 22 episodes in one weekend without ever wanting to leave the couch. I laughed, and then I got really emotional and weepy at all the romantic scenes. I developed a crush on executive producer Tripp. I was completely panicked when Jordan (Amanda Peet) had to have an emergency D-section, and I certainly wasn’t taking any phone calls or letting anyone talk to me during the series finale.
Unfortunately, the special features on the DVD are nothing to hold the phone for. There is a short, behind-the-scenes feature, consisting mostly of clips from the show and the pilot. There is also commentary from Aaron Sorkin and producer Thomas Schlamme, but again, nothing to get too excited about. What will catch and hold your attention is the undeniably great acting and script of Studio 60 Live on the Sunset Strip. It will leave you wanting more.