In NBC's new drama "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," virtually every hot-button political and religious issue earns an argument, joke or soapbox in this fast-paced tale set amid high-stakes TV production.
Sarah Paulson plays Harriet Hayes, an outspoken Christian. (NBC.com)
"Studio 60" comes from Aaron Sorkin, creator of "The West Wing," and his producing/directing pal, Thomas Schlamme (also a vet of that show). The new show revolves around the production of a "Saturday Night Live" sort of endeavor, with Sorkin taking his cues from real-life people and scenarios.
On "Studio 60" Matt Albie and Danny Tripp (Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford, respectively) play a brilliant writing-producing team brought in by fictional network NBS to save its ailing comedy-sketch show. Albie and Tripp inherit a host of challenges: uptight network honcho (Steven Weber), understandably concerned series stars (Sarah Paulson, D.L. Hughley, Nathan Corddry), a new network entertainment chief (Amanda Peet). They also have to deal with their own issues: for example, Tripp's relapse in cocaine use and Albie's past relationship with one of the actors.
So "Studio 60" finds Albie and Tripp trying to resurrect Important Television via a show many once considered daring, relevant, hip—a show some people believe has the power to shine light into dark corners of religion and politics by cranking up Intelligent Comedy. But Albie and Tripp have a Big Problem: TV networks need viewers, and sketches with too much offensive punch are deemed a threat to success.
And so it goes after three episodes of "Studio 60," with Albie and Tripp—and shockingly the new network entertainment chief—fighting for First Amendment Funny in the face of a business-as-usual, bottom-line-obsessed network (which is redundant, I know).
"Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" is a good show for several reasons:
First, no one in television writes better dialogue than Aaron Sorkin. Going back to "The West Wing" and "Sports Night" before that, the Syracuse alum can make a run-of-the-mill exchange about the weather supremely entertaining. Of course, Sorkin only writes clever, witty dialogue; even the dim characters on his shows, including this one, are extreme wordsmiths. But Sorkin doesn't waste your time.
Second, Sorkin toys with stereotypes, and as a result he writes dimensional characters. Amanda Peet's entertainment chief, Jordan McDeere, is a strong, intelligent, so far fair human being. Her industry character values personal relationships, honoring one's word, seeking the truth, hearing the other side. She's not perfect, as we're reminded in episode three, but that only makes her more interesting.
Sorkin has also made a special place in "Studio 60" for Sarah Paulson's Harriet Hayes, one of the comedy stars who, get this, is an outspoken Christian. Yes, primetime television is giving us a Christian with a sense of humor. And so far, Harriet Hayes is someone you'd like to have over for dinner.
Third, "Studio 60" is topical. While other shows market themselves with stories "ripped from the headlines," Sorkin's stories come not only from headlines but also from church conversations and the larger culture wars. Sorkin's screenwriting bible for the show apparently mandates characters talk about religion and/or politics at least once a minute. What does it mean to criticize your government? What do we really think about science? About psychiatry? What's the difference between entertainment and information? How is Hollywood marketing to Christians? It's all there.
And fourth, the discussions on "Studio 60" represent, in however small a way, what good social discourse can be. One of Sorkin's gifts, on display here as in "The West Wing," is the ability to show various sides of an argument. He repeatedly puts two learned characters in dialogue with each other, each defending a point of view. They use examples, cite statistics, and generally demonstrate critical and higher-order thinking on complex issues. With Sorkin, one rhetorical jab always elicits a response.
Now, put these strengths together, and the resulting show isn't very subtle. A Big Moral Lesson lurks in each new conversation, and only Sorkin's skill with words keeps the show from feeling as heavy-handed as it is. I'm not sure it's possible for a show to be both topical and smart and avoid this result. But if it is, Sorkin as well as anyone would find a way.
More room for improvement lies in Harriet Hayes' character. Yes, she is an outspoken Christian, and yes, she even prays before the show, and yes, she's likable. But so far, she mostly responds to the apparent dissonance of being Christian in the industry by making jokes about that fact. At what point, if any, can she—can we—move beyond that and actually see a life transformed by a faith commitment? We did get a glimpse in episode three, as she argued for pulling a sketch that made fun a Middle American town. Will we see more? And more importantly, will anything set her apart from her colleagues other than the obvious talk about her religion?
All this may not even matter, as numbers for "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" are already slipping. Variety reported that "Studio 60" has lost 32 percent of the audience it had on its Sept. 18 debut.
Though "Studio 60" is "the highest-indexing show among upscale viewers," according to Variety, its future is uncertain—much like that of the show within the show.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
"Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" airs Mondays on NBC at 10 ET.