Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (NBC)

“We’ll be the very model of the modern network TV show”. Repeat this quickly 3 times, and you’ll get the idea. A show with musical numbers is always worth watching. Studio 60 is a new brainchild of Aaron Sorkin – of course being shown on NBC network. It’s a delicious, well-written, and amazingly cast dramedy. It’s about show-business (takes place in a fictional NBS broadcast network, surrounding an SNL-like late-night show). It’s one of the best shows on television this season, and this is also the reason why Studio 60 is going to be canceled.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the show, I stuck by West Wing, and I adore the writing and actors in this project. I still remember one of Martin Sheen’s early acceptance speeches (for West Wing) where he said “every single word that comes out of our mouths is a product of Thomas Sorkin/Thomas Shlamme team, and every character is their imagination at work”. Sheen was right then, and it showed immediately after Sorkin left West Wing. The actors were the same, but the words – different. Studio 60 is packed with well-rounded, conflicted, imperfect characters. Not the kind of “in-your-face imperfect and loving it” characters (read. Greg House), but more humble, more aware of their weaknesses. Studio 60 (its first two episodes at least) is also packed with well-argued, solid themes, from art vs. business to personal vs. public life to friendship vs. mutually-beneficial partnership. And I can’t stress it enough, it’s only been two episodes.

Unfortunately, it’s all too much. This is the kind of show you tape and watch multiple times. I may love the show, my wife and cats may stay up late watching, rewinding, memorizing the scenes, replaying them to our frustrated co-workers next morning, but two people don’t make up an audience. And I sincerely doubt there will be many who would continue to watch this. For every two people entertained by it, 4 will be uncomfortable. And when you don’t like something on TV, you change the channel. People have gotten so used to being entertained instead of informed that in the short 8 years between West Wing and Studio 60, this format has become tiring, bloated. Sure, the exchanges are neat, and the vocabulary is immense, but I suspect people would want to see CGI animations, and fly-by sequences (thanks to CSI series).

Plus, the show is about television. It can’t make up stuff (because TV and movie buffs will see through a lie), and it can’t expose dark secrets – not even Sorkin is going to bite the hand that feeds him. He did it well in West Wing, it was politics, but here, on his home turf, it’s going to cost him every time he “outs” something. Finally, the show keeps bringing up religion and its influence on culture. And in 2006, that’s a suicidal move. Not that we shouldn’t discuss it, I just think NBC and especially Sorkin are not in a position to successfully bring this up. Unless of course, they’re counting on controversy – then it’s a brilliant plan.

I remember the first episode of West Wing – the last few scenes when Bartlett finally walks into a meeting between his staff and religious nuts (about to deal a compromise on something Josh said that was inflammatory). Bartlett reminds the religious nuts about their extremism. He brings up their shenanigans with abortion clinics and hate mail, and almost literally throws them outta the office. No compromises, no bending over for the radicals. That was 1999, before the election, before the towers came down, before Janet Jackson before the United Stated went insane. It was a red flag – that unfortunately wasn’t red enough, and although the scene was amazing, and still rings true – it’s also a moot point by now. They won, we’re censoring everything that goes live. We’re afraid of the sponsors pulling out.

Nowadays religion is deep within politics, media and even on the internets. Not just spreading the word (as it should), but influencing, convincing, forcing people to pick sides, good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, heaven vs. hell. Dividing every issue, winning little by little by splitting masses into smaller groups. I liked how the first episode of Studio 60 touched on it (Matt broke up with Harriet because she promoted her music CD on a christian talk show). Obviously, Sorkin feels strongly about it. I agree, and it pains me as well, the sheer force, this uncanny ability to shut down anything that displeases “the church”. It’s clear what Sorkin thinks of “them”. But how long will it last, in today’s climate of self-censorship? In the second episode of Studio 60, a reporter from a religious publication drills the producers on whether their controversial religious comedy sketch is going on the air – with subsequent showdowns in producers’ offices.

And although I love this dedication, this urgency (the showdowns are incredibly engaging), I need to step back, and think of the consequences. First of all, just how much is Sorking planning to push that envelope? Just how many times is he going to point the finger (on a fictional show, about fictional characters) before a real religious organization with a lot of power (Parents Council for instance) decides that Studio 60 is improper entertainment, and starts squeezing NBC to kill the show? It’s not like NBC hasn’t buried a controversial show in the past, bowing to religious pressure. BTW, ABC did the same, so both networks have shown to be spineless.

And just how bitterly ironic will it be that a show criticizing (intelligently, and openly) the influence of religion on media will be shut down because of influence of religion? If Studio 60 is an exercise in self-fulfilling prophecy, I can’t wait for more such confrontations. It will be a spectacular downfall. But as an entertainment show it’s a bit too smart, a bit too sure of itself, and a bit too self-important. Of course, it’s a marvel to watch (or just listen – nobody writes quite like this), but I am honestly worried that someone’s going to go after it, and unfortunately, win. It shouldn’t happen, but I’m afraid it will.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. NBC Mondays. Definitely worth watching – every scene is a marvel, as it relates to TV business, to relationships, to media, and of course, to our obsession with ratings and popularity. Catch it before it becomes a target of another mindless crusade against smart, critical TV entertainment. It’s not for everyone, but if you like it, you love it from the first scenes.

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