'Studio 60' flop humbles the mighty Sorkin
Monday, February 19, 2007
Tonight might be the last episode of "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," Aaron Sorkin's much-anticipated, then much-derided drama for NBC. The series, about the behind-the-scenes machinations of a television sketch show not unlike "Saturday Night Live," was pulled a week earlier than expected after its season-worst ratings performance. It's unlikely to be renewed for a second season. And if "Studio 60" comes back to finish its six remaining episodes, it will have everything to do with the respect accorded Sorkin and nothing to do with a last-ditch effort to save it.
In a freshman crop littered with failures, why is the demise of "Studio 60" so intriguing? Easy, it's Sorkin. He's an immensely talented writer who made television better with "Sports Night" and "The West Wing." And he made a pilot, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," that got people's blood pumping and piqued their interest in a way that only one other freshman pilot did. That pilot was "The Nine," and like "Studio 60," it never followed with an episode to match the first one and it, too, is now all but dead.
Anytime a home-run hitter like Sorkin swings the bat, people pay attention. But television is a business that makes a lot of people whiff. There was a time when anything Steven Bochco or David Kelley did brought viewers up on the edge of their seats in anticipation. Both men are still enormously respected, but until their next great hit -- which neither has delivered in some time -- they remain out of the stratosphere.
Now Sorkin joins them. Because no matter how long his die-hard fans -- and NBC -- hung in there, "Studio 60" didn't get better. In fact, it got far worse. Last week, "Studio 60" had its worst ratings, which is saying something for a series that never delivered eyeballs to NBC from the moment it appeared and was, unexpectedly, overshadowed by the dark horse hit "Heroes," which airs in the time slot just before.
Television is a cruel, ugly and bloody business. Nobody knows those trite truisms better than someone like Sorkin, who didn't need a failure of his own to know how things work in this world. In a twist so perfectly dramatic it's almost hard to believe, "Studio 60" is being replaced by "The Black Donnellys," from creator Paul Haggis, who has led a far more mercurial life as a television writer than Sorkin.
An A-list film writer and director ("Crash," "Million Dollar Baby," "Casino Royale," "Flags of Our Fathers," "Letters From Iwo Jima"), Haggis went from writing episodes for creatively bankrupt series such as "Diff'rent Strokes," "The Facts of Life," among others, to creating one of his own: "Walker, Texas Ranger." He also wrote for "Thirtysomething" and "L.A. Law," then created two series that broke the hearts of critics when they failed: "Due South" and "EZ Streets."
He and Sorkin share a reputation in the industry as top-notch writers, but even that didn't stop him from failing again on television -- "Michael Hayes" and "Family Law" for CBS -- before finding success in films.
Sorkin, of course, has also represented himself well on the big screen -- "A Few Good Men," "Malice" and "The American President" -- before his heretofore glorious run in television. So don't pity Sorkin for the failure of "Studio 60," but have no doubt that it is, indeed, a creative misstep.
For a lot of his loyal fans, the question is why? Here, in descending order of importance, are a multitude of answers to that lone query:
-- The premise wasn't so much flawed as doomed. It turns out that most Americans didn't care at all about the career woes and personal crises of pampered Hollywood writers. An inside baseball show about the TV industry, apparently, does not have the same gravitas as the presidential politics of "The West Wing," where Sorkin's rapid-fire dialogue, smart speeches and finely tuned dramatic timbre worked especially well.
-- It was a drama about a comedy show but the skits weren't funny. In fact, much of the show was decidedly unfunny.
-- The cast was a bad fit. Aside from Matthew Perry (who was a wonderful surprise) and Timothy Busfield (who was underused), not much else worked. Sarah Paulson and D.L. Hughley were not funny in this series playing comics. Nate Corddry is funny in real life and was funny on the show, but his part, like Busfield's, was too small. Had Amanda Peet, as the fictional network president, flipped roles with Paulson, it would have been a major improvement. Bradley Whitford is a wonderful actor but he at first seemed to be rejiggering his "West Wing" role, then his character became periodically unlikable or annoying. Either way, it's not the mix you want.
Steven Weber went from bellicose chairman of the network (which didn't work) to beleaguered chairman of the network (which did, and he became funny while everyone around him went dour by apparent accident.)
This could mean but two things:
-- Sorkin was tone deaf to the problems. Or, more likely:
-- This was a bad fit for his talents. He aimed for something and missed. No home run. No hit. It happens. (For an example of a behind-the-scenes series that works in a manner that better fits Sorkin's talents and is, without question, far superior, look for the Canadian series "Slings and Arrows" on the Sundance Channel, or rent the DVD.)
-- When America didn't care for an inside baseball look at how hard it is to live and work successfully in Hollywood, Sorkin refashioned the series as a romantic comedy. See: "The cast was a bad fit." The Perry-Paulson relationship/ongoing argument was a deadly dull nonstarter. The Whitford-Peet relationship of convenience was wholly unbelievable. Peet's real life pregnancy didn't help Sorkin, clearly, but all the interoffice dating lacked spark and drama.
-- Almost every story line was a dud, and no amount of Sorkin whimsy, tear-pulling or soap-box speeches could save them. In fact, those often made the stories worse.
-- Who's the rooting interest here? (Take your time.) Ultimately, it was hard to care. Those who tried to care were Sorkin loyalists, and even they were dropping off at the end. Those who didn't care at all opted for "Heroes" or something else entirely. (And, yes, 10 p.m. on a Monday didn't help.)
Despite the demographically desirable audience who did watch "Studio 60," most Americans simply chose not to. Failure analysis is an interesting pursuit, but it doesn't change the fact that the audience decides. Always.
Here's looking forward to Sorkin's next offering.