Aaron Sorkin, bless him, believes that "the people who watch television shows aren't dumber than the people who make television shows." He also believes that "quality is not anathema to profit." He puts these idealistic words into the mouth of Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet), the new, impolitic NBS TV president whose first order of business is to revitalize the network's cash cow, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
, a long-running live late-night sketch-comedy series reeling from the Howard Beale-esque on-air meltdown of its creator (Judd Hirsch, alas, limited to the pilot episode). With this Upstairs/Backstage look at Studio 60
's tumultuous network politics and stormy personal relationships, Sorkin, the creator of Sports Night
and The West Wing
, once again tried to raise the bar of prime time fare. That he didn't quite clear it makes this one-season wonder a fascinating object lesson of great hopes and dashed expectations. Studio 60
was perhaps the most hotly debated series of the 2006 season and, love it or hate it, all its strengths and flaws can be savored and savaged anew with this complete-series set.
Pretty much above reproach is the ensemble. Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford head the cast as comedy writer Matt and executive producer Danny, former Studio 60 hands whom Jordan brings back to "save" the show. Steven Weber costars as network chairman Jack Rudolph, who clashes with Jordan over reality programming (he wants it, she doesn't), is embroiled in network negotiations with China, and must fend off angry affiliates offended by such sketches as "Crazy Christians." Jordan contends with becoming tabloid fodder after her ex-husband leaks scandalous details of their past. Meanwhile, Matt, a sardonic atheist, is in a whole Ross and Rachel thing with Harriet (Emmy nominee Sarah Paulson), who is devoutly religious and the show's galvanizing star performer (she does do a mean Holly Hunter). Studio 60 has much to say about comedy in wartime, the divided states of America, the creative process, and patriotism. Some of it is deftly handled, some of it is ham-handed and some of it patronizing. Most of it is delivered in Sorkin's signature chock-a-block style and with walk-and-talk urgency. But even at its most maddening, there are enough riveting moments (a performance by displaced New Orleans musicians in "The Christmas Show"), jaw-dropping developments ("I'm coming for you, Jordan," warns Danny, suddenly-turned romantic stalker), and indelible performances (John Goodman's Emmy-winning turn as a plain-speaking Pahrump, NV judge not impressed with the Hollywood types before him in the two-part "Nevada Day") to make Studio 60 a series worth revisiting, if only as a guilty pleasure. The pilot episode commentary by Sorkin and director Thomas Schlamme, as well as a behind-the-scenes featurette, were produced before the show was canceled, robbing this series' fervent fans of the opportunity for some closure. --Donald Liebenson