We Love the City

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So good, so frustrating: Sorkin’s Studio 60

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is starting to tick me off.

I love Aaron Sorkin. West Wing, the first 2-3 seasons in particular, rate among the best television I’ve ever seen. I really don’t mind that he’s elitist or left-wing, because I happen to be both, and I actually enjoy stories about people who aren’t average schmucks. He writes great scripts and collects great actors, and doesn’t assume his audience is too stupid to follow complex ideas and stories.

So it’s no surprise that I’m enjoying Studio 60. It’s different from West Wing – much lighter in tone, obviously – but still shows off most of Sorkin’s strengths: Snappy banter, fast-paced plots, and a fantastic ensemble of characters. Unfortunately, it’s also snagged on two of his weaknesses.

Sorkin doesn’t write romance terribly well. West Wing was at its best when it focused on the characters and their jobs, and tended to lag when it tried to get more personal. The early attempt to make Mandy a main character was quickly abandoned, and Sam’s relationship with the hooker was never as compelling itself as it was when it was crashing into Sam’s career and White House public relations. The only romances that really worked were the President and the First Lady, which was more of a married couple setup that allowed someone to point out when Bartlett was being an ass, and Josh and Amy, who were so inseparable from their jobs that their personal relationship couldn’t be separated from their professional one.

So it’s unfortunate that Sorkin has fixated on the romance between Matt (Matthew Perry) and Harriet (Sarah Paulson). Almost every episode thus far has been about their romantic history, and it never entirely gets off the ground. Only once, in The Long Lead Story, has their relationship been particularly compelling, and that was the point at which it was revealed that their romance came about almost entirely because of the show: Harriet was Matt’s muse, and his inspiration made her a star. That was the point of their relationship, and it took far too long to get to it and hasn’t really been touched on since.

The show has accordingly lagged when focusing on the will-the-or-won’t-they romance, not only because the story isn’t that great, but also because it obscures the rest of the cast. What’s the point in having such a great (and high-priced) ensemble cast if you’re hardly going to use them? Bradley Whitford has hardly had anything to do, which is unfortunate considering how much fun he usually is on screen; in this week’s episode, he manages to take control for a while and we see why he’s actually necessary to the cast. What’s more, both Perry and Paulson seem to be much better interacting with others than with each other: Perry & Whitford in particular have great chemistry which hasn’t been used nearly enough since about the second episode.

The other snag is Sorkin’s obsession with the Chrstian right. It was a popular target on West Wing – the first episode began with Josh nearly getting fired for insulting an evangelist on television – but it didn’t get anywhere near the attention that it has on Studio 60. It’s been in nearly every episode, which is entirely too much; as much as America may be divided into Red and Blue states, a comedy show shouldn’t be that obsessed with it.

Sorkin clearly wants to make Harriet the dividing and unifying force on the show: She’s openly and devoutly Christian, which alienates and angers some, yet she’s also a gifted comedian and a nice person, so everyone who knows her likes her. But still, it feels like overkill: I don’t talk about my co-workers’ religious or political beliefs on anything approaching a regular basis. Like her relationship with Matt, Harriet’s religion should come up once in a while, not every episode. What’s more, Sorkin has already explored this territory before, yet with considerably more subtlety and skill, on West Wing, where the President of the United States was a devout Catholic (who almost became a priest, even), and his staff included several Jewish characters. It simply wasn’t a big deal most of the time; everyone accepted, or at least understood, Bartlett’s beliefs, and if the staff of the White House can accept a religious boss, one would think the cast and crew of a TV show should be able to deal with it.

Despite the fact that the two big flaws revolve around Harriet, I do quite like Sarah Paulson. She’s a talented actor, doing drama and comedy capably. She’s great when she’s not being tied down to the show’s two big subplots, and even rises above them occasionally: Calling Matt a “Whoremonger with the sensitivity of a cabbage” was priceless, and her explanation of her Christian roots to the reporter was also well done. Unfotunately, Sorkin is doing her, not to mention the rest of the cast, a disservice by going back to the same story well every week.

Studio 60 has all the ingredients to be a great show, but Sorkin is holding it back. The recent two-parter shows signs of busting out: It got the whole cast in on the action, covered a variety of stories, and had a nice guest spot from John Goodman. Bradley Whitford and Steven Weber finally got the screen time they deserve – the two have great chemistry together, and Weber seems to be having an awesome time chewing up scenery. But the Christians vs. Hollywood theme continued to rear its head, and the show, a nice ensemble piece, yet again closes on Matt and Harriet. It was a nice scene, but it didn’t sum up the episode terribly well; unfortunately, it sums up the series fairly effectively: Too much focus on elements that aren’t working all that well.