As I’ve said before, Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is full of potential, but seems to have problems making good on it. That trend seemed to be reversed in the last few episodes, culminating in the fantastic Christmas episode. Finally, it looked like the show was hitting its stride: The show effectively spread the work around the ensemble cast, Sorkin wasn’t forcing one or two plots to dominate the show, and chemistry among the characters was working on all cylinders.
But the first episode after the Xmas break, Monday, seems to be another setback. It’s better than most of the early episodes, but displays more uncertainty than one would expect from Sorkin.
For one thing, Matt & Harriet seem to be back to their bickering. After The Kiss on the Christmas episode, one would think their relationship might move forward, but apparently not. On the up side, it doesn’t dominate the show like it did earlier on, and it does create a fun subplot with Matt bidding on charity auction for a date with Harriet, with the proceeds going to a Christian-run “Abstinence for Teens” organization.
Things begin to fall off the rails with the introduction of Hallie, the new VP of “Alternative Programming” – or, much to Jordan’s chagrin, reality TV. Her role is simply too obvious: She’s Jordan’s new adversary. She’s all about Reality TV, while Jordan hates it. But because she’s obviously Jordan’s foil, and we’re supposed to like Jordan, she comes off as automatically unlikeable, even after Jordan is an unprovoked bitch towards her. It doesn’t help that the general operation of the network detracts from Studio 60‘s focus on producing a late-night comedy show. The “Reality TV is bad” angle is just too simple, as is the seemingly inevitable compromise Jordan must come to in overcoming her prejudices. Hallie is a very clumsy and unlikeable stand-in for Ainsley Hayes, The West Wing‘s resident loveable Republican sex kitten.
As much as I don’t like Studio 60 losing focus on the TV show itself, by far the strongest aspect of Monday was Jack Rudolph’s ongoing effort to face down the board of directors, who want him to give in and accept a fine for airing an obscenity during a live newscast. Steven Webber has quickly set himself apart as one of the best actors on the show, and he’s been gradually giving Rudolph more dimension and life: He started out as a fairly one-dimensional (yet frequently hilarious) executive sterotype, but he’s increasingly been forced to break out of that mold. While Rudolph has traditionally been the most important person in any room, Sorkin now puts him on the defensive: He has to plead his case to the board of directors (even if diplomacy isn’t his forté), and then come up with a new plan to save both his ethics and, most likely, his job. It’s a great twist for the previously invincible character, and Webber pulls it off beautifully.
The Jordan/Danny relationship takes a very odd turn here. It was nicely built before the break, but one wonders if Sorkin hasn’t reconsidered the whole thing now; that, or he’s grossly miscalculated his dialogue and Bradley Whitford’s performance. It wasn’t hard to see a bit of an obsessive streak in Danny during The Christmas Show, but it was in that cute and loveable manner Whitford does so well. But here, he verges into distinctly creepy territory. It’s probably true that Jordan is rejecting him based more on their respective situations than on anything personal, but if Sorkin and Whitford are aiming for “charming and convincing”, they’ve missed their mark pretty badly. If they’re really aiming for something darker, it could be interesting, but they’re definitely treading a fine line. This is the one plot thread that needed more time to develop and digest – time that could have easily been found by dispensing with Hallie and her “Alternative Programming.”
There are a lot of plot threads that only begin here, and will obviously require more development: The potential romance between Tom and Lucy, as well as the falling out of Simon and Darius. The brief pitch session for Dylan’s “Husky Gymnast” is a highlight, proving if there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that Mark McKinney needs to be on screen much, much more.
There’s still so much potential on display, and it continues to make the show fairly frustrating to watch. It looked like everything was pulling together, but Sorkin couldn’t resist rocking the boat.