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STUDIO 60: 1

I recently saw some episodes of Aaron Sorkin’s SPORTSNIGHT for the first time.  It’s a behind-the-scenes look at a sports tv show, as THE WEST WING is behind-the-scenes at the White House.  It never got primetime air here in Britain, but I found by accident the other week that it’s being shown sporadically on some tiny cable channel no-one ever watches at some dismal time in the early morning.

SPORTSNIGHT was Sorkin’s first tv show, before THE WEST WING, and only lasted one season.  It’s not hard to see why.  For one thing, it has the most bizarre laugh track I’ve ever heard.  Most of the time it’s silent — just catching one act of an episode, you’d be forgiven for thinking it didn’t have a laugh track at all.  And that’s fine.  I hate laugh tracks.  But every now and then, you hear a weak sprinkle of half-hearted laughter, a chuckle here and there.  And you realise that the tape’s being shown to an audience, and their reaction is unsweetened.  That people are reacting to a comedy show and they don’t think it’s funny.  (Also, the cast is grating as all hell.)

Which brings us to STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP, NBC’s great white hope from Sorkin and director/producer Tommy Schlamme, the SPORTSNIGHT/WEST WING team.  About, strangely enough, a behind-the-scenes look at a comedy show that isn’t funny, and the two guys strongarmed into saving it.

From an ungenerous perspective, the two guys are in fact Aaron Sorkin — the flaky writer, and the drug-challenged showrunner. 

Sorkin was supposed to be directing a historical film, a year or two back.  That kind of faded away.  (Now, apparently, to be a stage play produced by Steven Spielberg.)  The drug-challenged showrunner is also a director, who had to give up his historical film due to failing a drugs test.  Sorkin’s liking for the smoke and the crack is well known, the poor bastard.  The flaky writer is recovering from back surgery, a procedure Sorkin’s had, and can’t hold the best relationship in his life together.  Thankfully, we don’t know the details of Sorkin’s own divorce.

The apparent two halves of Sorkin are the best two casting decisions — the underrated, unstretched Matthew Perry and the fine Brad Whitford.  That’s the best of it.

The Perry character’s ex, a lead on said comedy show, is Sarah Paulson.  As Miss Isringhausen on DEADWOOD, it was okay that she radiated The Crazy.  On STUDIO 60, she also radiates The Crazy, brittle and loopy.  There’s supposed to be a bit of an ethical ballet here — her character, Harriet Hayes, does something that the Perry character finds indefensible.  She can mount what many people will consider a perfectly good defense for it.  But she radiates The Crazy, so I don’t care if she told him little girls would be clubbed like seals if she didn’t do what she did.  She’s fucking crazy.

Also, Wikipedia passes on the slightly creepy tag: “Hayes is reportedly based on West Wing alumna Kristin Chenoweth, whom Sorkin once dated.”

Amanda Peet, as new network head Jordan McDeere, is just from fucking Mars.  All of her acting choices are just downright weird; she seems like she’s coming in from a completely different angle than anyone else, stiff and mannered and wide-eyed and strangely slowed-down and nowhere near the actress she actually is.  I have no idea what’s going on there, and the writers, producers and directors I know who’ve seen STUDIO 60 all agree she’s a really jarring, odd presence in the show.  Steven Weber’s turn as Evil Superior is just missing a moustache for him to twirl.   He seems to be enjoying himself immensely, and that’s fine in the few moments he’s jousting with the expansive Perry, but the caricature looks too broad compared to most everyone else on screen.  He and Peet, particularly, seem to be in two different shows.

There’s a couple of cameos of note.  Judd Hirsch, of course, blows everyone away as the producer of the show who torches his career making a rant about mediocrity straight to live camera, and Ed Asner turns in one of his enjoyably toadlike performances in his favourite style of small role — he’s spoken of seeing a tradition in “liberal” actors playing evil capitalist bastards, and he’s very good at it. 

The pilot differs from the scripts I saw only insofar as scenes and bits are chopped out of it.  Sorkin notoriously overwrites — I’ve spoken before of the stories of WEST WING actors having to speak faster to get all the pages in — but here he’s had to take elbows and knees off the beast to get inside the runtime.  DL Hughley and the uniquely punchable-looking Nate Corddry get most of their lines left in the editing room, and Evan Handler and Carlos Jacott as the unfireable hack co-producers get reduced to two three-second glimpses.  Some of the severed lumps were kind of useful to the show, and it’s a shame to see them go.  But what’s left is sleek liquid machinery.  It’s just a perfectly weighted piece of writing.

As it ought to be, since the front half is an acknowledged riff on Paddy Chayefsky’s NETWORK, which remains one of the most stunning pieces of writing ever dropped on Hollywood.  The Judd Hirsch rant that kicks off the show isn’t Peter Finch’s rant — it was the one trapped inside William Holden, who saw his friend turned into a lunatic and his lover turned into a robot by the sheer ruthless fucking mediocrity of American network television.

Not that NETWORK was half as slick a piece of work as this.  STUDIO 60 has been panel-beaten until it’s all gentle shiny curves, easing you past the NETWORK debt by not only explicitly referencing it a dozen times but cracking off a gag about the multiple references.
To be continued.  Have to go to dinner.

Published in brainjuice


  1. the showrunners at SportsNight fought with ABC endlessly over laughtracking. I believe there are different versions of the same episodes floating around with and without laughtracks.

  2. To be fair to Sportsnight. I am pretty sure that the original airings of the show never had a laugh track, and that only in syndication was one added.

    I think.

  3. Sportsnight ran three seasons, not one.

  4. Sports Night got two seasons, with the laugh track removed in the second. I’ve always had a soft spot for the show but I’d need a multiregon DVD whatsit to get it all.

  5. The laugh track isn’t generated by showing the taped show to an audience.

    Shows with a live audience, the audience is instructed when to laugh anyway via a lit up sign and/or the audience warm-up guy.

    Two seasons is the correct number.

  6. I also wanted to add that in the first season of Sports Night, Sorkin wrote or co-wrote every episode (much as he did with all but one West Wing in the first four years), but in the second year there are several episodes without his credit on it (though an uncredited pass is likely).

    The second year was produced at the same time as the first year of West Wing. His attention was clearly elsewhere and rumor has it that the SN cast was none too happy about it and was a factor is the series in cancellation (that and low ratings, of course).

  7. I was mildly looking forward to this show. It’s being rammed down our throats here in Los Angeles.

    And then I saw the preview for ‘Dexter.’

    I have a new mental lover for the upcoming TV season.

  8. indeed, the firsts season of ‘sports night’ had the laugh track tacked on afterward, much to everyone’s dismay. think it was hard to watch the first season? try watching it again after experiencing the second season without the laughing. it’s very sad actually. sports night is one of my all time favorite shows.

  9. Glad I’m not the only one who thought Amanda Peet was off. I just don’t buy her performance at all, because she doesn’t seem to be *there*.

  10. Pete Pete

    The historical film you mention has roots in a scene from early in the 2nd season:

    William H Macy (!)’s character, brought in by Issac Jaffe as a ratings consultant, gets a monologue about Philo Farnsworth and his brother-in-law (the subjects of the film)… and, as one might expect, he nails it.

  11. Graham Graham

    Sports Night isn’t a sitcom, really. It’s a half-hour show and it’s light-hearted and occasionally funny, but it’s not a sitcom. It feels more like a dramedy, and I think that’s kind of what killed it. That it was marketed as a comedy and decidedly not.

    Great show though, that gets better and better as it goes on. Apparently Showtime offered to pick the show up after it was cancelled, but Sorkin turned it down so he could focus on The West Wing.

  12. "Greg" "Greg"

    Dude, the casting for “Sports Night” was spot-fucking-on. You know not of whence you speak.

    “Sports Night” was twice the show that “The West Wing” was, and it’s just a shame that Sorking ditched it in order to focus on the other.

  13. Thanks to “Sports Night” (and then “The West Wing”,) we also get to see how Sorkin likes to reuse plots (and probably repeatedly retell about his own life.) Jeremy – the brilliant Joshua Malina, a Sorkin regular – found out his father had a long-running relationship with a woman not his mother. About two years later, Rob Lowe’s Sam Seaborn learned the same thing about his father.

    I haven’t seen the “Studio 60” pilot, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Matthew Perry finds out his father had a long-running relationship with another woman.

  14. Johnny Anarchy Johnny Anarchy

    Yeah, I wasn’t a terribly big fan of Sports Night. My ex loved the show of course. I, like you, couldn’t stomach the laugh-track goofy banter one minute and the homeless guy looking for a warm place to stay for the night the next minute. If a t.v. show could be bi-polar Sports Night would be it. Well written of course, but just some odd, odd choices.

  15. mike black mike black

    “I haven’t seen the “Studio 60″ pilot, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Matthew Perry finds out his father had a long-running relationship with another woman.”

    He might switch it up. Perry could find out his father had a relationship with another man. Or hell, Brad Whitford. That’s good TV.

  16. Richard Porter, in which WW episode does Sam Seaborn make that discovery?

  17. Chris Chris

    Peter – “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail”

  18. Simon Simon

    ‘Sports Night’ actually helped me enjoy ‘ 6 Feet Under’ more. I realised it was ok to hate Peter Krauss, which oddly made 6 Feet much more enjoyable.
    I plan on hating Peter Krauss for the rest of his career.

  19. Nathan Nathan

    The historical thing, (see the lajollaplayhouse site) “The Farnsworth Invention”, no mention is made of Spielberg’s involvment, thankfully. Looks like tickets are still available.

    Looking forward to seeing how it goes without the rigid constraints of the tv show to box in the story.

  20. I watched the Studio 60 pilot and I think it suffered because I’d read the script and my internal Aaron Sorkin voices were just very well-timed, so when I heard the actual actors saying the lines it seemed off to me. I’ll bet you’ll find Amanda Peet’s performance will improve for you when you start seeing episodes that you haven’t already read the scripts for. That said, I noticed the dialogue cuts too and was sad to see them go. I’m also anticipating seeing some of the Sports Night alum show up as their Sports Night characters. I particularly hope we see either Jeremy (Josh Malina, who has appeared in every single Sorkin project to date I think — movies included) and Natalie (the fab Sabrina Loyd).

    Also, give Sports Night a chance. The laugh track goes away eventually and it finds its pace. There are moments of genius in there.

  21. JJ Starks JJ Starks

    Can anyone tell me when and on which shiity channel, this show is on?

  22. Ally McLeod Ally McLeod

    Sorkin has an incredible history of daddy issues. It’s one of the defining characteristics of his entire body of work. Examples:
    – A Few Good Men: Tom Cruise is the son of a navy Admiral and brilliant attorney-general “You were bullied into that courtroom by the memory of a dead lawyer”, “I think my father would have enjoyed seeing me graduate law school.”
    – The American President: A bit of a stretch but Michael Douglas is a widower and single father.
    – Sports Night: Jeremy has the same adulterous father as Sam in the West Wing despite it being mentioned that he “idolises his father”. The real daddy issues character is Casey, played by Peter Krause. Another divorcee, at one point he is worried that his son is too formal with him (shaking hands instead of hugging). In one episode his son lies to avoid embarassing him and he responds: “Man. Should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that you’re my son. And you can’t even blame me ’cause Grandpa started it and I have a hunch his dad was no picnic either…In your lifetime, you’ll never embarrass me. You know why. Cause I’m your father. Who’d you think I was?”
    – The West Wing – Let’s summarise: Jed Bartlett, father of three, and whose father beat him cause “he couldn’t stand that he[Jed’s Dad] wasn’t as smart as his brothers.” Leo McGarry, father, and whose father (and grandfather) was alcoholic and commited suicide while drunk. Sam Seaborn has an adulterous father. Josh Lyman’s father died the night of the Illinois primary “‘My son won the Illinois Primary tonight’. Three more hours and he’d have been able to say that. He’d have been proud.” After Josh was shot Bartlett goes to church and asks of God “What was Josh Lyman? A warning shot? That was my son. What did I ever do to your’s except praise his name and praise his glory.” C.J. Cregg’s father develops Alzheimers. Toby Ziegler was estranged from his father for several years because he had been in Murder Inc. Charlie Young never knew his father. Will Bailey’s father was Supreme Commander, NATO Allied Forces Europe. Donna Moss’ father is normal, but this wasn’t by Sorkin.
    If something like this doesn’t happen in Studio 60, then Sorkin will have gained the finest therapist known to man.

  23. Re: the daddy issues — notice how often Sorkin’s characters, especially on WEST WING, ask, “Is your father proud of you?”

  24. Ally McLeod Ally McLeod

    There’s actually a movement to make Sorkin’s father to just say sorry damnit!! whatever he did…

  25. […] As much as it pains me to say it, I’m not totally sold on Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. There’s enough that’s good about it (and I am enough of a lover and admirer of his grand style of writing) that I’m going to keep watching, but it surely doesn’t have its legs under it quite yet, but is instead stumbling, a little off-balance, a bit odd. As the ever-lovely amy said last night, there’s nobody I love on it yet, as there was shortly into The West Wing, though it did take me some time to realize that the Ziegler was my one true love on that show. Though I predicted love for Suzanne the PA after the pilot even though she only had one line, a great line, and there is still hope for that. And Matthew Perry is much, much better than I would have thought. And I love Bradley Whitford, but I’m having a hard time remembering that he’s not my Josh Lyman. Again, as amy said last night in her ever-wiser-than-me wisdom, I’m waiting for him to yell “Donna!” and for Janel Moloney to appear outside the office door with a cup of coffee and that smirk she got when she knew that Josh was just yelling because he could but that really he just needed to see her because he was in looooove. But that’s my problem, not his, and it is surmountable. Amanda Peet was better in the second ep, and maybe DL Hughley can act, but the jury’s still kind of out on that one. And then there’s Sarah Paulson. I want to like her, I really do, especially as she was so so good on Deadwood, but as Warren Ellis wrote a week ago, even if he’s completely and totally wrong about Sports Night, she’s bringing too much of the crazy she had on that show to this one. There’s also the fact that the West Wing started out a bit off as well, and I won’t be at all surprised if Studio 60 finds its balance in the next few episodes. There’s tons and tons of potential here — and I’ll say that the pilot played better the second time around, though you shouldn’t have to watch it twice. I want to be in love with this show, and I’m right now only in serious like. […]

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