Season 1, Episode 1
Original Airdate: September 18, 2006
Writer: Aaron Sorkin
Director: Thomas Schlamme
Executive Producers: Thomas Schlamme, Aaron Sorkin
Cast: Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, Amanda Peet
Cast: Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, Amanda Peet
The teaser of the first episode of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” feels like a sledgehammer to the chest. It’s one of the most powerful, impactful openings of any series, and possibly the best. Writer Aaron Sorkin and director Thomas Schlamme were obviously inspired by the classic film “Network” (and say as much later in the show), but for my money this sequence transcends the movie. It’s so awesome, in fact, that the good will it builds allows Sorkin to take some major chances with structure and character development throughout the remainder of the episode.
The show focuses on the Los Angeles equivalent of “Saturday Night Live,” a live sketch-comedy show called “Studio 60.” Exposition is set up beautifully in the first few seconds as show cast member Simon Stiles (D.L. Hughley) informs the studio audience (and, by proxy, the viewers) about the history of “Studio 60,” the studio and how live television works. But then we begin to realize that the show is past its heyday, and the thousands of small stresses and sacrifices creator/head writer Wes Mendell (Judd Hirsch) has made finally cause him to have a nervous breakdown. By walking out on set. Live on air. And going into a rant about the slow disintegration and bastardization of the television industry.
That is all great, but what takes the sequence to another level is that we cut between the rant and the show’s director, Cal (Timothy Busfield) making the decision to keep Wes on air as long as possible, despite network executives screaming at him some variation on “you’ll never work in this town again!” Both threads are equally gripping, but the back-and-forth editing perfectly showcases the escalating chaos, climaxing with a smash to the show’s intertitle at the moment Cal finally gives in and cuts away from Wes, leaving the viewer gasping for air. Now that’s how you cut to commercial.
From here on in, Sorkin begins to play with the structure of most television pilots. The two main characters, Matt (Matthew Perry) and Danny (Bradley Whitford) don’t even appear until 20 minutes in. Instead, Sorkin uses the time immediately following “the event” to focus on new network executive Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) as she deals with the fallout on her first day of work (technically she doesn’t even have to start work until the following Monday, but decides “what the hell?”) and butts heads with another executive, wonderfully played by Steven Weber.
Jordan, along with Peet’s interpretation of the character, is one of the most fascinating, refreshing parts of the series. Peet was attacked by many critics for her “romantic-comedy” take on the roll, but I think that criticism is woefully misguided. The easy route would have been for Sorkin and Schlamme to cast an uptight “bitch” type for the role, but instead they did something much more interesting: They cast Peet against type and had her just act like a smart, normal woman doing her best in a bad situation. Instead of dealing with the dozens of lesser executives all looking at the mess on a micro level she sees the macro version of the problem. She doesn’t want to keep plugging the dam, she wants to build an entirely new one, and goes out of her way to accomplish that by being honest and forthright, two values none of the other characters seem to believe or, hell, can even comprehend in the television industry. When she tells Danny she knows he had cocaine in his system, he immediately believes she’s trying to blackmail him when that couldn’t be further from the truth. Whoops. Because she’s so forthcoming and honest, I’m guessing that’s why critics’ gut was that Jordan was underwritten, when it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Sorkin’s writing throughout is sharp, and his script never talks down to the audience. When there might be exposition that goes over our heads, he finds ingenious ways to make it come through without seeming like exposition, like Simon’s aforementioned introduction to the audience. His now-famous Walk-and-Talks conversations remain a thing of beauty, and many of his recurring storytelling tics pop up again here and are used well.
Many of his storytelling techniques bleed freely from one series to another. Turn on any Sorkin show and you’ll be likely to find two soul mates working in the same place who just can’t quite admit to themselves that they love one another (Casey and Dana on “Sports Night,” Will and Mac in “The Newsroom,” Matt and Harriet here). There’s usually an evil boss character who we later learn isn’t all that bad (Weber here, Jane Fonda on “The Newsroom,” William H. Macy on “Sports Night”) and loads of conservative characters (Will on “The Newsroom,” Harriet here) who serve as soapboxes to preach or be preached to. Oh, and he borrowed the opening nervous breakdown from “Studio 60” for the opening of “The Newsroom.” I mention these not as criticisms, but as observations. He goes back to these watering holes because they usually work well and he manages to find fun variations each time he does it.
Another thing Sorkin often gets criticized for is the lack of realism in his shows, which I find ridiculous. Just because his shows use real-life news events and politics as the backdrop for the storytelling does not mean that they must be gritty and real. Look at the pilot to “Studio 60,” where anchors on every cable news channel not only mention that the rant came from “Network,” but name check its writer, Paddy Chayefsky. As a screenwriter, it’s nice to think that might happen, but seriously? In what world? And his characters, despite speaking eloquently about politics, owe much more to the screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s (“Bringing Up Baby,” “His Girl Friday”) than reality. And, no offense to the gritty/shaky-cam/dark/topical/whatever shows, that’s the way I like it. If I’m being preached to, I want some escapism and I want some hope.
Over the course of its 45 minute pilot, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” manages to create an entire world, populate it with a diverse, multi-dimensional cast and then topped it all off with a Queen song for good measure. It remains one of the most literate, engaging hours of television I’ve had the pleasure of watching. Screw what the critics say.