Aaron Sorkin has always been dangerously neurotic, but it didn't catch up with him until Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a weak comedy-drama but a fascinating study of what happens when one man decides to air his personal grievances instead of telling an actual story. Now that it's gone where the canceled shows go--the last episode aired June 2--I can grieve properly. I loved Sports Night with the ignorant, full-throttle passion only the young can summon, and I was equally engrossed by the first four Sorkin-produced seasons of The West Wing. But with Studio 60, Sorkin slid from telling stories about characters to actually fashioning an on-screen persona for himself, and the result was a giant mess of a TV series where the story always took a backseat to the sermonizing. It's as if Sorkin could no longer bear the idea of his shows sparking debate, and decided simply to win all possible arguments by setting up the hero as a TV writer saddled with a mild drug addiction and equipped with every possible comeback when faced with one of Sorkin's own demons, i.e., God and women. After the naive warmth of Sports Night and the epic drama of The West Wing, Sorkin was poised to do something great—but Studio 60 wasn't it, and there are three reasons for this:
1. Sorkin broke up his men. His previous TV endeavors managed to create such a giddy rush of goodwill among viewers because Sorkin is damn amazing at writing the modern male friendship. Peter Krause and Josh Charles were the heart and soul of Sorkin's Sports Night, and Sorkin was smart to keep the characters together as much as possible: On camera, in their offices, in meetings, etc. Similarly, some of the best moments on West Wing where when the male White House staffers were talking about women or playing garbage-can basketball, when Sorkin could shrug off the weight of the grander drama and for a moment show the quiet but fierce camaraderie that can blossom between close friends. But Studio 60 took the chemistry of Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford and shattered it—and not merely because Perry's role as Matt the head writer and Whitford's role as Danny the exec producer necessitated their being apart during the show-within-a-show. No, rather than build the relationship between this duo and use it as an emotional anchor for the show, Sorkin sent them each scurrying after their own (often ex-) girlfriends, turning an ensemble drama into a weak romantic comedy. Which became the show's second problem:
2. Sorkin's premise became an afterthought. The Studio 60 pilot dealt with the actual show in question, a sketch-comedy series in the vein of Saturday Night Live (albeit less funny than even the Anthony Michael Hall days of SNL, which is saying something). But after a few plots about content ("The Cold Open," "The West Coast Delay") and the beginnings of a regrettably meta fictional subplot about ratings woes ("The Focus Group"), it soon devolved into wacky-but-not-really stories about the cast while forsaking the show they were supposed to be producing. The White House staffers had plenty going on in their personal lives, but they always managed to put that on hold to, you know, run the country. More importantly, in Sorkin's previous foray into behind-the-scenes territory, Sports Night, the nightly sports news show was always the driving force behind stories, whether it was ratings woes or covering the Olympics or how the lives of the production staff intersected with their bosses, viewers, and professional athlete guest stars. But with Studio 60, the show became secondary to the trite romantic foibles of the main characters; what was special about the show, what set it apart and made it unique, was gradually pushed into the background, until by the end Studio 60 was merely another workplace drama. Sorkin had more on his mind than spinning the taut stories he used to be known for, which brings me, pretty conveniently, to the show's third problem.
3. Sorkin used the show to exorcise his demons. There's an eerily prescient line from the fourth-season opener of West Wing, in which Whitford's Josh counsels another staffer in regards to the upcoming election race: "i don't care how subliminal it is. This can't be a national therapy session." The point he was making is that President Bartlet would be ill-served if his run at re-election were nothing more than a chance for the president and his senior staff to get off on being intellectually superior (which they did anyway, but whatever). But Studio 60 was that national therapy session: a chance for Sorkin to fashion a Jewish writer like himself, Matt (Perry), and set him up with a conservative Christian, Harriet (Sarah Paulson)--a girl just like the actress Kristen Chenoweth, whom Sorkin briefly dated. The fire and verve Sorkin brought to his dual sports anchors and even to the interplay of his White House staffers was dulled by Sorkin's constant need to preach to his audience, and while in the past he was able to marry that need with compelling character dramas, on Studio 60 he merely used the characters as pawns to set up his regular sermons. Of all these, the saddest are the ones devoted to the central relationship between Matt the writer (Perry) and Harriet the conservative Christian actress (Sarah Paulson). Chenoweth was also an outspoken blonde for Jesus, and both parties have copped to the fact that a lot of Chenoweth went into Harriet. That in itself isn't too surprising, but it quickly became clear that Matt would be winning pretty much every one of their theological arguments, either by landing a pointed jab or by wearing Harriet down until she grew too tired to fight and decided to take him back. And in the end, she did, despite the fact that she knew her belief system would likely pull them apart again. In the real world, a woman just might choose God over a boyfriend; but in Sorkin's fantasy, the boy'll win every time.
And so, given the messy structure, poor plotting, and solipsistic scripts, it's not too surprising that Studio 60 shuffled quietly off NBC's coil after 22 frustrating episodes. But it's hard to feel too bad for Sorkin; in addition to penning Mike Nichols' Charlie Wilson's War, he's set to write three scripts for DreamWorks, including The Trial of the Chicago 7, which Steven Spielberg might direct. It's supposed to deal with the protestors at the 1968 Democratic convention--but if Sorkin goes through another bad breakup between now and then, there's no way to tell what will make it on screen.