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Studio 60 Fodder

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: Pilot Recap and Analysis

"Studio 60" is on the air.

Whether you watched a (short-lived) prerelease version on YouTube, rented the special DVD from NetFlix, or took the "normal" approach of watching the premiere Monday night on NBC, one thing is certain: If you watched Studio 60, you saw that Aaron Sorkin's back, he's still got it -- and he and his new show still have some room to grow.

The recap

The opening
We open with show-within-a-show star Simon Stiles (DL Hughley) warming up the audience before the taping of the premiere of "Studio 60"'s 20th season. We catch occasional glimpses of Studio 60's Lorne Michaels counterpart, executive producer Wes Mendell (Judd Hirsch), looking a bit… miffed.

Wes is in a heated fight with Jerry, who's in charge of broadcast standards for the network, NBS. Jerry's putting the kibosh on a sketch that Wes says is going to kill. Jerry suggests subbing in "Peripheral Vision Man," an apparently-awful recurring skit they've run into the ground on the show. Wes, stewing, sends word to the control room: The unnamed killer sketch has been killed, and an unfunny Peripheral Vision Man sketch will take its place.

Special guest host Felicity Huffman runs into an obviously-distracted Wes. She's worried about her monologue -- and Wes agrees with her: It's not funny. Felicty's flustered.

The "cold open" for Studio 60 is set to take place in the Oval Office, with Tom Jeter (Nathan Corddry) doing a Bush impersonation. Less than a minute into the sketch, Wes interrupts the proceedings, and launches into a diatribe against the overly-PC, dumbed-down, "lobotomized" schlock that he feels characterizes modern television. He goes on and on -- imploring the audience to recognize that this isn't a joke, it wasn't scripted -- until finally Cal Shanley (Timothy Busfield) in the control room cuts to the opening credits.

Jordan.
After the credits, we meet Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet). She's the new, impressively credentialed president of NBS, at a dinner party celebrating her first day on the job. Jack Rudolph, the chairman of NBS who hired her, is there too. The party stops early when the network brass at the affair hear the news about Wes's unscripted outburst.

Jack storms around the studio, much more angrily than Jordan seems. She seeks out Wes and asks him about the cut sketch. Before he can answer, Jack fires him. We all knew that was coming. Jordan, though, apologizes to Wes "about all this."

We flash forward to a hastily-assembled roundtable discussion with network execs. Jack is worried about legal, the news division, the cast of the show talking to the press, the FCC; he wants to get this "incident" under control. Jordan, still, remains calm. There's no FCC case, no legal ramifications -- no issues at all that seem to faze her, other than the fact that the media is going to say that Wes's diatribe is right.

Jordan tells Jack that in order to save the show and redirect any media spin that "Studio 60" has "lost" it and exemplifies everything that's wrong with television, she wants to hire back Danny Tripp and Matt Albie as the showrunners. Jack is immediately opposed: He personally fired the duo just a few years back. Jordan's point is that hiring two people who hate Jack's guts lets NBS take control of the story -- and "win" the press war. Jordan's confident she can hire Matt and Danny, even though Jack thinks it's impossible… And she thinks she can get it done tonight. Jack warns her, though, if she screws this up, she'll be fired as fast as he fired Wes.

Matt & Danny
So who are Matt and Danny? Matt (Matthew Perry) and Danny (Bradley Whitford) are former writers for Studio 60. They were fired four years ago… over various disagreements with the suits at the network.

While the craziness at Studio 60 is going down, Matt and Danny are across town at the Writers Guild Awards ceremony. Matt's a bit woozy, seemingly drunk. Turns out he's on some back medication, and he's drinking a bit too, which has him suffering from "mania," among other side effects.

We learn quickly that Matt has just broken up with his girlfriend Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson). Harriet, along with Tom (the Bush impersonator) and Simon (who did the warm-ups), is one of the "big three" stars of Studio 60. According to Matt, a comment he made about Harriet's performance of the national anthem at a baseball game that rubbed her the wrong way caused the break-up. Matt's so flustered about Harriet -- and, of course, the painkillers -- that Danny needs to push him up on stage to accept the award Matt's just won for writing a movie that Danny directed.

The Wrap Party
At the wrap party, we meet the lovely Harriet, who we learn is a religious Christian. And we learn that the cut sketch had some sort of jokes that would alienate some fundamentalists Christians. Harriet tries to reassure a nervous Cal, who worries that since he let Wes continue his tirade for nearly a minute, he may lose his directing big and end up relegated to the likes of "Good Morning El Paso." On a side note, Harriet indicates to Cal that her break-up with Matt had nothing to do with the Star Spangled Banner.

Harriet catches up with a few castmates, including Tom and Simon. She asks that no one ever mention Matt to her, ever again, suggesting that Matt and Danny are "laughing their asses off" about the breakdown on the show tonight.

As the big three make their way outside for some fresh air, a portly cast member named Brook stops them:

Brook: Hey, Harriet, you pray before every show, right? So what happened tonight, I mean, did it not work?
Harriet: What?
Brook: Did you just not do it right? (laughing, and clearly wasted) I'm just asking.
Harriet: You know what, Brook, when you start making a contribution to this show, you can talk to me anyway you want. But you had two lines tonight, and you stepped on one of them. So until you either accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, or make somebody laugh, why don't you talk to somebody else?

Nice.

Once the trio's outside, we learn that not only was Harriet not offended by the sketch, she was in fact only offended that she wasn't in it! Calling it "the best writing we've had in years," she shows that she's clearly able to separate her own beliefs from her appreciation of good comedy. She's surprised Wes wrote it.

Simon wonders if perhaps Ricky and Ron wrote the sketch -- before quickly reconsidering. Ricky and Ron are currently co-executive producers for the show, and the big three clearly don't have much respect for their talents.

They're interrupted when someone comes out to inform them that they, along with everybody else at Studio 60, have been called back to the studio.

Danny and the test
Danny meets Jordan. She pitches him on her idea, that he and Matt run the show. Danny declines immediately, because he's prepping a movie that he and Matt are about to start. But Jordan says he isn't prepping a movie.

Huh?

See, Jordan knows all about… "the test." The test that Danny just failed his physical, and thus can't be insured to work on the movie. Through sharp, fast dialogue, we learn that Danny had a drug addiction issue 11 years ago, and that he can't be insured to continue his movie work until he's clean for 18 months. Jordan knows all this secret information because she has a contact -- an ex-boyfriend at the insurance company. How convenient!

Jordan tries to handle the information as delicately as possible. Danny says she's blackmailing him, which Jordan denies -- since she doesn't want to use the information against him, she just knows that he's available. Danny maintains that he's not interested, but he wants to get over to the studio where Matt now is, to make sure that he can tell Matt about his drug relapse before Jordan does.

Jordan tells Danny she has no intention of telling Matt about the failed physical. Danny replies: "That's nice, but I have no reason to trust you and every reason not to." Why? "Because you work in television." (That line would have had a little more sting in it had it not been in every single commercial NBC aired for the show…)

At the studio
Danny meets up with Matt at the studio and tells him about the offer to run Studio 60, and the failed physical -- he tested positive for cocaine. Matt's immediate concern is Danny and his health and well-being -- and then he gets pissed off that the network execs are trying to use Danny's relapse to force him into running the show.

Matt storms into a roomful of network execs, including Jordan and Jack. "Are you people using the confidential information that Danny failed a drug test to force him into taking over Studio 60?" Jordan points out that she was the only one who knew that information -- up until Matt blurted it out to the entire room.

There's no love lost between the Matt & Danny duo and Jack, who fired them four years ago. Danny storms out of the impromptu meeting. Matt lingers and tells the execs he'll bring Danny around and take the deal. We infer that Matt thinks this experience could be good for Danny and an opportunity for him to clean up in time to shoot the movie in two years or so.

Jack: There's gonna be a press conference at noon on Monday… I know I can count on you to answer questions in a way that doesn't embarrass the National Broadcasting System. Will that be hard for you?

Matt: I wouldn't think it'd be hard for anybody, ‘cuz if you pointed a camera at two people masturbating it'd be among the least embarrassing things on the National Broadcasting System.

Matt asks a PA to page the full company to the stage. He then runs into Harriet, whom he informs about these latest developments. Harriet wants to resolve their fight now, rather than waiting a few years as Matt suggests. We learn that they really broke up because Harriet went on the 700 Club to promote her CD, and Matt can't stomach that, because the 700 Club host, Pat Robertson, is what Matt terms a bigot. She tells Matt that at least she stood by the cut sketch all week -- a sketch entitled "Crazy Christians." Matt points out that the 700 Club isn't a comedy show. He tells Harriet that there's no way to resolve their fight, but that as long as she "scores" for them on the show each Friday night, he'll be happy.

Matt then seeks out Danny, who encourages Matt to pick a different director. Matt doesn't want a different director; he wants a healthy Danny to do it. He verifies that Danny's back in a support group and in contact with his sponsor. And he tells Danny that the show will really rest on Danny's shoulders. Danny understands.

Jordan approaches the duo. Matt wants to fire "Beavis and Hackboy," aka the Ricky and Ron executive producer team we heard about earlier, but Jordan says he can't; they're under contract for two more years. Then Jordan mentions that she just read through the cut sketch that started this whole chaotic chain of events -- "Crazy Christians."

She thinks it's inspired and wants Matt to read it, but he won't. He doesn't need to.

He wrote it.

Jordan knows this. She hands the script to Matt and tells him: "Open with it next week."

Matt and Danny approach director Cal. "If you had left him on for (one more second), I'd have given you a raise," Danny tells him. Cal will keep his job.

The episode ends with Matt and Danny walking out to approach their cast and crew.


The Review

Overall, a great, jam-packed episode. This show has a huge cast, and the pilot does a very good job of introducing them at a healthy pace. You know who does what, and learn enough about all the characters to make them interesting. Just a few plot points and lines of dialogue show these characters to be considerably deeper than the ones I expect we'll meet on NBC's other "backstage-at-a-variety-show" show, "30 Rock."

"Studio 60" certainly feels like a Sorkin show. There's the expected rapid-fire dialogue, the definitive Tommy Schlamme-directed walk and talks and extended takes, and the just-this-side-of-preachy dialogue that espouses concrete opinions on a host of topics. Even the font on the opening credits matched the style of "The West Wing."

And it's fun.

Network chairman Jack seems a bit "stock" to me, though. Evil and mean just for the sake of it. Hopefully he'll get humanized just a bit more as the show progresses.

The show's set up plenty of interesting character relationships -- Matt and Harriet, Matt & Danny with Ricky & Ron, Jordan and Jack, the Big Three… There's plenty of stuff here for the show to explore. Even better, the big name actors that fill out this show's cast demonstrate incredible talent to embody Sorkin's words with believability and energy.

On another positive note, I found it impressive that NBC let "Studio 60" air with some of the strongly-worded, thinly-veiled criticisms of network television that the episode contained. Classy, I think.

All told, a great pilot. I can't wait to see if they keep it up!


Bonus: Two choice Jordan quotes:

"Let's talk in my office… I don't know where my office is."
"We're not sure which sister-pimping show he was talking about?"


Posted by Lex on September 18, 2006 11:20 PM
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Got one more quote for you:

"I've already got a dual-masturbation show in active development."

-- Posted by: mac at September 19, 2006 9:32 AM

Mac,

You're absolutely right. That line was definitely spit-take worthy!

-- Posted by: Lex at September 19, 2006 9:36 AM

Looks like I have somethign to keep me awake until 11:00 and rob me of another hour of much-needed sleep. This show came out strong, as expected from Sorkin. The backstage atmosphere gave me flashbacks of Sports Night, and it was complemented well with Felicity Huffman in the episode.

Aaron Sorkin + Matthew Perry = <3

-- Posted by: Phil at September 19, 2006 11:25 AM

Loved it - loved the energy - loved the characters - kudos to you for figuring it all out and recapping - I missed some of it - does it move too fast for network tv though?

-- Posted by: Great Show at September 19, 2006 12:58 PM

I don't think so. It's compelling enough to keep any attention-deficit-ridden television viewer engaged. Then again, people couldn't seem to keep up with Arrested Development...which really didn't move that fast

-- Posted by: Phil at September 19, 2006 3:19 PM

The word-count on the recap is enough to convince me that I was right last night - this show isn't just jam packed, it peanut butter AND baloney and jam packed. Too much. Too too much talking, too much preachifying. And an absolute hollow sound where the humor could and should be. IMO, the lack of funnybone made this hour tedious. Maybe Tina Fey's thing will bring the funny to the business of being funny.

-- Posted by: Mike O. at September 19, 2006 3:41 PM

Great Show & Mike O... I agree with Phil. The show's not jam-packed; it's just not lazy. Where your typical sitcom assumes you can handle at most an A and B plot line, and your typical drama generally adds a C plot line, Sorkin and "Studio 60" assume you can handle more than that.

We manage dozens of "storylines" in our daily lives; I think we can handle a few more when they're as compellingly written as this show is.

-- Posted by: Lex at September 19, 2006 4:01 PM

I am curious to see more of the backstage antics.

Really loved how they opened the show (within the show) with a political sketch. SNL does that every week and it drives me to want to do what Judd Hirsch did -- although I have no cameras. Just thought it played really well...

Also really loved Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford as a team...

Not sure if I will be able to hang every week, but I am willing to try many more times.

-- Posted by: Rachel at September 19, 2006 10:46 PM

Word count too high? Seriously?

...lack of funnybone??? wha?

-- Posted by: Phil at September 20, 2006 4:13 AM

Mozart's patron complained that Mozart's music had "too many notes." But your recap was great, filling in some things I'd missed, and certainly didn't have too many words. The show was good, and I look forward to next week.

-- Posted by: DrDucky at September 20, 2006 4:50 PM

This show has a cast of actors I really like. I like that Matthew Perry was given a chance to show he has acting abilities far beyond the character of he played on "Friends". I like that they pulled in DL Hughley and brought in Ayda Field from "Blue Collar". In short, this ensemble, to me, really blends well.

There are some weaknesses. The most obvious weakness, and illustrative of others, is the anti-Chrisitan theme. Attacking Christians right out of the starting gate shows how myopic the creators and writers are. First, they got Harriet's character all wrong. No dedicated Christian would be doing and saying the things her character does. Harriet resembles a "cultural Christian", not a real Christian (you can find them all over the place in "flyover country"). But then, the creators and writers have their own prejudices, and most likely do not know many real Christians. Even if one disagrees with Christianity, and many do, it is worth finding out what they are really all about before trying to portray them. I can only hope future episodes provide some correction. When I watched the first 2 episodes, it was like watching monkeys at the zoo. Thinking that all around them is all there is, the monkeys are oblivious to the larger world around them. They marvel at the people who watch them, without understanding. The creators and writers of this show attack Christians as if they are some mentally ill little group of oddballs. Like the monkeys in the cage, they think their own little Hollywood world is all there is that matters. They forget the larger world their sponsors deal with has tens of millions of those "crazy Christians". I am hoping they have a plan whereby they start off with this typical narrow minded anti-Christian bigotry, and during the season, come around to a realization by some of the characters that what they were doing was no different than other forms of bigotry - doing to Christians what they would never do to blacks, women, Muslims, or Jews.

It is good enough to keep watching, but if the anti-Christian storyline goes unabated, then say goodbye to this show after one season. You don't insult tens of millions of people who buy your sponsors' products and stay on TV for very long.

-- Posted by: Jeff J at September 30, 2006 1:10 PM

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