Mondays at 10 p.m. on NBC. Eight episodes into the first season.
I don’t like Aaron Sorkin, perhaps the most overrated writer working on television. I don’t like his self-conscious banter. I don’t like the condescension with which he writes women. I don’t like the way most of his male characters are obvious stand-ins for Sorkin himself. I don’t like his idealization of political naiveté or his self-righteous Luddism or his shameless grandstanding.
That pomposity was more tolerable (and Sorkin’s other weaknesses somewhat less pronounced) on The West Wing, where the presidential subject matter made grandiosity excusable, even appropriate on occasion. I’m not immune, for example, to the power of the second season’s Thanksgiving and Christmas episodes, which earn their emotional punch with truly thoughtful, beautiful writing. More often, however, Sorkin’s trademark rapid-fire dialogue (not to mention the fine actors delivering it) disguises shallow reasoning and inconsistently drawn characters. Is it more interesting than much of the drivel on TV? Well, yes, but that doesn’t make Sorkin the screenwriting god that some make him out to be.
Sorkin’s triumphant return to television (after being fired from The West Wing for—apparently—one too many tardy scripts) is Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, an embarrassingly masturbatory, self-congratulatory show about just how Challenging and Consequential and Socially Significant writing for television is. Sorkin has become so arrogant, so lacking in self-awareness, that in the pilot, when the Heroic Writer sweeps in to revive a sketch comedy show that has lapsed into mediocrity, a tremulous little production assistant actually asks, “Are you coming to save us?” How can you not roll your eyes at that? Sorkin thinks he’s single-handedly saving us from cultural decay, and he’s doing so by giving us this ham-handed excuse for a drama.
The irony is that I’m actually quite sympathetic to many of Sorkin’s pet themes in Studio 60. I, too, believe in the value and importance of pop culture, and—as one raised in Florida by a doctor father and a homemaker mother who devoutly attend church every Sunday and hold strongly progressive political views not despite their religious beliefs but because of them—I certainly feel that the so-called culture wars have led to gross oversimplifications and stereotypes of “red” and “blue” America.
But Studio 60 doesn’t offer greater nuance concerning debates over gay marriage, creationism, and the true nature of patriotism; it just tweaks the stereotypes in marginally different but still offensive ways, and its failure to live up to its admittedly high aims makes its self-congratulation all the more unbearable. One character in particular, the Christian comedian Harriet Hayes, garnered Sorkin a great deal of hype when Studio 60 premiered, as if that formulation were somehow groundbreaking. It’s not, of course—hell, she’s inspired by a real person, Sorkin’s ex-girlfriend Kristin Chenoweth—but worse, Sorkin has yet to turn Harriet or her liberal antagonist, the Heroic Writer, Matt Albie, into anything more than vessels for high school–level debate. (The two-part gay marriage discourse was a particular low point.) Despite actors Sarah Paulson and Matthew Perry’s best efforts, neither Harriet nor Matt are people. Their opinions don’t grow organically; the two are pawns in Sorkin’s attempts to force-feed us his would-be insights on American politics and other issues.
Again and again as I watch the show, I hear Sorkin’s voice rather the voices of the characters. When former cocaine user Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) insists that drunk driving is more dangerous and shameful than cocaine use, I hear Sorkin’s defensive justification of his own drug abuse. When twentysomething Tom Jeter (Nathan Corddry) delivers an anti-blog rant so stodgy it makes Andy Rooney sound youthful, I hear Sorkin spitefully getting in another dig at websites, such as Television Without Pity, with which he has a notoriously rocky relationship. When network president Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) contends that wealthy viewership should make up for relatively low ratings as far as advertising dollars are concerned, I hear Sorkin’s argument for why NBC should pick his own ratings-challenged show up for a full season.
The conventional wisdom regarding Studio 60 is that it’s just the sketches, the show within the show, that are weak, and it’s certainly true that Sorkin can’t write a good joke to save his life: While the premises of some of the sketches show promise, the execution is almost invariably awkward and painfully unfunny. But that conventional wisdom—scapegoating the lackluster comedy—gives far too much credit to Studio 60’s lackluster drama. The characters are one-note, and the pacing is lethargic. (Just how much milage does Sorkin plan to pull out of the interminable, unromantic romance between Harriet and Matt?) Even Sorkin’s much-vaunted snappy dialogue is empty of any real insight into America’s cultural dysfunction.
Is Sorkin the one coming to save us? Lord, I hope not. He certainly has the ego of a demigod, but if Studio 60 is the best he has to offer, I’m holding out for a better savior.