How Aaron Sorkin Ruined ‘Studio 60’: Part One – Pilot Potential

[In this three part series, Cultural Learnings will investigate the fall of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, the much-buzzed about NBC drama that failed to find ratings traction and lost creative drive throughout the series.]

Part One: Pilot Potential

I LOVED the Studio 60 pilot, just downright loved it. I watched that thing four or five times in August of last year, fascinated by the dialogue and the camera movements. Sure, it was all stuff that Sorkin had done on the West Wing, but back then I was young and didn’t understand most of it. Now, with an understanding of it, the decisions Sorkin made all seemed to contribute to the development of a show that I would want to watch on a weekly basis. Looking back now, however, this pilot was an entirely misleading, unrepresentative portrayal of the universe Sorkin intended to create. And, in the weeks that followed, Aaron Sorkin ruined Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

The pilot established various elements that could have made for an incredibly interesting show; unfortunately, Aaron Sorkin found a way to drive every single one of them into the ground.

– Matt and Harriet’s history could provide dramatic and comic tension for the series.

Well, it could have, but instead Sorkin turned it into the only dramatic tension in the entire show. And their “Jesus vs. Not Jesus” arguments were always the same, always not that interesting, and always something we’d heard before. In the pilot, Matt and Harriet working together was something that was to be awkward and difficult; in the rest of the series it just seemed like two people bickering all the time. When the rest of the cast calls Harriet on the bullshit in something like episode 17, it was about 15 episodes too late.

– Danny’s drug problem could be a recurring focus of his character, and a source of conflict between him and Matt.

Except that they completely disappeared after week one, only to reappear at strange times like this week’s episode where he referenced being an alcoholic. A cocaine addiction isn’t something that should go away that easily, and Sorkin is basically admitting that it was only a contrivance to get him away from the movie pictures. Which, really, should have been his desire the entire time while producing the show, but apparently everyone has forgotten about that. And yet it’s MATT who ends up addicted to painkillers late in the season. Go Sorkin.

– The relationship between ‘The Big Three’ (Simon, Tom, Harriet) and the rest of the cast seemed strained.

Early on, this was actually decently dealt with. However, in time, the rest of the cast was basically tossed aside. Jeannie? Popped up again only recently. Dylan? He went from insufferable supporting player to perfectly acceptable cast member. And the Big Three rarely interact, and when they do it doesn’t seem normal at all. The pilot established what was supposed to be a close relationship for them, and now only Simon and Tom seem at all connected. Harriet gets elevated from the rest of the cast through her status with Matt, and the result is the rest of the cast get lost. Which is unfortunate, considering how annoying Harriet can be.

– Jordan seemed like a young executive who was a bit off her rocker and would run into serious problems running a network.

And then she turned into a hormonal mess who seemed to only have two priorities: Studio 60 and reality television. As a network executive, I wanted to see what we saw in the pilot: Jordan handling crisis situations within her network. Early on, we got to see Jordan’s struggles to deal with people questioning her, but then that just disappeared. I know Amanda Peet got pregnant, and I know the show was basically cancelled, but that was no reason to turn Jordan into someone whose career problems magically disappeared just because she got knocked up.

– The Guest Host format would allow for the series to bring in high profile guest stars to spice things up.

This is perhaps the most frustrating from my perspective, because only once has the series managed to take advantage of this great construct. Lauren Graham? Basically completely wasted in her brief appearance. Jenna Fischer? Her appearance was a mere cameo, it barely even registered with even the most eagle-eyed viewers (Whatever were left). It was only Alison Janney’s recent guest turn that lived up to that potential, and that was only because Sorkin likes her. He should have liked Lauren Graham a little better, and given her something to do.

– The comedy show itself seemed like a device that would be used to create drama, and used sparingly.

The pilot contained absolutely no sketch comedy, and I don’t think we realized how unrepresentative this was. The problem is that sketch comedy isn’t always that funny, especially when written by Aaron Sorkin. The comedy setting should have been a way to build comedy and drama within its cast, instead of a way to needlessly kill three minutes with Harriet’s Nancy Grace. While the process produced some decent “sketches” (Nicholas Cage), it drove them into the ground just like Saturday Night Live does.

On the whole? The pilot contained all sorts of interesting elements and setups for the rest of the season, and I would argue that only Steven Weber’s Jack and Timothy Busfield’s Cal have managed to survive the following destruction of that potential. Part of me almost wants to see what another writer/producer could do with this pilot in terms of creating a more interesting and sustainable series as opposed to the frustrating one we received. And, in Part Two of this series, we might just find that writer/producer in one Tina Fey of ’30 Rock’.


Filed under NBC, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Television

8 responses to “How Aaron Sorkin Ruined ‘Studio 60’: Part One – Pilot Potential

  1. He did ruin it! And now, with these episodes — which were obviously written after the show was in the can — it’s obvious he doesn’t care and there are so many discontinuities and problems it just makes it WORSE.

    Even though Harriet is awful, awful, awful, Sarah Paulson is talented.

    Until these past few episodes, I would have put Tom on your list of characters who survived. But he’s been awful since Studio 60 came back from hiatus.

    Every recap I write for this show hurts.

    I think that’s it for now. There’s nothing you say I disagree with. I’m so disappointed. i wanted so badly for this show to be good.

  2. What is most frustrating about Tom (And I love Tom) is that he could be fantastic right now. He and Lucy are incredibly cute together, and his arc with the Chinese prodigy was incredibly engaging (Seeing her have to slum on The O.C. soon after hurt me). But now Sorkin is using him as the show’s central drama agent, and he was far better as an innocent comic figure. Sorkin, however, is incapable of leaving someone like that.

  3. DD

    Aaron Sorkin ruined Studio 60? Are you forgetting that without Aaron Sorkin there would be no Studio 60 for anyone to ‘ruin.’ That pilot you liked so much? That was him. The fact that he took the show in a different direction to the one you wanted does not mean he is responsible for the show’s failure to build an audience. Studio 60 is a good show and you’d be better off focusing on the way the show was marketed than Sorkin’s own work.

  4. Sorry, DD; Aaron Sorkin ruined Studio 60’s full potential by taking it in the direction he did. The show was marketed as you’d market any show. For me, it’s even MORE infuriating that he wrote such an amazing pilot and failed to properly develop the rest of the series.

    In Part Two of the series, you’ll see how I think that he could have done it. And, to be fair, it’s not the worst show on television or anything (I’d put it as “average” myself), but it had potential to be much, much more.

  5. segsig

    Mr. Sorkin did an amazing job with this series, that was flushed down the toilet by Nothing But Crap. I disagree with almost every point you made; the problem with the show is it needed time to build and grow characters to the fulfillment we’re seeing now. nbc had the worst over-saturating marketing campaign ever created, “the stars are about to collide”. They continually (to this date) cut promos to make it look like a comedy. They put it on at 10PM on Mondays, when market research shows the only dramas to do well at 10PM are FORMULAIC; which is why it had better ratings in Central time. Then they gave the audience a ton of options to see it at other times, so of course they’re not going to see it at 10PM. It was the 2nd most DVR’d show of the year; it was consistently top ten on Itunes; and this doesn’t count Amazon or Rewind viewing. The show takes way too much energy and concentration to watch for the first time at 10PM, so noone does, but the fans are there in masses. Then nbc, when the show was getting bad publicity from basicly two sources, a rival network and a rival show it was kicking the ratings crap out of, bailed entirely. Should it be surprising then that ratings dropped when the show was hitting its stride? I love that it’s the number one DVR’d show these days and the ratings are ticking up. There isn’t anything left after this for me to watch on network tv, but I’m grateful for one quality season.

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  8. Did he ruin it? Oh my!!

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