I had said before that I would be discussing Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip in comparison to 30 Rock, and I will be…but not to the extent I was before. I didn’t want this to turn this into a question of whether 30 Rock or Studio 60 is the better series, because I really don’t think that there’s a challenge there. What I want to take a look at is how each show took their initial premise and turned it into a series that combines comedy and drama, because their pilots are more or less entirely the same concept. Revered sketch comedy series faces creative problems and network pressure, and in that state of upheaval they must pull themselves together. I attempted to consider this piece as a competition between them, but I’ll just make this simple statement: Tina Fey got it right, and Aaron Sorkin got it wrong.
I know that Sorkin isn’t a comedy writer…but why the hell does he even try, then? He is great at writing short little quips (And there’s some great ones), but he isn’t capable of writing capable sketch comedy if his life depended on it. And yet, for some reason, it’s basically the way they’ve injected comedy into the show’s format since its pilot. While the pilot showcased some very funny stuff from funny people, I am entirely convinced that none of the characters themselves are capable of telling a joke: in fact, that was even a plot point for Harriet! Sorkin should have left the sketch comedy alone and let these characters define their own comic style. By relegating the comedy into sketch comedy format, even Matt and Danny have been unable to define themselves as something other than comedy writers. I’d say that only Jack, untainted by the show within a show, remains funny out of the show’s regular cast.
While the show may not be a drama, it is inherent that it be at least a little bit funny for its premise (A comedy show’s cast) makes a lick of sense. Sorkin’s rapid fire dialogue is funny, yes, but often takes for granted the fact that the people saying it are funny. I believe that Sorkin’s decision to make these characters simple actors as opposed to people, when it comes to comedy, forces us to believe they’re funny without actually ever showing it to us. And that’s poor writing.
Smartly, 30 Rock made a distinct decision to pretty well ignore the sketch comedy itself outside of spot bits in certain episodes. The comic focus, therefore, switched to Tina’s neurotic behaviour, Tracy’s paranoia, Kenneth’s awesomeness, Jack’s awesomeness, Jenna’s awkwardness, etc. In other words, we found these characters funny not because they wrote or performed comedy, but because they were actually funny.
Okay, this is going to take a while here. When Aaron Sorkin ran The West Wing, he was able to tackle enormously large issues thanks to his setting; by placing his characters smack dab in the middle of the world’s most powerful government, he had free reign to do whatever he wanted…and the result was a compelling drama that was varied and interesting and was willing to tackle things other shows didn’t dream of tackling.
And Studio 60 started on the right path: early season drama reflected exactly what it should have. Jordan was a great source of this drama, a young executive struggling to appear presentable (Whatever happened to that assistant of hers, she was intelligent and called Jordan on her bullshit). Jack was another great source, as his dealings with Macao were actually kind of interesting to see and added some level of depth to the proceedings. And, even the show within a show offered some perspective on ratings and cast drama. That setup, then, was combined with Matt/Harriet, with interpersonal conflict, with all of that jazz. It’s just like The West Wing: presidential drama takes center stage, Josh/Donna supports it.
However, after the show was clearly not coming back for a second season around midseason, Sorkin apparently decide to ignore all of this. Suddenly, Jordan became a hormonal mess who was in love with Danny of all people, and stopped being a network executive except when Sorkin wanted to have a reality TV rant. Matt/Harriet suddenly became the entire show, not even leaving room for poor Jack forced to sit back on the sidelines. Suddenly, this wasn’t a show about television, it was a show about two people who just won’t get over one another and a completely contrived relationship that has never, ever made sense.
And this is then where the drama lied: within relationships that were not capable of supporting the entire show dramatically. The result was a concoction that just wasn’t entertaining anymore: if you don’t care about Matt/Harriet, or Danny/Jordan, there is nothing in this show worth watching. There has been a lot of criticism of the “Disaster Show” episode, and it certainly wasn’t perfect…but its complete lack of Matt/Harriet and Danny/Jordan basically made it the most compelling episode of the series in quite some time simply because it was more like what the show should have been: a show about a sketch comedy series and about the television industry that didn’t get bogged down in its silly romances.It’s become clear that Aaron Sorkin doesn’t even care anymore: this entirely ridiculous Kidnap and Ransom storyline is returning to the more compelling drama of the earlier parts of the season, but it is being done within what is a show about sketch comedy and doesn’t make a lick of sense. Sorkin has decided to ignore the show he developed, ignore the concepts he put forward, and basically has decided to use the show as his own personal political soapbox.
Despite being a half hour sitcom, there is no question that 30 Rock does occasionally dabble in drama. However, the important thing is that the drama it uses fits within its environment of a sketch comedy show. There are concerns over the cast, over ratings, over relationships, over lifestyles, over jealousy, etc. These are the dramatic things that can happen within a workplace environment, especially one within the business of television. This is not to say that Fey didn’t misstep at points, such as the end of season romance between Jack and Phoebe, the avian bone lady. That storyline was entirely underdeveloped and felt like plot drama for the same of having it. However, as a comedy, 30 Rock has the ability to just kind of walk away from those moments, and Fey has shown herself to be capable of knowing when to drop a storyline when it isn’t working.
And this would be fine if it didn’t screw up the show in the process. What frustrates me is how much potential there was within this concept, and how much of it has been wasted up until this point. I know that the show was being cancelled, and I know that Sorkin basically had free reign during this last stretch of episodes, but it’s not as if he threw all caution to the wind and returned with a vastly better product. If anything, what returned was a hodge podge of elements that are not worthy of the same levels of praise as I gave the series when it premiered.
And that’s disappointing. What Tina Fey did was take a concept and allow it to grow naturally; the elements that worked were kept, while those that didn’t were tossed away gradually as the show went on. Aaron Sorkin apparently didn’t learn this lesson: as his ship sank around him, he threw off all of the people who knew how to run the ship and kept the musicians so that they could play out his exit according to his instructions. And, while Sorkin may have created the potential for this series, I also believe that he is the one who ultimately sent it to his doom with his creative decisions regarding the show’s execution of comedy and drama.