Sorkin for Breakfast (if not for President)

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by Neil Drumming

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Last night a friend of mine posted on Facebook that Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is now available for streaming on Netflix. Then, inexplicably, between the hours of 11 p.m. Sunday night and 5 a.m. this morning, I burned through eight episodes of Aaron Sorkin's poorly-received-and-subsequently-canceled hour-long drama about the backstage machinery of a late night sketch comedy show not unlike Saturday Night Live. And I'd already seen it!


I claimed I didn't like Studio 60 when it first aired, yet somehow, I managed to hate my way through all but four of 22 episodes. Now, seeing it for the second time, my problems with the program remain mostly the same. For one, the characters are way too dire.  Actors Bradley Whitford, Matthew Perry, Amanda Peet, D.L. Hughley and others play a gang of preening Hollywood types of both the executive and creative strains who alternate appropriately between neurotic, self-absorbed, overbearing, and occasionally entertaining, while trying to put funny routines on the air.  Unfortunately, I find it incredibly hard to believe that any of these sourpusses—perhaps with the exception of Perry's cutesy curmudgeon Matt Albee—would be capable of cobbling together a sketch even as funny as, say, SNL's Barry Gibb Talk Show. Secondly, the show struggled, often in vain, to tackle weighty Sorkin-esque issues: censorship, the Christian right, homophobia, addiction, responsible journalism, responsible television, war, etc. 

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On The West Wing, Sorkin's other show, wherein the fate of the free world almost always hung in the balance, it made sense that every episode was rife with "big issues." With Studio 60, I was just waiting for everybody to lighten up a little. (A friend of mine pointed out that it probably didn't help the show's chances that 30 Rock, an almost identically-themed program, came out around the same time and was patently hilarious week after week from jump.) 

There's a particularly galling episode in which Simon Stiles, (Hughley) the show-within-the-show's Black Castmember (i.e. Garrett Morris, Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock), attacks showrunner Matt Albee for the lack of black writers on staff. The two go down to the Improv to catch an up-and-coming black comic who has been mentioned as a potential addition to the writer's room. When they get there, they find that the comic is something of a buffoon, content to crack stale jokes about baby-mommas and stereotypical differences between blacks and whites. Don't get me wrong, I dig the subject matter of the episode. But Stiles treats the let-down as if the upliftment of the entire troubled black community from which he comes rests on his shoulders. Maybe he has a right to feel that way, but instead of griping into a glass of whiskey and making a downer of a  speech to that effect, he could get up an heckle the guy or something. He's supposed to be a professional comedian. It's hard to imagine Rock, Murphy, or even Tracy Morgan handling the situation like they were at a funeral.

The difference, though, between me watching Studio 60 now and when it originally aired in '06-07 is pretty simple: The first time around, I had never seen The West Wing. (Save your stunned gasps; we all occasionally miss a cultural touchstone or two. I've never seen 24 either.) Earlier this year, I rectified that by watching—nay, mainlining—all seven seasons of Aaron Sorkin's brilliant, funny, refreshingly sappy, overwhelming verbose political drama within a matter of months. I've since become, if not a fanatic, an unapologetic devotee to Sorkin's particular brand of overtly stylized, quickfire exchange. I love it, even when I find it as hard to relate to as the saccharine, pop culture-overloaded banter of Gilmore Girls reruns  (Of which I'm also a fan.)

I've watched a ton of West Wing director's commentaries. I've seen Sports Night. I've already read the script for The Social Network, Sorkin's upcoming feature about the creation of Facebook, and I can't make that movie come out any sooner. Re-watching Studio 60 is just a way to get a fix. It's either this or wait for his cameos on Entourage.

(I suspect this post, as gooey and reverent as I'm sure it reads, will inevitably elicit a comment thread about Aaron Sorkin's failings. So, let me be the first to kick it off: I felt that Sorkin wasted an opportunity with the character of Charlie Young, the President's babyfaced "body man" on the West Wing. Charlie shouldn't have talked like everybody else. I'm not saying because he was black and of little means that he should have spoken in ebonics. I just felt like he was supposed to be an outsider, a stranger to the elite world in which that show almost exclusively took place. Some variety in his word choice, in the rhythm of his speech, would have gone a long way toward making the world seem bigger.)

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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