e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


Hating on Studio 60

One of my favorite distractions, I mean websites, avclub.com, has turned bashing Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip into a zen art form. Their latest critique makes some valid points but I still do not get the level of vitriol toward this well-meaning program. Directed and largely written by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame, the program followed the exploits of the producers, writers, and stars of a fictionalized version of Saturday Night Live.

Sorkin turned liberal presidential staffers into minor deities in West Wing and he attempts to do the same thing to comedians in Studio 60. Writing an amusing sketch doesn't quite have the same gravitas as running a country, though, so I can see why many didn't find the latter program compelling. The Studio 60 characters were unapologetically leftists and at times sanctimonious. Think Alan Alda on MASH. I saw the show as a kind of an extension of West Wing and--on both shows--found the larger-than-life intelligence and work ethic that the characters projected to be inspired. I love being a writer and teacher but I don't have the hyperbolic dedication of the fictional characters in Sorkin's universes. His shows are pastiches of dedication, every character a walking hyperbole, many of them voicing Sorkin's political views as they walk!

So I can see the somehwat limited appeal. AV Club's latest critique raises the question of why the show's critics are so vocal even four years after its cancellation (it's one of those one-season wonders, premiering the same season as the similarly premised/titled 30 Rock, which has a totally different tone), but the piece doesn't do much to answer that question. Instead, it reviews all that is problematic about the show:
In premise and execution, Studio 60 was a work of unbearable, overweening arrogance. It began with making the lead character of Matt Albie both a clear Sorkin surrogate and a writer so ridiculously romanticized even M. Night Shyamalan might say, “Get over yourself, dude. You’re a fucking writer, not Jesus’ younger brother, the one God really likes.” Albie isn’t just a principled, gifted writer; he’s a man who gets out of bed every morning aching to making a stand. He’s admired by men and irresistible to women who run the gamut from a Maureen Dowd surrogate played by Christine Lahti to the high-end skanks of the Rockettes. Even with a head full of bad chemicals and a belly full of pills, he’s able to single-handedly write a peerless work of transcendent social and political satire everyone in the known universe will be talking about around the water cooler Monday morning. Writing 90 minutes of new comedy every week is a Herculean endeavor for even the most gifted writing staff; now imagine 90 minutes of brilliant comedy emerging anew weekly from the mind of but a single man! On pills, even! And with the kind of problems you would not believe! As I write this, I realize that that this is not a man I’m writing about. This is a God. Oh sure, this man-God has an ego. Wouldn’t you?
The piece goes on to call out the show's self-congratulatory tone, its failure to live up to the promise of its brilliant pilot (in which a producer of the show goes rogue during a live broadcast and rants about the dumbing down of pop culture), its caricatures of conservative Christians, preachy dialogue, its failure to live up the "show don't tell" dictum, and its mishandling of race and war and 9/11. Quite a list of critiques. And, frankly, I can't refute most of these. Because even moreso than West Wing (often called "porn for liberals"), Studio 60 offered a fantastical, affective viewing experience for members of the left. The stakes were comically (so to speak) high for these characters because they just believe so strongly in their worldview (secular, progressive, civil libertarian, humanistic, etc.) and, yes, the dialogue verged on propaganda because these characters did not exist divorced from their own ideologies. I also love the way both Sorkin shows dealt with the writing process. Here are a great set of representations who recognize what good writing can do.

So anyway, I still don't get the level of vitriol, which doesn't come from conservative blogs, etc., which I imagine could care less about a failed tv program from 2006-2007. It comes from pop culture obsessives like AV Club writers. I suppose in part they want pop culture to be better: I love, therefore I criticize. But why the historical memory regarding Studio 60? Even with all the problematic aspects of the show, I'd expect indifference from non-fans, not hatred.