Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip: If You Want To Stay On The Air, Stop Hiring Kari Matchett (It's As Good A Theory As Any!)!

The Good: Wonderfully defined characters, Great acting, Wonderful writing, Interesting story, Mood
The Bad: Somewhat dated, Poor DVD extras
The Basics: With a lone disappointing DVD extra, the boxed set for Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip is essential for the greatness of the series inside rather than its use of the medium.

With the failure of Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip on television and it's rather quick appearance on DVD, I have only been able to make two guesses as to why the show sank the way it did. My first is the use of actress Kari Matchett. Kari Matchett is a decent actress, but when she turns up on a series, it sinks. The wonderful show Wonderfalls (click here for that review!) was axed after only three episodes aired and she was a recurring guest star on the show. Her last major series, Invasion (click here for my review of that series!) went down in flames after a season and by the time her five episode stint on Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip came up, the show was in serious trouble. Yes, I'm pitching that actress Kari Matchett is cursed and here presence on this series was just enough to sink this ship. My only other explanation for the demise of this series is that writer-executive producer Aaron Sorkin suffers from "Star Trek Movie Syndrome." "Star Trek Movie Syndrome" is the perceived notion that Star Trek films with even numbers will be successful (Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, First Contact) while odd number Trek films will generally stink out at the box office or with the fans (The Motion Picture, The Final Frontier). There are no other good explanations for why this series is not still making brand new episodes to entertain us with week after week. After all, Sorkin made significant headway with The West Wing while his prior show, Sports Night failed to get its audience.

And so, we find ourselves with Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip - The Complete Series on DVD. I'm going to start with my big gripe with this set. There is only one bonus feature and that is a commentary track on the first episode. Bang, that's it, everything else is just what aired. The commentary track features Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme talking about the series and the shooting of the pilot, but it's not enough. Fans who are shelling out for this boxed set want more! The only conceivable reason to include so little in this set is if by fans buying the set en masse there was a chance to bring the series back and thus production of the boxed set was rushed. Alas, every source I've found says that's not going to happen and there's virtually no chance of reviving the show as a straight-to-DVD series because the production (CAST!) cost was so high for the primary series run it would be virtually impossible to get everyone back for a DVD budget. So those looking for great DVD bonuses, this boxed set is a serious let down. That said, the series it contains is truly great.

Matt Albie, the great writer of the Friday night sketch comedy show Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip is lured back to the show five years after he was fired from it. Accompanying him is now-executive producer Danny Tripp, a recovering drug addict who left at the same time Albie did. Mixing in with the production of the show come the business elements, the network brass in the form of NBS Chairman Jack Rudolph and network president Jordan McDeere. While Matt and Danny negotiate their sketches and personal lives between the network officials and the performers on Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, they find that executive producing the show is causing serious fractures in both.

While the return of Matt and Danny to the series revives the sketch comedy show's ratings, Matt struggles to keep funny while breaking up with the lead on the show, Harriet Hayes. Matt is antagonized by cast member Simon Stiles to bring more black performers or writers onto the show and is generally well-liked by the other big star of the show, Tom Jeter. While Matt tends to focus on the comedy and the performers, Danny focuses on getting clearances from the network and getting the attention of Jordan McDeere.

Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip certainly sounds lame when looked at from a plot point of view. The show is, quite simply, about the behind-the-scenes antics of the production staff and performers on a Saturday Night Live type show. Unlike Saturday Night Live (well, actually, quite like the current incarnation of the sketch comedy series), Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip (the real one, not the comedy show by the same name occasionally glimpsed on the series) is not funny. It's a drama and while there are certainly comedic element, this is not a comedy. It is often funny the way The West Wing's early seasons were funny, through snappy dialogue and wordplay. But beyond that, the situations are often dark and moody.

As a result, the show may alienate some viewers with its occasionally oppressive tone. In the course of the twenty-two episodes, Matt and Danny's politically motivated firing is regularly mentioned, Matt and Harriet break up and he torments himself over it, Matt ends up on drugs, Danny is constantly rejected by Jordan and Jack comes under siege for airing unedited footage of the War In Iraq. As well, Tom's brother is captured by terrorists, the writing staff leaves en masse and Simon creates a public relations nightmare. Bad things happen to the characters of Studio 60. . . but they certainly are compelling to watch. Here is who the principle characters are:

Matt Albie - Returning to the show as head writer and executive producer, Matt is trying to make political statements constantly. This puts him frequently in hot water with the Network and he relies on his friendship with Danny to keep him out of trouble. He has an on-again, off-again relationship with Harriet, though he clearly pines for her. It does not take long before many of the people around him realize that most of his writing greatness came from trying to impress her,

Danny Tripp - A recovering drug addict, he returns to Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip as an executive producer and is now forced to negotiate most of the series with network executives Jack Rudolph and Jordan McDeere. He is instantly drawn to Jordan and while he keeps his friendship with Matt a priority, he begins to pursue her with a single-minded devotion, especially after he learns she is pregnant,

Jordan McDeere - Newly minted NBS president, her first act is to replace Studio 60's executive producer when he has an on-air meltdown. She is awkward with most people and does not have a lot of friends, which makes it difficult for her in social situations, but a shark in negotiations. Reporting only to Jack and his superiors, she is surprised to find she is pregnant after she is dumped by a jerk, but decides to have the baby, which leads Danny to begin pursuing her,

Harriet Hayes - Arguably the love of Matt's life, she previously broke his heart by dating another one of the writers, who is intent on luring her back now that she and Matt are broken up again. She is a devout Christian and a conservative, which leads to many clashes between her and Matt,

Tom Jeter - The somewhat nerdy but very popular cast member on Studio 60, he has a brother serving in Afghanistan and while he does many antiwar sketches, he tries never to insult the soldiers. He falls for one of the few writers to stick around after the two main writers leave and his life is complicated when a big fan wants a date and his brother is captured overseas,

Simon Stiles - The most outspoken of the big three performers, he never shies away from a fight or controversy. He becomes disgusted with how white the writer's room is and scouts with Matt to a local comedy club where they find Darius, who Simon antagonizes for more edgy work once he is hired,

Cal - The director for the show, he has problems like losing animals brought to the set,

and Jack Rudolph - Chairman of NBS, he is upset when Jordan brings back Matt and Danny, but pleased when the show is a success. Desperate to get the Network's ratings higher and more cash flowing in, he is suddenly under siege when a news segment featuring unedited footage from Iraq includes a soldier swearing in the wake of a surprise bombing and the massive fine the FCC leverages against the network for that.

It is worth noting that Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip exists in an alternate real world that more closely resembles our world. To rephrase: this is a fictional present day with all other things being equal. Thus, The West Wing is referenced as a television show in the series and this series does not occur in the same universe as The West Wing. The reason this is relevant is that it leads to one of the strengths and weaknesses of the series. Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip is deeply critical of the handling of the War In Iraq and the Bush Administration. Brief segments of the comedy on the fictional sketch show illustrate a contempt for the way the so-called conservatives have seized control of the government. This series is a wonderful example of the importance of free speech and the consequences of it.

Unfortunately, it also makes the series a bit dated. Pick it up now! It's relevant, it's witty and it's sharp and timely. While it will remain witty in perpetuity, the other factors of the series will not persist.

What will is that the very well-developed characters are portrayed by an amazing cast and the guest cast on this series is equally impressive. Cameos featuring musical guests Sting, Corrine Bailey Rae, Natalie Cole, Sheryl Crow, and Macy Gray lend the feeling that the show the series is about is very real. There are also cameos by guest hosts for the sketch comedy show that include Felicity Huffman, Rob Reiner, Lauren Graham, Howie Mandel, Masi Oka, Jason Alexander and Allison Janney which is a pretty impressive line-up for a show that was almost always on the verge of cancellation!

But the main cast is what sells the show and they are, one and all, truly fantastic. Nate Corddry and Sarah Paulson impress me right off the bat in roles that give me a baseline for their future performances (this was the first thing I had seen either of them in). D.L. Hugley and Matthew Perry (Simon and Matt) illustrate they can break through their typecasting from previous successful comedies. Steven Weber plays serious like I've never seen him before! Bradley Whitford and Timothy Busfield (Danny and Cal) play dramatically different roles than they had on The West Wing. And Amanda Peet is so good as the professional and awkward Jordan McDeere that I'm finally ready to forgive her for The Whole Ten Yards. That's saying a lot! The truth is, Aaron Sorkin and the other executive producers of the series did some brilliant casting and created a wonderful outlet for some remarkably talented performers!

Sadly, this set is all we have until Sorkin decides to write again. Just so long as he doesn't use Kari Matchett, he ought to have another legitimate, popular hit, which despite the quality of this series, Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip never was.

For other works by Aaron Sorkin, please check out my reviews of:
Sports Night
The West Wing
Charlie Wilson's War
The Social Network


For other television series reviews, please visit my index page! There you will find organized lists of all I have reviewed, updated daily!

© 2010, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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