What, exactly, is wrong with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip? The new NBC drama from Aaron Sorkin, who created the much-loved West Wing, is underperforming: It lost a third of its premiere audience by the third week. Some critics have suggested that the show is too smart, or too inside baseball. But Studio 60's real problem is structural. The show, which is set behind the scenes of a live network sketch show (also called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), must be a brilliant hour-long drama and a brilliant sketch comedy. And so far, the sketch comedy hasn't been satisfying.
It's not just that the sketches aren't funny, although they're not. Take the third episode's centerpiece: a game-show parody called "Science Schmience," in which fundamentalists of all stripes—an Orthodox Jew, a Taliban member, an evangelical Christian, Tom Cruise, and a witch—attempt to refute science with faith. In premise, it's promising, if cluttered (that's a lot of yahoos on one stage). In practice, though, it's painful. To the evangelical, who's just claimed that life began 6,000 years ago, the game show's host pronounces: "You understand that archaeologists are in possession of a 3 million-year-old skull found by Johannesburg, which would put your answer off by 2,994,000 years." Yeah, it sounds about as funny as it reads.
However, these ham-handed sketches wouldn't be so problematic if Sorkin hadn't set Studio 60 up as a call to arms for quality TV. In the series pilot, the variety show's executive producer Wes Mendell has a breakdown, live and on the air: "This show used to be cutting-edge political and social satire," he fumes. "But it's gotten lobotomized by a candy-assed broadcast network hell-bent on doing nothing that might challenge the audience." By the end of the episode, he's been fired, but the new network president (who thinks Mendell is right) has brought in a genius writer/director team determined to improve the show. When you begin your series with a soliloquy on the maladies of television, you're offering yourself up as the cure. And you're promising your audience that not only your show but also your show-within-a-show will be exemplary.
The show-within-a-show is a venerable dramatic form—ask the rude mechanicals in A Midsummer Night's Dream—but it's rarely called upon to set a good example: Most often, such productions are goofs, meant merely to provide gags that punctuate the primary plot. This tradition has held true on television, where programs from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Murphy Brown to Frasier to NBC's other fake-SNL show, 30 Rock, have played their embedded shows for laughs. (Think of Frasier offering droll advice to a lovelorn caller at an episode's opening, only to go home to the personal complication that kicks the episode into gear.) Even The Larry Sanders Show, whose lead, played by Garry Shandling, was occasionally proclaimed the best talk-show host on TV, didn't present its show-within-a-show as exceptional—instead, it came off as the naturally flawed but interesting result of flawed but interesting professionals doing their jobs.
Sorkin's previous foray into TV about TV, Sports Night, didn't exhibit the reformer's ethos demonstrated by Studio 60. The setting, behind the scenes of a SportsCenter-type highlight show, served only as a generic high-energy, high-pressure crucible to drive the episode-by-episode action of the series; you never got the impression that Aaron Sorkin had strong feelings about how Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann were doing their jobs. Curiously, it's Sorkin's success with The West Wing that may be responsible for his sermonizing approach; on that show, he offered up his brand of political theater as superior to that of real politicians in the real world. Whatever your politics, you had to admit that the speeches on The West Wing were the political speeches of your dreams.
So, what does Aaron Sorkin think is the sketch comedy of your dreams? What's his idea of "cutting-edge political and social satire" that challenges the audience? "Pimp My Trike," starring a blinged-out D.L. Hughley, and sketches poking fun at such timely and relevant superstars as Nicolas Cage and Juliette Lewis.
And Sorkin makes it even harder for himself when he forces his wan sketches to provide the dramatic payoff to episodes of Studio 60. The second episode, "The Cold Open," follows Matthew Perry's character, Matt Albie, as he struggles to come up with a dynamite opening for his first show back on Studio 60. His solution? A light-orchestra version of "The Major-General's Song." Leave aside the absurd notion that Sorkin thinks Gilbert and Sullivan are hip. Leave aside, as well, the fact (pointed out by Entertainment Weekly's Scott Brown, among others) that Saturday Night Live featured a parody of "The Major-General's Song" in 1995. Just imagine you tune in to Studio 60 the week after Wes Mendell's now-legendary on-air tirade, eager to see how the show deals with this momentous event. And you get ... a Gilbert and Sullivan song? With no mention of Wes Mendell's freakout? Filled with glib lines like, "To bite the hand that feeds you is a scary way of doing lunch," sung too quickly to be understood? To close the Studio 60 episode "The Cold Open" with this fussy and unfunny song—a close meant to be uplifting, climactic, ennobling even—hamstrings the episode and Sorkin's entire series.
Sorkin's already hired SNL and Kids in the Hall vet Mark McKinney to oversee Studio 60's sketch comedy, and it's unclear how much McKinney has contributed thus far. But maybe Sorkin should give McKinney more control over the sketches. It's telling that of all the Studio 60 skits we've seen, the only one that made me laugh was a brief midmontage glimpse of a sketch skewering overenthusiastic Tiger Woods fans. Two loudly dressed golf aficionados, one skinny, one fat, stand in the gallery making fools of themselves. "Get in the hole!" hollers the fat one, and I admit it: I cracked up. On SNL, that sketch would have gotten stale halfway through its eight minutes. But Aaron Sorkin has a golden opportunity on Studio 60—he doesn't have to fill 90 minutes a week with laughs. So, if McKinney can help him come up with 10 minutes of good material a week, the show will improve.
When he dreamed up Studio 60, Sorkin may not have understood how hard it is to write a great and funny sketch. Some of the best sketch writers in the world work for Saturday Night Live, and they usually can only come up with one or two good ones a week. It is certainly not Sorkin's strong suit: Sketch-writing requires economy, playfulness, and a complete lack of self-importance. Above all, you can't be afraid to sacrifice elegance—or the moral high ground—for a laugh.