Will Don Pardo Deliver the Eulogy?

Saving 'Studio 60' from going six feet under

Studio 60
9:00 p.m. Mondays
NBC

Remember the days when new TV shows were given weeks to woo a loyal audience, months to shepherd latecomers into the fold? Remember when ambitious story arcs were allowed to, well, arc? Do you recall a time when, if a show failed to become a Week One phenomenon, rumors of its demise didn't immediately scroll across the ticker at Hollywood and Highland? God, the '90s were great.

These days, Seinfeld, a slow starter by any network's standards, would have been ash-canned before "The Contest" was even a gleam in Kramer's eye. Last year, a heavily marketed ABC sitcom starring Heather Graham got the ax after one—yes, one—episode, which rocketed the insta-cancellation trend to new heights of absurdity.

My life's not a joke, I'm not broke, my love life's not DOA!
NBC
My life's not a joke, I'm not broke, my love life's not DOA!

This season, Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is being touted/slagged as the latest hype victim to underperform in the ratings. And yet, there's more than a whiff of schadenfreude to the whole thing, something the Onion slyly addressed in a recent editorial: "I Liked Studio 60 Better When It First Came Out." The show's been on for what, a month? And it's actually pretty good! I know everyone can't wait to knock Sorkin off his throne of smoldering crack rocks, but let's hold our fire for at least nine episodes, shall we?

Throughout Studio 60's rocky infancy, various denizens of the diegesis have salivated over a character named Jordan McDeere. This is understandable. McDeere (winsomely played by Amanda Peet) is a lissome powerhouse in a trendy headband. In her tender 30s, she's just been named president of "NBS," the fictional network that bears more than a passing resemblance to NBC. In addition to having secured this spectacular job title, Jordan possesses a crisp, doe-like beauty befitting her surname. (Speaking of which, I keep wondering if she is related to Mitch McDeere from The Firm.)

Anyway, in any other universe, we wouldn't buy a pouty young babe—seemingly plucked from the aisles of Fred Segal—as a seasoned network bigwig. But in image-obsessed Los Angeles, it's actually probable. And in Studio 60, it's not the only plot point that requires suspension of disbelief.

This is not to say that Studio 60 doesn't work, because it does. This show runs like a (Mc)Deere, utterly watchable from cold-opening to cliffhanger. Of course, we've come to expect high quality—and a certain this is important television swagger—from the team of Sorkin and director Thomas Schlamme. But The West Wing wasn't everyone's cup of meat. Not everyone cares about politics, even juicy dramatic reenactments thereof. Some of us would rather read about Dina Lohan's antics at Butter than dissent in Congress. From this vantage point, Studio 60—which explores the world of a late-night sketch-comedy show, in case you've been dead—is a brilliant venture for Sorkin. At least in theory. It attempts to artfully blend pop dirt with trademark Sorkinian gravitas. Unfortunately, in this context, the former has proved more tolerable than the latter.

There are elements of Studio 60 that are so preachy and self-consciously "brave" that they're downright cringeworthy. I realize that soapboxes are Sorkin's trademark, but the repeated references to Christianity's stranglehold on America are kinda gratuitous. For instance, one of Friday Night's players—who happens to be show-runner Matt's ex-girlfriend—is also a Christian recording artist who recently appeared on The 700 Club to promote her CD. I don't know if Sorkin has ever actually seen Saturday Night Live, the anvil-obvious inspiration for this world. But the idea of a cast member fraternizing with Pat Robertson is basically unimaginable, even in this alternate universe. The character feels like a decoy that allows Sorkin to heap disdain on those crazy Christians while still seeming fair and balanced.

On another recent episode, cast member Tom (Nate Corddry, kid brother of The Daily Show's Rob) treats his unimpressed parents to a windy speech about the Great Cultural Significance of the titular show, only to be icily informed that his brother's tour in Afghanistan is more impressive than silly sketch comedy. I guess Mom and Pop are right, but could that reference to the war have been any more random? Forget about crack; Sorkin needs to be weaned off politics. Do they have a vitamin drip for that?

In a shrewd new-media marketing move, NBC released the Studio 60 pilot on Netflix way back in August. Fan response was highly positive, but then, netizens couldn't wait to see Snakes on a Plane either. The thing is, Studio 60 is quality tubeage, political missteps notwithstanding. Given a chance, it could be the perfect antidote to safe CW dramas, boring procedurals, and (Insert Action Verb) with Celebrities!. If we can ignore that the lead-in is (gag) Deal or No Deal?, Studio 60 could cure America's case of the Mondays. Let's take a cue from NBS and put a little faith in Jordan McDeere.

 
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