John Walker's Electronic House

Studio 60: The Return

by on May.25, 2007, under Television

I wish I didn’t feel the need to write “spoiler warning”, but apparently even when I do some people still can’t help but read it anyway, and then complain that they spoiled it for themselves. I can’t imagine what would happen if I didn’t.

Helpfully titled “The Disaster Show”, Studio 60’s ‘comeback’ demonstrated every reason why it needed to be left to die. What a horrible mess.

So it’s the hilarious episode where everything goes wrong. Danny pisses off the prop guys so they walk out at the last moment, and the cue-card guys are in the same union. So the guest host, Allison Janney, is left with no monologue to deliver, and only Cal in her ear delivering unhelpful words. Cue the first reference to The West Wing. Nggghhh. So all the sketches go wrong, the props are spiked, and wouldjabelieveit – a bomb threat has been phoned in. Then Frank Spencer slips on a banana skin and lands on a skateboard and crashes into a cupboard full of ladies’ underwear! Oh, Sorkin, fuck off into outer space.

We never see Danny pissing off the prop guys. Danny, we’re told, is in the parking lot trying to negogiate with the prop guys. It’s already too late for that, as they’re taping live. So why he is doing this, rather than directing the programme he directs is left somewhat unexplained. As such he never appears. And Matt? The reason for his not appearing in a single scene? Because he’s “helping the cast write their lines on their hands.” Good grief, what? At least try. This seriously is the given reason for his absence on the floor for the entire shoot. Rather than it being the episode that emphasises the rest of the cast by taking the focus from the main characters (something Scrubs does well, but too often), it became an awkward muddle where the two characters were refered to constantly, were integral to the plot, and were apparently just nearby throughout, but somehow never got caught by the cameras.

Of course, this is the second half of the season, so it can’t be about making a TV show. It has to be about relationships. So we get Harriet neurotically announcing that people are allowed to go out with Matt, which I’m fairly certain was a storyline covered quite extensively at the beginning of the season. Plus there’s an extraordinarily out of character moment where she spitefully refers to one of the minor cast members as “rook” and is disgusted that he would be in the same room as her, let alone speak in her presence. She becomes instantly hateful, and I now hope for nothing but her miserable, grisly death in every coming episode. This is as nothing when compared with the constant annoyance of a story following Simon’s fruitful lovelife. He gets dumped right before he was taking a girlfriend to Hawaii, then trawls the green room for another last minute date, finds one, then guess what! The first girl wants to go back out with him again, and he says yes! Then the second girl gets cross and slaps Simon, then Lucy tells the first girl about the second girl, then Simon gets slapped again! Why, his crazy lovelife! Somehow this most cliched of ideas is stretched out over the hour, as if we’re supposed to be either intrigued or in stitches over the wacky muddle of his womanising ways.

But worst of all is the impossibility of the premise. Every second of the show is a failure, but apparently they’ll air it anyway. And of course the cast are all super-cool about it. Hey, this happens every couple of years! Except, no, it doesn’t. With no props, all the sketches failing midway and being cut off, no monologue, and a bomb threat on a building filled with the public, just maybe, maybe they’d cancel the show and put on a re-run. The idea that we’re asked to suspend disbelief to this extent so that we can have the slapstick adventures of a prop table that collapses when it’s touched, and an actress so stupid that she can’t tell if the shirt she’s wearing contains squibs, is insulting.

As ever, the depth of frustration is only made worse by some really fantastic moments of dialogue. Best of all would be Tom explaining to Janney who she should thank at the end of the show, receiving a curt “Thank you,” to which he immediately replies, “Yes, like that, but nicer.” But they are tiny flickers in a very dark room. No Matt or Danny, nor indeed Jordan, makes it a pointless exercise, worryingly revealing the paper-thin nature of the rest of Sorkin’s characters. Janney appearing does little to help, only reminding everyone that he used to write the West Wing (and even worse, the repeated references to the show). I hate that NBC were right, but they were so right. Studio 60 had nowhere to go, and it’s determined to prove it.

2 Comments for this entry

  • Tom

    Having a West Wing actress as the guest star – apart from being kind of self-congratulatory – led it into a bizarre reality crisis, too. We have extensive scenes of Timothy Busfield’s character talking to Allison Janney the actress, and have to get our heads around the idea that she can’t see him as Timothy Busfield, the actor she co-starred with in the very show that made her qualified to host this one. If the worst had come to the worst, I think Cal could have stepped on-stage and pretended to be Timothy Busfield for an hour.

    But yeah, it was horrible and rubbish and I’m really not sure I’ll watch any more. The scene with everyone saying “We’ve all had enough” over and over to Harriett would have been overdue in episode two. Here it’s like Aaron Sorkin’s mocking our excruciating fatigue, particuarly since we all know this pathetic high-school plotline is going to last to the finalĂ©.

    It has taught us one thing, though. When we all used to say of the West Wing, “It’s not really about the politics, it’s about the characters,” we were way off. It’s all about the politics. The reason we like and care about the characters – apart from better performances across the board – is that we hardly get anything about their personal lives. It’s about 85% work, 15% neuroses, and I think even that strayed slightly closer to the personal stuff than Sorkin is really equipped to handle deftly.

  • Graham

    It wasn’t a good episode, but I’m accepting of Allison Janney’s presence because it’s no different from almost every other guest star they’ve had so far. Felicity Huffman, who featured in the pilot, was one of the main characters in Sport’s Night. Rob Reiner, who hosted another, was the director of A Few Good Men. When faced with getting famous people to appear on the show for five minutes, they’re clearly turning to their friends. That’s understandable.

    It’s also preferable to the occasions when NBC have obviously foisted someone upon them. “Uh, the record company we own is putting out a new Sting album; any chance you can have a five minute music video in the middle of your show?”

    It’s still the clichĂ©s that annoy me most. Cal touching the prop table, and the prop table collapsing. Didn’t we do that joke with the same character just ten episodes ago, and even show that in the opening recap? Didn’t we do that joke enough times in the Dick Van Dyke Show, fifty years ago? Simon’s storyline was just as bad, with the whole tedious juggling-two-women slap-slap thing.

    The West Wing wasn’t about the politics, just like Sports Night wasn’t about sport. But they were about the work. The issue wasn’t what they believed, but simply that they believed passionately. There was a sense of family, there were partisan battles, but the most illustrative example of The West Wing is Toby and Sam work late to write a Birthday Message. It’s a completely irrelevant, trivial task, given to them as a joke. But they can’t help but want to do it brilliantly anyway.

    The promise of Studio 60 was that it seemed to be about the same thing. A bunch of people passionately obsessed with putting on a quality television show, and to never accepting mediocrity. The reality was that audiences found it insulting that people should struggle so hard to make television, and that Sorkin, and NBC, were too quick to embrace the path of least resistance instead.