You need to be watching: Studio 60

Up until this past week, I was a supporter of Studio 60, but not heavily invested. The show has some problems, which both Heather Havrilesky and Slate have dissected well, but I was sticking with it, mostly out of residual West Wing loyalty to Aaron Sorkin. After this past Monday’s episode, though — which is a two-parter, so you can catch the next part this coming Monday — I’m prepared to exhort you to watch it.

Chief among the problems the show has experienced, in my view, is the fact that it can’t decide what we, the viewers, are supposed to care about. The promise of the pilot was that we would see a shakeup of network television. After Judd Hirsch’s diatribe, we expected that we’d see the process of the writers wrangling over content with execs who want to play it safe with their advertisers and that the result would be sharp, witty sketch comedy that makes the meta-audience within the show and the audience of the actual show sit up and take notice. Instead, there’s been a whole lot of focus on the relationship between Matt (Matthew Perry) and Harry (Sarah Paulson) and a series of external network issues that pit Jordan (Amanda Peet) against Jack (Steven Weber). None of those things is a plotline that the viewer can really invest in (well, I suppose one could get invested in the Matt/Harry relationship, but the two seem to have no chemistry and, while Sarah Paulson has improved her leaden delivery, she still doesn’t seem worth all the fuss).

This week’s episode was classic Sorkin, although ironically, Mark McKinney, the Kids in the Hall and SNL alum Sorkin hired as a consultant, was credited with the story, which is rare, because Sorkin doesn’t often share credit. In this week’s episode, Tom (Nathan Corddry) is arrested for defending Harry from some gay ex-fans of hers, who are angry about some statements she gave to a newspaper that got truncated to look like blatant gay-bashing. He’s then extradited to Nevada, because of an outstanding speeding ticket that’s turned into a warrant, to appear before a right-wing judge (John Goodman) who is not happy about Jack, Danny (Bradley Whitford), Simon (D. L. Hughley), and a lawyer for NBS having descended on his office to rescue Tom.

The set-up is very West Wing. The episode features the players in the culture wars lining up their troops to do battle: the liberal elites come to Hicktown to tell the backwards judge how to do his business, which he responds to by pretending he doesn’t know what NBS is and threatening to have the lawyer shot in the ankles if he speaks again. Sorkin is at his best when dealing with conflict, and this episode takes on conflict. It’s not the explosive kind of conflict that is the result of the John-Wellsification of NBC TV, but the striving to explore both sides of a conflict that TWW thrived on. John Goodman’s character delights in thwarting the Hollywood suits’ expectations of him by messing with their heads, and Sorkin delights in showing it to us. Matt at one point sums up the culture wars by saying that “Your side hates my side because you think we think you’re stupid, and my side hates your side because we think you’re stupid.” These kinds of semi-in-depth looks at the culture wars could be the bread and butter of Studio 60.

When I recently argued to a friend of mine that TWW was capable of making you care about current events enough to learn about them and think about them and come to some conclusions about them, he argued back that it was all from a very liberal perspective. I’ve been thinking about that, though, and I think that’s not true. It wasn’t true on TWW and it’s not true on Studio 60. This past episode showed that Sorkin is still capable of showing us both sides with honesty and at least an attempt at understanding. If Studio 60 can keep this up, I’ll really and truly be hooked.

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