Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The show The West Wing could have been. Aaron Sorkin’s 2006 offering, set behind the scenes of a live TV comedy sketch show (so, SNL basically) was cancelled after a single season. The blame for its demise can be placed on the debut of similar in subject matter only 30 Rock the same year, the expense of such an enormous production, or just the fact that it wasn’t good enough. Indeed, there is much criticism on the internet. It took the haters five years to move on (and only then because Sorkin incurred fresh wrath by making Newsroom). Nonetheless, I’m a big fan of those 22 episodes of television.
My tastes are perhaps a little niche. But any show willing to ditch the three main characters and dedicate an entire episode to reuniting Allison Janney and Timothy Busfield, The West Wing’s second best on screen couple, is alright with me. Add to that all the usual Sorkin walking, talking, calling each other ‘sir’ shenanigans, a guest appearance by John Goodman, and the fact that it’s about a television show, and it’s guaranteed to be one of the first box sets I turn to when asked to contribute to a list of greatest episodes. Sadly, these days, television networks tend to base their renewal decisions more on Nielsen and less on my own personal preferences. For shame.
The pilot opens with the executive producer of the sketch show (which is also called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip – huh!) doing a Network live on air, and the subsequent return of former employees Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) and Danny Trip (Bradley Whitford) to take over. Maybe it was the use of Under Pressure as the closing song, or just the way Matt & Danny jumped onto the stage at the end, but never have the final scenes of a pilot inspired such a squeal of anticipatory delight in me. It’s fair to say I went into this second episode with sky high expectations.
The Cold Open charts the new executive producers’ struggle to put together their first show in five days, in the face of huge media attention and sponsor pressure, with specific focus on creating a cold open. After the pilot, in which we mainly meet a bunch of characters and listen to Queen, it also acts as something of a cold open to the rest of the series. You see? It’s a show within a show!
Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) is the newly appointed president of entertainment programming. I’ve never wanted anyone as a boss more. Jordan is hugely successful, fiercely loyal, devastatingly attractive and makes really appalling jokes at all the worst possible moments. She is pretty much the perfect woman. While she jokes about being high at press conferences, and battles with affiliates about the Rapture, back at the studio, Danny tries to coax Matt into writing their first episode. Danny is just the right mix of disciplinarian, mother hen and cocaine addict to make the perfect executive producer for a live prime time sketch show. I imagine. I mean, I’m no expert, but the show gets made, so I’d call it a success. And, if you were one of the few who watched the entire series, Danny utters an important line during the press conference that comes back in the last few episodes. I love that kind of shit.
Matthew Perry originally turned down the role of Matt Albie, but apparently Sorkin was insistent that no one else could play him. Understandable, since Albie is fairly obviously based on Sorkin himself; from the feuds with other writing staff, to the righteous indignation, and even the devout Christian ex-girlfriend. We all know that Matthew Perry can play neurotic, but this time he’s freaking out over a digital clock and some index cards pinned to a wall, rather than house-mate related mishaps, and he really is a delight to watch. Within five minutes of meeting his new writing staff, he’s giving them a lecture on clothing ‘Couldn’t believe the words were coming out of my mouth, but apparently I felt pretty strongly about it.’ and is anal enough to appreciate that 17 is a much funnier number than 15. Hero.
Of course, the real star of the episode is the cold open itself. From its office based conception to the final closing performance, it is the perfect blend of big band musical number, Gilbert & Sullivan, and words. Glorious, Sorkin shaped words.
We’ll be the very model of a modern network TV show,
Each time that we walk into this august and famous studio,
We’re starting out from scratch after a run of twenty years and so,
We hope that you don’t mind that our producer was caught doing blow.