In television, especially network television, being considered too smart is an almost certain death-knell for new programming. Seinfeld almost lasted for only one season because audiences were not prepared for its highly neurotic and literate sense of humor, and if it weren’t for the fact that certain executives at NBC knew how special the program truly was, arguably the greatest sitcom in the history of television would have never lived past its infancy. Arrested Development won Emmy after Emmy, but it was snagged off the air after two and a half seasons when its lightning fast brand of word play and double entendres failed to catch on with mainstream audiences. There has likely never been a truer representation of high school misery (and humor) than Judd Apatow’s cult masterpiece Freaks and Geeks, but it was this same sense of smart and true storytelling that turned off the average American household. While great comedies still manage to slip by on the networks, high quality dramatic storytelling (Lost excepted) has become the sole property of the cable stations who are more willing to take risks on lower commercial viability in trade for increased artistic potential and intellectually stimulating programming. Aaron Sorkin’s last TV outing, 2006-2007’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is one of those shows that was too smart for network TV and low ratings led to a sadly limited one season outing for an absolutely delightful program.

Among fans of Hollywood’s intelligentsia, Aaron Sorkin is an established legend. His play A Few Good Men became a hit Hollywood film with Jack Nicholson’s utterance of “You can’t handle the truth” entering cinema history. His first network TV show, Sports Night, only lasted two seasons but garnered nearly universal critical acclaim for its rapid-fire dialogue and smart scripting. His legacy was cemented as being the primary show-runner for the first four seasons (all of which won Emmy’s for Best Drama Series) on the undisputed classic The West Wing, and in 2010, he won an Oscar for the screenplay of The Social Network which took his signature banter to unparalleled heights. I remember in 2006 (my senior year of high school) initially hearing that NBC had two programs in development about late night comedy shows (and both had numbers in their titles). One became the long-lasting 30 Rock which was a fairly straight comedy, and the other was going to be Aaron Sorkin’s own Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Since I had never had the chance to get into The West Wing, I decided to watch Studio 60, and I was instantly hooked. It was wicked smart and as liberal as I was, but like all of the shows I liked in high school, it was cancelled well before it’s time. I now take this opportunity to watch the show for the first time since it aired and see if it holds up to my memories. Four episodes in, it’s still got it.

As mentioned, Studio 60 is the story of a late night sketch comedy show ala Saturday Night Live that airs Friday nights on a fictional television station, NBS. After a sketch skewering the Christian Right is cut by the station’s censors, show-runner Wes Mendell interrupts the broadcast to launch into a Network-esque tirade against the lowered standards and quality of television since he entered the business 20 years ago. His program went from being cutting edge and boundary pushing to being stale and safe and corporate. This stunt gets Wes fired by corporate suit Jack Rudolph (Stephen Weber, Wings) and new network president Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet, The Whole Nine Yards) hires writer Matt Albie (Matthew Perry, Friends) and director Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford, The West Wing) to come in as the show’s new show-runners. Four years earlier, Matt and Danny left the show when comments Matt made post-9/11 got them in hot-water with the network. However, Danny is a recovering drug addict and because he recently failed a drug test, returning to the show is the only paying job left for him, and he and Matt are forced back to the program to help restore its artistic dignity as well as bring back the viewers that had abandoned it so long ago.

Whereas 30 Rock was an absurdist comedy with absolutely zero dramatic pretensions (but a great show in its own right), Studio 60 is much more concerned with dramatic storytelling and its own admittedly liberal political message. There are certainly comedic moments throughout the broadcast, and Matthew Perry’s legacy of being the only funny cast member on Friends serves him well in this series, comedy is almost always second fiddle to the actual story and over-arching themes of the series. For a network TV program, Studio 60 takes a remarkably pessimistic and cynical outlook on the quality and nature of virtually all network programming and isn’t afraid to let loose on the ways in which fears of boycotts from the Religious Right or fears of being deemed unpatriotic in the post 9/11 world kept television muzzled and conventional for much of the 2000’s. While much of the plotting of any given episode deals with a detailed and fairly realistic potrayal of the behind the scenes drama and tension of running a live sketch comedy show, much of the subtext of the episodes comes in the battles that Matt and Danny must wage in order to preserve their artistic integrity in the face of focus groups, corporate overlords who flinch at the slightest possible controversy, and reclaiming class and intelligence on a program that has become cheap and dumb in their absence.

Among TV fans with a possibly excessive knowledge of industry jargon, Aaron Sorkin is famously associated with being the godfather of the “walk and talk” as a narrative device. In essence, a “walk and talk” is exactly what it sounds like where the camera follows two characters in a long tracking shot as they have a conversation as they walk from one point to another. In Sports Night, The West Wing, and even The Social Network, there is virtually nothing in the productions besides people walking and talking (or writing code and talking for The Social Network). In theory, this should make for incredibly boring and pretentious television, but Sorkin (and his long-time director Thomas Schlamme), but Sorkin has an ear for natural and engaging dialogue like no one this side of Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith. The dialogue is as fast and natural sounding as a real conversation, and it does more to carry a plot forward than any action sequence could ever imagine. Sorkin’s characters in Studio 60 seemingly do nothing but talk the entire episode but what they say is so intelligent and thought-provoking that if you’re anything like me, you just won’t care.

For the most part, the casting for the series is exactly of the high quality you would expect from a Sorkin production. Matt Perry is even better as Matt Albie than he ever was as Chandler on Friends, as his neurotic and manic energy lends itself very well to the writing room. Amanda Peet does not normally strike me as a particularly talented actress, but she manages the charm and intelligence needed for the fairly complex role of Jordan and can even lend her some vulnerability when necessary. Bradley Whitford is the real star of the program (and an obvious stand-in for Sorkin himself who had a well publicized battle with drug addiction in real life) as Danny Tripp however. While his character’s battle with drug addiction hasn’t been a plot relevant issue outside of the pilot, Whitford still shows a compulsive and darker side to someone who is otherwise the most well kept together character on the program, and he always brings a subtlety and nuance to his performance that adds deeper layers to his scenes, than I think were initially written.

If I were to have one overwhelming problem with the series (to the point that it seriously obstructs my enjoyment of the program), then it is certainly the role of Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson), star of the comedy show and Danny’s ex-girlfriend. Harriet is an evangelical Christian whose sole purpose on the program (besides maintaining some level of sexual tension with Danny) is to counter-balance the otherwise decidedly liberal leanings of the program. That would be fine if A) she didn’t come off as such an over-bearing and self-righteous figure and if B ) feeling the need to counter-balance his perfectly acceptable beliefs didn’t feel like such a cop-out. They try to paint Harriet as a common sense, not-crazy religious person who supports most of the show’s humor, but this eventually leads to the moments when she seems absurdly hypocritical and therefore unlikeable. Similarly, the romantic subplot between her and Danny contributes virtually nothing to actual plot of episodes and seems like wasteful filler. I just wish that Aaron Sorkin trusted his own liberal sensibilities enough to not come up with this “appeasement” of a character for the religious right as it insults the intelligence of his more sensible fans.

I’ll draw my lengthy pontifications on the wonderful and under-appreciated nature of this show to a close and simply end with this point. If you long for sharp and intelligent drama with the kind of fast and natural dialogue of geniuses like Woody Allen or Quentin Tarantino, you need look no further than Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Like so many other great programs, it was cut down in its prime, but 5  years later is as good a time as ever to get into this program (especially since you already know it’s cancelled and you don’t have to have your heart broken like I did). Television like this has become refreshingly common on cable TV, but it’s still difficult to find something this fresh and this brave on the networks and that alone should make it worth your time.

Final Score: A-

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