Tuned In

Aaron Sorkin: The Shyamalan of TV

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As a professional snobby, elitist critic, I am not in the habit of saying that the masses are right. But I make an exception when they agree with me, and they seem to have come around to my side on the massively overrated Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, the new self-aggrandizement vehicle from The West Wing’s masterwriter, Aaron Sorkin.

Let’s run the numbers (from Nielsen Media Research, by way of Marc Berman’s Programming Insider column at Mediaweek):  The show’s first week drew 13.41 million viewers; week 2, 10.83 million; last night, 9.05 million. And every single week, a large chunk of the audience tuned away from the show in its second half hour.

Ironically, last night’s episode focused on the second episode of Studio 60–the fictional late-night comedy within the show, in the process of being saved by Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford)–and the percentage of viewers it would have to keep from its previous week. If it didn’t "retain," in the TV biz term, 90 percent, heads were going to roll. On the show–thanks, we see, to the superhuman efforts of Sorkin stand-in Albie–the sketch comedy gets a boffo rating, 109 percent of its premiere under the new head duo. In real life… ahem. By my calculator, week 2 retained just over 80 percent of the week 1 audience; week 3 kept just under 84 percent of that reduced number.

Now, I’m not saying heads are going to roll in Sorkinville. NBC has a substantial commitment to the show and would waste millions of dollars by bailing on it early. And Studio 60 has good demographics; if its audience proves to be a rich as The West Wing’s, the extra ad dollars they will draw could keep the show on much longer, even indefinitely. In the end, I don’t know or care; I’m a critic, and my job is to decide whether a show is good, not how many ducats it will earn for General Electric. But I suspect–or at least I hope–the two are related here: that audiences have tuned away from a show they had high hopes for (as I did) because they can sense its inherent bogusness.

We know from NBC executives that Sorkin wrote the first several scripts of Studio 60 well in advance (to head off the problems of late scripts that plagued The West Wing). It would be cruel to imagine that Sorkin wrote the "retention" storyline anticipating that Studio 60, the real-life show, would at this point be basking in the afterglow of growing ratings. And yet you have to imagine it, if only because the rest of the show is so transparently self-congratulatory.

Let’s start with the premise: Albie is a brilliant, politically minded writer; he was fired as a Studio 60 writer by the network four years ago; now the network, in a bind, has come crawling back to him to save their bacon; which he does, by single-handedly writing the show at a punishing pace; but not without interference from focus-grouping, craven suits who are proven wrong by his genius writing and ratings triumph. Sorkin, in real life, is a brilliant, politically minded writer; he is a notorious workaholic who essentially wrote The West Wing single-handedly; he was forced off The West Wing after four years; now, NBC, in fourth place, has bet on his heavily promoted show to save it; and, well… do the math. Whatever "flaws" Studio 60 loads Albie up with (He works too hard! He can be snippy to his staff! He was kind of a bad boyfriend!), he’s such a clear author surrogate he might as well be called Sorkie McAaronson.

On his blog The Bastard Machine, Tim Goodman, the outstanding TV critic for The San Francisco Chronicle, with whom I agree more often than is healthy, asked about Sorkin and Studio 60: "Why shouldn’t one man be allowed to take entertainment and the business of entertainment seriously?" Well, he should. He just can’t get away with taking Aaron Sorkin that seriously. From reading fans’ and critics’ blogs the past few weeks, I think even some of his West Wing stalwarts agree; I have never gotten such a powerful sense of viewers willing themselves to like a show despite the evidence of their eyes.

Studio 60’s main ratings problem may be that it’s a TV show about a TV show, often too inside-baseball a topic for mass audiences. But the show also gets much of the baseball wrong. Sorkin portrays TV, outdatedly, as a vast wasteland, despite the evidence of Lost, Battlestar Galactica, House, The Office, and most FX and HBO series, just for starters. (A weird criticism, anyway, coming from a man who’s had three high-profile network TV shows inside a decade.) And he has a tin ear for the kinds of TV scandals the public cares about: we’ve been asked to believe that political talk radio would be abuzz for a week about the new producers of a sketch show and that people would care one lick about the eight-year-old DUI arrest of a network president. (Tina Fey’s superior inside-sketch-comedy sitcom, 30 Rock–of which I’ve just seen a second episode–understands that viewers follow the scandals of TV stars, not showrunners and suits.)

And then there’s the funny: Sorkin is not a late-night comedy writer, nor should he have to be, but if he’s going to put the show’s sketches front-and-center–and, more important, if his show depends on you believing his heroes are talented–then he kind of has to, um, make you laugh. The glimpses of the show-within-a-show we saw last night (a "Pimp My Trike" sketch, a golf sketch, a, um, bear joke) were nearly as bad as episode 2’s climactic Pirates of Penzance musical number, which failed both as comedy and as narrative. (I defy anyone to tell me what an "intellectual reach-around" means, other than that Sorkin needed a line that both rhymed and showed that Matt Albie was brainy and edgy, whether the lyric made sense or not.)

Maybe the best comparison for Studio 60 is not to any TV show but to M. Night Shyamalan’s The Lady in the Water, from last summer. A prodigiously workaholic writer, Shyamalan reached the level where he could, like Sorkin, get more or less complete creative control of his work, and Lady showed where complete creative control can sometimes get you. Lady was a hokey farrago of a fantasy, involving a water nymph out to save mankind, but its crowning achievement was a storyline in which Shyamalan himself played a writer who was destined to pen a book so wise that it would change the course of history. Lady stunk of arrogance and self-congratulation, and audiences picked up on the scent.

TV series have one big advantage over movies: they can get better, and Studio 60 could. I wouldn’t waste this kind of attention on a flat-out bad show, and there is just enough that’s very, very right with Studio 60 to make the rest of it maddening. When they’re doing anything but writing comedy, Sorkin’s characters are hilarious–last night, Tripp got off a zinger, telling a staff writer that it’s not exactly brave to write Bush jokes when the president’s approval ratings are "down to seven guys in Tupelo." Sorkin is still masterly at laying plot bombs and detonating them at the right moment, as when Albie discovered that his partner was responsible for a focus-group question that asked if Albie’s first show was "patriotic" enough; Tripp reveals that he did it to make Albie prove that he would write the show like he wanted even in the face of network polling and pressure. Sorkin is still an artist; if only he would use his palette for something other than airbrushing his self-portrait.

And one more thing, to be absolutely fair. Even though Sorkin ended episode 3 with a musical montage of Albie and his crew, flushed with their ratings success, Albie turns to Tripp and tells him that they shouldn’t get too comfortable: as writers, he says, they should know that a story like this has only one place to go, and that’s down.

Hand it to Sorkin: he got one detail right.