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CliqueClack Flashback – Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip looked to be a hands-down winner in the 2006-07 television season. Yet, as the season progressed, the show turned out to be more of a loser due to the heavy-handedness of its creator.

The cast of NBC's Studio 60

On paper Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip looked like a monstrous hit. At its helm was creator Aaron Sorkin, who had previously given viewers the award-winning The West Wing. Its cast featured stars like D.L. Hughley, Amanda Peet and Steven Weber as well as West Wing veterans Bradley Whitford, Timothy Busfield and Matthew Perry. It even featured all of Sorkin’s hallmarks, like the walk-and-talk, the fast talkers and characters with freakish knowledge of everything.

Yet, shortly after its premiere, Studio 60 began to lose its luster. What critics and fans thought would be the grand hit of 2006-07, and winner of the Saturday Night Live parody competition against 30 Rock, turned into a clunker that lasted only one season. It got so bad that its remaining episodes were burned off after the season officially ended. When the last walk-and-talk faded into memory the only lingering question was, “What happened?”

Most people blame Studio 60’s problems on one person: Sarah Paulson, who played devout Christian Harriet Hayes. Critics place Paulson’s portrayal of Hayes and her over-the-top reactions as the reason the show went from boom to bust so soon. In hindsight, that was just an excuse that viewers placed into their minds because they really didn’t want to blame the one person who caused the downfall: Aaron Sorkin.

Unlike the slow buildup of characters and situations he introduced in The West Wing, Studio 60 started like a speeding train and tried to continue the same way through each episode. The result was a show even more fast-paced then viewers were used to in a Sorkin production. Because of this, opportunities weren’t there to connect to these characters like there were on West Wing or even Sports Night.

The loss of connection caused the characters to become  less real (in the super-intelligent Sorkinverse). Instead, they became vessels for Aaron to really tell folks what he felt about the world. True, Sorkin expressed many of his opinions in The West Wing, where the most conservative of Conservatives was a little bit liberal; however, it wasn’t jammed so far down fans’ throats like it was in Studio 60. By turning his show into a bully pulpit he made the characters within mere shadows of what they could have been.

The best example of this came from the show’s headliners: Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford. With Sorkin pushing so much of his fast-paced agenda into the show he took away what Perry and Whitford had built in a very short period of time while on The West Wing. Yes, Perry had the briefest of appearances on the show, but he had great rapport with Bradley during that time. That never really carried over to Studio 60 as Sorkin split them up early on to journey through their own little universes.

Not that Studio 60 was all gloom and doom (though it was sometimes hard to watch). There were some bright moments. Both D.L. Hughley and Nate Coddry provided a good contrast to the soap-opera stylings going on between Perry, Paulson, Whitford and Amanda Peet, while Steven Weber made a nice, and semi-ruthless network executive (but not as semi-ruthless as one Jack Donaghy). And there were a few episodes that stood out. Namely the Christmas episode that featured, in Sorkin fashion, some tear-jerking moments mixed with some excellent music.

Unfortunately, those few things could not save the show. As the season ended, Studio 60 became one of the great examples of the excesses of that time. The lessons learned from this failed Sorkin production carried on over the next few seasons and, most likely, was one of the reasons for NBC’s situation today.

Photo Credit: NBC

7 Responses to “CliqueClack Flashback – Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”

February 4, 2010 at 11:23 AM

Sarah Paulson was horrible on the show, but it’s not only her fault, the writing was terrible from the beginning. Sorkin tried to make the show The West Wing when that was completely out of place, the soldier being kidnapped storyline took up like three episodes and just didn’t make any sense. Sorkin wanted to preach instead of making an entertaining show and it just failed on every level.

Also there were flashbacks to I don’t know how many years before and the only way you could tell it was a flashback is because of the Mathew Perry wearing a baseball cap. It was just so silly.

February 4, 2010 at 11:33 AM

Also putting it in what me and my wife referred to as the Monday night NBC death slot. Nothing seemed to survive there.

February 4, 2010 at 12:44 PM

I blame Sorkin first, but Paulson gets her fair share of it. The writing varied from smart to ridiculous (such as any time a sketch from the show was shown). Paulson’s character was insufferable, and her performance was atrocious. Otherwise, Sorkin had everything imaginable going for him: a mostly top-notch cast, even including newcomers like Corddry, a great set, tons of money for those high production values, amazing guest stars (Ed Asner! Allison Janney!) and talented directors. But most scripts revolved around Sorkin’s giant ego and were utterly, laughably, unrealistic (and I say this as a huge fan of “The West Wing”‘s Sorkin years, “The American President”, and “A Few Good Men”).

February 4, 2010 at 1:02 PM

We talked about this some off-line, but I totally disagree that there was something wrong with the show. Clearly enough people disliked it, because it bombed, but then plenty of people didn’t like The West Wing and thought it was a big mess.

I think Studio 60 was fantastic. I never felt preached to, confused, lost, or whatever else were the many complaints people had about the show. To me, it just didn’t click for people for some inexplicable reason. But it was fantastic from beginning to end, and all stops in between.

February 4, 2010 at 6:04 PM

My wife and watched the show, and we loved it. As a Christian, I often experience the same frustration that “Harriet” did about making decisions, and having to choose the lesser of two evils. At the same time, being a Christian does not mean you are removing yourself from the world. I thought Paulson’s portrayal was spot-on. She was a part of that community, but she did not have to just accept every part of it.

February 4, 2010 at 7:40 PM


The religion aspect is a big part of the problems that arise while writing a comedy show. Aks Seth McFarlane or better watch “The Simpsons 20th Anniversary 3D on Ice” and hear him talk about not mentioning catholics. The Harriet storyline might have been accurate but it was the death of the show.

Plus her and Matt didn’t have a thimble of chemistry – just like Jordan and Danny didn’t.

Whom I really liked: Nate Corddry.

Hey I made it. Didn’t mention that guy I use to trash when I talk about Studio 60 :-)

February 5, 2010 at 10:47 AM

So you’re saying there are Sorkin shows in which not all of the characters are thinly-veiled authorial mouthpieces used to harangue the viewing audience into holding the correct opinions, replete with straw men to be knocked down? Huh. Good to know.

Despite all the overblown dialogue, I thought Whitford, Perry, and Weber did a good job. On the other hand, although I have always liked Peet, she was horribly miscast for her role here.

BTW, I think you meant to type “rapport” instead of “repoire.”

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