I wish I were taking a rhetoric class so I could write a paper on whether “Studio 60” aged badly or poorly. I’ve never taken rhetoric and I’ve also never been great at first draft word choice so I’m not sure if that joke’s accurate but I will say it’s about as funny as anything on “Studio 60”’s first episode. I don’t have Amanda Peet or Steven Weber delivering it, so it’s more in the Matthew Perry arena.
But the point of “Studio 60” isn’t to be funny. It’s about the very serious business of being funny. And it doesn’t age well. It doesn’t not hold up—the pilot is just as good as its ever been in the places where it’s good and its got the problems just where it’s always had them—the second half is uneven, starting with the awkward introduction to the “Big Three” of the show-in-the-show’s Friday night sketch comedy program (Sarah Paulson, D.L. Hughley, and Nate Corddry). Then we get Matthew Perry playing the Aaron Sorkin wonder man and he’s not great at it.
But back to it not aging well for a second—one of the things Perry’s so upset about is the network putting the “flag over the network bug” but also the network bug in the first place.
Remember TV before the network bug in the bottom right? Barely, right? There’s a whole generation who doesn’t. Was Aaron Sorkin really mad about networking branding? And the Donald Trump joke isn’t even as bad as realizing Sorkin’s trying to both sides evangelical Christians with Paulson’s devout Christian but we have found out they really are just a couple sheets short of a Klan rally. Aaron Sorkin’s not a futurist or a political scientist, though… given 2016, it turns out neither of those disciplines are worth much.
What Sorkin does do well is his idealized version of the television industry, where upstart Peet can come in and convince Weber they can get rich off being classy. After sketch show producer Judd Hirsch—who can’t be based on Lorne Michaels because Lorne Michaels never made an actually good show—has his “mad as hell” moment on the air, new network president Peet brings back fired but now super successful Perry and Bradley Whitford (it’s a trip, no pun, seeing Whitford stumbling to find his co-lead cred in the show) to prove TV can still be relevant and good.
Just like it was when Edward R. Murrow used the “Jack Benny” show to take down McCarthy. Or when John Belushi’s Samurai Futaba brought the end to Vietnam.
Peet and Weber are great. Paulson’s interesting. Perry’s likable if you like Perry and Whitford’s likable if you like Whitford, though neither of them are particularly good here. And Perry’s hair is goofy.
Nice guest spots from Wendy Phillips, Donna Murphy, and Felicity Huffman.
Timothy Busfield is excellent as the director. He’s kind of the protagonist of the episode. Or at least the constant; he’s waiting to get fired for leaving Hirsch on the air.
Sorkin’s script is full of love of the craft of television making—I mean, control room director idolatry—and when it’s Hirsch, Peet, and Weber’s show it’s smooth sailing. Rockier when Perry takes the helm but it’s such an expensive… classy production it can’t not succeed as a pilot.
Though, disclaimer, I’ve liked Matthew Perry since the eighties so I’m biased. But it’s worth watching for Peet and Weber on their acting alone.