Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: Art Streiber
Gary Susman
September 26, 2006 AT 04:00 AM EDT

”Studio 60”: Danny and Matt make their mark

Oh no! Jack White is sick, and the White Stripes have to bail out of appearing on NBS’ Studio 60! Also, there are boycott threats by religious conservatives over the ”Crazy Christians” sketch, grumblings among the writers and performers who fear being fired by the new regime, and a personal crisis for Matt when Harriet finds out he slept with fellow cast member Jeanie! On top of all that, Matt’s got writer’s block! Okay, none of this sounds as momentous as the crises faced by the White House staffers on Aaron Sorkin’s last show, but give him a break: It’s just his second week on the job, and Matt and Danny’s first. You can’t blame everyone for panicking a little.

This episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, titled ”The Cold Open,” had a cold open of its own, rushing directly into a tense press conference with Jordan, Matt, and Danny in which Danny tossed the network-spun script and was coldly honest about his failed drug test and his intention to air the controversial sketch. He got a chilly reaction from Jordan and an even icier one from her boss, Jack, but the whole sequence made for terrific, intense drama that the rest of the episode struggled to match.

Back at the studio, the tension didn’t let up, though the problems seemed less urgent. There was Matt’s conference with the hacky writing staff, whose sketch ideas (mostly George W. Bush-related) might have been funny and pointed back in 2002. (It’s nice to see Sex and the City‘s Evan Handler again, even if he’s stuck playing ”Matt Albie’s butt boy,” as his character described himself.) Sorkin watchers will note the allusion to the complaints by West Wing writers that Sorkin ignored their contributions and didn’t delegate work for them, preferring to write entire seasons of the show by himself. If his writers were as uninspired as these guys, who could blame him?

The sketch players, all worried that they’d get fired, had their own grumbles. The drawn-out argument between Danny and Simon over which of them had shown the least loyalty to the show seemed contrived, especially when Simon revealed that what was really bothering him was his inability to do the kind of pandering vocal impressions of stars like Bill Cosby (”Jello Pudding Pops!”) that the hacky writers had demanded. But I liked the way Danny ultimately comforted and reassured him. Looks like Danny really is going to be the rock, the calm center, that Matt urged him to be.

Which is good, because Matt has his hands full keeping the female cast members happy. It’s not really his fault that Jeanie inadvertently humiliated Harriet in front of everybody by letting slip the fact that she’d, um, witnessed his morning workout regimen. Then again, Matt’s realization that he still loves Harriet isn’t going to smooth the tensions any. Clearly, Matt hasn’t learned the don’t-poop-where-you-eat rule about workplace romance, but then few in Hollywood (or in Sorkin’s other shows) have. Which raises a question: Is Danny’s growing admiration for Jordan going to blossom into romance, too?

I had to snicker at the insulting remarks about bloggers and how the mainstream media take them seriously. Apparently, Sorkin misses a time when the professionals (like himself) were in charge of both creating the shows and critiquing them, before the rabble rose up and demanded a say in the process, whether as bloggers or as readers of Rapture magazine who use boycott threats to influence content. Meanwhile, NBC created its own fake blog this week, a parody of Defamer called Defaker, to generate interest in Studio 60 among the Internet-savvy, only to yank it when commenters responded with vitriol to such a patronizing marketing tactic.

Jordan does deserve credit for holding her ground against the boycott threats; if she’d shown weakness and caved, there would be similar threats every week. I still don’t know if she’s a principled idealist or if she was just counting on the controversy to drive ratings in those markets where the affiliates didn’t refuse to air the show. Part of that ambiguity may be due to Amanda Peet’s cagey underplaying. I know her performance irks many of you, but I prefer to think that she’s being directed to keep her cards close to the vest, and that her character’s motivations will be revealed in the fullness of time.

Alas, we didn’t actually get to see the sketch that cost Wes Mendell his job and has nearly cost Jordan hers, so we don’t know if it was worth the trouble. The one sketch we did see was…eh. Matt’s lavish Gilbert and Sullivan parody struck the right tone — classy, highbrow, well-behaved, yet still irreverent about Wes’ firing and Danny’s cocaine history. But it wasn’t really funny. Saturday Night Live honcho Lorne Michaels, name-checked in this episode, shouldn’t be losing too much sleep over the prospect of getting shown up by Sorkin’s sketch-writing gifts.

Still, it was fun to watch the lightbulbs switch on over Matt, Danny, and Simon’s heads as the ideas for the sketch came together. Maybe it’s these little moments of inspiration that will make all the hand-wringing over crises large and small seem worthwhile — and will help make this show worth watching.

What do you think? Can Sorkin make us care whether Matt forces the writers to come to work in suits, or whether Jordan alienates a station manager in Terre Haute? Is that gigantic countdown clock in Matt’s office going to drive him insane? (Maybe that’s what pushed Wes over the edge.) And are these folks going to do something funny on the air soon?

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