On Monday (post comments), I said I would return to Studio 60. The following chronological list of moments will at times sound like a defense of the show, especially if you didn't like it the first time around. I'm not trying to make you go back for a second go, I swear. I understand why it was unlikable to many - I guess what made it so wasn't ever going to bother me. The list definitely shows my personal biases, with more than a few Matt-Harriet moments, and no Danny-Jordan moments at all. Here, then, is a sample of bits from the show's 22 episodes that I still watch with great affection.
The Magic Clock (The Cold Open)If the theme of Studio 60 is the anxiety of writing it, and it is, then there's no better metaphor for it than the clock counting down to the next show in Matt's office. Matt is an obvious stand-in for Aaron Sorkin himself, just as Sam Seaborne was on The West Wing. What kind of man puts a crippling reminder of how little time he has to write an hour and half of material in less than a week in his work environment like that on purpose? You start to understand the pilot's use of Queen's Under Pressure in its final moments.
Asking for the butter (The Cold Open)
Harriet asks what she did wrong that when she asked for the butter at the script reading, she got a laugh, but not at the dress rehearsal. Matt answers "You asked for the laugh." Harriet asks "What did I do at the reading?" Matt: "You asked for the butter." This is the kind of stuff I tell my improv students, and the show has quite a few good pieces of advice for comedy writers and performers (and improv players are both simultaneously). There's also the very simple "buy the premise, buy the bit" and from The Focus Group: "Commit to it. You're gonna feel a strong instinct to make it bigger. Fight that with everything you got. No comedian you admire has ever been afraid of silence." So true!
Harriet's interview (The Long Lead Story)
When Martha O'Dell starts digging into Matt and Harriet's past, they don't let her get very far. But there's a lovely moment at the end where Martha asks Harriet how she's different from her devout mother and she answers "I hope in as few ways as possible". Then "I don't need no pen" Martha O'Dell starts looking for something to write with, urgently. Aside from being a great line and a great bit, it's one of the things that makes me scratch my head at criticism that the show's "point of view" was strictly disdainful of faith and religion. That's Matt's opinion certainly, and sure, it's largely his story, and I don't think it's ridiculous to have most Hollywood types "lapsed" at best. But the other point of view is there too, and that's Harriet. She wins as many arguments as she loses, and usually keeps the moral high ground regardless. A strong character with a beautiful interior life, and to me at least, a positive portrayal of Christians.
Fields of Gold (The Long Lead Story)
Studio 60, like The West Wing, has a great track record with selecting songs to underscore the action, especially as an episode wraps up. One of S60's best end bits has to be the unbearably hot Matt-Harriet scene while Sting sings Fields of Gold on the lute. Unbearable for Matt anyway. An almost-kiss, leaving it at "You knock my socks off". Poor Matt never had a chance.
Zhang insults Jack's honor (Nevada Day Part II)
I'm as surprised as anyone that Jack Rudolph is one of my favorite characters on the show, but for a corporate jackass, he's really got heart. When potential über-business partner, Mr. Zhang, says Jordan McDeere has dishonored NBS with all the gossip surrounding her, Jack goes off on him and tells him to take his deal to Time-Warner. He really goes to bat for her and for the rest of his underlings who, despite the major screw-up of the last two episodes, have shown considerable honor. I've read some people don't like S60 because it's not a realistic portrayal of behind the scenes at a sketch comedy show/tv network, and an honorable chairman of the board like Rudolph is certainly an example of this. But the same was true of The West Wing. Sorkin presents an ethical and aesthetic ideal, what these institutions COULD be and SHOULD be rather than have BECOME. And that's fine with me.
The City of New Orleans (The Christmas Show)
Anything I've looked at web commentary about S60, the episode that seems to stand out with the most viewers (even some naysayers) is the Christmas episode, especially Holy Night played by actual jazz musicians from New Orleans, relatively soon after Katrina. One of the interesting things about the show is that it could do things as if it actually were Saturday Night Live. Really have guest stars/hosts, really have live musical performances, and really be topical. This intersection between fact and fiction reminded me of West Wing's non-canon 9/11 show, and at the same time, of West Wing's best Christmas episodes where music also played a big part.
"Don't be scared" (The Harriet Dinner Part I)
Rewatching the series last week (just because I'd mentioned it to someone in passing - I'm like that), a chill went through me when this line was uttered. And so born the idea for this very post. Matt and Harriet have been having a fight for most of the episode, and towards the end, Harriet, tired of being jerked around in Matt's idea of a romantic comedy, tells him "We're going to be finished tonight. Don't be scared." Gah! I think my entire love life flashed before my eyes in that moment.
Allison Janney's goodbye (The Disaster Show)
The prop guys not only walked out on strike, but also sabotaged the show before they left. Allison Janney is guest host and as a result naturally wants to kill the director Cal, played by Timothy Busfield. (It's great to see these two play against each other again.) At the very end, during the "goodbyes", Allison goes totally off and starts to rave and rant, but Cal's cut her mike. He talks her down through an earpiece she's wearing by telling her it "beats digging a ditch for a living" and "tell me you didn't have the time of your life anyway?" She looks right into the camera, knowing she's been schooled but radiant, and thanks him. A great moment that reminded me of when I used to work a French CBC Radio as a producer. One technician I worked with used to say "it's radio not brain surgery; if we make a mistake, nobody dies". It's important to take your work seriously, but also to have perspective.
A fight in two different millenia (K&R Part 1)
Matt and Harriet have yet another argument about the existence of God and the relevance of prayer, and it's one they've had before. The show cuts between different conversations that took place over the course of their entire relationship. "We've been having the same fight for six months!" "We've been having this fight for two years!" "We have now been having this fight in two different millenia!!!" Very funny (and metatextually cathartic), and it leads into...
Matt's prayer (K&R Part I)
Tom Jeeter's brother has been captured by the Taliban and is in danger of being beheaded on tv and Jordan is at the hospital where she might lose her baby or worse, and Matt finally breaks down while no one's looking and talks to God. "Show me something." Had the show continued beyond its 22 episodes, it's my firm belief that he and Harriet's values would have grown closer. We would have found out what was at the root of Matt's almost pathological distaste for religion, and he would have been allowed to work through it. The Matt and Harriet relationship was described early on as a metaphor for Bush's polarized post-9/11 United States, and I have a feeling Sorkin would have used it to work out his own ambivalence about it, and in literary terms, close the rift and "heal the nation".
But we'll never know, and it does no good to speculate. If you were a fan of the show, you might have other moments you'd like to talk about. Go right ahead. Scenes I almost put in include Simon taking Matt to a comedy club to hear the Same Old Stand-Up(TM), and almost anything with either Lucy Davis or Mark McKinney's depressed comedy writer.