The final episodes of Aaron Sorkin's comedy-drama TV series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip got burnt off by its American network over the past few weeks. The show had a ton of advance hype before it launched, thanks to a crackerjack cast, an incendiary opening to the pilot and the fact it was Sorkin's return to network television four years after his acrimonious departure from The West Wing. Critics wondered if a TV series about TV could find a wide audience, or would it suffer from being seen as too self-regarding. There are no shortage of TV series set within the world of TV series that have been failures, but there have been successes too - often sitcoms [Murphy Brown. The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Larry Sanders Show].
Studio 60's problems were not centred round its setting, but the show's content. It was set behind the scenes of a Saturday Night Live-esque weekly sketch show. But it wasn't funny, nor was it particularly dramatic. The show revolved around the on-again, off-again relationship between a massively talented Jewish TV writer and a hardcore Christian female performer. According to critics, this was an analogue for the relationship between Sorkin and a particular actress. Sorkin has battled with addiction issues. The show's central character - writer Matt Albie, played by Matthew Perry - was resorting to painkillers to write the show. At times Studio 60 felt more like therapy than entertainment.
Ratings plummeted and critics sniped. Many of the Sorkin trademarks that had made The West Wing [and Sorkin's first TV series, the frequently sublime Sports Night] such a success were present and corrent - rat-a-tat dialogue, overlapping conversations, silky smooth visuals enlivening a talky set-up [no doubt thanks to director, executive producer and frequent Sorkin collaborator Thomas Schlamme]. But the extra spark that made its predecessors come alive was missing. Not funny, not dramatic. The West Wing's White House setting meant the stakes were always high, but who cares if a sketch comedy show succeeds or fails?
By December last year Studio 60 was deep in trouble. It rallied creatively with a wonderful Christmas episode, but returned in the New Year back without any fresh impetud. The show was pulled off air in February after 16 episodes. The remaining six episodes have just been burned off in America, screened in the dog days of summer when nobody's watching much TV. The final few helpings did serve up some genuine drama, but it was far too little, too late. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip will be released on DVD later this year and I'll buy it. I've bought everything else he's done, and will always give new Sorkin material a chance. But who knows if Sorkin will be given another chance on TV any time soon?