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''Studio 60'': Romance and vipers run amok

On ”Studio 60,” Danny gets Jordan stuck, Matt mis-woos Harriet, Tom lies to Lucy, and a viper is on the loose

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Sarah Paulson, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
Sarah Paulson: Mitch Haaseth

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip )

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”Studio 60”: Romance and vipers run amok

Remember last week, when I wrote that love was in the air on Studio 60? Well, scratch that. The show’s tentative couples seem to be splitting apart before we’ve even seen them together. Their Eden, it seems, is full of serpents. Or at least one serpent, a poisonous viper that got loose during a pretaped segment and is now slithering around in the bowels of the theater. Where’s Samuel L. Jackson when you need him?

The snake thing wasn’t even the most ludicrous moment of ”The Harriet Dinner” (the first of a two-part episode). No, that would be when Danny took Jordan upstairs to apologize for his stalker-ish behavior, only to lock the door behind them and accidentally trap them on the theater’s roof. It’s frustrating to watch a writer of Aaron Sorkin’s gifts resort to such a trite cliché, and having the characters be self-aware enough to joke about how clichéd the situation is doesn’t make it any less so. The scene’s redeeming moment: Jordan responded to Danny’s assurance that he would stop pursuing her by saying, ”Well….” Did that mean she’s actually starting to find Danny’s attentions more flattering than embarrassing? There was a lot of wiggle room in that one little word.

Matt continued to seek such wiggle room in his on-again, off-again relationship with Harriet, and she finally put her foot down and ended it for good. (Or at least we can hope it’s for good.) Her suitor Luke may have had his own self-serving motives, but he was right to ask her, ”Don’t you deserve a lot more? Don’t you want a lot more?” Matt thought he deserved points for bidding online to be Harry’s date at the awards dinner, but he was tongue-tied when she pointed out that he did it without any follow-up plan. (He’s like the joke about the dog who likes to chase cars: What would he do if he caught one?) By the way, how funny was it that Matt’s online rival, ”LukeS5858,” turned out not to be Harriet’s Luke but instead a 15-year-old professional snowboarder whose screen name was a Star Wars reference? Looks like Matt spent that $11,000 for nothing, except maybe bragging rights that he doled out five figures trying to win Harriet’s affections while Luke didn’t even bother to show up at the dinner in her honor. (Though Matt did earn a citation from the free-love folks, to whom he donated just a little bit more than he did to the abstinence advocators. Accepting the prize might be mortifying, but this is Hollywood, and as Matt said, ”An award’s an award.”)

The only part of this romantic comedy that played like a comedy was the abortive Tom-Lucy pairing. It was funny enough to see Jack, back in Heartless Corporate Overlord mode, deliver an intimidating speech to Tom, pressuring him to help the company by taking the smitten Kim to Harriet’s awards dinner and persuading her not to drop out of Juilliard to become a sketch comic. The power imbalance was made all the more glaring by the fact that Tom was costumed as a bunch of grapes for the Fruit of the Loom sketch. Watching Jack barrel through the backstage corridors, knocking over a hapless human apple in his path, was pretty priceless.

As high as the stakes were — not quite as high as Jack’s assertion to Tom that ”the fate of Western civilization depends on you talking her out of it,” but still pretty high (namely, the future of the company) — what mattered most to Tom was finding a graceful way to postpone his first date with Lucy. Now, in many romantic comedies, our hero has a wingman buddy who gives him terrible advice; here, that role fell to Matt, who told Tom, ”I know it seems like the truth is the best way to go, but it hardly ever is.” Okay, maybe Matt was right, and Lucy wouldn’t have appreciated knowing that Tom was brushing her off to spend the evening being pimped out to a 20-year-old would-be groupie, but Tom should have anticipated that Lucy might show up at the dinner (practically everyone else did) and catch him in his lie. I’m not sure which made Tom squirm more: Kim’s shameless, tequila-fueled flirting or Lucy’s cutting remark, ”Aren’t you supposed to wait until you’ve slept with me to start acting like a creep?” Still, of all the mismatched couples on this show, Tom and Lucy are the one I have the highest hopes for, either because their dilemma seems easiest to resolve, or because they’re both just so gosh-darn cute.

Thwarted love wasn’t the only turmoil on the set this week. There was also the growing hostility between Simon and Darius over whether the latter’s refusal to write the former’s fruit sketch means that Darius is Uncle Tom’s pool boy (to paraphrase Simon) or just that Darius didn’t think the idea was funny. (Note to Darius: This is not an argument you will be allowed to win. It’s not a question of who’s more authentically black but of who has the power. Rest assured, it’s not you.)

There was also the continuing struggle between Jordan and Hallie over the encroachment of exploitative reality programming on the NBS schedule. The rivalry gave Sorkin the opportunity to deliver (via Jack) some funny barbs about reality TV, but Jack also seemed to be hiding something from Jordan about his true agenda regarding Hallie.

Harriet’s impromptu use of her Dolphin Girl voice while shooting a promo with Masi Oka (who was a good sport in a scene that seemed to parody NBC’s own shameless attempt to have some of Heroes‘ super power rub off on Studio 60) generated its own mini-crisis. The funny dolphin voice didn’t yet have a sketch behind it, prompting a classic Sorkin rant (via Danny) about how comedy sketches, blockbuster movies, and even presidential candidates are sold to the public before there’s anything of substance to sell. Jordan, rightly, found this rant annoying.

And then of course there was the snake problem, which soon became a ferret problem, which soon threatened to become a coyote problem. Lesson for Cal, whose botch this was: Film shoots involving elusive, poisonous creatures are not a good time to cut corners and work on the cheap.

Questions to ponder: Is Sorkin grasping for a biblical analogy with the symbols in this episode (apple, snake)? Will any of our couples live happily ever after? Will Tom be able to save Western civilization? What’s really going on with Jack and Hallie? And most urgently, what goes in after the coyote?