On ''Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,'' while the nosy reporter digs up dirt on Matt and Harriet, Jordan rejects a sleazy surefire hit in favor of a quality drama about the U.N.

By Gary Susman
Updated October 17, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Amanda Peet, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
Credit: Amanda Peet: Art Streiber
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”Studio 60”: The nosy reporter digs up dirt

Good news, everyone! Aaron Sorkin has discovered the running gag! Or at least that elemental sketch comedy rule: A guy dressed as a lobster is always funny. It’s funny when you’re watching him fumble for a pen, trying to reach with his giant claw into a nonexistent pocket. And it’s funny when he simply intrudes on an otherwise serious moment, like when Vanity Fair scribe Martha is telling Matt, ”I think popular culture in general and this show in particular are important.” Cue abrupt entrance by Lobster Guy. And…scene!

We’ve been complaining for weeks that Sorkin’s inability to show sketches that are funny or even gleefully absurd seriously undercuts the verisimilitude and credibility of Studio 60. Complain no more, folks. We got to see a wealth of material this week, some of it funny (”Nicolas Cage: Couples Counselor”), some of it not quite (”Jenny Doesn’t Have a Baby,” a sketch Matt believably waffled over whether or not to ax), some of it not all that funny but still sharply satirical (Harriet, Simon, and Jeannie’s parody of Nancy Grace’s show). In other words, it all looked like sketches that real sketch writers and players might actually create while working for a real network show. There was even an up-to-date guest host (Lauren Graham) and a sorta up-to-date musical guest (Sting — yes, he played a 400-year-old tune on a lute, but he really did release an album of 400-year-old lute ballads last week.)

This episode, called ”The Long Lead Story” (in reference to the 10,000-word opus on Studio 60 that Martha is writing for publication in VF several months from now), was rich in other respects, too. Thanks to Martha’s persistent questioning, we learned a lot more about Harriet — her abiding admiration for her devout mother, her fondness for smart-dumb blonde comic actress Judy Holliday, her un-Biblical willingness to engage in premarital sex, and her belief that Studio 60 lampoons preposterousness, not faith. (We also learned that her parents are not ashamed of their daughter’s actions because they are conveniently deceased.)

In case there was any lingering doubt, the episode also revealed that Jordan really is an idealist. She tried to persuade a playwright with a pitch for a quality show to choose NBS over HBO. (C’mon, even HBO wouldn’t air a weekly show about the United Nations unless it involved ambassadors of nations where polygamy is legal picking up cocktail-guzzling New York socialites at downtown nightspots.) At the same time, she was busy rejecting a pitch for a horrifying-sounding reality show built around the public airing of engaged couples’ dirty laundry. It was the kind of show, Jordan rightly pointed out, that Wes Mendell destroyed his career protesting against in the on-air rant that kicked off the Studio 60 pilot.

Knowing it would be a huge hit anyway, Jack tried to overrule her, so she went over his head to the scary Ned Beatty-in-Network-esque corporate titan played by Edward Asner. As he grandly told Jordan and Jack, he’s busy building a city in China (tell your kids to learn Mandarin, he advised) and can’t be bothered with such petty details. Let her do the job you hired her to do, he told Jack. As much fun as it is to see Jack foiled (and Asner bite off big chunks of scenery), the Jordan story line seemed unsatisfying this week until it tied together at the end, with Danny learning that Jordan chose integrity over profit and using that knowledge to persuade the playwright to pick NBS over HBO. Jordan’s contention that quality will save the network by drawing a wealthier demographic seems naively optimistic, but it’s the kind of naive optimism that made audiences fall in love with the Bartlet White House on The West Wing.

Finally, we learned that the Studio 60 cast and crew really are a cohesive team, thanks to the escalating farce that saw Suzanne, then Tom, then Simon inadvertently blab the dish on Matt and Harriet to Martha, even though they’d been trying to protect them from the prying reporter. (I especially liked how Simon, who said he was as secretive as a spy with his personal information, unwittingly told all when he left his body mike hooked up. D’oh!) Even Martha was touched to see everyone sticking up for Matt and Harriet, who she quickly decided would be the central thread of her article — not because of the juicy gossip but because they illustrated the idea that religious and secular America can find common ground, at least for 90 minutes a week. I hope this doesn’t mean they’re going to be the central thread of the series, since there’s finally a lot going on here in little corners for Sorkin to explore. Still, if there are more scenes like that tense but lovely near reconciliation on the balcony, a scene that finally let us see what Matt and Harriet see in each other, I won’t complain too loudly.

Questions: Do you think Matt’s current writer’s block is just stress, or is it really linked to his breakup with Harriet, as everyone else seems to think? Would you want to see them get back together just so the show could improve? And if Jordan and Danny’s increasing respect for each other blossoms into romance, will that be icky or cool?

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

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