On ''Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,'' Tom gives his parents a tour of the auditorium, while an old sketch writer reminisces about TV's not-so-golden age

By Gary Susman
Updated October 24, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Nate Corddry: Mitch Haaseth

”Studio 60”: Television history

I hope Aaron Sorkin isn’t doing as poorly in the romance department as Matt Albie because, if he’s right about the connection between dry spells and writer’s block, NBC’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip could be in big trouble. In this week’s episode, ”The Wrap Party,” we saw Matt strike out with three young model-actress-whatevers, as well as with guest host Lauren Graham (though her revulsion and self-loathing when she took Matt’s phone number was hilarious).

Not that I really want to see Matt get back together with Harriet, but it seems inevitable, especially after she learned that her pitcher beau, whom she calls ”the anti-Matt,” is handing out his phone number to other women as well. One of them happened to be a tipsy Jordan, whose desperate bids to acquire some new friends (really, does anyone ever come out and say, ”I don’t have any friends”) were also pretty funny. Between her clumsy attempts to mingle, pitcher Darren’s knuckleball, Jack’s drunken tirade, and Tom’s awkward studio tour with his parents, it looked like everyone was going to go home from the wrap party alone.

The three would-be groupies Danny tried to fix Matt up with made for some low comedy, as Matt kept trying to explain exactly what his job as a writer entails. Sometimes, I think Sorkin is trying to explain it to us equally dim-witted viewers as well.

After all, writing for the Studio 60 players is tricker than it sounds. Take Matt’s excursion with Simon to the Improv to audition an African-American comic, after Simon convinced him that he needs someone to write for him who didn’t go to Harvard. (Wait a minute — didn’t Simon go to Yale?) Turns out the comic is like every unfunny hack you’ve ever heard on Def Comedy Jam, full of crude, pandering racial stereotypes. Yet the club audience laughs. Is it Simon whose point of view doesn’t fit a supposedly standard African-American perspective? Turns out Simon really is from the ‘hood, as he relates in a story he tells Matt about how he was rescued from a dead-end future of gangbanging and prison, and how he now feels obligated to rescue others like himself. Fortunately, there’s another African-American comic at the club, one whose humor is equally unfunny but much more cerebral; he’s even from Simon’s old neighborhood in South Central L.A. (Notably, it’s Matt who hears him first and persuades Simon to listen to his set.) Matt and Simon hire New Comic on the spot. Hey, great, now he’ll be writing unfunny but thought-provoking sketches for Simon.

We learned a lot more about Tom this week as he gave his square Midwestern parents a tour of the Studio 60 auditorium and its rich history. Sorkin laid their cluelessness on a little thick. (Mom’s remark about Halle Berry in front of Simon, as if to indicate that she and Dad aren’t racists, was priceless, but not having heard of Abbott and Costello’s ”Who’s on First”? They’re from Ohio, not Mars.) It’s no wonder Tom finds them exasperating, but you can’t blame them if their minds are elsewhere; as Dad blurted out, Tom has a brother fighting in Afghanistan. It’s as if Sorkin is finally acknowledging that there are more important things than Studio 60‘s place in broadcasting history.

While Tom was retelling the history of the building, a living piece of that history was wandering around downstairs. The disoriented old party crasher (played slyly by guest star Eli Wallach) turned out to be a sketch writer on a classic show from the ’50s, when giants like Sid Caesar were inventing TV sketch comedy. ”Of course, the network was not comfortable with [political humor] in those days,” he said, having grabbed a picture of himself and his forgotten co-workers off the wall. Given the heat faced by Matt (and Wes before him), we’re supposed to observe that little has changed, but Eli and many of his colleagues were victims of the blacklist, with both the networks and Congress cracking down on them. Matt and Danny (and Sorkin) shouldn’t flatter themselves that the stakes are as high now.

What do you think? Will Matt actually let New Comic help write the show? Will Jordan ever make any lasting friends? And does Harriet’s imminent dumping of Darren mean she’s going to reconcile with Matt, or will he be too busy trying to date the Gilmore Girls?