On ''Studio 60,'' Matt dresses down the bad writers, Cal redresses the stage set, and Harriet considers undressing for a lad magazine

By Gary Susman
November 21, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST
Sarah Paulson: Mitch Haaseth
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”Studio 60”: Christian girl gone wild

I grew up in Denver during the years that Dynasty was on the air, but despite the show’s occasional establishing shot of the downtown Denver skyline, it didn’t take place in a setting I recognized as my own world because I couldn’t identify with the super-rich Carringtons and their lavish problems. Maybe I should start looking at Studio 60 as if it were a campy nighttime soap like Dynasty: a drama that tangentially touches upon the real world I live in but whose characters are so far removed from that world — insulated by wealth, privilege, and unexamined assumptions — that their dilemmas are fabulously exotic and not anything I can actually empathize with.

Because, man, I wish my problems were like this: The bird in my ”Quentin Tarantino’s Hallmark Movie: Turkey Won’t Die” sketch didn’t spurt enough fake blood to be over-the-top funny but only just enough to be disturbing. Or like this: I’ve been asked to pose in lingerie for a lad magazine, but I’m not sure whether the admittedly exploitative gesture is exploitative in a way that will help or hurt my career. Or like this: The most expendable, least-liked members of my staff are quitting en masse, saving me from having to be the bad guy who has to lay off staffers who actually contribute…Wait a minute, how is this a problem, again?

These were some of the dilemmas at issue in this week’s episode, ”The Option Period,” and by the end of the ep, most of them had been tidily resolved. The most pressing problem — which Jordan inexplicably brought up at 10:30 on Friday night, immediately after the weekly broadcast of the sketch show and before the after party — had to do with company-wide belt-tightening in the wake of the Chinese megadeal that Jack had nearly bollixed earlier that day (on last week’s episode). Jordan wanted Danny and Matt to open the show up to product placement and to lay off 15 staffers, and she wanted it done now, before the party. (This sort of draconian order would have made more sense coming from Jack, but Steven Weber was unfortunately absent this week, perhaps exhausted from his relentless Emmy-grubbing last week.)

The layoffs (real-life alert: NBC is currently undergoing company-wide downsizing) turned out to be unnecessary, thanks to Ricky and Ron’s disloyalty. They had been surreptitiously writing a pilot for Fox based on their hacky recurring sketch ”Peripheral-Vision Man” (which we heard about in the Studio 60 pilot but thankfully have never seen). Maybe Matt could have fired them for breach of contract or sabotaged their plans by having Jordan renew NBS’ option on the material (which was due to expire at midnight), but because Ricky behaved like such a venomous jerk, Matt decided to let him walk. He and Ron took most of the writing staff with them, all but English Lucy (who planted a big wet one on an astonished Matt) and newbie Darius (who did not). Bad news for fans of Evan Handler, the former Sex and the City fireplug, who was a breath of fresh air as the only truly nasty person on Studio 60. Good news, though, for fans of underused scene-stealer Lucy Davis, who should be getting more to do, judging by the promos for next week’s show.

Product placement (real-life alert: Saturday Night Live currently gives on-air shout-outs to Budweiser, which sponsors the live-music segments) was another issue that proved less intractable than it seemed. Danny thought it might destroy the show’s ability to ”satirize the establishment,” grumbling, ”We can’t do that if we are the establishment.” (Somewhere, Lorne Michaels is chuckling ruefully and muttering in Aaron Sorkin’s direction, ”Welcome to my world, bitch.” I’ll leave it to you, TV Watchers, to play ”Where’s Waldo” and see how many instances of product placement you can spot on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.) Fortunately, Cal came up with an elegant solution: redesign the set so that it would actually look like the stretch of Sunset Boulevard that gives the show its name and adorn it with pretend billboards for real products. Now it’s not selling out, said Danny, it’s Americana.

Cal and Danny weren’t the only ones putting the ”strip” back in Sunset Strip. There was also Harriet, whose topless confrontation with Simon and Tom presaged a long argument about whether she should accept an offer to pose for cheesecake photos in a lad mag. Harry said she wanted to do it for her career, to show that she’s not just a Puritan but can play sexy movie roles, too, but while Simon and Tom didn’t mind the idea of Harriet undressing, they thought it would hurt her career more than help it. (Real-life alert: Kristin Chenoweth, the inspiration for Harriet, did a spread of bikini and lingerie shots in FHM in March, without any apparent damage to her career.) The guys argued that Harriet was getting taken, that what the magazine and its readers thought was sexy was the idea of corrupting a good girl. (This notion, astoundingly, seemed not to have occurred to Harry.) Of course, Simon and Tom had their own self-serving reasons: As Tom noted a bit too bluntly, the show needs Harriet to stay in the good graces of Christians so that she can remain a human shield to deflect negative reactions to their lampooning of the religious right. (Irony alert: The guest host was the former Christian poster child and current lad-mad pinup girl Jessica Simpson, who unfortunately went unseen, so we didn’t get to see her stall for time, as sister Ashlee did on SNL, and express her wishes for peace in the Midwest.) Tom and Simon were probably also still angry about that whole being-arrested-and-extradited-to-Pahrump thing earlier that day.

It took Matt, of all people, to divine the real reason Harriet was considering stripping down: She wanted to spite the Christian organization she’d been singing for, which had blackballed her for her ambiguous comment about gay marriage, a comment that was apparently insufficiently homophobic. The newly mature Matt gently cooled her temper and seemed to successfully talk her out of taking her clothes off. I’d complain that this led to yet another moment where Matt and Harry gaze longingly and adoringly at each other and then do nothing, but I was mesmerized by the rotating cactus on the table in front of them. That sucker was like a little, green, prickly disco ball.

Not every problem was so neatly resolved. Jordan’s response to Danny’s warning that she was about to lose her job was surprisingly liberating; she took the news as permission to apply her management philosophy of being as reckless, uninhibited, and gut-driven as she could be. In other words, as the song puts it, to live like you’re dying, which might be a fine credo if you’re Tim McGraw, probably less fine if you’re a network executive on whose judgment rides the fate of gajillion-dollar deals in Macao and the fortunes of countless employees and stockholders. Still, despite the vaunted intellects of all the decision makers at NBS and Studio 60, they all seem, in the end, to trust their guts more than their brains.

Jordan’s increasing hippie-chick vibe may make her seem even less like an executive than ever, though it seems we’re finally going to get an explanation for her earth-mothery glow as Sorkin writes Amanda Peet’s pregnancy into the plot. I’m guessing that’s what’s behind the fainting spell she undergoes in the promos for next week. Either that, or she saw the Tarantino turkey sketch.

What do you think? Can Jordan save her job? Why is she spending so much time babysitting the Studio 60 folks — doesn’t she have other shows to oversee? (Could it be she just enjoys bantering with Danny?) With only Lucy and Darius to help him, will Matt still insist on writing the show all by himself? And if we ever do get to see Harriet in a lad-mag cheesecake spread, will our souls be damned for eternity?

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  • 09/18/06
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