A Plea to Aaron Sorkin

I should be doing homework right now (and didn’t I tell you I’d start out posts like this?) but I just want to pause for a moment to discuss Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Apparently, NBC has put in a full-season order. I find myself relieved, but, admittedly, a bit confused. If the basis for ordering more episodes is the quality of the last eight, NBC must be seeing something I’m not. (I realize that the basis for such a decision is not usually quality but ratings, but from what I understood of the ratings, that wouldn’t be the reason, either.)

I say this as someone who really, really wants to like this show. I love Aaron Sorkin’s past work. I love shows-about-show-business. Comedy is my favorite sub-section of show business, and sketch comedy my favorite sub-section of comedy. I love Matthew Perry, Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, D.L. Hughley, Steven Weber, any and all Corddrys and Timothy Busfield. I watch this show because I am desperately in love with its potential. I’m sure that its potential is why NBC ordered the first thirteen episodes. But that doesn’t explain why they ordered the second thirteen (if, in fact, a full year is twenty-six episodes. I have no idea if that’s true).

In the spirit of belief in the potential of this show, I herewith offer the following suggestions for having it live up to its potential.

1. Hire some sketch comedy writers. If you already have them, hire new ones. The sketches aren’t that funny. Admittedly, the same complaint could be made about actual professional sketch comedy writers. SNL is widely considered to be not funny anymore. I just saw a show at Second City in Chicago and it was probably only about 30% hilarious. But it was over an hour and a half of material. You only need a couple of minutes or so per show. And the whole problem with most mediocre sketches in sketch comedy is that they go on too damn long, because they need to fill time. The structure of this show is that you can basically present the premise and one or two punchlines within it and you’re out! It shouldn’t be that hard.
And no whining that comedy is subjective, or anything. You set it up. You a) chose to show the viewers sketches, which you didn’t have to do, and b) convinced us that Matt Albie and Harriet Hayes were so funny that they could overlook character traits and beliefs in each other that would have otherwise been reprehensible because they were so dazzled by the other’s talent. Not only that, but the rest of the world is apparently similarly dazzled, handing Matthew awards and flailing television shows, etc. If you didn’t set the bar so high, we’d expect sketches at the level of mediocre SNL. But you did, so now you have to jump over it.

2. Stay away from Matt-and-Harriet-sitting-in-a-tree plotlines until, at minimum, May sweeps. Seriously, they’re irritating. When I saw the pilot, I thought that their love would be treated by the love plotlines in The West Wing, i.e., minimally. Entire episodes – months, really – could go on with nothing happening between C.J. and Danny, Josh and Donna, Sam and Mallory. Not nothing like no kissing. Nothing like absolutely no indication in the show that a romance was brewing at all.
Now, I get that Matt and Harriet are different from those couples on The West Wing. (And I’m not using The West Wing in a way that implies that you should be doing the same beloved show over again. I just mean that you’ve done this before and you know why it works, so why not do it again?) For one, C.J. and Danny and Mallory and Sam didn’t work together in the same way. Yes, C.J. probably saw Danny every day, as part of the press gaggle, but had other stuff to do besides interact with him one-on-one all the time. And Mallory rarely had a reason to be around Sam without planning for it. Josh and Donna are the closest to Matt and Harriet, in that they did work together all the time, and one of them was the other’s boss. But Josh had stuff to do that did not directly involve mooning over Donna, stuff that was more interesting than writing to film. And if we focused on the other stuff Harriet was doing all day, we’d need more sketches, which, see above.
So maybe Matt and Harriet will need more screen time together.
One thing that could really mitigate the irritating factor is if the rest of the characters did not treat their love with such respect. If they could roll their eyes with us, it might help. Another thing would be to actively engage them in entirely separate storylines. Harriet could be shown to be more involved with the cast. Matt could be more tied to an NBS plotline, or something more directly with Danny. For all the chemistry Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford had together in the pilot, we barely ever see them together for long stretches anymore. Do that. Do whatever. Just keep them from staring wistfully at each other for a while. I mean, it’s a damn comedy show, not a melodramatic romance.

3. Get off the damn soapbox before someone pushes you off of it. When the show began, I was willing to give it a pass for being very self-important about TV. TV is important. Stories shape the way people think. Stories are culture. Stories are society. And people get their stories these days overwhelmingly from TV. This is not the beginning of an anti-TV rant. There’s nothing inherently better or worse about TV as a media than novels or fireside storytelling. But it is important to understand the forces that shape the stories that are so pervasive and influential in our culture. Sure, it’s not White-House-level important. But it’s important.
But that should not translate to every single episode being about “the culture wars.” It should especially not translate to every episode being a smashing of the Christian right. I thought you made Harriet Hayes a Christian to humanize the other side (because apparently I wasn’t watching your other shows that closely) but all you do every week is show how wrong she is, and how not particularly articulate she is about defending her side. Aaron, baby, no one watching your show is on that side. But if you keep showing our side to be such arrogant, hypocritical dickwads, we may rethink things.
And also, the importance of TV as a medium should not be the sole focus of every single show. It can always be there, humming in the backdrop, or it can take up major story time for one episode, but not the next, but it can’t always be the only thing front and center. Show us some cast plotlines. Show us some Matt-and-Danny-working-together plotlines. Maybe show some writing-sketch-comedy-is-hard plotlines.

4. Straw men are not acceptable characters. Middle-aged people from Columbus, Ohio, know the “Who’s on First?” routine. It’d be more likely that someone Tom’s age, who was very smart and very liberal but didn’t happen to be in on the comedy scene, wouldn’t know the routine, than it would that Tom’s conservative, midwestern parents didn’t know the routine. That’s just ridiculous.
Also ridiculous is ridiculing the audience for thinking that, when a rural Nevadan judge who has been called off a fishing boat strolls into a scene, he’ll be a racist, ignorant hick who doesn’t even know what NBS is, when just last week you had a middle-aged man from Ohio not know what “Who’s on First?” is. Again, you set the bar (this time, very low). No fair making us responsible for it.

5. Figure out Harriet’s deal. At this point, she’s coming across as one of the straw men; just a very confused one. Why does she get to have a debate about the sinful nature of gay marriage one week, when only a few weeks before she said something to the effect of premarital sex being the only kind she’s likely to have? It feels like she has whichever Christian beliefs are convenient to the plot. I’m not saying all people are logical and coherent in her beliefs. But it feels like the incoherence is coming from the writing, not the character. Fix that. And also, she’s been on the show for six years? I think that’s your timeline. So she doesn’t get to get pissy about material that conflicts with her personal beliefs anymore. Especially since she’s got a burgeoning Christian music career and could walk away from the show if she wanted to.

(Actually, there’s a plotline for you that, if done right, could be interesting. Have Harriet threaten to walk. But here’s what you have to do. 1) It should be over a particular sketch. 2) She should not be bitchy or hysterical about it (which she is all too often for a woman you want us to like). It could come out of some thinking about her faith, which we need to see to sort out her many sides, and could also come out of practicality – she doesn’t need to do this to get work anymore. 3) Matt and Danny should be a team in confronting this, and they should be confronting this as head writer and executive producer, to circumvent Matt using this as another “But I looooove her” moment. 4) Obviously, she should decide in the end that doing comedy (not Matt!) means more to her, but that she wants a bigger role developing sketches that are not based on bashing the right wing. This serves as character development and a means not to allow bashing the religious right to be the center of every goddamn episode.)

6. Use D.L. Hughley. Why isn’t this man being used as a comedic actor in a show about comedy? He’s really funny! I heart him! Yes, I can see he has potential as a dramatic actor, and that’s great. But let’s see him in more sketches, or maybe helping to write some! He’s great! And he’s sitting right there!

7. Get over whatever your deal is with women. You have this very particular variety of misogyny common in left-wing wealthy white males. It’s hard to describe. You go out of your way to show us powerful women – the network head, one of the Big Three cast members – but then you undermine them by making them hysterical or drunk or what have you. And then you treat that hysteria as a form of feminine power or something. It’s not as blatant as the way the Sex and the City leads were written, but it’s close. Cut it out.

8. Leave your personal life out of it. So apparently you had a tumultuous relationship with Kristen Chenoweth, who is Christian and right-wing? And you’ve had trouble getting your oh-so-smart shows on TV because network execs want to put on shameful reality shows instead? And the internet, that monolithic source of all bad things, says mean things about your shows? You know why I know all of this? Because you put it in your show. Stop doing that. Unless you’re going to mine your life for some decent plotlines, just cut it out. I am not your therapist.
That last bit is good advice for all show creators, by the way. Know why I stopped watching Desperate Housewives, Mr. Cherry? Because all of Bree’s storylines started to feel like you working out your anger with your mom.

I think I’ve said my piece. I’m sure I’d have more suggestions if I could sort them all out. But just keep in mind, Mr. Sorkin, that some of the things you’re getting criticism for on this show are things you’ve gotten away with before. Misogyny? Check. Pedanticism? Check. Over-inflated self-importance? Check. You just have to do them better and we’ll love you again.