Film Threat archive logo


By Rory L. Aronsky | October 24, 2006

Dear Aaron,

I think I’ve been faithful enough to your two most distinguished achievements in television history to refer to you by your first name, and I’m sure that’s ok.

I was struck still and stunned by the first episode of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” Judd Hirsch’s rant, the tension in the control room, trying to regroup the show-within-a-show so that it could continue on; I loved all of that and wanted to see more without having to wait until the following week. Heck, when Netflix and NBC jointly made the first episode available on DVD six weeks before it aired, I had that at the top of my queue the day before it was set for release to Netflix customers and watched it at least five times. I wanted to know more about these characters, I wanted to find out what lives they lived off the air.

I got that same exuberant feeling with “The West Wing.” Even when the start of season five saw John Wells assume command of the show, I still watched, with the hope that some of your spark remained. The show didn’t improve until late in that season when Glenn Close and William Fichtner guest-starred as two potential Supreme Court justice nominees, and that was only because writer Debora Cahn obviously had you as a teacher, but could also add her own zesty style to dialogue and storytelling, and it also helped that one of my favorite “West Wing” directors, Jessica Yu (responsible for one of my all-time favorite episodes, “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail,” from the second season) added her own artistic contributions.

But you see Aaron, that’s why “The West Wing” succeeded like it did. Yes you were at the head of the show, but just like “The American President,” other people were in charge, wanting the same vision you did, and adding their own talents to the process. It wasn’t just you. It was Rob Reiner and the last good movie he’d ever make. It was Michael Douglas getting into your dialogue, even to the point of seeming genuinely amused at what he got the chance to say. It was Martin Sheen, who obviously grasped your style enough and carried it over to “The West Wing” years later with the same grace and respect as President Jed Bartlet. And the actors on that show, from Rob Lowe, Bradley Whitford, Allison Janney, Richard Schiff, all the way to Kathryn Joosten as Mrs. Landingham and even Jorja Fox before she went to “CSI”, they all got what you were doing and they wanted to help make it even better. Without these actors, without the people who worked with you, your words were nothing more than black marks on sheets of paper.

And when I watched that first episode of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” I got the impression that you were going to do the same with this cast. I saw nothing of Josh Lyman in Bradley Whitford’s performance as Danny Tripp and I liked that. I loved Matthew Perry’s approach to comedy in Matt Albie, which is sorely lacking at this point. I was glad to see Sarah Paulson, who finally got her chance to be good on last week’s episode, “The Long Lead Story,” where she told her life’s story to a reporter (guest star Christine Lahti), and there were such tones, such quiet, heartfelt moments. Finally, a character! A well-written character!

But I can’t watch any longer, sir. Not with what’s happened tonight, not with how you continue with your smug writing, continually referencing yourself, demanding that everyone see how great you are and bow down eternally. That young playwright who gave NBS the rights to his script “Nations”? That young playwright is you and “Nations” is a thinly-disguised reference to “The West Wing.” And all your talk about words. Dangling modifier joke? Yes, we get it. You have a full, knowledgeable grasp of the English language. I respect you even more for it because I sure as hell can’t write all that good anyway. I have no sense of grammar, I have no knowledge of writers past and present, I don’t even know if my writing has any particular style.

And then, to cover bad black comedians, a senile old men who just happened to have been associated at one time with the studio that “Studio 60” is produced in, and to show the President of the network as a fumbling, stumbling, slightly tipsy lonely woman looking for friends? You told us at the beginning of the series that she saw to it that David Letterman’s ratings topped Jay Leno. You told us that she was once president of NBC, you told us that she took CBS’s Early Show from a 16 to a 19 share. All of this experience and she looks like she’s completely new to this industry.

But then, to push unseemly, ham-fisted drama into our eyes and ears. Tom Jeter’s (Nate Corddry) father doesn’t know the famous “Who’s On First” routine; he’s upset because while his son stands there shocked that his father doesn’t keep up on the history of comedy, he snaps back with the apparently little-known fact to Tom that his younger brother is in the middle of Afghanistan while he’s part of this show, making enough to buy his parent’s house four times over and “turn it into a ping-pong room,” according to him.

And then there’s the “black comedian” bit where you created a black comedian who represents all the cliches that obviously tick you off about bad black comedians, how they compare themselves to white people, how they like women with big butts, how they talk about having so many kids that “My next one’s going to be named Oops,” according to the actor who had to dance to your routine. Then, all of a sudden, while Simon Stiles (D.L. Hughley) rants and raves about this bad comedian, about how base he is, Matt hears another comedian who’s getting booed by the audience, but he’s genuine. He tries to make jokes, well-rounded jokes according to you, about being black. Matt believes he needs a little discipline in his writing, but yeah, this will fulfill Simon’s request to have at least one black writer on the staff. It’ll shut him up for a couple of years. I wonder which white writer around the writer’s room table they’ll fire in order to make room for this new guy.

And then the history lesson with Eli Wallach playing Eli Weinraub, a former writer for the Philco Comedy Hour which aired in the same “Studio 60” studio around the time of the blacklist. You had to bring up the blacklist? You just had to stand up on what must be a soapbox on top of a pedestal and decide you want to lecture the American public on things you believe they know nothing about and shouldn’t know about unless it comes from you. So Clifford Odets named names. So most of this man’s fellow writers and friends were banned from ever working in Hollywood again. And nice anvil you dropped on top of us with Cal Shanley (Timothy Busfield) trying to figure out who this guy is and Cal finding out that the three names given to him by the man were actually six, six names that made up 60% of the Hollywood Ten.

I can’t do this anymore, Aaron. When Jordan laughed about how the word “unfathomable” is hard to say, I threw the remote at the couch and almost screamed, “”F**k this!” I can’t stand how you preach and preach and preach. You used to just let your characters breath. You used to allow other writers a chance to add more and more layers to your creations. But I guess since you probably created this show while riding on the relative success of “The West Wing,” you decided that you would do all the writing, you’d make sure that each character was yours and yours alone. These actors don’t even look like they’re having a good time which by extension, makes characters come to life. They merely look like they’ve arrived on set to live through yet another workday and believe me, I see enough of that in my own life. I don’t need to see it on my TV from people who get paid a hell of a lot more than I do.

As the old saying goes, Aaron, “Stick a fork in it, I’m done.” Because I don’t think you’re letting the reins go at least a little slack (i.e., letting other people work with you as they did on “The West Wing” and “Sports Night”), I don’t think you’re going to bring Debora Cahn on as part of the writing staff (she’s more suited for “Grey’s Anatomy” anyway, as proven by the October 5th episode), and I don’t think this show is going to improve. As I understand it, NBC isn’t so quick to cancel “Studio 60” because it’s already been expensive enough, but I think it’s time. I know there will still be costs accrued if the show’s cancelled, but there’s nothing else that can be done.

My West Wing DVDs provide greater mental sustenance. Besides some of the books I read, I still use those DVDs to hear words treated like a kind of music. Your dialogue once flowed like that. It’s dead now.

You’ve done a great service to television, but I’ve given up. I wish you would let other people read your scripts and suggest things, rather than putting down whatever you believe will work and sending it before the cameras. If “Studio 60” somehow becomes a collaborative effort and the show becomes better, then kudos. But I won’t be that struggling-to-be-faithful viewer anymore.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Rory L. Aronsky says:

    “Funny how two people can walk away with such wildly divergent views on it.”

    That’s why I love TV and the movies. So many views on one show or one film.

    The most interesting divergent view I read about it came from Matt Roush’s “Ask Matt” column on, concluding a question about the current state of Studio 60:

    “Finally, to show you the range of passions that Studio 60 somehow inspires, here’s a tribute from Barbara, a high-school librarian from Richmond, Virginia: “In a world of television schlock, I would like to commend this week’s episode of Studio 60. It deserves a Peabody Award for its portrayal of common decency and hope. The dual story lines: Timothy Busfield exhibiting kindness and patience with the Eli Wallach character (and Wallach deserves an Emmy), slowly eliciting the truth about an era we should be all too uncomfortable with; and the Cinderella story of a kid who isn’t a comedian, but is, instead, a comic writer. Simon got to ‘give some back,’ as well as underscore the need for black writers. I hope Studio 60 makes it, that NBC will give it time to build an audience. But I think ‘The Wrap Party’ is a stand-alone, a set piece. I’d buy it in a minute for our high-school video collection.””

  2. Rory L. Aronsky says:

    “I fail to understand why Sorkin having social commentary bothers you now when he did plenty more of it in “The West Wing.””

    It bothers me right now because he used to be able to write WITHOUT making such a show out of it, without anvils falling everywhere on the set. We don’t need to be smashed in the face all the time with his opinions, beliefs, and history discussions. Isaac & Ishmael, the special episode of The West Wing that was created post-9/11, had somewhat of the same preachiness, but it wasn’t as bad as this. He didn’t clonk anyone over the head with it, screaming at them to understand what he says and respect it.

    “Well, my rant may compete yours in length and self-indulgence but there ya go.

    If you don’t like the show, don’t watch it.”

    I don’t see it as self-indulgence, considering the time I gave to this show. I think by that standard, I had the right to make a blog post like this.

    And you’re right about the latter. I was briefly torn about whether to watch the show again because John Goodman appears in an upcoming two-part episode as a judge, but as much as I like him, I can’t do it again. It was good enough that Sorkin put him in as Glenallen Walken at the end of The West Wing’s fourth season. And of course to compare Sorkin and Schlamme, and John Wells in running the show, Wells had a prime opportunity in the late season five episode “The Stormy Present,” to have former President D.W. Newman (James Cromwell) and Walken discuss the weight of the office with him, but instead, they went for the escalating Middle East situation.

    “I’m sorry that you know everything about blacklisting and the Hollywood 10, I guess that makes me a complete idiot. Though I must not be a complete waste of intelligence because I figured out enough to follow the story and then after the show I looked it all up to learn more.”

    I do know much about blacklisting and the Hollywood 10 and that doesn’t make you a complete idiot; I just hate the way it was written. Soapbox on top of a pedestal. I still maintain that.

    And believe me, you’re not at all a complete waste of intelligence what with your response. Hell, this is the most intelligent debate I’ve had so far on the episode!

    And in the case of you looking up the blacklist to learn more, I’m glad the show at least did something useful. The West Wing did the same for me years ago: It spurred on my love for presidential history and it hasn’t ceased since.

  3. Rory L. Aronsky says:

    “One of your main points was how Sorkin won’t share the show with anyone. Do you not remember the first season of “The West Wing?” He wrote entire episodes for that show.”

    True he did, but he HAD help. He allowed people to work with him. He had Dee Dee Myers, former White House press secretary as a consultant, he had Peggy Noonan, and even brought on Marlin Fitzwater later on. Point is that he ALLOWED people to give their take on Washington and how it may fit dramatically on the show.

    Now that’s not to say that I believe Studio 60 needs veterans of SNL as consultants in order to be more entertaining. But even back then, he used to be more collaborative. He used to allow himself to take in other viewpoints and then blend them in with his own. Between him and Thomas Schlamme, it’s complete autonomy now and I suppose four years of some of the best TV in history earns that, but even so, his lack of collaboration is one thing that’s killing this show. Is that to say that other writers who could work with him are more talented? Probably not. But he’s made a better writer by working closer with whoever also has the same desire to bring the show to the air.

  4. dan says:

    I respectfully disagree with you.

    One of your main points was how Sorkin won’t share the show with anyone. Do you not remember the first season of “The West Wing?” He wrote entire episodes for that show. He even poked fun at that in “Studio 60” when Matt Albie was reluctant to have the staff writters have anything. If you remember, the joke the staff gave ended up being stolen. Perhaps this is Sorkin explaining why he writes the way he does. (If you want something done right you have to do it yourself, comes to mind.)

    I don’t think Aaron Sorkin writes intelligent lines for his characters to tell us that we are dumb. I think he writes that way so that the characters tell us that they are multi-demensional humans who are not as dumb as characters on pretty much everyother show.

    I beleive that you don’t really understand what it’s like to talk face to face with a real human. You complain about Nate’s father yelling that Tom is in Afghanastan like no one else knows it. Have you never gotten into a fight with someone. Often an angry person who’s trying to hold it back will explode and yell what is really bothering them. That’s a reallistic reaction.

    You think that Sorkin is getting on a soap box and preaching about his take on black comedians? More importantly you’re offended by it? I’ll have to agree with you that he’s making a statement about the current state of racial comedy. With people like Dave Chapelle and Carlos Mencia there’s alot to be upset about. What I’m confused about is why you care so much? If you have a television show you are allowed to make whatever social comentary you want, until the viewers go away and the sponsors stop paying. So, if you’re offended stop watching. If there are more people like you the show will be canceled because Aaron Sorkin likes to write down to you. I fail to understand why Sorkin having social commentary bothers you now when he did plenty more of it in “The West Wing.” Or is it that this time you disagree and call foul?

    You don’t like that Jordan had trouble saying “unfathomable?” Even sober that’s a difficult word to pronounce. Oh, but that’s the problem isn’t it? She’s not sober. Why would a powerful and succesful network executive need to drink? To be around people? Perhaps it’s because she’s supposed to be a human and not an automoton. People get lonely. And a character like Jordan’s can make alot of enemies real quick and have alot of fake friends. So it would seem natural that she be lonely and try to be friends with more down to earth people. Heaven forbid a person drink while at a party.

    The scenes with Eli Weinraub were possibly my favorite of the entire show. It was an interesting social comentary and history lesson. I’m sorry that you know everything about blacklisting and the Hollywood 10, I guess that makes me a complete idiot. Though I must not be a complete waste of intelligence because I figured out enough to follow the story and then after the show I looked it all up to learn more. It also served as a tool for Matt Albie’s character to develop a little bit more. Eli said that he wrote his best for the woman on the stage just like Matt had. It’s also helped tie in some other characters. Now I know that Cal is interested in WW2 and never kissed a girl until he was 19. I also know that the Assitant Director (who’s name escapes me) has a tie to the police department. It also allowed Nate’s history lesson to have more purpose than soliloquy. Which by the way was fun enough to listen to without a plot tie in. Radio/TV history is a fun topic and it was nice to know that Sorkin tried his best to tie his alternate universe to the real one.

    Well, my rant may compete yours in length and self-indulgence but there ya go.

    If you don’t like the show, don’t watch it. There’s no aspect of the show that is low in quality, I think you just don’t like the style. So move on with your life. Unfortunately the show probably won’t make it and Monday nights will get a new show that I’m sure you’ll like more.

  5. Joe Schmo says:

    Posting anonymously … but I couldn’t disagree more. The references and in-jokes are a huge part of the appeal of the show for me. It’s one of the only shows I can remember seeing in my adult life that doesn’t talk down to me; it challenges me to keep up with it. (I found “The West Wing” to be impossibly preachy.)

    As for the actors, I said from the start that this show has the vibe of a cast that really enjoys working together. Funny how two people can walk away with such wildly divergent views on it.

  6. Paul Mesa says:

    Rory, Thanks so much.

  7. Rory L. Aronsky says:

    Paul, no apology needed. In fact, I’m glad you read the article because I believe it’s one of my best efforts.

    For good seats, go for the first floor (all reserved seating), in the middle section, preferably in the fourth row. Sitting in the front row of the middle section forces you to slightly crane your head upward to look at the screen.

    It’ll be a good time for your kids because, according to, “At each showing there will be a musical stage show, and audience members will receive sleigh bells so that they can get involved.”

  8. Paul Mesa says:

    Rory, I would like to appoligize because this question has nothing to do with this blog. I read your article on the El Capitan Theatre and would like to know what seats are best. I will be taking my 2 children (7&9) there over the holidays but I would like to know what seats you recommend. Thanks

  9. Felix Vasquez Jr. says:

    I meant Alec.

  10. Felix Vasquez Jr. says:

    The twin show “30 Rock” isn’t faring well either. It’s a very mediocre often laughless show. Without Alex Baldwin, this would be a very self-congratulatory SNL parody.

    Bless you, Baldwin.

Join our Film Threat Newsletter

Newsletter Icon