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.