I Miss Studio 60

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was one of my favourite shows last year, and they canceled it on me.

Yeah, this is after the fact, and yeah, I know that nothing’s gonna bring it back, but I’ve just been really pining for it lately. And it got me thinking about why I like it, and other Aaron Sorkin shows.

The man’s got a formula for a show, and he seems to stick pretty close to it. Fortunately, I think it’s a pretty good formula, with a lot of flexibility and room for different stuff, but it’s still a formula. Here’s the Aaron Sorkin formula, as I have deciphered it:

  1. Make a bunch of really smart characters.
  2. Put them in a pressure cooker.
  3. Hilarity ensues.

Pretty straightforward, right? Let’s talk about each step.

Hey! It’s my blog! I’ll talk about whatever I want!

1. Make a bunch of really smart characters.

This seems like an easy step, but it’s not. See, Sorkin’s characters aren’t just smart, they’re very smart, but in realistic and believable ways. Also, and this is important, they’re different. So much TV just goes for geeky when they want a smart character – that’s lazy, it’s demeaning, and it has a limited shelf-life. Sure, if a character starts to develop a following, it’ll get fleshed out as the series goes on.

Sorkin doesn’t like that short cut, it seems. His smart characters are not universally geeky. They are like smart people in the real world – successful. They are smart enough to do complex, high-pressure jobs, smart enough to know that they need social skills, and smart enough to dress like real people. Sure, they have their little quirks, but they’re human quirks, quirks we can recognize and identify with.

Matt and Danny in Studio 60 are a perfect example of this. They are both smart, successful guys who can, between them, run a TV show or movie production. Sure, Danny’s a bit of a control freak, and Matt can’t let go of an old girlfriend, and they both hate being told what to do, but they are not geeks and they are not the same. They complement each other, and create an interesting dynamic on screen.

And, even without the pocket protectors, you never doubt that they’re smart, even if they do something stupid from time to time, as we all do.

2. Put them in a pressure cooker.

Sports Night. The West Wing. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. They all revolve around high-pressure jobs, with the characters constantly struggling to put out the fires that keep cropping up. Why?

Stress allows you to explore characters. Characters are at their most interesting when they react under pressure. It’s an old formula. It lets you delve into their personalities, because hidden feelings and thoughts often come out during stressful periods.

Also, it gives you a constant stream of plots. If you establish that a given situation believably has time-sensitive, high-stakes things cropping up all the time (White House, TV production, etc.), then you’ve got a ready-made excuse for whatever you want to throw into the mix. You’ve laid the groundwork (We’ve got to write, rehearse, produce, and broadcast an hour-long sketch comedy show once a week, and the network wants to fire us, and all the actors are nuts, and public relations is a mess, and…), so no one in the audience bats an eye when the Nevada cops come in and arrest one of the actors and drags him off to Pahrump, or all the writers quit overnight.

It’s a bit of a cheat, as well. It allows you to focus on just certain aspects of the world and the characters. You don’t see much of the lives of the characters outside of work. You don’t meet many extraneous characters. You only get the news that affects the show. It gives a believably narrow focus, allowing you to just tell the story you want to tell.

3. Hilarity ensues.

So, now you have smart characters, and situations for them to react to. Go to town.

The nice thing about this combination is that the events can be completely unexpected, because you’ve already set up the expectation of surprises. It gives you a real flexibility to pick and choose what events spawn the stories. And, because the characters are smart, they can respond in a wide variety of ways. Smart characters just naturally have more choices in ways to think about, feel about, and respond to things.

The core of drama is having something be both surprising and inevitable. That means that what you see has to catch you off-guard in some way, but still fit completely with what has gone before. In short, it has to make sense. This is the hilarity ensuing.

It doesn’t have to be hilarious, by the way. Drama works just as well. And Sorkin always seems to have a deft touch in the mixing of the two.

So, that’s why I liked Studio 60, now gone before its time. At least with The West Wing, we got seven seasons.

Oh, well. I’m looking forward to whatever Sorkin does next.

Tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to I Miss Studio 60

  1. Rechan says:

    The most significant thing that I loved about Sorkin’s writing is the dialogue. It’s got real WIT. It’s fast and often right to the heart. And it’s written for intelligent audience – not smarty pants who want to wave their smartness around, but it doesn’t hold the hand of the audience, either.

    About your article specifically:

    Smart people: I won’t disagree, but I think that most people were smart in their own manner. There’s a theory out there that breaks Intelligence down into areas like Physical intelligence or Social – basically Skills and what one is good at. I’d say that Harriet and Jordan weren’t just sharp, but they radiated Charisma too. On the other hand, Simon and Tom didn’t really give the impression of Smart. But that’s beside the point.

    Stereotypes: I think that there were big honkin’ geeks in there. Particularly in the writing room. The two chief writers, the English woman whose name escapes me, they had big flashing neon signs that said “Nerd”.

    Stereotypes II: But part of what was great about Studio 60 is that it took a stereotype and said “No, not quite.” THe prime example here being John Goodman in the Pahrump two-parter. He acted like a two-bit small-town redneck – until he smacked everyone for assuming he was. He had a solid head on his shoulders and some real wit to him. He wasn’t one dimensional. Same with Jack – he was the Corporate Guy through and through, and he played hardball, but he wasn’t just a suit.

  2. Rick Neal says:

    Rechan, thanks for your comments. I think we essentially agree.

    About the wit: yes. His dialogue is fantastic. It’s quick, it’s clever, and it cuts deep. What I like about it most, though, is that the characters are people that you can believe actually think and speak that way. I almost made it through a whole episode of Gilmore Girls, once, because someone said that I would like the dialogue. Guh. Sure, it was quick and even clever sometimes, but there was no character behind it. It was just clever to be clever. Not out of any manifestation of plot or character. So, that’s sort of the distinction I see.

    As for the different kinds of smart, I think you’re right on the money. The first time I encountered that idea was years ago in a book by Thomas Armstrong called Seven Kinds of Smart. And yeah, Sorkin shows how people can be smart in different ways, and what that can mean.

    As for stereotypes, I buy the second point, but I’m gonna roll your first point in with the second. Sure, Darius and Lucy, the writers, were big time nerds. But they weren’t the kind that you expected. They were Word Nerds, not Computer Geeks. Something different.

    Anyway, thanks for stopping by.


  3. Rechan says:

    I almost made it through a whole episode of Gilmore Girls, once, because someone said that I would like the dialogue. Guh. Sure, it was quick and even clever sometimes, but there was no character behind it. It was just clever to be clever. Not out of any manifestation of plot or character. So, that’s sort of the distinction I see.

    I once saw a Mad TV skit on that show that basically said ‘We sound smart because we talk really fast.”


    As for Word Nerds, indeed. On the other hand, there are all kinds of Nerds. Car nerds. Sports nerds (The ones who know all the numbers and all the stats to all the players). It seems that, if you have people who are Really into something and know everything about it, they qualify as a “Nerd”, even if they don’t fall into the particular stereotype of “Bottle-thick glasses, pocket protector, and poor social skills.”

    And, I’ve bookmarked your blog. I want more dresden. I want to see more characters you’re posting – it’s still 3! WHERE’S THE 7 OTHERS?

    See ya


  4. Jane says:

    I just asked Scott to mail me all seven seasons of The West Wing because I’m missing Studio 60 so much, and also because there are so many parallels between the Santos/Russell/Vinick race and the current presidential race down here south o’ da border. I want to see the whole flow again. I want to be inspired by the smart people, and love them, and cheer for them.

    I would add to your assessment that these people are not just smart but for the most part loveably idealistic. They try to make the world the way it should be, in their vision, and the world breaks their hearts when it doesn’t live up… and the world stands in awe when they are able to make change for the better. Casey in Sports Night wanted sports to be a nobler world; Dan wanted people to be more honest and more forgiving. Josh in The West Wing wanted to help worthy people rise in power; C.J. wanted to champion the truth; Toby (who breaks my heart in nearly every episode) wanted the ugly to go away; President Bartlett wanted more creative solutions and less partisan crap. (I WANT THAT PRESIDENT, even if I he/she is someone with whom I don’t agree politically!) Danny and Matt want television to be about quality, not ratings, while Harriett wants to build bridges between believers and non-believers and Simon wants people to get real and get along. (I disagree that Simon wasn’t smart. Watch him spar with Jack Rudolph and tell me you don’t see the wheels turning in his head.)

    The point is, I got hooked on Sorkin for the smart, but I crave it now for the beautiful idealism and the sometimes naive hope that individuals can make an ugly world better. That’s brilliant and bold and BRAVE for television, and I want more!

    Oh – I can’t recommend Charlie Wilson’s War enough, for all the reasons you like anything else from Sorkin. See it! You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll want more. You may not even like any of the characters (okay, well, actually I defy you not to like the CIA guy just a little bit) but you will love the way the story is told.

    Go Sorkin go!


  5. Rick Neal says:

    Y’know, I just finished rewatching all seven seasons of The West Wing around the end of February, so it’s been fresh in my mind as I see the news about your presidential campaigns. It makes me shake my head in wonder at how perfectly Sorkin managed to call some of it.

    And yeah, you’re right about the idealism. All his characters have been beaten up, stomped on, worked over, but they still hold true to certain things that they believe in strongly, ways that they want to make the world better.

    And Toby will always, always be my favourite, because he hopes for so much but expects so little. His little speech to his children when they’re born tears my heart out every time I see that scene.

    Charlie Wilson’s War was great, too, for all the same reasons, but the ending felt a little flat. I realize that was sort of the intent – big build-up, big success, then the complete lack of follow-through, with no real resolution or dramatic satisfaction. But still. I get enough bleagh endings in real life; I don’t need them in my escapism.

  6. Jane says:

    I was ego surfing, which leads always to a link to your site (thank you for giving us a nod!), which led me to reread this thread. Two things:

    1) I get what you’re saying about the end of Charlie Wilson’s War. I’m betting your disappointment with the ending mirrors Sorkin’s (I’m assuming) disappointment with how things worked out in real life.

    2) I am watching season 2 of The West Wing. I had forgotten that Felicity Huffman shows up there. She is wasted on Desperate Housewives.

    That’s all. Happy everything!

Leave a Reply

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