Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was a primetime episodic-serial dramedy created by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Sports Radio) that aired on NBC over the 2006-2007 television season. Much like his other television shows, the narrative style of Sorkin, who, along with creating and producing the show, received writing credit on all twenty-two of the show’s episodes, is deeply imprinted in Studio 60. It then follows that Sorkin can be credited with much of the unique and outstanding narrative qualities, keeping in mind the elaborate and massive crew that was essential to the production of the show. The culmination of every intricately executed aspect of Studio 60 resulted in a critically acclaimed series cut short by an expensive budget and a dwindling viewership.
Despite quality in every department of production, it is the methods in which Aaron Sorkin and his staff told the story of the variety sketch show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip that made the series so outstanding. One of the techniques used is an attention to realism whilst maintaining a functional dramatic structure, something Sorkin achieves in the early episodes of the series by maintaining equilibrium between serial and episodic elements. In order to do this, Sorkin uses the protagonist Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) as a means of viewer perspective, while simultaneously providing omniscient narration. In addition to establishing stable and engaging structural norms, Sorkin goes to incredible lengths to instill familiarity with the fictional studio and the world of television in order to induct the viewer into plots that exceed interpersonal drama, venturing into the realms of politics, institutions (especially the press), and the economics of entertainment. The resulting episodes contain equal parts drama and realism, with Sorkin’s narrative devices creating a tone of “narrative density”, or a multitude of plots occurring in a story time residing in a similar screen time (like 24), with seamless crosscutting and ellipses only occurring at act breaks, to create an aesthetic of chronological fluidity and the feeling that plot arcs are not just interwoven, but concurrent as well.
As the series progressed, Studio 60 evolved from the highly effective rigid construction of the early episodes. As characters became richer and more sharply defined, their traits led them to more dramatic situations, including those that left the confines of the studio, as, in turn, single-episode storylines. Further complexity is added through the introduction of “curveball” characters, or characters with primarily observation roles (journalist, lawyer) whose sole purpose is to provide a new angle on existing runners and characters. These characters drop into the world of Studio 60 only for a few episodes, to disrupt the relative balance established in the early episodes by providing both new episodic situations to the studio, as well as new perspectives to engage the serialized drama through. In order to facilitate these broader, more serial plots and “curveball” characters, while maintaining the series’ characteristic tone of “plot density”, the middle period of Studio 60 strayed from its defined agency, venturing into subjective narration and omniscient narration severed from Matt’s core essence.
By developing and perfecting these elements throughout its run, Studio 60 reaches its pinnacle of its storytelling method by the late episodes of its single season, most notably in the final four episodes of the series. All the development to the mythos and the history of the variety sketch show throughout the series gets its payoff, as the show returns to its core conflicts and series runners, while using “curveball” characters and changes in agency to strengthen them. This final period of episodes features qualities from both the early and middle episodes, refined to their most effective form, in order to provide the optimal dramatic narrative of Studio 60.
In the first six episodes, the narrative structure of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is established and essentially unvaried, which creates an image of normalcy for future chaos to unravel. Whether Sorkin opted to write longer, multi-episode storylines because they organically occurred given the narrative world and the characters that resided in it, or because viewership decline called for serial plots to be wrapped up faster than expected, is unclear. What is clear is how the early episodes’ structures functioned effectively to convey a sense of dramatic realism, while laying the groundwork for further variation in episodes to come.
Essentially, Studio 60’s airtime operates the same as any other show: every beat either progresses the plot or reveals characterization. The way the beats in each episode are structured, however, is what makes a series stand out, and gives it its characteristic voice. As a hybrid serial-episodic dramedy, each beat must be meticulously planned in order to maintain this narrative equilibrium of serialism and episodic plot elements (as well as the tonal equilibrium of drama and comedy). By looking at the structure and the resulting flow of narrative that the early episodes create, we can see the original, model Studio 60 as Sorkin intended it to function in a long-term scenario.
Generally, we would look to the pilot for the typical narrative structure of a series, but the pilot of Studio 60 dives so deeply into the lives of the primary characters that it is unable to contain the multitude of plots that every following episode contains, which is why the typical narrative structure of the show is best exhibited in the second episode of the series, “The Cold Open.” The episode, like most, follows the week of Matt Albie and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford), the new producers of the SNL-esque variety show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, leading up to the show’s performance on Friday. Generally, this story time begins with the curtain going down on the previous week’s episode and ending with the opening sketch of the new show, though since “The Cold Open” is the producers’ first week on the job, the episode begins with an introductory press conference instead.
The nine-minute first act of “The Cold Open” functions as an extended teaser: it touches on all of the major plots of the episode while refreshing the viewer on the characters and situations under the context of introducing them to the press. While Jordan McDeere, the newly appointed president of NBS (“National Broadcasting System”), gives a charismatic and convenient introduction and history of the show’s protagonists, we cut backstage to banter between Matt and Danny, foreshadowing the episode’s plots (how Danny sent Jeannie, a Studio 60 cast member, home with Matt to take care of him after his back surgery) and series’ runners (Matt’s complicated relationship with Harriet Hayes, the star of Studio 60, and the ticking clock until show time). As Matt and Danny take the stage to answer some questions, we cut to the control room of Studio 60 to see that the director, Cal, has put the feed of the press conference on closed-circuit television. Then, we follow Jeannie through the under-stage as she heads to Harriet, so they can talk about how Harriet feels about working for her ex-boyfriend as she watches the press conference. As Matt and Danny charm in their press conference, the camera cuts to the writers’ room, where Ricky and Ron (head writers who share mutual hate of Matt) and the rest of the writing staff react to watching their new bosses. We even cut to Jack’s office to see some suits watching their new network president and her chosen saviors of the program.
This sense of narrative fluidity through seamless crosscutting and chronological concurrence continues as Danny interrupts Matt’s explanation for their return to television by telling the truth: he failed a drug test. We see Jack say, “That was fun while it lasted,” and then the trouble starts. Jordan makes an off-color joke, and a correspondent from “Rapture Magazine” asks a question about a sketch that is the episodic manifestation of a series-long plot device, the repercussions of the show’s polarizing sketches lampooning the religious right. The conference ends, leading to Jack confronting Jordan about her decision-making, Jordan confronting the press secretary about the affluence of “Rapture Magazine,” and Matt and Danny confronting Jordan about over-hyping the show, which they have less than five days to create from scratch. In about sixty seconds, we are introduced to the episode’s major plots, all of which are the latest manifestation of the situational drama between the characters and the direct result of a single narrative event.
This first act of “The Cold Open” is typical of the first act of the average episode of Studio 60. Every event, usually an action or decision made by Matt or Danny, is accompanied by a large amount of dialog before and after, and each event tends to have massive, yet realistic repercussions that are felt at the top by Jack and the executives in the NBS headquarters all the way down to the actors, writers, and production assistants at the bottom. The only difference the average episode would have is that instead of a press conference, with a geographical separation between three different locations, this establishing event would occur at the theater, and most involved parties would be present and either influence or react to the event, utilizing Sorkin’s favored “walk-and-talk” technique as the characters hurry around the set. These techniques lend themselves to the series’ narrative density, since each decision by the executives instantly creates a multitude of simultaneous narrative repercussions.
At the same time, Studio 60 surprisingly contains similar traits to the episodic “show about nothing” Seinfeld. Characters from Studio 60 participate in what can only be described as frivolous banter, where what is being said has no apparent relevance to the plot, yet occasionally does. An example of this is in the second act of “The Cold Opening”, where the cast is conversing in their dressing rooms. Simon wonders if Matt will be able to sit in a chair and write after his surgery, which is later confirmed by Jeannie, who says she saw him do exercises this morning, when Harriet asks what they were doing at a gym this morning, and Jeannie accidently says he has a machine at his house. Simon’s random concern about Matt’s back surgery proves to be the catalyst in restarting the fight between Harriet and Matt. While most characters are too busy fighting the “Time Remaining” clock for asides, on occasion, throw-away dialogue indirectly and realistically sneaks into the plot.
By the time any given episode is over, Studio 60 develops approximately ten different conflicts, and of these, less than half are resolved over the course of the week as episodic resolution, and the rest are left open as season-long or multi-episode arcs, driving future episodes. For example, in “The Cold Opening,” Matt and Danny find a replacement musical act for the White Stripes, which also happens to inspire the perfect “cold opening” (opening comedy sketch, to a crowd that hasn’t been “warmed up” yet) that Matt struggles to come up with throughout the episode. This one instance of closure is accompanied by the unresolved conflict of the disgruntled writers Ricky and Ron, the difficult relationship between Matt and Harriet, and the effects of the protestors on the show. These unresolved and resolved arcs can also coincide within a single episode. An example in “The Cold Opening” is how Jordan puts her foot down to Jack, ignores the boycotts and protests, and has a controversial sketch put on the air. Within the episode the viewer sees Jordan face her troubles and solve them, and is satisfied at the end when Jack tells her the damage is minimal. And yet, this half-resolved plot is just the first part of a long series of struggles between Jordan and Jack regarding Studio 60’s content and ratings. In this way, an episodic manifestation of the serial plot is resolved in function, but remains as a source of conflict for episodes to come, mirroring the way life’s conflicts are often a series of battles in a long-waging war.
By using this hybrid serial-episodic narrative structure, Studio 60 is able to balance incredibly dramatic situations
, while preserving inherent realism. By focusing on the dialog that precedes and follows major events, Sorkin tracks the effects of every action in a realistic way. Beats range from throwaway to pivotal and from fleetingly relevant to persistently serial, and as a result, plot exposition is realistically convoluted and densely layered. Each conflict that arises takes a varied amount of time to resolve, ranging from smaller rifts being mended over an episode, to deeper and more complex situations existing beyond the span of an episode. Using these narrative elements, the life of this pair of co-producers is intriguing and dramatic, while maintaining rational and realistic.
In the short lived world of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a reliable narrativity was established through the utilization of a generally constant episode structure, which is important to the viewers’ literacy of the show. This viewer literacy is worthless, however, if the residents of this world are not appealing to the viewers. It is easy to be tricked into believing that Studio 60 is a show about the protagonist Matthew Albie, his executive partner Danny Tripp, and the ensemble cast that surrounds them. The name of the series, however, reveals its true focus: the variety show Studio 60 and the Addison Theater, where the show-within-a-show is filmed (this exceptional quality is an origin of its uniqueness - very few television shows are about a place and not a person). Despite a rigid hierarchy of character importance, the true focus of the series is the studio in which most of the drama unfolds. After the studio, and after the core characters, the “curveball” characters that drift in for multi-season arcs are subtly essential to the series. By characterizing the fictional Addison Theater, the viewer becomes absorbed by the mythos and history of Studio 60, and by constantly dropping these “curveball” characters into the mix for multi-episode arcs, the intrigue and intense drama resulting from that mythos is varied as well as perpetuated.
A core runner to Studio 60 is the significance of personal histories of the central characters. This focus on the past helps make the characters deep and intriguing, as well as natural at the historically significant and storied variety show. By having characters constantly reference their past in regards to the show and each other, this temporal “grandeur”, or sense of legacy, is created and perpetuated. The most common iteration of this is how the majority of episodes feature Albie reminiscing about his time on the show and his relationship with Harriet before quitting, and then later rejoining as executive producer at the beginning of the series’ chronology.
Throughout the series, the viewer is deceptively bombarded with the celebrated and heralded history of this important, culturally defining variety show (which is put at the same level as Saturday Night Live) by way of episodes that contain main plots essentially about the character traits of the sketch comedy show, and how they affect the people who work for it. Examples of episodes with show-centric A-plots include “The Friday Night Slaughter,” which is an episode devoted to the explanation of the tradition and the process of cutting the show down from dress rehearsal, “The Cold Open,” which chronicles the magnitude of an opening sketch, “4 AM Miracle,” which focuses on the events leading to a Wednesday night writers’ block, as well as the following inspiration, “The Christmas Show,” which depicts the process of creating a Holiday-themed episode, and “The Disaster Show” which spotlights the process of how everything can go wrong. In fact, most episodes revolve around this behind-the-scenes process of putting on a show to some degree, as opposed to outside events that are disruptive to the people and the show.
Along with subconsciously ascribing an alluring significance to the show and its creative process, the series works hard to create a personified image of the theater it resides in, as a way of giving a physical manifestation to the intangible and fleeting theatrical production which is labored on, captured on cameras, and then immediately struck to begin work for the next show. Since the vast majority of the series is shot within the Addison Theater, it becomes essential to make it familiar so the viewer can appreciate and reciprocate the attachment the characters have to the building, and in turn, their show.
This attraction is facilitated in a variety of ways. For instance, the dialog of characters may reflect their affection, as does their actions and memory sequences. The theater is also depicted as over-loved, with messages, pictures, stickers, and props covering every bare inch of wall, mirror, and door. But perhaps most effective at creating a vested interest in the viewer is Sorkin’s use of the “walk-and-talk,” where characters further the plot by holding conversations as they purposely march around the theater. These long tracking shots not only help create narrative density by displaying chronological proximity of events, but place the characters and their environments in terms of the Addison, which subtly creates a mental blueprint of the setting in the viewer’s mind, further conveying familiarity and significance to each area of the theater and its role within the singular entity of the Addison Theater.
An example of the culmination of these factors is found in “The Wrap Party,” where cast member Tom Jeter’s parents ask for a tour of the theater after a show. As a D-plot, it isn’t even mentioned in the episode’s plot summary, yet it provides a vital function in the characterization of the theater as a living element. Jeter takes his parents on a tour, giving them every colorful fact about the history of the theater, from its origins in vaudeville to its current status as the art-deco home of one of the most important television shows on the air, while strolling around the building via tracking shots. When his parents, who are unabashedly and admittedly simplistic, are disinterested and unimpressed with the colorful history of the Addison, Jeter becomes distressed with how they “aren’t getting it.” This invites the viewer into the cultural elite – to not only understand, but revere the hallowed halls of the Addison Theater and their significance to American culture, unlike Jeter’s parents.
Mr. and Mrs. Jeter are an example of the “curveball” characters that perforate the series. These characters serve an essential function within the greater narrative structure of the series, as important catalysts in the several multi-episode plot arcs. With the addition of curveball characters, the series is able to maintain normal structure while providing a new perspective through which the past can be revealed (creating a greater sense of narrative “grandeur”), show the impact of a single variable to the delicate balance of the production of Studio 60, and provide another layer of narrative depth between season-long arcs and episodic arcs.
In “The West Coast Delay,” the character Martha O’Dell arrives on the scene as a journalist writing a piece on the show. In addition to being a new person on the set through which we are able to learn more of the show’s legacy and process, she is constantly digging for stories, and through her, we are given a character to whom the past can be divulged (most notably, the history between Matt and Harriet). When the series switches from orientation to the show (the early episodes) to focusing on Matt’s retrospection to his past, he summons Andy Mackinaw, an old colleague, to assist in the writers’ room, and through him, the viewers have a new character through which exploration of the past can occur through. Andy becomes Matt’s foil, so in direct contrast to how Martha dug for details and revealed information, Andy became an outlet for Matt to relate to the past with and divulge emotion to. While both Martha and Andy had occasional important roles in minor plots, their “curveball” role was to provide a twist on the interpersonal drama that was already present by exploring (and thus embellishing) the mythos of the past.
Near the end of the series, Mary Tate, a network lawyer investigating a sexual discrimination lawsuit, comes to the Addison, along with Captain David Boyle, an armed forces officer in charge of handling Jeter when his brother is kidnapped in Afghanistan. Captain Boyle and Mary Tate have much more active roles in the plot than Martha and Andy ever did. Mary Tate serves a vital function in the four-episode finale plotline by having a contact in a privatized Kidnapping and Rescuing firm, and Captain Boyle is there to convince him that waiting patiently for the military is his best option. As key members of the finale plot, Boyle and Mary represent looking forward and the future of the core characters.
These two different versions of “curveball” characters are emblematic of the shift from the early period episodes to the late period episodes. In the early episodes, Martha and Andy are essentially characters put in place to further disrupt the balance of the early episodic framework while providing perspective into the past. As the show begins to focus on the serial elements and the forward-moving interpersonal drama, the “curveball” characters that enter are still disruptive, but far more essential to the plot. In this way, Captain Boyle and Mary Tate represent the trend towards stylistic refinement, as their characters encourage variety through fresh perspective, as well as narrative significance. Both types of “curveball” characters, however, are essential to the narrative structure of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip by providing new perspectives in which the past, as well as the future of the show can be revealed through.
It is through both the characterization of the Addison Theater and the addition of multi-episode arc characters that Studio 60 achieves significance from its peers. If it were not for these elements, Studio 60 would be a highly successful, primarily episodic dramedy with great acting, production value, and tone. It would not be unlike 30 Rock, where characters react to sit-com minor difficulties, resolve them, and possibly advance a season plot arc. Through the creation of the mythos and the importance of the show-within-a-show (unlike 30 Rock’s complete neglect of it), Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip instills the viewer with an emotional investment in the show, and through observational “curveball” characters and the fresh perspectives they offer, the characters that participate within it.
In addition to the realistic drama fashioned by its structure, setting, and characters, it is Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’s narrative style that makes it stand out as a dynamic show. The average episode uses an omniscient discourse narration to achieve “plot density”. The perspective of the protagonist Matt Albie is generally Studio 60’s viewers’ agency, though at times, Sorkin has to stray from Matt as the dramatic nucleus of the show in order to properly maintain narrative compactness (especially in the feature-length multi-episode plots), and in even fewer cases, the narration plunges into Matt’s restricted and subjective perspective for a more character-driven, but equally dramatic episode. Regardless of an episode’s chosen perspective, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’s narrative style is able to create this essential sense of environmental and temporal “grandeur” (the legacy and mythos of the characters and the show) by maintaining the aesthetic of chronological fluidity and plot density.
Generally, the show uses the semi-restricted narrative perspective of Matt Albie for the primary plots of each episode, while the B storylines are narrated by the floating omniscient perspective throughout the theater and network headquarters. When the B storylines get to Matt (as they inevitably do), the backstory has already been revealed to the viewer. In this sense, the discourse narration is able to depict the magnitude of the overwhelming collision of all of the episode’s plots as they reach the core character. In the average episode, this is the method through which the chaos of the narrative density of a small period of story time is able to be clearly arranged within an even smaller screen time.
This method is effective and sufficient for the majority of episodes, especially the early episodes where character development and structural formulation are still being established. As the show matured, however, three storylines became too dense to be told succinctly in forty-odd minutes. In the episodes “Nevada Day – Part I and II,” “The Harriet Dinner – Part I and II,” and “K & R – Parts I, II, and III” (nearly a third of the series’ 22 episodes), the limited perspective of the executive is replaced by a fully omniscient narration that decentralizes Albie as the core of the show’s drama. While Albie remains the protagonist, the perspective is compromised in order to depict longer and more complex plots while maintaining the density which viewers come to expect after the first six episodes.
In several exceptions, these stylistic conventions are exempted in order to tell a more character-driven plot. In the fifteenth episode entitled, “The Friday Night Slaughter” (which refers to the sketches cut between dress rehearsal and the show, not a literal massacre), the perspective returns once more to Matt Albie as the core of the episode, where for the first time, the narration shifts from objective to subjective. In the episode, a pill-popping Matt reminisces about his beginnings at Studio 60 as a staff writer and his first encounters with the current senior talent and crew when they all were just starting out. The episode switches between his own drug-fueled flashbacks to real time, where he tries to reflect on the past with Danny and Cal, but to no success. By the end of the episode, we find out that “Tim Batale,” the writer that made a lasting impression on Matt but whom no one else can remember (much to Matt’s frustration), was actually a false memory of himself. This episode is an anomaly to the preceding fourteen episodes because of the shift in agency and the significantly reduced narrative density (though through stylistic effects, it still manages to maintain the show’s chaotic aesthetic).
The various narrative styles throughout the series all come together in the three episodes leading to the finale, entitled “K & R – Parts I, II and III.” In the three-parter, the serial plot of Danny and Jordan reaches its climax with the premature delivery of their baby, while a new plot unfolds – cast member Tom Jeter’s soldier brother is captured and held hostage in Afghanistan. This results in the rest of the cast and crew, especially Simon, attempting to console Tom, while Matt attempts to manage both the situation at the hospital and the press’ siege on the theater. The plots of these episodes contain all of the characteristic narrative density of the series, without sacrificing Matt’s core presence in the drama as the leader trying to help in all situations, while making his own progress with his relationship with Harriet.
While Matt deals with all of the chaos throughout, each of these episodes features the subjective narration of the protagonist as he remembers the final chapters of his and Danny’s tenure at the show before quitting. These flashbacks show how while Studio 60’s executive producer Wes was in the hospital after a heart attack, Matt and Danny took over the show for him, which happened to occur immediately following 9/11. They struggle to come up with skit ideas that are relevant, funny, and acceptable according to the network, and when they come up with one, a network representative deems it anti-American. They end up defying the network, and Jack orders them to issue an apology, which they refuse to give, resigning instead. This final flashback occurs parallel to Jack demanding that Simon, who got baited by a reporter into an enraged tirade, issue an apology.
This element of chronological reordering and Matt’s subjective perspective completes the effective narrative style in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. By telling the story of how Matt and Danny left the show, which was hinted at but not explained fully, the setting of temporal grandeur is finally completely revealed, all the while being relevant to real-time events. With the new network president learning the ropes, reporters and lawyers digging through the past, and the long and dramatic histories described by the characters amongst themselves, these flashback sequences finally give the viewer the complete picture of the colorful past teased at throughout the entire series. The narrative-thick aesthetic is no longer smoke and mirrors – it is realized within the internal and external presence of Matt, and as such, Studio 60 impressively proves its ability to provide dense storytelling in present time and past, in parallel and concurrence. The final multi-episode plot utilizes every narrative strength found in Studio 60, including curveball characters in a multi-episode arc, omniscient perspective focusing around Albie to create narrative density, and the use of Albie’s subjective perspective and analepsis to provide backstory, mythos, and grandeur.
All in all, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was a show that never truly had consistent discourse narration, which may have been a contributor to the series’ early demise, but that certainly wasn’t its sole source of adversity. Some cited too smart content as the cause for its failure, especially too challenging for its Monday timeslot. Some called it too “insider.” It was even criticized as being anti-Christian and anti-Middle America, which, quite ironically, was a constant source of conflict between the network and the show within the series. It also certainly didn’t help that NBC also premiered 30 Rock, another show about a sketch show, in the same season (as former head writer for Saturday Night Live and star of 30 Rock Tina Fey joked, “I hear Aaron Sorkin is in Los Angeles wearing the same dress – but longer, and not funny”). Due to this fatal combination of misfortune, criticism, and viewer disinterest, this highly refined and sophisticated show was destined for cancelation long before the show had even matured into its optimal narrative style.
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