Features and Columns · TV

The Curious Case of ‘Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’

’30 Rock’ did it better, but Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived series deserved more time.
By  · Published on March 10th, 2020

Welcome to Petition Worthy, a biweekly column that revisits canceled TV shows that we wish had a longer lifespan. In some cases, we’ll also make a plea for them to be given another chance.

Let’s go back in time to the year 2006. 30 Rock debuted on NBC and gradually shot to popularity, earning heaps of critical acclaim, a legion of fans, and a legacy of being one of the best television comedies of the last 20 years. However, 30 Rock wasn’t the only series that year, on the same network, to revolved around the lives of people working behind the scenes on a Saturday Night Live type sketch show.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip didn’t only have a similar premise to 30 Rock, but it also seemed like the most likely show of the two to succeed at the time. While NBC picked up both series and hoped that they’d have two hits on their hands, the mentality among everyone else was that one was destined to be cut due to their crossover elements.

Given that Studio 60 was created by Aaron Sorkin, hot off the success of The West Wing, 30 Rock was expected to lose out. As Tina Fey told The New Yorker when discussing the reported competition between both shows: “In my first attempt at primetime I’m going up against the most powerful writer in television.” Clearly, not even Fey felt confident of both shows being able to thrive.

Studio 60 also boasted an all-star cast led by Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford as two wunderkind writers tasked with bringing the titular failing sketch show back to prominence. Amanda Peet, Sarah Paulson, and D.L. Hughley rounded out the impressive main cast. Guests included big names like John Goodman, Rob Reiner, Judd Hirsch, and several popular celebrities of the time, such as Corrine Bailey Rae and Three Six Mafia. The pieces for a successful show were all in place, and they should have fit.

However, it didn’t take long for everything to start falling by the wayside for Sorkin’s show. Despite earning some rave reviews and high ratings during its early episodes, the viewership plummeted after a few weeks as the show only seemed to appeal to an “upscale audience.” Suggesting that general viewers don’t appreciate highbrow entertainment is silly, as Sorkin himself proved with The West Wing. But for some reason, they weren’t tuning into this one.

Granted, 30 Rock wasn’t an instant ratings smash either, but the show did have Lorne Michaels on its side. The Saturday Night Live creator was an executive producer on the series, and he wasn’t supportive of Studio 60 at all. He even declined Sorkin’s request to sit in on some Saturday Night Live meetings because he was worried that Studio 60 would focus too much on backstage politics of television as opposed to what takes place on the screen. Perhaps his sway with the network convinced them to stick with Fey’s series, assuming they all knew one of the shows had to go.

That said, episodes of Studio 60 were also too expensive to produce, and NBC wasn’t seeing a return on their investment. 30 Rock, meanwhile, proved to be cheaper, funnier and more accessible, and its ratings continued to grow over time. While the network believed they could have both shows at the start, Fey’s series appeared to be the only one that was resonating with viewers.

The legacy of Studio 60 is that of a failed competitor against 30 Rock, which is a shame as both shows could still have their unique qualities, despite their general conceptual similarities. This could have been the E.R. to 30 Rock’s Scrubs if audiences and the network were willing to watch both shows and stick with them. Studio 60 was more dramatic and upfront with its comedic elements, placing more focus on probing the trials and tribulations of network television.

Michaels wasn’t wrong when he said that Studio 60 focused on the politics involved in creating television, but that’s not to the show’s detriment by any means. In fact, that’s what made Studio 60 so fascinating. Sorkin has never been one for delivering uproarious laugh out loud gags, but he’s always possessed a knack for delivering funny moments through strong dialogue, personal insight, and his unique interpretations of the topics at hand. Studio 60’s satire was more thoughtful than outright funny, but it was still compelling television.

Admittedly, some of the sketch segments in Studio 60 did fall flat, and a part of me thinks the show would have been more successful if they brought in better comedic minds to write those parts. The characters spend a lot of time discussing and planning sketches, but they were rarely as great as the characters thought they were. The real comedy lay in the smaller character moments and interactions, but making the moments that are clearly supposed to be funny more humorous wouldn’t have hurt the show by any means.

That said, the best moments in Studio 60 were the ones that really focused on the day-to-day mechanics of creating television and the struggles that come with it, which in turn created moments of humor. Some of the storylines were informed by Sorkin’s personal experiences as a creator, such as finding ways to reduce the budget in order to keep the show running. The show also commented on how networks deal with powerful bodies such as the Federal Communications Commission, and those were the elements of Studio 60 that made it engaging.

There are plenty of shows that don’t find their groove until the second season, and Studio 60 deserved more time to iron out the sloppy parts. But, for the most part, it was really good. While the ratings didn’t necessarily justify the budget, the show still had enough potential to establish a strong fanbase, just like 30 Rock did. Fey’s show was the better of the two in the grand scheme of things, but that’s only because it received more time to prove itself. That opportunity wasn’t afforded to Studio 60.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.