Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was more than a little self-aware about its ambitions, with its implicit and explicit references to Paddy Chayevsky's Network during Monday's premiere.
Unfortunately, beyond advocating that we all should do our best to rise above banality - which is like me telling my almost-4-year-old to be good - the show barely had anything constructive to offer. Mostly, what I was left with was to watch actors that I generally like, performing at a level I generally respect, playing characters I generally had little reason to care about.
We have nothing to fear but fear itself - fear being defined as a life bereft of pointed late-night sketch comedy.
Steven Bochco's underrated 2005 series Over There depicted soldiers at war, and whether or not you agreed with the mission, they had profound individual struggles you could empathize with. Studio 60 launched a mission that you'd have to be a misanthrope not to support, fought mostly by soldiers whose fates will not cause you a moment's worry one way or another. Studio 60 glorifies the battle and the battlefield, but the heroes are for the most part mercenaries.
You don't need to sell me on the worth of producing good television, but what evidence do we have from the pilot that Matt Albie (Matthew Perry), Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) and Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) are the ones to do it? We keep being told that Matt and Danny have written a hilarious (if potentially offensive) four-minute late-night comedy sketch, and that Jordan is intrigued by it. We're told that it's so great, Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson) wants it to air even if she's offended by it.
And yet, showrunner Aaron Sorkin and friends don't even have the courage to show us a hint of the sketch in the pilot - and by that I don't mean that they're afraid of offending, but rather that they are either afraid that the sketch won't live up to its billing, or that they need to hold it back as a carrot for the viewers.
At no moment in its pilot does Studio 60 present any actual evidence that these folks are as good as they say they are. It's all hearsay, all unimpeached testimony. Meanwhile, in their world, ambitious, cutthroat, love-'em-or-hate-'em shows like The Daily Show don't exist. Except for Matt and Danny, it's all bad, nothing good.
Down the road, if our heroes prove they aren't hacks, I guess that's great. But for now, I've got nothing but this: a conscious (bordering on shameless) Network ripoff, debates over television standards and practices that numerous shows like The Larry Sanders Show and Sorkin's own Sports Night fully - and I mean fully - explored half a decade or more ago, a lot of tough talk, solid acting and high production values. Yes, I'll take Studio 60 over The Apprentice and thank it for challenging us to do better, for challenging us to think. But what it didn't offer was anything close to what it was calling for: a meaningful use of the medium.
I remember finising every episode of Sports Night and wishing for a half-hour more. After 60 minutes of Studio 60, I wished for a half-hour less.
Maybe the show will find itself moving forward. The best parts of Studio 60 showed characters wrestling with their own values: Harriet trying to live a religious life in a sectarian world, Cal (Timothy Busfield) struggling to be simulatenously loyal to great television and to the welfare of his career and family. These are the moments that give one hope - when someone doesn't have all the answers.
But the apparent leads on the ensemble - Jordan, Danny and Matt - they don't wrestle. Oh, Danny has a cocaine problem, Jordan's a young woman in the boys' club and Matt is, I don't know, real jangly, but there's no confusion about how they should act. So who cares? Not me, not until you show me that they are heroes instead of just insisting that they are.
The sooner Studio 60 complicates its mission - the sooner that it can use its setting to explore more universal conflicts within ourselves - the sooner it can flourish. We'll take it on faith that television should be good. Now, show us that it can be.