I was starting to have hopes for this show, but having seen this episode, I'm thinking that Aaron Sorkin is this close to completely blowing it. (You can't see me, but I'm holding my thumb and forefinger really close together.) Why? Because Sorkin just can't keep beating Matt and Harriet to death.
Let me back up a bit. Last week, Buffalo News TV critic Alan Pergament launched this column about Studio 60 thusly:
I'm still trying to understand why more of Buffalo and America hasn't fallen in love with Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
It is one of the smartest, funniest and more romantic shows of the new season. It also has one of the season's more appealing and unassuming stars, Sarah Paulson. Paulson, who plays born-again sketch performer Harriet Hayes, conceded during an interview on the show's set in Hollywood last month that she stood out like a born-again Christian in Hollywood in a cast that includes Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, Amanda Peet, Timothy Busfield and D.L. Hughley.
The article proceeds to give a nice profile of Sarah Paulson, whom I actually do think does a good job on the show as Harriet Hayes. The whole problem with the show, so far as I see it, isn't the fact that Sorkin can't help but fall in love with his own turns of phrase and therefore keep using them over and over and over again from one show to the next; nor is it Sorkin's apparent Gilbert-and-Sullivan fetish that also crops up in everything he writes (not the weirdest fetish out there, as fetishes go, but it's certainly unusual and hard to work into shows constantly). The problem is that Sorkin won't write the interesting stuff for his interesting characters because he's freaking obsessed with his two least-interesting characters.
Harriet Hayes doesn't get to be interesting just because she's a born-again Christian. Born-again Christians can be interesting, and yet, Harriet is not. And why isn't she? Because there's no struggle involved. She just flits about the show, with her faith never really being challenged in any serious way. There's no evidence that she ever struggles with her faith in the way that, say, President Bartlet did in The West Wing. Remember when Jed Bartlet cursed God? Can anyone see Harriet Hayes ever cursing God? There's no conflict in Harriet, and conflict is what makes characters interesting. Why is Peter Parker more interesting than Clark Kent? Because Parker's internal conflict is a lot more interesting than Kent's. We never see any internal conflict in Harriet. Sure, there's lots of external conflict -- non-religious groups think she's a bigot, religious groups think she isn't religious enough -- and yet we never get any real idea how this all affects her. Her faith remains as it is, totally unchanged.
Matt Albie doesn't have any internal conflict either. He's the mirror-image of Harriet, and it shows every time they get together, and Matt almost immediately goes into some uber-clever indictment of religion that sounds pre-rehearsed in his brain. (In tonight's episode, he actually cites the percentage of the American people who believe in angels. Who goes around knowing that stuff?) Sorkin's approach to writing these two characters is to say that "Person X believes this and Person Y believes that, and all I gotta do now is have them argue about it at length."
And he does this for enough of each episode that it totally takes over everything else. The internal power struggles at the fictional TV network? The trials and tribulations of a young writing staff thrown into the deep end without a life preserver? The production problems inherent in a weekly sketch comedy show? The neuroses of comics who have to play multiple characters each week and keep them all straight? All of that is more inherently interesting than Matt-and-Harriet, and yet, Sorkin keeps the focus on Matt-and-Harriet.
Which brings me to tonight's episode.
One of Sorkin's favorite devices is the interwoven series of flashbacks, in which today's events are presaged by what happened weeks, months, or years before. Here we keep flashing back to Matt's early days with the show, when he meets for the first time -- you guessed it -- Harriet Hayes. And in their first extended conversation, Matt goes right into talking about religion as though he's a professional pollster, of course offending Harriet. For the balance of the episode, their flashback banter revolves around tiny minutiae regarding that first conversation, long after we, the audience, have stopped caring.
There's another big strike at work here, too: Matthew Perry and Sarah Paulson just don't have the chemistry between them that might be able to make it all work, if Sorkin weren't writing it so poorly.
(On chemistry: I'm not necessarily referring to romantic chemistry. On West Wing, Rob Lowe had terrific onscreen chemistry with Emily Procter, and their characters weren't romantically linked in any way at all. Perry and Paulson don't seem to even have that kind of chemistry. Not that they can't appear onscreen together, but they can't pull off what's supposed to be the emotional center of a show together.)
We never, not once, buy the idea that these two are anything but doomed. I had hope of that in the previous couple of episodes, when Harriet suddenly realized that the relationship was utterly dead in the water, but now, here we are, beating it to death again. Now, maybe Aaron Sorkin is trying something more sophisticated here, in depicting Matt Albie as a guy who is hopelessly attached to a relationship that can't possibly go anywhere, but the problem there is, it just doesn't feel like Sorkin is writing that story. Instead it feels like Sorkin genuinely believes he can get these two together in the end, and right now he's just working through it all. Well, I don't want to see it. I want to see the other stuff.
Some of my favorite movies and TV shows are "backstage" stories set in show business. Shouldn't it tell Aaron Sorkin something that he keeps dwelling on Matt Albie, a guy who almost never leaves his own office? There's a reason why Captain Kirk was always leaving the bridge of the Enterprise, and it's not because Kirk was some kind of grand adventurer. It's because keeping him on the bridge would have made him a really boring character.
Ultimately, by having these two only ever talk about a single subject, we not only never see that Matt and Harriet could love each other, we end up with no clue why they ever would love each other. If Aaron Sorkin wants Studio 60 to succeed, he needs to put the Matt and Harriet relationship behind him. He can write about Matt, and he can write about Harriet. But constantly writing about Matt-and-Harriet is killing the show.
(No, I didn't like tonight's episode. Apparently Matt is now starting to lose it.)