Studio 60 has not been the big hit everyone at NBC hoped it would be. And it’s taken more than a few shots, mostly from insiders who say that it’s not an authentic view of a sketch comedy show. Why? Because it’s not funny. And they’re right; it’s not funny. That could be because creator and writer Aaron Sorkin can’t write funny. Or more likely it’s because the show’s not a comedy. It’s a drama about working in a corporation, a corporation that just happens to be in the business of making culture.
Sometimes Sorkin gets too cute in his writing, typically from updating a classic story beat. He always does the beat well, but it’s still a recognizable beat. And I get the feeling that he is writing so much so fast that for long stretches he just puts it on automatic and lets his considerable knowledge of story carry him along.
To see one of the reasons why Studio 60 may be having trouble with audiences, let’s look at a technique that is crucial to a TV drama: the episodic desire line. In other words, what is accomplished in each episode? In a classic cop show, it’s solving the crime. In a courtroom drama, it’s winning the case. In a doctor show, it’s saving the patient. On Studio 60 it’s … Well, we know what it isn’t. It’s not putting on a 90-minute comedy show. So what is it?
The desire line in each episode is what gives the story its shape, and is one of the key elements of a show’s DNA. You can create a show in which the desire line extends over many episodes, but you will have more difficulty holding a mass audience. So many shows provide at least one desire line that is accomplished by the end of the episode, and extend the others. Aaron Sorkin doesn’t do that on Studio 60. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just not popular. Regardless of Studio 60’s essential structure, there is a lot to like and learn from by watching it.
For example, we see a great technique in the second part of a two-part episode in which Harriet gets an award. It’s the technique I call the “dialogue of equals.” Good conflict dialogue should be a heavyweight fight. Punch/counter-punch. One throws a hammer blow. The other comes right back with a hammer blow of his own. Not only does each line have dramatic power, the scene builds in the sequence of the blows (lines), ending in a knockout punch.
To create a building punch/counter-punch, you have to have two equals, by which I mean two characters with an equal ability to verbally attack. If one is too strong, he or she will get in the most blows and the scene will not build. In the concluding episode of the two-parter, Matt and Harriet go at each other with ferocity. Matt is the obviously more aggressive and nastier of the two. But Harriet does not shrink back and ends up having the more powerful blows, including the lethal knockout punch.