But last night I had a revelation and now I’m simply blown away by this show. Now I see what Sorkin’s doing it seems blindingly obvious – just like it always is when he reveals what he’s been developing over four or five episodes. What he has delivered is something sublime, an allegory for the state of the nation, played out in the relationship between Matt and Harriet.
Matt, the liberal intellectual from the East Coast meets Harriett, the Bible bashing conservative from the American heartland and the two of them find their muse in each other. But politics and the politics of religion drive them apart, mirroring the split taking place in America today. As Martha says to Matt, one half of the country hates the other half, but for ninety minutes a week you two come together and make the nation laugh – something we desperately need in real life. A consensus, a coming together of left and right.
Although a beautiful allegory, the story also works on a personal level as a love story, two people pushed apart by the gulf between their cultures, yet drawn together by their mutual love and admiration. What a beautiful picture of a nation equally divided, and yet equally drawn together by values greater than those that separate them. I am in awe.
I admit that I was initially sceptical about Sorkin’s decision to write about the television industry because I didn’t think it could be as aspirational as The West Wing. And until last night, I believed I was right about that. I thought it would be damn entertaining, but I didn’t think it could inspire me the way The West Wing did. I was wrong.
The West Wing invited us to imagine a Washington DC (or a Westminster) populated by principled politicians and brilliant political operatives, thus serving as a damning critique of our everyday experience of ‘politics as usual’. Similarly, Studio 60 invites us to imagine a Hollywood inhabited by studio executives who act as the guardians of the nation’s culture and who take seriously their role in nourishing the minds and souls of the citizenry.
And this brings me onto the criticism I’ve heard of the show – it’s too smug, too self-congratulatory, too ‘inside’. It’s none of those things. Rather, I think it is us, the audience, who are too ‘inside’. Whereas we were happy to see The West Wing hold a mirror up to the elite world of politics, we are less comfortable when that mirror is held up to the world of television because we see ourselves in the reflection.
We are the audience. When Wes rants about the state of television, we know he is talking to us because we are the ones who have allowed television to become what it is today, either by participation or by neglect. Who has never sat down in front of the TV and watched some mindlessly entertaining show? It’s like junk food. We know it doesn’t do us any good, but we eat it anyway because it’s tasty. It diverts us for half an hour, but ultimately – like a Big Mac – it doesn’t nourish us.
In Studio 60, Sorkin is envisaging a world in which the people who make television understand its importance as an expression of national culture. He’s not being smug, he’s trying to elucidate why television is a serious subject. Because it is a serious subject, in fact it’s probably more serious and more relevant than the goings on in the White House.
Now that no one buys our votes, the public has long since cast off its cares;
the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else,
now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things -- bread and circuses.
Juvenal was writing about the demise of Roman civilization, but he could be writing about our own. While more people vote to evict someone from the Big Brother house than vote in general elections then our culture, our values, and our liberal democracy is under serious threat. Sorkin is railing against the ‘bread and circuses’ which we, the audience, demand – if not overtly, then tacitly.
And that, I think, is why so many people find his message difficult to stomach. We are part of the problem and no one likes to hear that. Least of all when what we really want after a hard day’s work is a big slab of bread and a circus to make us laugh.