Drama: The freshman class

“Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” didn’t draw viewers the way NBC or Aaron Sorkin hoped, certainly not compared with multi-Emmy winner and audience fave “The West Wing.” “Studio 60″ polarized audiences, who either fell in love with its characters or were unable to connect with them.

But some insist that the show fulfilled the lofty goals Sorkin set. The press-shy showrunner described those ambitions last year.

“It’s about a group of people committed to professionalism, committed to each other, committed to what they’re doing,” he said a few months before the show debuted, pointing out the series’ similarity to both “The West Wing” and “Sports Night.” “‘Studio 60′ is tooled to deal with issues of the culture wars in an interesting way, because certainly television, in general, and a sketch comedy like this, in particular, would have a front-row seat for that kind of thing.”

Critics were overwhelmingly positive in their reviews of the pilot, which began with the firing of the fictional show’s exec producer (Judd Hirsch) after his anti-TV rant. Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune wrote: “In a fall TV season with no shortage of fine offerings, it’s the only show that made me positively giddy with excitement. ‘Studio 60′ is not just good, it has the potential to be a small-screen classic.”

Didn’t turn out that way, yet the series was equally comfortable discussing complex issues like the industry’s left-wing bent — via conversations with its right-wing Christian sketch star Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson) — and network machinations at the highest level, mixed with easier-to-digest issues such as how to retrieve a snake from beneath the floorboards of the stage.

Performances were also well received: Paulson was nominated for a Golden Globe and longtime Sorkin confidante Thomas Schlamme was nominated for a Directors Guild Award for his work on the pilot, and the writers earned a Writers Guild kudo.

As to why the show didn’t connect, some analysts believe that the characters and storyline were simply unconvincing — more theoretical than believable. Others feel the subject matter was too “inside baseball” and that aspects of the script, such as the corporate structure of a fictional network and who reports to whom, didn’t appeal.

Sorkin was aware of that latter critique early on, but was undaunted.

“I’m not concerned about that,” he said at TCA. “For anything they (audiences) don’t understand, what they will understand is these characters know what they’re talking about, in the same way you’d do a medical drama or a copshow … or a White House show.”

THE WRAP

Best episode: “The West Coast Delay”: A Vanity Fair prober arrives on set after it appears a writer has plagiarized a joke, creating havoc as the producers decide to do a live West Coast version.

Underappreciated character: Ed Asner’s turn as the topper at TMG, the conglom that owned the network, offered a nice touch of gravitas.

Great line: Matt Albie to Harriet Hayes on the culture wars: “Well, your side hates my side because you think we think you’re stupid. And my side hates your side because we think you’re stupid.”

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