For his latest creation, Studio 60 on The Sunset Strip, Aaron Sorkin has packed up his dense banter and righteous moral indignation, and moved them—along with some familiar faces—3,000 miles west from the White House to a Saturday Night Live-esque comedy show in L.A. The travel hasn’t altered Sorkin’s focus—Studio 60, like The West Wing before it, is a show about politics in America. But on Studio 60 it’s not Republicans who are the enemy. It’s the people who won’t stomach the broadcasting of ideas they disagree with, who are dumbing down television, stifling free speech, and damaging democracy. It’s Christian conservatives. And who are their natural opponents? That’s right—the animating conflict of Studio 60 pits Jews, atheists, and open-minded believers against the Christian right.
In the pilot’s opening minutes, Studio 60‘s executive producer Wes Mendel (played by Judd Hirsch), has an on-screen breakdown in which he decries the atrocious state of television. In his outburst—immediately precipitated by the network’s decision to ax an apparently hilarious sketch titled “Crazy Christians” for fear of offending religious groups— Wes rants that the only things the “candyass” networks are truly scared of are the FCC and “every psycho religious cult getting positively horny at the thought of a boycott.” (We never get to see this sketch. Judging from the ones that we do, it’s probably for the best.)
Mendel is fired, and the network brings in a new writer-producer team to rescue Studio 60, composed of the Jewish Matt Albie (an aged Matthew Perry, with significantly more gravitas than his epic stint as Chandler Bing might lead you to expect), and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford, who played Josh Lyman on The West Wing, in very familiar form). The duo are actually veterans of Studio 60; in fact, they wrote the “Crazy Christians” sketch four years earlier. This time around, they have a new boss, Jordan McDeere, a fantasy of a network executive (which for Sorkin means she’s a liberal who keeps her word, and for men more generally, that she looks damn good doing it). Played by Amanda Peet, who has a way with the one-liner, she promises they can air the sketch in their first episode. When this news gets out to the Christian community, they call for a boycott of the show. Affiliates try to pressure Jordan into cutting the scene, but she refuses. (Four stations ultimately decide not to carry the episode.)
Sorkin has nothing but disdain for this sort of maneuver. “Living where there’s free speech, sometimes you get offended,” he has Mendel say. And if they don’t want to be offended, can’t we “teach them how to change the channel?” Jordan asks. In The West Wing, Sorkin had a penchant for introducing a devil’s advocate who spun lingual gold, challenging our heroes’ perceptions, if not ultimately changing them. Here, his contempt for the Christian right is such that, thus far, he has refused to put persuasive words in their mouths. (Even Studio 60‘s other distasteful element, the studio execs, get a chance to defend themselves.)
The character charged, or rather, who has charged himself, with writing all of the material for the fictional Studio 60 is Matt Albie. Matt is, in certain respects, a thinly veiled stand-in for Sorkin (another writer who insists upon penning his show almost single-handedly). Like Sorkin, Matt is a Jew operating in the secular, but distinctly Jewish province of Hollywood, where everyone apparently has a working knowledge of Yiddish. (The world tsurris is bandied about in the pilot’s first 5 minutes.) Like so many Jewish TV characters, Matt is neurotic. Upon completing the first week’s episode of the show he can barely enjoy the accomplishment, griping to his partner that he only has to start all over again. “Could you be a little more Jewish?!” Danny responds. Matt’s also an intellectual, insisting that they stick with a sketch about commedia dell’arte, even though no one other than the writers and performers seem to find it amusing. When a blond, Teutonic baseball player makes a pass at his ex-girlfriend, Matt retorts, “Let’s see this guy make the Dean’s list eight semesters in a row as a contemporary dramatic lit major.” His friend lovingly replies, “fairy.” And it goes without saying (or at least it should) that he’s funny.
Matt’s ex, played by the lovely Sarah Paulson, is Harriet Hayes, the deeply devout female comedy lead of Studio 60. As the show opens, Harriet has released a recording of inspirational music and appeared on The 700 Club to promote it—the deal-breaker in her relationship with Matt, who equates that show with a Klan rally. (This is another quality Matt and Sorkin share. Harriet is based on Sorkin’s ex-girlfriend, the actress Kristin Chenoweth, who promoted her own album of inspirational music on the Christian television circuit.) Harriet takes her faith seriously, leading prayer circles (funny ones, of course) before each show. She’s a liberal’s fantasy shiksa, if one were to fantasize about a devout shiksa: a smart, attractive blonde who loves her Jesus, but remains open-minded. Though, she’s not above screaming at Matt, “You’re a Northeast, Jewish, liberal atheist!” In a nice way.
She remains on Matt’s side, defending his right to air the “Crazy Christians” sketch, even expressing a desire to be in it. Matt and Harriet might have broken up, but in this case, they’re in it together—allies against a common enemy. If on Studio 60 the Christian right embodies religious fanaticism, then Jews, liberals, gays, atheists, and even tolerant practitioners like Harriet Hayes, represent its antibody, secularism.
Judaism and secularism jibe so well here because on Studio 60 Judaism can hardly be called a religion. (In the one depiction of a religious Jew, in a skit called “Science Shmience,” Rob Reiner plays a Hasid named Shlomo Levi, who insists that men, judging from the likes of Abraham and Noah, can live for hundreds of years.) There’s no evidence anyone is observant, or even believes in God. For Sorkin, being Jewish seems to mean opposing censorship and being able to laugh at oneself.
The ability to recognize the ridiculous and cackle at it is what distinguishes all the heroes on Studio 60—from Matt to Harriet to the WASPishly named Jordan McDeere. Such snickering is the right of every American, and the desire to do so in this day and age, Sorkin is saying, is the mark of a smart one. And if conservative Christians could learn to chuckle as easily as the wider humanist community, not only would TV be of higher quality, but America would be a better place.