Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll: Modern Morality on STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP

by Sunny Franklin

Morality is defined as, “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.” While on the surface Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip appears to be a drama mainly concerned with romance and the conflicting nature of art and commerce, it is actually a series immersed in moral ambiguity and debate, representing a post-modern rebellion against traditional, binary entrenched value systems.

Aaron Sorkin, the creator of Studio 60, structured the show in an opportune manner for exploration of social codes and political views. The series blatantly addresses many controversial issues in plot lines, and the diversity of the characters allows the series to comment on society more evenhandedly. Studio 60 follows the trend of heightened candor in network programming, reflecting what our nation currently views as acceptable entertainment and action.

Our nation is experiencing what some have called “the culture wars.” Strong divisions exist in the population’s worldviews, and as seen in the recent Presidential election, race, gender, religion, and other seemingly eternal themes remain issues for the American people. In terms of popular vote, we can see that the nation is evenly split on which candidate they favored, despite Barack Obama’s victory in the Electoral College. Studio 60 addresses the disparities in our country’s collective thought process, largely through the characters of Jack Rudolph, Matt Albee, and Harriet Hayes.

As is common with narrative and ideological analysis, I approached my research by viewing the entire series of Studio 60 twice. Episodes selected for repeated viewing included “Nevada Day Part I and II” and “The Cold Open.” Reading interviews with Aaron Sorkin and watching behind the scenes footage of the show also helped me to grasp the show’s framing.

In this paper I will focus a great deal on narrative theory. The way stories are told and through which characters, affects not only the show’s plots, but also the cultural implications and societal criticisms being discussed. This will be fed by textual analysis and feed into cultural studies, looking at how accurately the show represents topics.

The characters on the show do not serve merely as fables for moral exploration. Many episodes feature discourse or diatribes about different social issues, which I can explore more deeply in textual analysis. Even further into my analysis will be the ‘show within a show’ part of the series, where morality is addressed directly, but by fictional characters.

Sorkin would have us believe that his work is in fact not steeped in ideology. “In regards to my writing,” says Sorkin, “I’ve never had anything I’ve wanted to convince you of or tell you or teach you or show you where you’re wrong I don’t have a political background, and I’m not a political sophisticate.” Even if unintentional, through narrative analysis, we can dissect some of the meaning in Studio 60 (Fahy 14). Narratives are, in effect, “the stories our culture tells itself to purify and justify the values and beliefs that sustain it and provide it with an identity” (O’Donnell 92).

In his essay “The Republic of Sorkin”, John Nein discusses Sorkin’s film A Few Good Men, saying, “What also distinguishes it from a conventional courtroom drama is the sophisticated way it creates moral terrain that doesn’t fit into simple notions of right and wrong” (Fahy 199). This statement can most certainly be applied to Studio 60. Though specific characters may state their belief in certain time-honored binaries, the narrative dissembles such ideas through discussion and exploration of situations, both personal and public, for all of the characters. In this way, Studio 60 can be seen as representing a postmodern worldview.

The character of Harriet Hayes is largely the center of moral dialogue in the series. She proclaims herself to be a Christian, and while her faith never waivers through the show, her ideas about how her faith informs her career and personal relationships evolve. In the episodes “Nevada Day Part I” and “Nevada Day Part II”, Harriet’s religious and moral convolution becomes the catalyst for other major explorations in the show, as well as character development.

In these episodes Harriet is revealed to have given an interview in which she seemed undecided on the issue of gay marriage. This provokes a former fan of Harriet’s recorded music to approach her on the street, reveal himself as homosexual, and aggressively explain to her his distaste for her comments. This incident is interesting in that it paints gay men in an unusual light. Largely emasculated and stereotyped on network television, this exchange, though displaying the gay man as the hostile antagonist, also moves away from the conventions associated with that group, allowing the character to be reactionary and physically threatening.

The verbal exchange ends with Tom Jeter, Harriet’s friend and cast mate, defending her, perhaps a bit overzealously, knocking the instigator to the ground. A whirlwind of cause and effect situations erupt, leading to Tom being imprisoned in a small Nevada town where prostitution is legal, but marijuana use is considered a felony. This setting allows Sorkin to explore the codes and culture of non-Hollywood. The nation’s supposed values are often pitted as antithetical from those of Matt Albee and Daniel Tripp, the main characters of Studio 60. Through the episode, it is revealed that these differences are largely superficial, and that perceived cultural differences really boil down to the pride and prejudice of both factions.

Harriet and Matt’s constant bickering and relatively volatile relationship eventually sends Matt into a depression, and plunges him into dangerous experimentation with prescription medicine. Studio 60’s consistent involvement of controlled substances as key plot points and even character traits, present an interesting moral question in our current era, where Regan’s war on drugs has been largely abandoned, but prohibitive legislation remains.

Thomas Fahey writes, “It is rather clichéd to talk of writers with alcohol and drug problems, but this is particularly relevant to Sorkin’s public image. We associate genius with such problems” (2). With this concept in mind, substance abuse as seen in Studio 60, could be interpreted as romanticized and even promoted, given that the characters involved are also depicted as high functioning and happy in comparison to those not self-medicating. A quotation from Sorkin from 2002 also lends itself to the reading of drug usage in his works as something bordering on comedic: “My first play, A Few Good Men, opened on Broadway when I was 28 and didn’t close for another 497 performances. I followed that with an off-Broadway disaster called Making Movies. I followed that with … a 28 day stay at the Hazelden Center in Minnesota to kick a cocaine habit” (3).

Humorously phrased anecdotes such as this come across as disarming, as do many of Sorkin’s characters, despite their flaws. The quick dialogue and winning exchanges between characters might mask some underlying evil of drug usage, but for the most part, Studio 60 presents the subject as an important one, but also one that is somewhat benign.

Like with sexuality, there is no clear determination of the true nature of addiction in the show. Rather, different characters face different challenges, some of which they perceive as serious, and some of which they seem to think laughable. Multiple references to marijuana are made throughout the series, including Three Six Mafia smoking in their dressing room when they make a cameo as a musical act. Simon Styles jokes about being raised over a heroin dealership in “The Option Period” and his use of pot is discussed as commonplace until it leads to Jeter’s arrest in “Nevada Day.”

In the episode “The Focus Group”, news breaks that Jordan was ticketed for drunk driving years prior to her hiring at NBS. Danny says something to her about this and she retorts that, “Mine was booze five years ago, yours was coke three weeks ago.” Later in the episode Danny explains to Jordan that his coke habit never put anyone’s life at risk besides his own, while operating a vehicle under the influence but dozens of lives at stake. Jordan seems to accept this statement, and the two characters move forward with little further discussion of their past issues with substances.

Considered as a single incident, Danny’s statements could serve a very clear endorsement of cocaine, or at least shave off some of the villainy often associated with it. When linked with the show’s overall exploration of drugs though, a different conclusion is formed. After fighting with Harriet, Matt begins taking prescription pills in an attempt to help him feel well enough to write. He comes dangerously close to descending into addiction until Susanne, a P.A. turned assistant, confronts him. Danny immediately speaks to Matt when Susanne informs him of the situation, warning his friend about the perils of relying on chemicals to function. Matt listens to Susanne and Danny and discontinues his use of the medicines. This incident does not promote an ideology of drug use as evil, but continues to build a hierarchy of faults, on which drug abuse falls somewhere below dunk driving and plagiarism.

Religion is commonly referenced as informing morality for the general population. In America the assumed faith, and the faith of our founders, is Christianity. A number of the characters on Studio 60 refer to themselves as Christians or Protestants, but only one character regularly deals with her faith as part of her character development: Harriet. Describing herself as a Baptist, Harriet is a firm believer in the divinity of Jesus Christ, and is both celebrated and attacked for her beliefs by those around her.

Harriet’s Christianity not only informs her character, but forwards a great deal of plot. Harriet and Matt’s most recent breakup occurred because he disapproved of her performing on The 700 Club. “The Harriet Dinner” episode follows the cast and crew during the night of a Catholics in Media Gala, at which Harriet is being honored. Most of her interactions with reporter Martha O’Dell also focus on her religious beliefs.

Though Harriet is a main character of Studio 60, she is not one of the implied narrators, Matt and Danny. Matt’s religion is interesting in that he claims it more as an ethnicity, often describing himself as Jewish, but never citing any religious observances or values that the faith has instilled in him. The fact that a large portion of the show is seen through eyes of a Jewish man is a break from tradition for both Network television, and Aaron Sorkin (who is also Jewish). In Kirstin Ringelberg’s essay “His Girl Friday (and Every Day)”, she bemoans the second-rate stereotyping of Jewish characters she identifies in Sorkin’s works. “I hope that he decides to use his significant influence and talents to create a project in which the lead character, the dominant force, the person whose life is pushed forward in a positive way, can be either Jewish or female— or better yet, both” (Fahy 99). Matt Albee has partially fulfills this desire.

As it often is, sexuality as discussed on Studio 60 closely ties in with religion and commerce. Although sexual activity, particularly of the heterosexual variety, is a topic of conversation and an important part of many of the character’s lives, Sorkin chooses never to display much nudity or even physical affection. The absence of such imagery is important in a narrative analysis of the show, in that many socially engaged dramas have become more explicit in recent years, in a lazing of network standards to compete with cable and premium channels. The inclusion of sexual activities is not to be perceived as lewd, but rather gratuitous, and not necessary or appropriate to the subject matter or narrative (Chunovic 182).

Readings of Sorkin’s previous shows have led some to believe that he is a proponent of slightly subservient women, who merely attempt to act independently. “Sorkin’s ideal type, the brainy, sassy, but finally dependent woman, harkens back to some classic films and stars of the 1930s and ‘40s” (Fahy 91). This is not an unreasonable interpretation, but there are some instances in Studio 60 in which this view of women is challenged. Sex appeal and sexual relationships are portrayed in a three-dimensional way: characters visit strip clubs, debate the merits of nude modeling, admit to frequenting sex clubs, repeatedly have affairs with co-workers, and engage in pre-marital sex unapologetically. By featuring sex as a part of all the characters lives, and something they all struggle with, Studio 60 can deflect some of the previous criticism of Sorkin’s portrayals. Exploring oppositions is not the same as being a proponent and a reflection of a binary system.

One of the most interesting plot developments surrounding sexuality involves Harriet. Because of her public persona as a Christian, she believes she may be losing roles in feature films. She equates her religious beliefs with being perceived as asexual. She contemplates posing for a nude magazine spread to change her image. Simon and Tom approach her in an attempt to convince her not to pose. Harriet is confused and in her underwear; they caught her changing in her dressing room. “It’s sexy that I’m devout?” she asks.

After discussions with Matt and Jordan as to how this could affect her career, Harriet decides against the shoot. This plot line does not serve to demonize nudity or even pornography. In fact, the scene in which Harriet is half-dressed seeks to depict her as sexy as well as modest. Instead the incident feeds a part of a larger topic for the show: objectification. Objectification of both men and women occurs in the comments and actions of the characters, specifically Simon Styles and journalist Martha O’Dell. The boarder between consensual flirtation and actual harassment is depicted as very thin. Because Sorkin’s show essentially has no human antagonists (conflict is largely man against self or man against world), characters displaying what could be interpreted as distasteful behavior, are instead meant to be charming and well intentioned.

Politics, as with almost all public arenas, is steeped in ideological conflict as well as moral debate and judgment. Ringelberg says in reference to previous works, that Sorkin is, “clearly in search of a purer, more ideal America where honesty and intelligence are valued above the machinery of government and big business” (Fahy 95). This sort of rhetoric is reminiscent of many campaigns for elected office, including our most recent Presidential campaign, in which Obama’s main platform was “hope”, not specific policies. Valuing unifying themes and concepts is in itself a value judgment put forward by characters in the show. None of Sorkin’s characters are left unredeemed at the end of the series, and most affirm their status as decent through acts of loyalty, valor, and compassion.

Jack Rudolph’s character is saddled with the most political responsibility, often finding himself wedged in the middle of a situation involving government and business relations. The “Nevada Day” episodes showcase Rudolph a lot, and are really the beginnings of his character’s fleshing out. At NBS Jack is seen as the conservative, tough guy. However, when compared to the small town sheriff who makes fun of him, Jack becomes aligned with his colleagues in a way not previously shown. This promotes the same idea of loyalty, erasing all lines of partisanship.

Rudolph is also often put in the position of guardian of the wishes of the “flyover space”, the majority of the country in between the coasts. Many conflicts arise between Jack and the writers regarding sketches about 9/11, the War on Terror, and the War in Afghanistan. It is posited that though Jack has no personal qualms with the material being submitted by the show, he feels as though Americans might. He falls into the stereotypical category of network executives who, “consider ‘Middle American sensibilities’ to be [necessarily] divergent from those of the people who live in New York and Los Angeles” (Johnson 57). By providing the show with bit characters such as the sheriff and radio personalities, Sorkin seeks to even the playing field in terms of point of view represented in a show largely about the entertainment industry.

Many of the sketches within the show are political, often poking fun at conservative ideals and censorship. “Jesus as the Head of Standards and Practices” is one such sketch that gets a lot of attention, and is inspired by a report that the federal government sent representatives to Los Angeles to ask for more patriotic films. The most debated sketch of the series is the “Ealing, Missouri” bit in News 60, a mock new segment of the broadcast. The town canceled a production of The Crucible, and Matt would like to ridicule this. Harriet leads the other cast members in protest, explaining that the residents of this town make bread for a living, and deserve a little extra slack for their beliefs. The joke is eventually replaced with a benign one about forest fires, ending in the punch line, “When asked to comment, the bear said, ‘Roar!’”

It becomes evident over the twenty-two episodes, that the show’s characters take their jobs in comedy very seriously. Many actions and statements that the characters do not object to on a personal level, are lampooned on the air, emphasizing the power and influence of the media. By setting the series as a show about a show, Sorkin can comment on televisual culture and standards while, ironically, still participating in the system. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is not merely a show about the entertainment industry or about sketch comedy, but a show about informed civic responsibilities.

“The problem with so many mainstream films and television programs today,” writes John Nein, “is the simple mentality they engender. They have almost entirely lost their ability to create a complex moral structure— anything that would actually make us experience something deeper than mere gratification” (Fahy 200). Studio 60, through the use of complex characters, the rejection of binaries, and the unique setting of the show, manages to simultaneously challenge the surface values of the viewer, while depicting situations that resonate and satisfy. In the end, Matt and Harriet are able to move past their differences and rekindle their relationship. This touches on the hope that many Americans share: there is more that unites us than divides us.

Sunny Franklin grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, watching Nickelodeon and Law and Order (only the Jerry Orbach years). She earned a B.A. in Television from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a concentration in writing and producing. Sunny currently lives in Los Angeles and works as a story producer at 3Ball Productions.

Works Cited

Chunovic, Louis. One Foot on the Floor : The Curious Evolution of Sex on Television from “I Love Lucy” to “South Park” New York: TV Books, L.L.C., 2000.

Fahy, Thomas. Considering Aaron Sorkin : Essays on the Politics, Poetics and Sleight of Hand in the Films and Television Series. Boston: McFarland & Company, Incorporated, 2005.

Johnson, Victoria E. Heartland TV : Prime Time Television and the Struggle for U. S. Identity. New York: New York UP, 2008.

O’Donnell, Victoria. Television Criticism. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publictions, 2007.

Rapping, Elayne. Media-tions : Forays into the Culture and Gender Wars. New York: South End P, 1994.

Greene, Doyle. Politics and the American Television Comedy : A Critical Survey from I Love Lucy Through South Park. Boston: McFarland & Company, Incorporated, 2007.

Nelson, Robin. State of Play : Contemporary High-End TV Drama. New York: Manchester UP, 2008.

8 thoughts on “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll: Modern Morality on STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP

  1. This was a truly intriguing article. When I started reading, I was inclined to defend Sorkin to the bitter end. I am a huge Sorkin fan, but I can hear some of the criticism, particularly, the romanticism of drugs and alcohol in relation to writers and genius. The program did get very preachy near the end of it’s short run. The last few episodes focused a lot on the war in Iraq. So, everything you say about Sorking forcing his ideals into the program is correct. I agree with the majority of Sorkin’s ideals (with the exception of the drug worship), so I really don’t mind. I also believe strongly in the write of the writer to insert his of her ideals into their work. The only other big issue I have with some of Sorkin’s writing is, as you pointed out, his overt misogyny. Overal, I think Studio 60 was a fantastic program, it had some faults, as you pointed out, but I love it and I am sad that it’s gone.

  2. Such an underrated show grounded in realism- loved this article. It’s so hard to create a genuine world of sketch comedy without being forced into showing repeated, slapstick, imitation sketches, but this show kept itself within its element. Only wish I was able to find more articles about it.

  3. Yes, I think this show enters into the realm of the short-lived television programs which will continue to have incredible impact long after their initial run. I thought this article delved into some of the serious issues that do arise without sugar-coating the realities of the situation.

  4. Wow……I thought this was a great article. I’d like to comment on what I read but I want to make it clear that I have never seen an episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, so sometimes I got lost in the storylines. However, I felt like the author of this article did a very good job of explaining certain episodes, the three- four main characters, and the overall focus and message of the show. It sounds like some engaging television that I wish I had watched, and may explore on my own at a later date. I enjoy television that makes you think; that you can go away from and have conversation about. I truelly believe that television, and the arts in general, is such a great tool to reflect our cultures thoughts and behaviors. I agree with the quote by John Nein in that we need more television shows that “actually make us experience something deeper than mere gratification”, although sometimes we just want simple pleasure without much thought. Clearly we need both to stimulate our minds and stir our passions.
    As far as the “moral terraine that doesn’t fit into the simple notion of right and wrong”(I believe that was a quote from Nein also), used to describe the show, I wanted to say I love that sort of stuff in television and movies. Sometimes we get so focused as a society on right and wrong, liberal and conservative, religious and not religious, us against them, etc…….I just get so sick of it because it is all just labels that divide, when in reality we as human beings have so much more in common then we do differences. We are all just learning and growing every day, making mistakes and becoming better people if we choose to learn from those mistakes. I think we are seeing more television and movies that depict the human struggle to learn to love well, rather than self centerdly. In trying to determine who is right and wrong, we can so easily judge one another rather than engage in constructive conversation. It seems like maybe Studion 60 on the Sunset Strip attempted to give us this type of television.
    I love the phrase “the fly over space” used in the article to describe, “the majority of the country between the coasts where middle American sensibilities are divergent from those who live in New York or Los Angeles. How cool is that? I mean really……how boring life would be if we all agreed and all believed the same thing. So who wants to watch a television show where everybody thinks and believes the same. Let’s mix it up and attempt to reflect opposing views without arguing or taking sides, a mutual respect to agree to disagree but stay committed to love eachother in new ways.
    Like I said, I never watched this show when it was on television but I was glad to read in this article that the characters of Matt and Harriet were able to have a relationship that worked despite their seemingly opposite views and differences. Sounds like it was a well written and engaging show. I wonder why it was cancelled so soon. I guess I’ll have to read the article on the “Neilsons Ratings” to learn more about that:) Thanks for the discussion, this journal is a great idea and I wish you great success with it. More conversation later!

  5. As a Sorkin fan I went into this article a bit defensive, but I definitely see some valid points. I first watched Studio 60 as a fan, but looking back at it with television education has changed my perception of the show a lot. I think it’s one of the most useful shows to look at when studying the dynamics of television programming and the problems that arise. Great article, very to the point.

  6. wonderful article, Sunny! I like our blending of narrative analysis and industrial–it provides a more holistic view of the series than we often see in TV analysis that favors one approach over the other. Spot on and balanced take on the show and Sorkin’s “tendencies” (ultimately, I give the edge to Sports Night as his better and more influential creation…)

  7. Hey there, I just hopped over to your web page through StumbleUpon. Not somthing I might typically browse, but I liked your views none the less. Thanks for creating something worthy of reading through.

Comments are closed.