This is the pilot that interested me in pilots. I watched it twice before proceeding with the series. And, though I did make it through the whole series, it went steadily downhill. The critics tend to agree. Still, I can go back and watch the pilot as a stand-alone story. It’s compelling, it’s exciting, it’s funny, it’s dramatic. Now, any time I hear David Bowie’s “Under Pressure,” I picture the final scene of this episode.
This pilot uses what I call the Prodigal Son Formula. It’s about someone—in this case, two someones—returning to a place they used to call home, changed and matured, for better or worse. In addition, it uses the New Kid on the Block Formula, featuring a person beginning a new job (which could as easily be a new school, new neighborhood, etc.).
Even before we meet the aforementioned Prodigals and New Kid, however, we have The Crisis. We are onstage at the start of the taping of a live, weekly, sketch comedy show akin to Saturday Night Live, called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. As an actor whips the studio audience into a frenzy, the Producer, Wes (Judd Hirsch) is arguing backstage the head of Broadcast Standards and Practices over whether to include a controversial sketch in tonight’s show. In the first two minutes, we know that the show (the fictional one) is flagging and the Producer is near the breaking point.
Then we get glimpses into the control booth, the dressing rooms, the hallways… a tone of frenetic energy is set. There is a quick intro to a page who will come into play later in the series. Amid it all, Wes is incongruously calm. Then comes his meltdown. On live television. It’s a scathing diatribe on all-that-is-wrong-with-network-television. It’s uncomfortably funny and horrifying and train-wreck riveting. We see the pressure on Cal (Timothy Busfield), the control booth guy, to pull the plug. The suspense builds to…the opening credits.
So in just nine minutes, we’re pumped and ready to go. Then, we get introduced to the main characters. We meet Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet), the new President of the NBS network, who ominously predicts, “Nothing bad is going to happen on my first day, right?” We meet Jack Rudolph (Steven Weber), her new boss.
As the live (fictional) show continues, damage control is in full effect backstage. We can’t help but feel that writer Aaron Sorkin is giving us his personal take on the shortcomings of the industry.
Seventeen minutes in, we first hear the names Matt Albie and Danny Tripp. We know there’s history, potential controversy. At minute 19, after the second commercial break, we finally meet them: Matt, played by Matthew Perry and Danny, played by Bradley Whitford, recently off of the success of The West Wing. They are immediately fascinating characters with huge back story; for starters we learn that Matt and his longtime girlfriend, Studio 60 actress Harriett Hayes recently broke up because of the Star-Spangled Banner.
The downfall of this show may simply have been there was too much back story. Every line, every look, conveyed something about these characters and their history. The whole thing takes place in one night, and there is just so darn much happening. It’s totally engaging. But maybe too much for viewers who want to fold the laundry or pack their kids’ lunches while they watch. We get Matt and Danny’s relationship, their relationship to Jack and to Wes. We get a taste of Matt and Harriett’s relationship. We learn about the sketch that was cut from the show that set off this whole fracas—and that will become symbolic of the show’s themes.
The characters end the pilot with a world of new possibilities before them. This is the way to end a pilot, with room for all kinds of things to happen. The moment is illustrated strikingly and poetically by the theatre house full of people—cast, crew, and staff—sitting expectantly before Matt and Danny, their new producers. And “Under Pressure” boiling up. It’s a great moment.