I am not typically one to enjoy sentiment. For that matter, I give only grudging respect to things nostalgic. Too often, writers turn to the familiar and sentimental because it’s easier to borrow an emotional response than generate something real and contextually satisfying. This is never more apparent than the annual slew of holiday episodes, where character often set aside differences and come together in harmony because, damn it, that’s what Americans do.
When shows embrace the sentiment with full awareness of the absurdity, it works wonders. Countless examples come to mind. When writers manage to take the emotional undercurrents of the holidays and use them to reveal something about the characters, even something deeply familiar, it can be a stroke of genius. And this episode of “Studio 60” managed to sing its familiar song through a set of unique and textured voices.
I found it fascinating (and yet completely believable) that Matt, a character of Jewish background, understood and demanded that the show touch on the spirit of Christmas. Faced with a stunning array of agnosticism and atheism, Matt managed to hit at the heart of the matter. Danny understood what he was going for, and together they put together an amazing piece of nostalgic sentiment. I challenge anyone to listen to “O Holy Night” in the final act and not feel a genuine tug at the heartstrings.
There will be, as always, a bit of backlash at the constant barrage of “anti-Christian” items mentioned by the writing staff. In this case, I thought Sorkin managed to pull off an impressive balancing act. All of those criticisms have a measure of merit, and for some, they could add up to a reason to dismiss Christmas and everything traditional about it. Matt, however, gets it. It’s not about the facts and the figures; it’s about the meaning and the promise. One doesn’t have to be Christian to “get” Christmas.
Had the entire episode been the struggle to put on a great Christmas episode, it wouldn’t have worked. I say this despite the “To Catch a Predator” sketch, which was the first time I genuinely laughed at loud at one of the comedy bits. It was the array of flawed characters swarming around this common goal. It was the writing staff and their quibbles. It was Carl trying to overcome the silliest of obstacles to make fake snow. It was Matt struggling with his jealousy and undermining everything about his Christmas spirit by planting seeds of doubt in Harriet at an important time in her career. It was Jack coming at a difficult personal crossroads between compromising for success and standing up for the right thing. And finally, most importantly, it was about Danny and Jordan.
I took a lot of heat for disliking the manner in which Amanda Peet’s pregnancy was incorporated into the story. I stand by what I said; in fact, many of the same problems carry into this episode. Jordan is still a walking cliché with the compulsive eating. But I’ve also said that the writers are getting me to love Jordan, and so it’s no surprise at all to see Danny falling quickly and completely under her spell. Everything about his character points right in this direction, and I’m glad they bit the bullet and made it work.
And it works because it’s not easy. On the one hand, it’s deeply romantic. On the other, it’s deeply disturbing. Danny calls himself the “executive producer” in the teaser, and that really does define him. Once he realized where his heart was going, he had to follow it. His history suggests it’s not the first time, and it may not be the last. But he can’t let it linger, because unlike Matt, he doesn’t gain strength from the struggle and the angst.
Danny’s declaration has the air of victory. He’s a man desiring a chance at love and responsibility with a woman he deeply respects. But taken a slightly different way, it’s incredibly unnerving. How exactly will Jordan react to his words? If she has interest, it could go very well. If not, he’s just stepped into potential stalker territory. This episode gave us no opportunity to hear from Jordan on the issue, and so the uneasy question will remain, at least for a little while.
And so what could have been an exercise in sappy nostalgia becomes a far more complicated tale, a look at several characters at a crossroads. It’s no mistake that this episode comes at the mid-point of the season. That’s traditionally when the biggest turns take place, when events driving the rest of the season are set in motion. This episode manages to transcend that function. When we look back at what “Studio 60” had to offer, this episode will stand as one of the most potent examples.