Baseball Toaster Screen Jam
2006-09-20 10:16
by Jon Weisman

Hello, Crime-Stoppers!

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was more than a little self-aware about its ambitions, with its implicit and explicit references to Paddy Chayevsky's Network during Monday's premiere.

Unfortunately, beyond advocating that we all should do our best to rise above banality - which is like me telling my almost-4-year-old to be good - the show barely had anything constructive to offer. Mostly, what I was left with was to watch actors that I generally like, performing at a level I generally respect, playing characters I generally had little reason to care about.

We have nothing to fear but fear itself - fear being defined as a life bereft of pointed late-night sketch comedy.

Steven Bochco's underrated 2005 series Over There depicted soldiers at war, and whether or not you agreed with the mission, they had profound individual struggles you could empathize with. Studio 60 launched a mission that you'd have to be a misanthrope not to support, fought mostly by soldiers whose fates will not cause you a moment's worry one way or another. Studio 60 glorifies the battle and the battlefield, but the heroes are for the most part mercenaries.

You don't need to sell me on the worth of producing good television, but what evidence do we have from the pilot that Matt Albie (Matthew Perry), Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) and Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) are the ones to do it? We keep being told that Matt and Danny have written a hilarious (if potentially offensive) four-minute late-night comedy sketch, and that Jordan is intrigued by it. We're told that it's so great, Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson) wants it to air even if she's offended by it.

And yet, showrunner Aaron Sorkin and friends don't even have the courage to show us a hint of the sketch in the pilot - and by that I don't mean that they're afraid of offending, but rather that they are either afraid that the sketch won't live up to its billing, or that they need to hold it back as a carrot for the viewers.

At no moment in its pilot does Studio 60 present any actual evidence that these folks are as good as they say they are. It's all hearsay, all unimpeached testimony. Meanwhile, in their world, ambitious, cutthroat, love-'em-or-hate-'em shows like The Daily Show don't exist. Except for Matt and Danny, it's all bad, nothing good.

Down the road, if our heroes prove they aren't hacks, I guess that's great. But for now, I've got nothing but this: a conscious (bordering on shameless) Network ripoff, debates over television standards and practices that numerous shows like The Larry Sanders Show and Sorkin's own Sports Night fully - and I mean fully - explored half a decade or more ago, a lot of tough talk, solid acting and high production values. Yes, I'll take Studio 60 over The Apprentice and thank it for challenging us to do better, for challenging us to think. But what it didn't offer was anything close to what it was calling for: a meaningful use of the medium.

I remember finising every episode of Sports Night and wishing for a half-hour more. After 60 minutes of Studio 60, I wished for a half-hour less.

Maybe the show will find itself moving forward. The best parts of Studio 60 showed characters wrestling with their own values: Harriet trying to live a religious life in a sectarian world, Cal (Timothy Busfield) struggling to be simulatenously loyal to great television and to the welfare of his career and family. These are the moments that give one hope - when someone doesn't have all the answers.

But the apparent leads on the ensemble - Jordan, Danny and Matt - they don't wrestle. Oh, Danny has a cocaine problem, Jordan's a young woman in the boys' club and Matt is, I don't know, real jangly, but there's no confusion about how they should act. So who cares? Not me, not until you show me that they are heroes instead of just insisting that they are.

The sooner Studio 60 complicates its mission - the sooner that it can use its setting to explore more universal conflicts within ourselves - the sooner it can flourish. We'll take it on faith that television should be good. Now, show us that it can be.

2006-09-20 13:19:04
1.   Andrew Shimmin
Any truth to the rumor that Xeifrank was brought in as a script doctor on this one?
2006-09-21 01:52:16
2.   Andrew Shimmin
So I've watched it, now, by way of Which is very neat, if not altogether technically sound, yet. The first clip is herky-jerky; so, it's more popular than was expected, maybe? It's the middle of the night in all the places you'd expect there to be much interest. Anyway. Tivo for poor people. Hooray!

I've never seen Network, or Sports Night, or the Larry Sanders show, so I don't know enough to be bothered by its derivativeness. I agree that there's not any much sustaining interest yet, but I remember the West Wing's pilot not being great. If it doesn't go somewhere in the next two episodes, I'll cut it loose, but I liked the Sorkin West Wing years enough to give it another chance.

The skit better be funny.

2006-09-21 12:36:59
3.   CanuckDodger
If it wasn't necessary for us to see Norm Peterson's wife on Cheers, or Niles Crane's wife on Frasier, or Karen Walker's husband on Will & Grace, we don't need to see the much-talked-about skit on the pilot of Studio 60. The skit itself isn't important; it's what it represents that is key. A network suit censored the skit because the play-it-safe bureaucrat would rather bore the audience than risk provoking any kind of meaningful emotional reaction from viewers if there is the slightest chance that the reaction might be negatiive. Jon, like anybody else, is absolutely entitled to determine what ground he wants to see a TV series cover, but I think he is not as interested as I am in what ground Studio 60 IS covering.
2006-09-21 13:38:44
4.   Jon Weisman
I don't think that analogy tracks. Norm's wife wasn't central to what Cheers was about. You learned that Norm had fundamental strengths and weaknesses from his very first scene. Basically, same with the other names you mentioned.

In contrast, for example, it's pretty relevant to know how offensive the skit was, to know the ratio of its value to its offensiveness. We are led to believe that, unlike Norm, the skit is flawless - that its potential offensiveness is ultimately irrelevant. While this may be true, that doesn't make for interesting television. Yes, you can have the debate without seeing the skit, but then it's just the same old debate we've always had, without nuance.

I find the skit's absence to be the opposite of thought-provoking, the opposite of what Studio 60 advocates, in that Sorkin doesn't give his viewers the chance to use their mental faculties to evaluate the skit for themselves. Sorkin dictates what we're supposed to think. There is no way for a viewer to come away from the first episode thinking that the skit should not have aired. The only people standing against the skit are characters we are clearly meant to deride.

As a result, the skit's absence was a play-it-safe decision and did not allow me a meaningful emotional reaction to the debate. (I think that qualifies as ironic.) I expect to see the skit in a future episode - if it isn't there, funny or not, I'd be even more surprised and disappointed.

Having said that, we can certainly disagree about what we want Studio 60 to cover. Further, I think if it wants to cover the battle for good television vs. bad, that has the potential to be interesting. But in the first episode - I don't think Studio 60 broke much new ground. Knowing full well that pilots are often mostly setup, I am curious to see what happens next.

2006-09-22 11:38:39
5.   dzzrtRatt
I will forever resent Studio 60. My curiousity about it caused me to switch away from the Dodger/Padre game, and thus miss three of the four consecutive home runs. And for what? A show in which Aaron Sorkin, again, strives to have his cake and eat it too, establishing conflict between characters who always come down to Aaron Sorkin v. the People Aaron Sorking Doesn't Think are Worthy. Or worse, Aaron Sorkin v. Aaron Sorkin, in which case, they're both right! In this show, Aaron Sorkin is at least four characters: Amanda Peet, Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitfield, and Judd Hirsch. Oh how oh how will this turn out?

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