Baseball Toaster Screen Jam
And ... Crash
2006-09-26 20:56
by Jon Weisman

For a while, it looked promising. Episode 2 of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip got off its high horse and got down and dirty, with people acting like real indviduals of various functionality instead of self-righteous missionaries. There were some flat moments, but they were effulgently countered by some genuinely rousing ones, and somewhat to my surprise, I can see as clear as day an Emmy nomination drifting toward one Matthew Perry.

And then it came. The show within the show began. The cold open that was to end all cold opens, the one that we are told kicked off the rockinest dress rehearsal ever. And what we find is flattest piece of junk since, well, the last episode of Saturday Night Live you saw.

I admired the spirit behind the idea to parody "The Major General's Song" from The Pirates of Penzance, the idea to try to go high-class to win back the faith of an audience in purgatory. But the parody was awful, just awful. A couple of cheap jokes in three minutes of colorless singing, singing that was neither good nor amusingly bad.

And although the idea was portrayed as a bolt of inspired lightning, I can't help thinking that it's exactly what Saturday Night Live would have done - and has done, over and over again, sometimes well, sometimes not.

At the end of the number, Danny (Bradley Whitford) is happy. Matt (Perry) is concerned - but only because he has to start writing the next show right away. As far as the cold opening goes, they couldn't be more satisfied.

Meanwhile, on any realistic level, 90 percent of the NBS Studio 60 critics and audiences spent the aftermath inventing new synonyms for failure to describe Matt and Danny's return to the show.

A great follow to this episode would be for that reaction to come out - for Danny and Matt's initial instincts to be proven wrong and for them to deal with the ramifications of that. It would make their eventual redemption that much more hard-fought and earned.

But I don't see that coming. Studio 60 showrunner Aaron Sorkin seems to believe his team has reinvented the wheel, when it has actually been run over by it.

Perry and Whitford will keep me watching into Week Three, but NBC's Studio 60 has problems. Perhaps the most serious is its ongoing insistence that Harriet (Sarah Paulson) is this generation's Gilda Radner, Jan Hooks or who have you. Harriet's religious faith is supposed to be a counterpoint to her intrinsic hilarity, but the woman couldn't be more white-bread as a comedienne. Matt tries to tell us that she has many fans, but few who understand her true greatness, and maybe that's supposed to buy us time to appeciate her. In the meantime, she's never funny, and her ensemble-leading performance in the cold open was without any charisma of any kind. I can see Harriet perhaps filling the Jane Curtin mold, which would be dandy enough, but unlike Curtin, it would be the writers completely carrying her.

Deconstruct Studio 60, and you have yourself the tragedy of the decline of Saturday Night Live. You have a show that wants to be great, yearns to be great, bleeds to be great, but just doesn't know how.

2006-09-26 21:46:39
1.   Mark T.R. Donohue
I couldn't have put it any better myself. In fact, I was logging in to write the exact same thing. And we still haven't seen "Crazy Christians."

"Cold Open" featured a lot more deliberately stagey "punchlines" in its dialogue than the pilot. Some were good (I like D.L. Hughley a lot), some weren't (the whole Perry/Paulson on-set argument was Ross-Rachel boring). As a drama I am still buying it but ultimately, how can you have a show be about the best comedy writers in the business and have it not be at all funny? How did this happen? "Sports Night" was funny, wasn't it? I seem to remember it being funny.

2006-09-26 21:48:09
2.   Jon Weisman
I was going to make that comment about Sports Night. It was funny - Danny and Matt should be adding Casey McCall and Dan Rydell to their writing staff at this point.
2006-09-26 23:44:26
3.   GoBears
Interesting review, Jon. I wasn't nearly as turned off by the opening of the show within a show, because I don't think it matters. The production value was low, because we're supposed to be looking at it from the POV of either Danny or Matt or a single camera, right? It's almost background - the thing that's happening on stage while we concern ourselves with Matt and Danny. I think the point was merely that they got something done, and that it sent the message they wanted. Perhaps it was a mistake to show it at all (just like I don't expect ever to see the Crazy Christians sketch - it's built up too much to deliver.)

I think the point is that these are funny people (which we'll mostly have to take for granted) whose daily lives are anything but funny. Just like they rarely showed much of the Barlett speeches that his WW staff agonized over, I don't think the play is the thing.

But I do agree with you that Paulson is horribly miscast. There's no way I believe that she's capable of funny. I'm also not sold on Amanda Peet as a network president. Not just too young, but even when she's getting tough, she seems to be playing at it.
Maybe she'll grow into it, but right now, I think it's a little beyond her depth. Nice to look at, all the same.

2006-09-27 01:15:43
4.   GoBears
Hmm. I just rewatched the end of the episode, with the "Model of" number. I was too generous. It does seem like Sorkin et al. were hoping that we'd really love it.

On second thought, maybe the mistake was that they tipped their pitch. The brainstorming session that led to this bit was too complete. We knew exactly what was coming. It would have been funnier had it been more unexpected.

But I maintain that they did such a poor job on production values (orchestra too lound to hear the lyrics clearly, minimalist choreography) that they must have done it on purpose. But what purpose? To have us believe that patching together stuff on this sort of show really is hard? As Jon suggested, it's not clear if there will be a blowback.

2006-09-27 08:52:56
5.   Benaiah
I thought the same thing, but figured, "oh well? I hate Musical numbers anyway." I agree that it obviously was supposed to be funny, but there weren't even any jokes (besides that reach around joke where the opera said something different than the cast, which wasn't funny at all). By far the best part of the show so far is Danny and Matt though, good enough to make up for a lot of the other people not being that good. Still, the show was interesting throughout, and I think that given enough time it might become more than that.
2006-09-27 09:09:06
6.   grandcosmo
Why dress up the cast as a gospel choir when you are doing a Gilbert & Sullivan number?

One problem is that Sorkin has set up the Danny and Matt characters as these great comedy minds so now he has to demonstrate their comedy greatness in the show-within-the-show. Based on the second episode either they aren't great comedy minds or he isn't.

2006-09-27 09:36:32
7.   Mark T.R. Donohue
During the scene where they were writing the big musical number, you definitely got a picture of what it was going to look like, with ruffles and collars and those hysterical gigantic tassled British navy hats...and then there were just kind of a bunch of people in white. What happened to my tassels?

Besides, it wasn't just that the jokes in the song were bad. We had to listen to them all three or four times since the cast would first sing them and then the choir would repeat them. If it had been just kind of neutrally unfunny, I could have accepted it, but the skit was actually aggressively Tom Green or something. Somewhere along the line here they must make me laugh.

2006-09-27 09:55:39
8.   Jon Weisman
The musical number was also vintage Sorkin in its words-per-second rate. Which doesn't really bother me as far as watching West Wing or NBC Studio 60, but I have to think that for the teenagers who watch NBS Studio 60, they're not going to be so riveted to pay attention.

My assumption is that the target audience for NBS Studio 60 is the crowd that now watches the Daily Show, but the problem is that they've been losing those viewers and left with the people who only like things like Peripheral Vision Man.

2006-09-27 10:17:40
9.   Mark T.R. Donohue
If you froze your TiVo on the board in Matt's office with the names of the sketches to be shown during that first show, you could see a lot of intriguing ideas. It makes you wonder: is the show always going to be a tease? Obviously Sorkin and his writers have good ideas, but their ultimate agenda is to the drama and the politics, not to the comedy show-within-the-show. It's seriously hard work writing good comedy. That's the whole point of "Studio 60." So you can understand why Sorkin wouldn't want to spend hugely disproportionate amounts of time writing sketches of which only minute-or-less fragments will ever be seen. But still, as you can tell from some of the titles and pitches, somewhere in the aether the funny stuff exists, deep in the untrodden recesses of Aaron Sorkin's brain. I don't know if I can bear always being let down by the suggestion of something great and the delivery of something "Mad TV" would reject.
2006-09-27 10:36:24
10.   Jon Weisman
"I don't know if I can bear always being let down by the suggestion of something great and the delivery of something "Mad TV" would reject. "

I can't. There has to be some validation of their efforts. Again, look to Sports Night.

It was one thing for us to never see any of Ray Romano's sportswriting, but his credibility as a sportswriter was not central to his show.

2006-09-27 11:13:01
11.   grandcosmo
My big issue with the show is the continuation of the Aaron Sorkin "stacked-deck" school of drama.

Instead of having real drama and conflict what it looks like we will be getting are characters who think/know that they are smarter and better than everyone else but still have to deal with the problems caused by the rubes,losers and little people out there in flyover country.

2006-09-27 12:25:39
12.   JJoeScott
...(Harriet) couldn't be more white-bread as a comedienne.

I more than concur with you: The Harriet character strikes me as the most problematic element of the show.

I can see your point where maybe she's modled after a Jane Curtin type, especially after having read some of the SNL history books. Not that it makes for an interesting TV character, especially in comparison to what the others were, uh, "doing" backstage.

But at this point, I can't tell if it's the writing or the talent (Ms. Paulson) ... maybe if we saw her in a "sketch" it would help. Imagine, if you will, had they casted Nicole Sullivan as Harriet -- she just has a way of bringing the funny yet seeming vulnerable at the same time (better on "Scrubs" than other shows). Someone like her, anyway ...

As an aside, the Mon. night show I'm hooked on is "How I Met My Mother." At first it was just the quirkiness of Barney, but the show has really grabbed me ... and if Cobie Smulders would like to grab me, that would be ok, too.

2006-09-27 12:33:08
13.   Jon Weisman
The thing is - and I loved Jane Curtin - but Jane Curtin never carried the show. In contrast, they're trying to sell us Harriet as the lead of the ensemble.
2006-09-27 14:15:47
14.   Bob Timmermann
I winced every time Amanda Peet was on the show. I think her character is the worst of all. However, Steven Weber is good.
2006-09-27 14:24:28
15.   aloofman
I agree that I liked the second episode much better than the pilot, and that I was underwhelmed by the show's cold open. I thought Peet's and Hughley's characters had more to work with this time. (Since I like both actors, maybe it's wishful thinking on my part.) And I agree that Paulson is totally wrong for this part. I could almost see her as the other role: her co-star who's Matt's friend-with-benefits. But not as a comedienne.

Underlying all of this, I'm still torn. Is Sorkin really this tone-deaf about what would make a live comedy show succeed? Or is this a scheme to satirize the genre on an even sneakier, more subtle level? If Sorkin really believes in this preachiness, then he's going to lose me before the season is over. After WW, I really want to keep liking it.

2006-09-27 14:25:56
16.   aloofman
14 - I agree. I've always thought Weber did the wise-ass jerk really well.
2006-09-27 14:41:34
17.   Jon Weisman
Weber is good. I don't think Peet is as bad as others think, but her character is a bit too cooly written.
2006-09-27 15:06:41
18.   aloofman
17 - I think that describes it a bit better. It would be really interesting if later we find out how much of a cool facade her character is putting on. But again, maybe that's a little too much faith in Sorkin at this early stage.
2006-09-27 15:53:02
19.   dzzrtRatt
It's Aaron Sorkin's ego and insistence on controlling everything, including the audience's reactions, that is undermining the show. He thinks he can write a sketch funnier than what the writers on SNL have struggled to do consistently for 15 years. I knew I would cringe when I saw their first sketch, and oh man was it lame.

I will give Matthew Perry this kudo however. The little moment where he sat down to write it, he actually looked like he was writing something.

2006-09-27 16:45:09
20.   bryanf
As a faithful reader of Dodger Thoughts and now this blog as well, I can't remember disagreeing with Jon on too many occasions, however I am in love with Studio 60 and found the parody to work just fine in context. I was a huge, huge fan of Sports Night, and I will say that Sorkin's strong points were never the pieces involving the in-front-of-the-camera show, but rather the behind-the-scenes of the show and the character relationships involved. I agree to some degree about Harriet's character, but I have a feeling she will grow on experience is that not all of Sorkin's characters are instantly likable, and I have enjoyed Sarah Paulson in the past.

Anyway, I haven't been this excited about a TV show since Arrested Development went off the air. Both shows make me truly want to fast-forward to the following week to see what happens. While this show is no AD (and no show ever will be - that was the end of really good television as far as I'm concerned), I am already a Studio 60 addict and I hope it only gets better and better.

2006-09-27 16:46:29
21.   bryanf
I also happen to a Gilbert and Sullivan fan, so...
2006-09-27 17:13:16
22.   Andrew Shimmin
Watched it last night. The line about, "If you find any new ways of screwing up, I'll be in my office," was funnier, in WW, when the punch line was, "Or, you know, just set the building on fire," than when the punchline was missing entirely.

There are still parts that I like, the thing about asking for the laugh vs. asking for the butter was excellent (Perry has all the best lines because he's Sorkin's proxy, right?). And ten seconds long. The I Hate Bloggers and Anyone Else Who Claims Any Right to an Opinion About My Work shtick was longer, and dumb. The longer the show goes without being funny, the more time I spend thinking about how unlikely the premise of the conflict is. Is SNL really pulling its punches with Christians? And, anyway, that's why it's not funny? Really? If it started ragging on Christians, would anybody care?

West Wing worked (while it did) because even when the politics were silly, the show was smart and funny enough that it made suspending disbelief the more fun choice. If the skits are going to suck, the non-skit parts of the show better stop sucking.

2006-09-28 17:26:05
23.   underdog
I actually enjoyed the G&S parody at the end more than some of you, though I agree the actual writing, the lyrics, should have been stronger since the show was selling it as brilliant - kind of hard to live up to that.

I'm still enjoying the show but the biggest problem could be nothing less than the premise itself, since it's being carried off in very similar fashion to The West Wing, which is at least about something Very Important, whereas a behind the scenes of a sketch comedy show, no matter how big they play the controversies and the struggles and the "Network"-like beginning in the pilot and all that, it's still.. a show about a show. I feel like it needs to tone down its aspirations a little and focus on the characters and on the struggles of having to be creative on demand.

I didn't really understand why Matthew Perry's character went off on everyone's clothes in the writers meeting, I was hoping his character would be more supportive initially, but I suppose Sorkin was trying to play up the drama - and in fairness there was at least a follow up scene where Perry basically said, "What the hell did I go off about?"

Overall, it's a show I'll keep watching, but with decreasing patience every week.

2006-09-29 00:37:51
24.   Linkmeister
A friend of mine live-blogged Studio 60 here:

I didn't watch, so I have no opinion.

2006-09-29 09:43:06
25.   Howard Fox
great cast, a pace similar to West Wing...I just really don't care about the inner workings and behind the scenes of a tv studio...and friends of mine expressed the same feelings...I don't see this show succeeding...
2006-09-29 13:20:59
26.   subclub
I just realized why I hated the G&S cold open sketch so much. Aaron Sorkin apparently hired Mark McKinney (aka the not-funny Kid in the Hall) to write the sketches for Studio 60. Which means we should expect a lot more lackluster comedy.
2006-09-29 13:40:30
27.   Jon Weisman
I loved Kids in the Hall, so I was very torn by that revelation - although Mark didn't work out well during his brief time at SNL.
2006-10-02 23:39:20
28.   subclub

I love KITH as well, but (to put it mildly) I think McKinney was never up to par with the rest of the group. Anyway, I think the comedy in tonight's episode was much better than last week's.

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