Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Pilot Watch: Studio 60 vs. 30 Rock

Can two TV shows set backstage at a faltering live sketch comedy series co-exist on the same network without driving each other crazy? Maybe, yeah. Having watched both "30 Rock" and "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," I could see both working -- assuming either can overcome the public's usual apathy to behind-the-scenes in Hollywood shows. (People in the entertainment industry always think the public is much more fascinated with the inner workings of the entertainment industry than we actually are.)

The usual caveat: these are not reviews. Many, many things about these shows will change, from music to casting to deleted and added scenes. These are just early impressions, keeping in mind that I've seen many shows get better or worse between now and when the final version debuts in the fall. More after the jump...

"30 Rock"
Who's In It: Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Alec Baldwin, Rachel Dratch
What It's About: Tina Fey plays the Tina Fey-esque head writer of a "Saturday Night Live"-esque live sketch comedy show, where she has to deal with the neuroses of leading lady Dratch, the craziness of new castmember Morgan and the unhelpful suggestions from new boss Baldwin.
Pluses: When you get Fey away from the institutionalized weekly grind of the real "SNL," she can be a very sharp writer (see also "Mean Girls"), and she has intimate knowledge of the world she's satirizing. I get to have Baldwin being funny on my TV every week. Morgan does a pretty good impression of Kit Ramsey from "Bowfinger."
Minuses: The comedy is hit-and-miss, though the hits (Morgan takes Fey to a Bronx strip club) are worth sitting through the misses. Fey hasn't quite figured out how best to exploit Baldwin's gift for being impossibly handsome and weird at the same time, though there are hints she's on her way. With the show and Fey so closely tied to "SNL" (I think Fey's even staying as Weekend Update anchor), will she wind up pulling her punches to avoid offending Lorne or anyone else?

"Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip"
Who's In It: Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, Amanda Peet, Sarah Paulson, D.L. Hughley, Tim Busfield, Steven Weber, Evan Handler and a cast of thousands
What It's About: When a thinly-disguised version of Lorne Michaels has an on-air meltdown during the live telecast of a thinly-disguised "SNL," thinly-disguised versions of Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme are brought in to save the show.
Pluses: It's Sorkin and Schlamme, so you know it's going to look and sound great. The meltdown sequence is riveting, even if it's cribbed from "Network" (which the script almost gleefully cops to). As the new head of the network who has to fix this mess, Amanda Peet finally gets to display the star quality everyone's claimed she had for years. (Either that, or she just looks amazing in an Audrey Hepburn-esque get-up for the entire episode.)
Minuses: This is one of those cases where it's hard for me to separate my knowledge of the people involved from the work itself. Perry and Whitford are so clearly playing mix-and-match aspects of Aaron and Tommy, just as Peet is Jamie Tarses, Paulson is Kristin Chenoweth, etc., that the Mary Sue-ishness of it makes me uncomfortable. (On the plus side, the Maureen Dowd character from the pilot has had virtually all her lines cut, and for all I know, she's no longer a national newspaper columnist who used to date Aaron, but just some woman out on a date with the Whitford character.) When Judd Hirsch (as "Lorne") delivers his rant about the evils of television, Marian turned to me and said, "Boy, Aaron really had a lot to say after his time away, huh?" For a show about a classic sketch comedy series, there aren't a lot of laughs. There's also a smugness to it; I think Aaron believes the "I have no reason to trust you and every reason not to." "Why?" "You work in television" exchange that's in all the promos is a lot funnier than it actually is.

The verdict: At the moment, I plan to watch 'em both.

Yes, there are problems with the "Studio 60" pilot, but there were also problems with the original version of the "West Wing" pilot (the scene where Leo meets with Al Caldwell and we learn that not all the Christians in the meeting with Josh and Toby are fire-breathing cartoons was added much later). And Aaron and Tommy are so talented that I'll put up with a lot of trash (most of "West Wing" seasons three and four) to get to the treasure ("Bartlet for America," "Red Haven's On Fire").

And "30 Rock," frankly, made me laugh, and that quality is in precious short supply in primetime these days.


Carrie said...

Great reviews. I also recently saw Studio 60, and I liked it but I didn't love it. My main concerns are that I cannot STAND Sarah Paulson's character (which I think is a fault of the script -- I hated her on the page, too) and that it just isn't funny enough. I know Sorkin loves his repetive humor, but the national anthem running "joke" was painful for me.

Of course, I will still be watching...but I'm interested to see what America thinks. You are spot on with the analysis that Hollywood is much more interested in Hollywood than America has ever been.

Brian said...

I'm confident that Sorkin can fix whatever problems there are with "Studio," but I wonder, when people say it's not funny, is it not funny in the way that a "West Wing" joke would some times fall flat, or is it not funny in the way that it's trying to be an hour-long comedy series and fails? The latter wouldn't make sense, since people claim it's supposed to be a drama.

Also, how the hell do we know what is what with these pilots? When will we know what the finished product will be, besides seeing it?

Alan Sepinwall said...

"When will we know what the finished product will be, besides seeing it?"

That's when you'll know. They can tinker with these puppies practically up until airdate, and when somebody like Sorkin is involved, that's as far as they may push it.

Again, these aren't reviews. These things can change significantly, even with one or two seemingly minor tweaks. To reuse my example from the post, the "West Wing" pilot with and without that Leo/Al Caldwell scene were two radically different animals. In one (without), they're cheap-shotting all Christians; in the other (with), they're only cheap-shotting most Christians. It was the difference between disagreeing with the Republicans and then giving us James Brolin as "Crime -- boy, I don't know."

Carrie said...

Sorry, I should have said "Great first impressions." :)

I can't remember the pilot for The West Wing, but I find it interesting that both TWW and the pilot for Studio 60 both have to do with controversial Christian issues.

Diana said...

You brought up that the characters in Studio 60 seem based on RL people. Isn't Tina Fey's character a 'caricature' of Tiny Fey?

If there's a confusement about Studio 60 being expected to be an hour long comedy (which has never been my understanding), it sounds to me like the marketing folks need to sharpen their pencils...

If they can find them.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Diana, the difference is that Tina Fey has been the head writer at "SNL." Her show is autobiographical. Aaron's is "Wouldn't it be awesome if Tommy and I got to run one of our favorite shows?" Is it drama or is it fanfiction?

And to answer the questions about the funny level, I'll just say that I only laughed once (at something Matthew Perry does), and all but the darkest Sorkin-era "West Wing" episodes made me laugh a lot. In fairness, I read the first draft of the script months ago, but I didn't laugh much even when I read it back then. But I'll grant that having followed this project from such an early stage makes me an atypical viewer.

Oh, and to quote Carrie: "I find it interesting that both TWW and the pilot for Studio 60 both have to do with controversial Christian issues."

Aaron, like most writers, has his own pet themes that he likes to return to time and again: men with distant fathers, writers facing writers' bloc (he used the "Our talent is somewhere in the building" joke almost verbatim in both Sports Night and West Wing), bullying Christian fundamentalists, etc.

Captain said...

There's no question I'm giving Studio 60 a chance, but I'm worried it's going to be too smart for the average TV attention span.

Brian said...

And to answer the questions about the funny level, I'll just say that I only laughed once (at something Matthew Perry does), and all but the darkest Sorkin-era "West Wing" episodes made me laugh a lot."

What about "Sports Night"? When that first started out, did you laugh a lot?

Alan Sepinwall said...

Definitely more than I laughed at the Studio 60 pilot, yes.

Mike said...

Hey Alan,
So far, I give an edge to "30 Rock." It's not trying too hard -- it's just a clever comedy. "Studio 60," I felt, was trying to be something bigger than simply a good TV show, and as a result, fell flat. The relationship between Perry and Whitford saved it, however.

Brian said...


What would you say are the "misses" in the Tina Fey pilot? I had a chance to sneak a peak at it myself and I'm curious to your thoughts on it... by the way, the pilot made ME laugh too.

skippy said...

man, i'm not at all interested in either of these shows, for several reasons.

caveat, i'm also in the industry, tho i haven't read either script or seen either pilot, i did do a west wing w/bradley whitford, and i still don't want to see this show.

the very fact that nbc bought and produced two shows about the same subject illustrates even more than usual the dearth of ideas in television.

the fact they are television shows about television bodes ill.

tina fey is incredibly sexy and very funny on weekend update, but i realized late one sat. nite, she's the head writer of snl, so if there's anybody's feet at whom to lay the rotten shows for this last year, it's her size 5 fives.

i might have given 60 look-see, but the coming attractions are such a blatant rip off of chayevsky, i expect matthew perry to turn to whitford and say "so what you want to do marty?"

at least the addams family and the munsters had the common decency to appear on two different networks.

Daniel said...

I've had several people today tell me that they watched Studio 60 last night and that they "didn't get it" or "couldn't keep up with it". I loved it, but then I loved Sports Night and West Wing.

Sadly, I think the problem with Sorkin's writing is that it's too smart for most people. It's quick and snappy and most people "don't get it" are neither quick nor snappy.

And lastly, let me say that I'm a devout Christian and if some Christians don't like shows like this poking fun at them maybe they need to become the kind of Christians people don't make fun of. You don't hear many jokes about Martin Luther King and his kind of Christianity. It's only those Christians that give Christianity a bad name, like Pat Robertson, that have a problem with jokes about them.

And finally, a couple of quotes from Pat Robertson:

"Many of those people involved with Adolph Hitler were Satanists, many of them were homosexuals--the two things seem to go together."--Pat Robertson, "The 700 Club," 1/21/93

"The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians." -- Pat Robertson, fundraising letter, 1992

Rob1230 said...

I love studio 60 so far. Sorkin is a genius.


Anonymous said...

Studio 60 left me cold but 30 Rock made me laugh. I live nowhere near Hollywood and can tell you no one around here gives a shit about the 'drama' behind a SNL-like show. Because 30 Rock takes a more light-hearted approach, it's a lot more palatable.

Anonymous said...

the show is at times too witty to comprehend especially if uve had a long day. and i hate amanda peets character. she is the president for gods sake. not that she dresses like a high school teacher she behaves like a high schooler herself. o i heard this bcos i slept with that guy o this happened bcos i did that, o can u please help me do this (batting eyelashes) o i dont have friends (puppy dog/feel sorry for me face). cmon stop the trying to sound all coeey and small town and get real.
on a different note, the sixth episode..slightly confusing becasue all of a sudden we are all for war veterans and affirmative action. two different themes in one episode was a bit difficult to digest.