Monday, September 18, 2006

Studio 60: Crusty but benign

I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to be able to take it much more before giving you "Studio 60" spoilers...

"Studio 60" may have had the least secretive pilot of all time. The original script (including the wisely-deleted Maureen Dowd character) was being passed around Hollywood and on the Internet for months, and the final version has been available on Netflix since August. I said a whole lot about the pilot (and a bit about the second episode) in this morning's review column, so I'll just hit a few specific likes and dislikes and then open the floor. We can get into more detailed analysis next week.

The good:
  • Wes' Howard Beale moment, though I can't decide how I feel about the newscasters' uninamously making the reference: is it the obvious, hack-y thing they all would do, or a chance for Aaron to show off the homage to a 30-year-old movie, even though the youth-obsessed business Wes was just trashing might not want to go that old and obscure?
  • Matthew Perry, who's good this week and even better next week. Interesting choice keeping the main characters off screen for half the pilot, but Perry and Whitford play off each other very well.
  • Steven Weber, totally believable as an arrogant prick of a network executive.
  • Tim Busfield, who will also be directing the show in real life on occasion.
  • Tommy Schlamme, who will be directing a lot and is just a master at this point. (Though would it kill the guy to screw in a few more lightbulbs?)
The bad:
  • Amanda Peet, unbelievable and more than a little creepy floating around in that gown and smiling constantly. She's much better next week, but it's not a good start, and the pilot hangs on her a lot more than it does Perry and Whitford.
  • I don't like the Sarah Paulson character at all. She seems to be there for two reasons, neither of them dramatically interesting: to allow Sorkin to work out his break-up issues with Kristin Chenoweth, and to get in his usual shots at the religious right while saying, "See? See? I'm not saying all Christians are horrible, just some of them!" Whatever the reason, she comes off as kinda shrill (even moreso next week) and sort of the "Studio 60" equivalent of Arnie Vinick: a non-Christian's fantasy of what the ideal Christian might be. Difference was, Alan Alda made me believe the fantasy; Paulson doesn't, not yet.
  • The Mary Sue-ishness, though I feel I've beaten that dead horse enough for now.
  • A general sense of smugness, of "We're really too good for television, but we'll do our best to elevate your silly medium."
But that's just me. I love Sorkin and Schlamme's work so much of the time -- and am going to give this show a loooooooong leash because of it -- but this felt more like something from one of their last couple of "West Wing" seasons instead of the first two. What did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

The Whitford/Perry stuff works like gold and is going to be the best thing about the show and the reason to keep watching. I gotta agree about the ex, I just think it might bring the show down a bit cause i found her shrill and grating as well, and not cause she's a Christian (not that there's anything wrong with it).

As for Peet, I'm not a fan, so I will give it time to see how it all works out.

Anonymous said...

I was entertained by the pilot, I can't deny that. However, what dawned on me as the show ended was I was entertained the way I'm entertained on a rollercoaster. The episode was intense and brilliantly paced. It simply didn't allow me time to judge whether the quality was there.

That's great for a pilot, where they simply haven't had the time to establish character, story, etc, but how long can this show go masking quality with intensity?

Anonymous said...

I'm willing to give Amanda Peet more time - it just felt like her character was underexplained. I generally like her, but she needs to bring more energy to be at her best.

I definitely agree that Sarah Paulson's character looks like the weak link so far. Although, actually I have a hard time believing Steven Weber as a hard-ass, too. (Too much time wasted watching Wings in my college years.)

It was kind of an odd show for me because I knew so much about it going in. I really want to see how it works out week to week before I make a final judgement.

Oh, and one possible nitpick: If they just won a Writer's Guild Award for a movie, wouldn't they almost certainly be up for an Oscar as well? Is dealing with that distraction (which is less for a writer, but still...) going to be included with all the other stuff going on?

Anonymous said...

I had three big problems with it.

1) Peet. She just seemed stoned a lot of the time, rather than strong or calculating.

2) The timeline. The WGAs are in late Jan/early Feb; the baseball season runs from April to October (and Harriet singing the national anthem would have had to have been fairly recent for that to be a convincing reason for her and Matt to break up); it's implied, though not stated directly, that this episode is taking place in September.

3) I know there were and are lots of SNL cast members who didn't write, but it seems to me at least one of the "Big Three" must also write some of his or her own material. So the scene with them bitching about the quality of the writing rang a bit false, to me.

Anonymous said...

I found it sort of irritating, much to my surprise. I think one problem is that on Sports Night, I believed that the people loved their jobs, whereas having to work on not even SNL but a crappier version of SNL would drive me to suicide. Also, all the showtime stuff was very (realistically) noisy, which didn't help.

On the other hand, "[The hacky writers] are gonna keep writing that sketch until somebody laughs" says all that needs to be said about SNL.

Anonymous said...

Frankly, I was bored. It was less like a roller coaster and more like a merry-go-round for me. Not a whole lot of dramatic tension or surprises (maybe that's because of all the pre-pilot spoilers), and I can't say I'm terribly interested in any of the characters. Perry and Whitford were good, but they seem less like people and more like vessels to carry Sorkin's dialogue, so while their interaction is entertaining on an intellectual level, it rang hollow emotionally.

All in all, I found it disappointing. But it is only one episode, so hopefully it will get better.

Anonymous said...

As for the Paulson character, it's worth remembering the similar setup at the beginning of "The West Wing," with Bradley Whitford's character bogged down by his ex-girlfriend, Moira Kelly. They realized her character wasn't doing anything for the show and dropped her. The same could happen here if Paulson doesn't work out.

Joel said...

The one question I have: does it take place in 2016? Because at the beginnging, DL Hugley says to the studio audience,"how many of you have been watching the show since it started in 1996?" Then he mentions the show's 20th anniversary. I heard that in the rough-cut pilot and tonight. It seems like an inconsistency, but maybe it *does* take place 10 years from now....

Anonymous said...

I think the Chayefsky references were just Sorkin covering his ass. "I know it's a ripoff, you know it's a ripoff..."

I'm looking forward to seeing Carlos Jacott and Evan Handler. Is that next week?

Peet's smile and Paulson's, er, Paulsonness: Dittoes.

Oh, and Hughley said 1986, not 1996.

Anonymous said...

I thought he said 1996 too. I went back and checked the tape afterwards, because it seemed like it would be a really odd touch to have the show be taking place in 2016 for no real reason.

Anonymous said...

That makes it sound like I'm arguing he did say 1996 - he does say 1986, it's just kinda hard to hear.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Jim, yes, Jacott and Handler show up in the second episode. Originally, they had a few lines of dialogue in the pilot -- and I think I spotted them in the background of a scene in the version I saw back in June -- but their appearance got cut for time.

Filmcricket, next week you'll see at least a couple of the Big Three'ers working with Matt on writing a sketch.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Over on The House Next Door, Todd VanDerWerff points out something else I should have griped about: Wes' rant about the evils of television reads as if Sorkin hasn't really watched any TV since he quit "The West Wing."

K J Gillenwater said...

I watched 15 minutes of the show and was bored silly. I couldn't care less about anything that was happening. It was like I was being whacked over the head with the idea that somehow America (tv shows in particular) are no longer allowed to freely discuss or debate certain political or religious subjects.

That turned me off right away. Oh, poor tvland who can no longer say what we want because of mean old executives who shut down our creativity. Boo-hoo.

I didn't care. I thought most of the characters were shrill, over-the-top, or just blah.

Also, there is something a little bit weird about watching a tv show about a tv show. It just makes you too aware that you are sitting in your living room.

I'm not watching anymore.

Matt said...

If you're looking for him, you can see Handler's distinctive bald head in one of the group shots. The two scenes I miss most from the original pilot script were the one involving Ricky and Ron demonstrating their hackitude, and an extended version of the scene between the "Big Three" in which Tom is pitching a sketch that's actually funny.

One minor change that bugged as well--rather than "Don't do that. OK?," IIRC, Simon's line to the annoying wannabe was scripted as a steely "Do exactly as she says." I liked the earlier version because it showed a different side of the Simon character.

Anonymous said...

As long as Sorkin's on board I'm sticking around.

The Paulson character has too much potential to be dismissed at this point. I'm reminded of the stories of Jane Curtain during the wild days of SNL (though she was accused of being more straightlaced than religious conservative).
She's upset about not being cast in the "Crazy Christians" sketch but seems offended when recalling it's name for Perry.
I love conflicted characters and certainly there aren't many roles written for women with such conflict. The only problem with that scene is she immediately resorts to violence when Perry compares Pat Robertson's people to The Klan, which almost proves his point.

And I do feel ALL the network newscasts would harp on the Howard Beale similarities in exactly that way.
Though by scripting like this Sorkin might be saying - YES, I'm well aware the ground in which I tread.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the show a lot, though I think that's the angry lefty with no tolerance for the religious right in my talking.

I remember reading the script and thinking Peet and Paulsen should have switched roles, and this was even more highlighted, because Paulsen's character came off as shrill and condescending, even when talking about the 700 Club viewers. Peet would have made that line work; Paulsen can't or was misdirected. And the way she says "Crazy Christians" like she's martyring herself for Matt's genius. If this is Sorkin's idea of a "nice" Christian, then call me Freud!

And I'm a big Steven Weber fan, but regardless of that, I liked his mean network boss more than I liked McDeere. He seemed more confident and interesting, and everything Peet wasn't.

But the bond between Danny and Matt is what kept me interested. No matter how arrogant or stuck up you could argue Sorkin and Schlamme are with their Mary Sue toy, there's still something there.

Alan Sepinwall said...

For what it's worth, "Studio 60" opened to decent but not great numbers: an average of 13.4 million viewers, second in the timeslot to "CSI: Miami." Two obvious concerns for NBC (which ripped up its entire schedule to accomodate this one show):

1)It lost more than 3.5 million viewers from the end of "Deal or No Deal" (an incompatible but nevertheless huge lead-in);

2)It lost about 2.5 million viewers from its first half-hour to its second, which is usually a trouble sign for networks, because it means a good chunk of the people who tuned in didn't like what they saw.

It's not in danger anytime soon, but it's not exactly disproving the theory that viewers don't care about the inner workings of the entertainment industry nearly as much as people in the entertainment industry think they do. If this didn't have Sorkin's name attached, I don't know that it does half this number.

Matt said...

One thing that might have triggered early tuneout is people getting fed up waiting for Perry's first appearance. He's top-billed and doesn't show up until we're a good 20-22 minutes into the pilot. Two demographics will be the make or break on the show:

1. Wealth numbers. Part of what made West Wing commercially successful is that it drew wealthy viewers in unusually high numbers, who are notoriously difficult to reach.
2. Racial breakdown. D.L. Hughley is a HUGE star in the "urban" community. "The Hughleys" was a top 10 show in the African-American households throughout its run. If the show can draw in a significant African-American audience, that'll be a plus in targeted advertising.

Anonymous said...

This is already so much better than anything else on network TV right now. HBO, FX and Showtime have owned quality during the past few years, so it's good to see NBC say screw it and bring the Aaron and Tommy back. I'm discouraged by the early #s, but hopefully we get a shot to enjoy more than a year ...

Anonymous said...

I spent a lot of the hour wishing I were watching the Tina Fey show, instead. While it had the burden of exposition - pilot, duh - it's a show ostensibly about people who work in comedy. And other than the odd tossaway line, I got none of that. There was this moment at the end of the Sports Night pilot where Sorkin realized the communal, uplifting nature of sport. After Hirsch's intro tirade, I was hoping for scathing and funny; what I got was the promise a four-year-old sketch would air (offscreen, to us)?

It's an okay little show. It moves. But when you open with grand statements about how classless and awful television is (then follow up with masturbation jokes, etc.) you can't sit around for sixty minutes being proud of yourself for saying it. You sort of have to deliver something astounding. Or at least get someone to schtupp your sister.

thekeez said...

The problem with the Christian character is she's so insecure about her faith which weakens the character. It was obvious in the scene with the drunken cast member who asked her if her prayer for the show didn't work.

Despite the agressive, insulting manner from the guy, for an unbeliever, that's a fair question. She then attacked him on his performance in the show - sidestepping an interesting point.

A solid, secure believer would have just said something like, "How do you know my prayer didn't work when you don't know what I prayed for?" and just walked away, smiling mysteriously.

She's way too touchy and insecure to be a serious foil to the strong, anti-believing outlook of the rest of the characters. And that's not good for character conflict.

But that's a quibble. I enjoyed the show - classic Sorkin. I also agree that if there was audience fall-off it may have been due to the "I thought Josh and Chandler were supposed to be in this show..." dynamic...thekeez

Anonymous said...

I think it's such a shame Sarah Paulson is in the role of Harriet. She's an amazing actress. (I keep flashing back to her switch from sweet to awesomely wicked as Ms. Isringhausen on Deadwood; even Al admired her), and instead she's so watered down here. Beyond the obvious character issues, she's choosing a speaking voice that seems like a reference ro Kristin Chenowith too... too sweet and high for the ass-kicking I know she's capable of. I don't want them to lose Sarah Paulson, but I do want to lose Harriet. Maybe like Mindy Kahling's Kelly on The Office, she can just sort of get a new personality one day?

Also, it seems really dangerous to me to have a show about comedy show without proving that the show itself can be funny. It's easy to tell us SNL sucks and much harder to convince us that Sorkin knows how to be funnier in that format.

And although it's hard to for me to see Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford as anyone other than who they are at this point, I want to... I see the makings of another great Dan and Casey.