Monday, September 25, 2006

Studio 60: Is that all there is?

"Studio 60" episode two spoilers, just as soon as I figure out what "intellectual reach-around" means...

Oh, Sorkin, you keep getting me and you keep losing me.

You had me when Amanda Peet stopped trying to act with her smile alone and made me actually believe that Jordan could exist ("Clear it" was a nice line); then you lost me in her meeting about the network affiliates, where she got about 17 different things wrong about the TV business. (Notably the idea that she's bullet-proof on Friday nights because the movie studios need to advertise their product. Hey, Jordan; by 11:30 on a Friday night, the battle for who's going to win that weekend's box office is all but over, which is why Thursdays in primetime is when the heavy movie ad dollars are spent.)

You had me when you gave Matthew Perry more to do and he proved up to the challenge. Could he be any more of a leading man? (Sorry. Must... resist... Chandler!) He could do goofy (his belief in the doomsday clock's sentience), hostile (dressing down the badly-dressed writing staff, threatening to bench Harriet), inspired (dreaming up the cold open), etc. He's really showing all the colors. Then you lost me by making Harriet so shrill and annoying. Hey, I get that you're trying to have the last word in that particular relationship, but let it go already.

Speaking of not letting things go, you lost me when you had to dredge up your Television Without Pity fiasco again, after already looking so lame on the subject in "The U.S. Poet Laureate." I'll have you know that I'm not writing this in my pajamas -- though my t-shirt does have a hole in the armpit. So there.

You also lost me with the prayer circle. WTF? IM,WTFF? I totally believe this is something Harriet would want to do, and maybe one or two other people in the cast, but everyone? The way it was presented, this is A)a long-standing tradition, and B)something where the lead prayer job gets rotated. Just not buying it, not even as something the others do to appease Harriet, since she hasn't been written so far as someone who forces her faith on others. The first episode established that she was "the religious one," and showbiz in general tends to be one of the most agnostic professions I know of. The whole scene felt like a very forced attempt by Sorkin to show that, in spite of all the anti-Christian jabs of the last two hours, he doesn't hate all Christians. Don't you see? They prayed together! Did you see that? Are you looking?

But the big You Lost Me moment comes right at the end, when Matt's big sketch, the idea he's been fretting about for the whole episode, the one that's supposed to signal the beginning of a creative renaissance at "Studio 60," the one that the whole Eureka! scene with the tight close-ups and soaring music wanted us to believe is just brilliant... well, it sucked.

Okay, maybe it didn't suck. It was kind of clever, in a college drama revue night sort of way. But as the saving grace of a big-budget, allegedly cutting-edge sketch comedy TV show? No. Not at all. Not even when they dress it up with the orchestra and the opera singers. It's not something I would be stunned to see on the real "SNL," but that's the whole point; if the real "SNL" did it, I would shrug and wonder when they were going to get to the new Digital Short.

(And speaking of the real "SNL," I understand Aaron not wanting to offend the people there too much, hence the acknowledgment that that show co-exists with "Studio 60" in this universe, but all that does is make "Studio 60" seem like a pale imitation. That whole bit where Matt and Danny rattle off Wes' credentials and suggest they'd rather be sitting in Lorne Michaels' chair? Huh? Wha? Wes isn't some visionary; he's the guy who ripped of "SNL" and called it "Fridays," only it's still on the air 20 years later.)

On top of everything else, after making such a big deal about how Matt and Harriet's relationship fell apart while she was promoting her record, we actually hear her sing and she's not very good. I mean, Sarah Paulson's voice is better than mine, but would need a whole lotta Studio Magic to sound good on a CD. And given how much the show tries to sell us on the characters' creative integrity, I don't believe she's the sort of person who would enter a branch of the entertainment industry for which she wasn't qualified.

Because this show is about the creative process -- much moreso than "Sports Night," or "The West Wing" (where we only ever heard snippets of the speeches Sam and Toby wrote) -- we have to on some level believe in the characters' talent, believe that Matt and Danny are making the show better, and if this is the best Aaron (not a trained sketch comedy writer) can do, that's going to be an uphill fight. (Wisely, he declined to show us any of "Crazy Christians," which couldn't remotely live up to the hype it got in the pilot. So much for all of Jordan's talk about how they should open the show with it.) He keeps telling us one thing is going on when we can clearly see it's something else, and unless he can import people capable of writing a great sketch (or, in the case of Mark McKinney, who's on the writing staff but treated like a researcher, let them write for him), I don't see this big fat problem going away.

And then, just as I was ready to write the show off altogether, we get that shot of Matt realizing that the doomsday clock has started again, and he had me again -- at least for another week. But my faith in the power of Sorkin is really being tried here.

What did everybody else think? And was I the only one weirded out by a Lou Grant reference one week after Ed Asner played the head of NBS' parent company?


Alan Sepinwall said...

Oh, and as my friend Phil pointed out, I love how Sorkin keeps insisting the show stopped being autobiographical after page 4 of the pilot, yet the project that Matt and Danny have put aside to do Studio 60 is a biopic of Nikola Tessla -- when Aaron and Tommy have put aside a Philo T. Farnsworth biopic to do Studio 60. (I think Aaron's producing it as a play instead.)

David J. Loehr said...

Yes, it was going to be a play, then got cancelled, and is apparently back again as a play out west this season (I think at the Old Globe in San Diego). But I don't know if it can top "The Ruby Sunrise," by Rinne Groff, which was a very good recent play about the birth of television and on into the golden age of '50's tv. And I generally like Aaron.

But as a writer, his whole attitude of "no one else can write this" bothers me. I know writers who can mimic, I can mimic other writers, it's part of the territory. Yes, it's dazzling to listen to, but so is good Mamet, so is Stoppard.

And dear God, if you've got Mark McKinney on the staff, just take a look at "Slings and Arrows" and see who wrote all that clever dialogue and inspired plotting. (Apparently, he also has some mild talent at writing actual sketches.)

I enjoy his shows--I've loved the dialogue and the obvious intelligence or ease of faking intelligence ever since the first act of the first "SportsNight"--but I think I'm enjoying this show as much for what's obviously wrong with it.

Heather K said...

Cannot agree more with the loving Matt Perry, and being completely underwhelmed with the big number. It was mildly amusing for like five seconds, and then it was just still going.

Please stop showing me the bad tv show that is supposed to be good or actually make it good. I think I would be okay with never ever seeing it. I think Aaron could keep me with that, but I don't know if he can keep me with sketches that aren't funny.

Anonymous said...

It made me laugh out loud when Bradley Whitford got the Chandler line. You knew it was coming (and now it's over and hopefully won't happen again).

On the prayer circle - I'm definitely a red-state right-wing Christian girl and that just hurt to watch (and not in a good, Office hurt-to-watch kind of way). I love all in the Sorkin 'verse, but his liberal take on having a Christian in the workplace is just crazy over the top...

And I'm with heather k - no need to ever show the show again... It spoils the illusion.

Anonymous said...

Sorkin's style is compelling. His tone and the way the actors carry it off keeps me glued.

However, the Harriett character will be the Moira Kelly character of 60 for all the reasons Alan mentioned. She's inconsistent & doesn't have the kind of chemistry with Perry (or anyone else) as Janel Maloney, Kristen Chenoweth or Emily Procter had in WW.

This show's too big to give up on. NBC needs to let it grow. I believe it's one of those shows that will get better & better with time.

Adam said...

My favorite Lorne Michaels quote demonstrated again: "The show doesn't go on the air because it's ready. It goes on because it's 11:30."

The sound mix could've been clearer on the song, but I'm digging it, so far. Good to see Shrug again. But the challenge will be to see if the show can make the things that are supposed to seem funny be funny, a harder challenge than making the West Wing pronouncements seem profound.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, good to see Shrug, but he's the dramatic Shrug, who does little for me.

Also good to see John Ennis as one of the inane writers, maybe some of that good sketch comedy experience will rub off on the real writers.

It looks like the writing room scenes will be wasted with one-dimensional hackiness though. I would much rather see an exploration of that than the cast members, but methinks Sorkin doesn't know much about writing rooms.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a fan of Sorkin's, never have been. The glibness of his writing really turns me off. All his characters talk the same. Every episode has the same relentless, artificial rhythm.

Also, I don't think Sorkin's very funny, which is a real hurdle for me with this particular project. (My God... Gilbert & Sullivan?? "The Simpsons" rocked it with Sideshow Bob, but NO sketch-comedy troupe would EVER conceivably think that a Gilbert & Sullivan parody was "hip." And this one wasn't.)

I saw tonight's ep. at a screening at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in North Hollywood, with a panel discussion following with the cast, Sorkin and Schlamme. The fans ate it all up. Good for them.

Alan hit the nail on the head with his pilot review, in which he said that, while none of us really know how the White House operates behind closed doors, anybody who watches TV knows what a funny sketch is supposed to look like. And that's a problem in buying into this whole story. You have to "pretend" that the show-within-a-show is funny. You have to "pretend" that this cast-within-a-cast is funny. Much, much harder than accepting Martin Sheen as leader of the free world.

During the panel discussion, Bradley Whitford, in a self-described "ass-kissing moment," said that, just as Aaron Sorkin could've been a real-life presidential speechwriter, Sorkin is brilliant enough to be a top-notch sketch-comedy writer if he chose to be. Nuh-uh.

Sorkin himself revealed that we will never see a full-blown comedy sketch performed on "Studio 60"... we'll get just enough of a glimpse of the "comedy" to ground the drama in a credible universe. So I guess this relieves Sorkin of much of the pressure to actually write good comedy (or hire sketch writers for that purpose).

On the other hand, he made the cast-within-a-cast audition like sketch-comedy players, i.e. to bring a few "characters." (Nate Corddry, hilariously, gave attendees a taste of one of his audition "characters": Stephen Hawking, Stand-Up Comic. And apparently in a future ep. we'll see Sarah Paulson do her Juliette Lewis impression in "Meet the Press, with Juliette Lewis.")

Interesting to hear the actors discuss how much of their energy is devoted to the "technical" challenge of rattling off all that intricate dialogue... as opposed to stuff like, you know, characterization. Amanda Peet says she hired an assistant whose entire job is to run lines with her. And when it comes to a particularly wordy scene, Amanda will start drilling three days before the scene shoots.

D.L. Hughly said he'd been worried about whether he had the theatrical chops to bring Sorkin's dialogue to life. Tim Busfield's advice to him: "Just say these words as quickly as you can."

As Shakespeare once said: "Euripides pants, I'm not sewing 'em up." (Now THAT'S comedy.)

Anonymous said...

I found the second episode to be a huge letdown from the first, which I thought was brilliantly written, edited, and acted (with the exception of the Sarah Paulson religious rant).

One thing that I did see as strange was the changing of the theme music in the second episode from the first. Was I the only who saw this? I liked the first episode's much better.

Anonymous said...

Is there an established list of writers for the show anywhere? I'd be interested in seeing it and in knowing if they are going to be more than just staff writers who will work on stories, as seemed to be the case for the first few seasons of "The West Wing."

Anyway, I didn't watch this episode yet, but damn you, Alan, because now you've got me worried. "The West Wing" didn't get everything about politics right, but I felt it got enough right. I hope "Studio 60" turns out to be the same, or better.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I haven't seen an official list anywhere, but Sorkin mentioned McKinney by name at press tour. And in a New York Times profile a couple of weeks ago, he said of the 10-person writing staff, "They prepare memos for me. Ultimately I've got to come into the room and close the door and write a script. That's how it works."

I remember him discussing the "West Wing" writing staff in a similar way, something along the lines of, he would go to one of them and say, "If I was writing a scene about the census, what would that look like?" And they would come back with an outline of how they might write that scene, and he would look at it and then start over from scratch. Basically, they're researchers.

Hey, if you write for Milch or the Palladinos, you're going to get heavily rewritten, but at least you get to contribute a draft or two along the way.

Anonymous said...

Is it me, or does Sorkin have an outdated view of how the religious right tries to muscle Hollywood? They're more influential than they have been in years, but it seems to me that after Married with Children and NYPD Blue, they altered their tactics away from boycotts and focused more on lobbying politicians (and consequently the FCC) and creating their own alternative programming.

I'm not sure that the threat of boycotts resonates, at least in network TV, as the threat of fines.

Anonymous said...

You know what NBC's problem is? It's impossible to watch this show and not think to yourself, "They're right: Saturday Night Live, the actual show, does suck." Because no matter how much they tell us that this is some other show, that's what they mean. And this is in contrast to Sports Night, which always made me want to watch Sports Center.

Also, I'm not sure that even Sorkin is sure what the name of the fictional show is; they referred to "the cast of Studio 60" but the announcer says, I believe, "Live from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, it's Friday Night from Hollywood".

Anonymous said...

This was the last time I'll watch this one; I'd forgotten it was on, frankly, and decided to give it another shot after hanging on from Heroes.

There is a self-importance to this project that's totally uncalled for. It made sense in the White House, it doesn't make sense on a sketch comedy show. The Gilbert & Sullivan musical number? Completely laced with in-jokes about "Studio 60's" workweek. What next, a sketch about a poorly-dressed comedy writing staff?

It needs to be funny, but it takes itself too seriously to do that.

When does that Fey show start?

Anonymous said...

I loved the pilot, but after watching Heroes last night it was really hard to find anything relevant or important about Sudio 60.

Beth M

Anonymous said...

I liked it a lot again, HOWEVER...

Harriet is an intolerant, controlling bitch IMO. No way Matt is still in love with her. Perry is doing a very good job of convincing us of this, but I have a feeling she'll be gone by episode 13, or at least by the time Kristin Chenoweth beats Sorkin to death for caricaturing her like that.

Speaking of stuff that'll be gone by ep 13... uh, why do Jordan and Jack need to be regular characters, anyway? It's not like Studio 60 is the only show on NBS. Don't get me wrong- Weber and Peet are perfectly good (and once again I found myself more interested in Jack than Jordan) but I have a feeling the writers will run out of ideas for them soon.

As for the show taking itself too seriously... oddly, that's what attracts me to the show. It may be horribly overstated, yes, but it's nice to see a little righteous passion injected into TV.

Of course, if they really wanna make me happy, Ronnie will start hallucinating Jorge Garcia, but that's another story.

Anonymous said...

then you lost me in her meeting about the network affiliates, where she got about 17 different things wrong about the TV business. (Notably the idea that she's bullet-proof on Friday nights because the movie studios need to advertise their product. Hey, Jordan; by 11:30 on a Friday night, the battle for who's going to win that weekend's box office is all but over, which is why Thursdays in primetime is when the heavy movie ad dollars are spent.)

That grabbed me too, but I ended up giving it a pass rationalizing that Jordan was being creative with the facts hoping that her higher-ups didn't know the details of their biz well enough to realize she's wrong. Y'know... that game where you play upon the limits of your boss' knowledge about what you actually do.

Is it me, or does Sorkin have an outdated view of how the religious right tries to muscle Hollywood? They're more influential than they have been in years, but it seems to me that after Married with Children and NYPD Blue, they altered their tactics away from boycotts and focused more on lobbying politicians (and consequently the FCC) and creating their own alternative programming.

I thought about The Book of Daniel last year during those scenes. I'd say the boycott tactics (or rather boycott threat tactics) are still used, though they're not as effective as they once were. Advertisers see that this is a small but loud group threatening a boycott, so now they ask themselves if they can draw a larger audience than the one they'd piss off. (Book of Daniel being a Friday night 10PM show in an unpopular genre, had advertisers staying away.)

So, in terms of advertisers, I would have liked to see Jordan point out that, with the expected boost from the publicity, advertisers aren't going to be scared away.

Similarly, I would have liked her see launch an astroturf campaign against the affiliates dropping the show, organizing people to express outrage at the "censorship" making it a damnied if you do, damned if you don't situation for the affiliates.

Unknown said...

Man, you guys sound like jilted lovers, still mad from when Sorkin left/got canned from West Wing. Just because this show isn't immediately the greatest show in the history of television, you guys are all cranky. Relax. Sorkin's smart enough to realize that we don't need to see the show proper, or just bits.

The guy has been away for three years, let the show get some legs under it. Granted, he's got an ego and reputation to live up to, but you can't write a show this good (no matter how flawed) off after only two weeks.

Perry and Whitford are giving you gold every week, and that's only going get better. Peet looks like she might belong. And just like West Wing, you know that every cast member will shine in time.

And as far as that prayer circle, my gut feeling is that whoever gets to lead the circle that week gets to do their own thing. Yes, it was a little cringeworthy because it looked like a sap to the Christian right, but methinks that each cast member has their own individual take on the "prayer circle." We'll see.

Anonymous said...

btw alan, a "reach around" is when a man is having anal sex with another man, and reaches around and gives him a hand job at the same (or oral sex, if very flexible).

Meanwhile, I felt like "The Class" jerked me off for a half an hour.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Anonymous, I know what an actual reach-around is; just baffled about what the intellectual equivalent would be.

Tuckpendleton, that's twice in one afternoon I've been accused of giving a bad review out of some grudge. Maybe it's time to repost my This Things I Believe mission statement, and add a line about how I never root for a show to be bad (unless it's entertainingly bad), because life's too short to waste on bad TV if I can help it.

I really want this show to be good. I have no issues about Aaron having left/been canned from West Wing. But the Gilbert & Sullivan sketch is, to me, a near-fatal error, one that would have me giving up on the show if almost anybody else were writing it. They spend an entire episode building up to this sketch, have a climactic scene about the brilliant creation of it, and then we can all see for ourselves how fairly lame it is. The show is insisting that one thing (Matt and Danny brilliantly saving the show) is happening and showing me something else entirely (Matt and Danny spewing out the same old junk, even if it has a classier veneer).

Don't pee on my head and tell me it's funny, you know.

Anonymous said...

The sketch worried me as well. On Sports Night, I always enjoyed watching Casey and Dan do the show. If every week we have to endure a sketch that isn't funny...that's a problem.

I do love Matthew Perry, and I think D.L. Hughley's character has a lot of potential as well. Paulsen's character, however, is a major misstep. Sorkin obviously seems to be going for the Casey/Dana thing with them, and it isn't working. They have no chemistry, and I really don't see why Perry's character would like her at all. She's shrill and unlikable.

(I apologize for using so many Sports Night references, but there are so many callbacks to that show I can't help myself.)

Anonymous said...

I do want to like the show. 'The Player' is one of my favorite movies, and inside baseball of any kind is always intriguing. I watched the WW constantly just because I like politics.

The G&S references are a wink to those who watched WW, but for those of us who are not well-versed in our light/comedic operas, it becomes a little too much.

I also saw that Sorkin has not moved beyond his cardboard representation/conflation of Christian evangelicals and right-wingers. Saw the same type of easy potshots on WW on a regular basis, not to mention that overweening conviction of being absolutely right and smarter than all those flyover types.


dark tyler said...

While I found the sketch spectacularly bad, I have no problem accepting what the show tells me I should acccept, when it comes to the show-within-a-show concept.

It's like when in a movie you're suppopsed to accept the unprecedented beauty of the girl the protagonist falls madly in love with, even if the actual actress is nothing special, you know? If Matt and Danny say this is suppopsed to be brilliant, well then okay, it is.

Such a thing is not going to stop me from enjoying a great show.

R.A. Porter said...

That seems about right to me. The only being that could still love Sorkin and his repetitive schtick is a spambot.

Actually, perhaps some viagra, Nigerian money, and all-natural breast enlargement lotion would help "Studio 60". It certainly doesn't seem likely that Sorkin/Schlamme will bring on fresh talent (with fresh, original ideas and lines) to give this show the boost it sorely needs.

My wife wanted to watch the pilot; I was indifferent. I'll give it this...she put up with it longer than we put up with "Napoleon Dynamite" before finally killing the TiVo. That's really not saying much.

We used to love Aaron Sorkin's work. In fact, like Woody Allen's aliens, we still love his "earlier, funnier" work. We own "SportsNight" and will frequently rewatch it. When TNT decides to run an all-day block of "A Few Good Men" we'll leave it on for a few hours. But back then, Aaron hadn't reused all his original ideas two or three times and spent all his capital.

I'm just waiting for when we find out about the character whose father had a 20-plus-year affair with another woman. I won't see the episode mind you, but I'll laugh and laugh and laugh when I read about it in a review.

Anonymous said...

"Speaking of not letting things go, you lost me when you had to dredge up your Television Without Pity fiasco again, after already looking so lame on the subject in 'The U.S. Poet Laureate.'"

You mean busting on the internet as a bunch of uncredentialed, fat spinsters isn't cutting-edge commentary? [eye-roll] Thanks for the plug, Sorkie!

Anonymous said...

I was totally expecting them to cue the orchestra, have everyone scuttle into place, raise the curtain and then CUT to a different scene. I was all "Come on - don't cut! Show us the funny!" but then they did and afterwards all I could think was "They should have cut it right as the show started and preserved the illusion of hilarity." Because now we know.

Anonymous said...

"You mean busting on the internet as a bunch of uncredentialed, fat spinsters isn't cutting-edge commentary?"

While patronizingly lauding the audience's intelligence in another scene in the very same episode. This might, actually, be an example of an intellectual reach-around.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I'm just of the wrong generation, but can someone please enlighten me as to what exactly an intellectual reach-around is?

Anonymous said...

I doubt this comment will be seen by anyone but Alan, but I will say it now anyway, and maybe next week. Still not having seen the second episode--I watched "Heroes," which was awesome, but then had some stuff to do before my scuba class--I can't comment on its quality now, but has anyone considered the idea that this series may be playing a lot of clever jokes on us? After all, we've heard for months how great "Studio 60" is, but then when many people see it, we are sort of impressed but let down in general. We know the talent behind it, which is why we expect better things. And so on. Basically, there seems to be a lot of parallels between the way "Studio 60" the NBC show and the fake show which everyone works on are turning out, and since Sorkin is, for whatever faults he may have, a very smart, very clever guy, isn't it possible that he's planned it like this? It's a stretch, I am sure, but I don't think it's entirely out of bounds.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I'm 15 minutes into the new SNL premiere and they just proved Matt Albie in the writers' room right.

Anonymous said...

Sars said...

You mean busting on the internet as a bunch of uncredentialed, fat spinsters isn't cutting-edge commentary? [eye-roll] Thanks for the plug, Sorkie!

Indeed. He'd be much closer to the mark if he assailed TV bloggers' O'Reilly-esque inability to shrug off criticism, even if somebody is using costly NBC airtime to do it...

Anonymous said...

A little too much on the religion on ep 3 + a Jeri Ryan reference.