Monday, October 09, 2006

Studio 60: The man who shouldn't be there

"Studio 60" spoilers just as soon as I figure out the rules of cricket...

You know, I think I might tolerate this show a whole lot better if I had never heard of Aaron Sorkin, never read anything about Aaron Sorkin, never met the man. It's not because it gave me artificially high expectations for the show, or that I'm bothered he's recycling bits from his last two shows (he stole from "Sports Night" on "West Wing" and it didn't bug me there). It's that I feel I know far too much about the man's life and work habits, so I can't not see how he's working himself into the show.

In the original version of the pilot script that was circulating around the 'Net earlier this year, Danny's date to the awards dinner was "Martha, a sexy red-headed journalist" -- in other words, former Sorkin girlfriend Maureen Dowd. Given how much of his personal life Aaron had already thrown into the episode (being fired from "The West Wing," his relationship with Kristen Chenoweth), I was relieved to see that he cut the character out of the final version. So then he has to go and bring the character back in for an arc just so he can work out some leftover issues with yet another ex -- and, for an added weird twist, he hires the wife of his best friend (and the quasi-inspiration for Danny) to play her. Too distracting, too uncomfortable, too... ugh.

Then there's the plagiarism subplot, which could have been much more concise if Aaron himself had just walked on screen and said, "You see? This is why I don't let my writers do anything? Now do you get it? Huh? Huh? And how about that Juliette Lewis sketch? Didn't you love how I had to defend its incredibly dated nature within the episode? Huh? Aren't I awesome? McKinney never could have written something that self-indulgent! And did you know I could hang out with the Pussycat Dolls whenever I want to?"

I know that I'm an atypical viewer in this respect, but at the same time I can't imagine a typical viewer giving a tinker's damn about the need to reshoot the joke for the West Coast feed. As many have said, it's one thing to generate this level of intensity when a hurricane is threatening the 7th fleet or the president has plotted to assassinate a foreign leader, but to use the same self-important tone for this?

For the first three episodes, my take on the show was that I wanted it to be better, given the people involved. Now, I think I'm reclassifying it as a trainwreck, the show I like to watch just so I can look at the screen and yell about all the things that are going wrong with it. If only I knew nothing about Sorkin. Anybody know if Lacuna would take an out-of-state third-party check?

What did everybody else think?


Adam said...

In the real world, Lorne just replaces the whole news segment with a tape of something from dress rehearsal that got cut, right?

Matt said...

Maybe, but can you picture Lorne just dumping the entirety of "Update?" We're led to assume that's the parallel here. Yeah, he'd cut the joke and drop in a segment or joke from camera dress.

Jim Treacher said...

I think you just saved me 44 minutes.

Anonymous said...

Harriet is a hateful person. I don't like her. I don't like the way Paulson portrays her. I don't like the way Sorkin's trying to convince us they should be a couple, because he's failing utterly at that.

Lahti as MoDo? Um. Well, I'm biased, because I have horrific memories of her last project, the Brad Meltzer-co-created Jack and Bobby, which felt like it was written by someone with the most screwed up women's issues EVER. But she was... tolerable.

Are we supposed to view Matt and Danny as overrated self-important artists? Ricky and Ronnie as noble guys? Does Nate Corrdry even show up for work or is he played by a cardboard cutout with pre-recorded lines?

Daniel said...

So you don't cut Sorkin slack for the po-mo references to the failings of his own jokes? Does that mean I'm not supposed to cut you slack because you make that "Eternal Sunshine" reference about wishing you could forget all you know about Sorkin, even though this recap of this episode of Studio 60 is based completely on 1)Your knowledge of a first draft of a script dated several months before the show had even been picked up for the network on 2)Your knowledge of Aaron Sorkin's personal life and your determination to make the show entirely autobiographical even though he's said it isn't and 3)Your knowledge of previous Sorkin shows which is, of course, exhaustive.

That's just a lot of work, Alan. And it's all outside of the diagesis of the show. Sure, I know enough of the elements that are autobiographical for Sorkin, but I can mostly just ignore that. And sure, I know that just about the entire episode could have been condensed down to 22 minutes for a "Sports Night" episode, right down to the smallest relationship dynamic. And yeah, I know that it was easier to take everything really seriously when it involved international intrigue, rather than a tape delay.

But darnit, I liked the episode, because it was sharply written and occasionally funny and because, once again, Matthew Perry is just rockin' this show so far. And I understood why this would seem important to these characters even if it wasn't as important to me.

And no skit on Saturday Night Live this season -- not one -- has been as funny as the idea of Meet the Press with Juliette Lewis. How about we accept the idea that Matt and Danny aren't geniuses in the way that we would like them to be geniuses? That they're just geniuses in the sense that their show has been down for so long -- four years is a long time -- that anything looks like up to them?



Anonymous said...

I actually was digging the plagiarism story, as I'm fascinated with that subject. Digging it, that is, till Ricky and Ronnie refused to reveal the plagiarist to their boss... their BOSS!... even though they believed it WAS an act of plagiarism.

No professional writer, EVER, would make excuses for the ripping-off of someone else's writing. That's the Big One, the unforgivable sin; how could you ever trust such a lying shitbag not to do it again?

For Sorkin to pass off Ricky and Ronnie's non-snitching as honorable boggles my mind and pisses me off. Those guys would've been the MOST eager to stone the offender, not to fall on the sword for him. Why take the hit for a bastard who disrespected YOU... lied to YOU?

Matter of fact, fuck the happenstance of those jokes originating with a former "Studio 60" writer. The plagiarist didn't know that. He willfully submitted a stand-up comic's material as his own. Fire his ass! I'd like to think the writing staff as a whole would've demanded such. Who'd wanna work in a room with him, knowing he's a thief?

For somebody who loves dropping names like "Strindberg," Aaron Sorkin obviously hasn't hung around many writers.

Parenthetically... if I'm not mistaken, the stupid-kids joke is actually from D.L. Hughley's old stand-up act. And it wasn't even that funny then.

Anonymous said...

Dan wrote: "No skit on Saturday Night Live this season -- not one -- has been as funny as the idea of Meet the Press with Juliette Lewis."

Since there's no thread for SNL's latest show, let me say: Amy Poehler as Nancy Grace... YES! I felt like it was my birthday.

Alan Sepinwall said...

1)I mentioned the first draft only to point out that Sorkin had made a mistake putting Maureen/Marti back into the show after wisely dumping her; 2)Aaron saying the show isn't autobiographical when he is constantly inserting people and incidents from his own life is completely disingenuous; 3)As I said, I don't care much about him repeating bits from earlier shows (one of my favorite "West Wing" subplots was Sam and Toby looking for their talent, which was almost word-for-word from a similar writer's bloc story on "Sports Night").

Again, I'm not a typical viewer here. But I can't pretend that my reactions to the show aren't what they are.

And the "well, it's better than the real 'SNL'" defense doesn't wash when Aaron spends so much damn time hyping Matt's genius. (Plus, much like the Tom Cruise guy last week admitted he was just imitating Ben Stiller, Sarah Paulson obviously spent a lot of time watching Janeane Garofalo in "Cape Munster.")

Matt said...

Actually, I'm not sure that the plagiarist knew he was stealing from a comic. I think more likely, he was looking through the old S60 "unused sketch" pile and came across this bit.

(And SNL does that all the time--for instance, according to the transcript site I use, "Al Pacino Checks His Bank Balance" was written last year and finally got used last week.)

Anonymous said...

I agree with you about the gravity of "Studio 60"--it's just not the same as the Oval Office.

The only thing really keeping me in is Perry, but that might change if they start to focus too much on the "love story."

I don't know much about Sorkin (aside from the public domain facts), but I'm still turned off by the level of preaching that he does via the script. It was okay in the first episode, but now it's grating and uncessary, although the most recent episode didn't annoy me as much.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I will say, in fairness, that I watched most of it again this morning and, if I hadn't read the pilot script, Marti wouldn't have screamed "Maureen Dowd" to me yet, and there were a couple of funny bits involving the do-over, mainly from Busfield and, of all people, Amanda Peet.

But that first half-hour with Matt and Harriet was just as excruciating on viewing number two, and that has little or nothing to do with the whole Chenoweth thing; Harriet's just annoying.

Bret LaGree said...

The self-importance and alleged talent of the show's characters is so extreme compared to what we see of the show within the show (by my count, they are saving television with an overprodiced Gilbert and Sullivan song parody, either a sketch or a character named commedia dell'arte, a four-year-old sketch about Christian fundamentalists, an impression of a character Juliette Lewis played 15 years ago, and another old bit so hacky they couldn't determine who exactly they stole it from) that either Aaron Sorkin is living a completely unexamined life of the mind or he is laying the foundation for some elaborate meta-satire. Considering his body of work, I'm not counting on it being the latter.

Anonymous said...


Once again you are my Studio 60 thoughts twin. Thanks for articulating my response so I don't have to.

Anonymous said...

The cricket reference didn't make a lot of sense, there is no way the royal melbourne institute of technology would send a cricket team to India, and even then, a game between a local club and low level university team is not a test match, nor would it be sponsored by LG, or have the ICC involved by name. A test match is an international 5 day match between two of the ten nations considered test standard by the ICC.

The score however made sense, as 1/240 is an incredibly good score, and I'm sure any club from bangalore's first team would wipe the floor with whatever RMIT could field in the parallel universe where this would actually happen.

Cricket minutae aside, I haven't laughed at one thing in the skecthes they let us see so far. But as much as it might stretch belief, I'd have a harder time believing that a funny sketch show could keep its ratings up, what with the way television viewers are. More people watch Idol than any other show in spite of the singing. Maybe sorking deep down truly believes he's a hack with delusions of grandeur.

Anonymous said...

Sorkin not sorking

Heather K said...

Hey that Juliette Lewis shows up on VH1 all the time now. I love the 70's, 80's, 90's, whatever. Lewis is in a bunch of them, and she was just like she was in the nano second of it we saw. At least last spring and funny.

Also, the people doing live tv would bring with it that amount of importance--assuming it was important enough to break in and apologize for in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Did anyone else notice that the supposedly plagiarized joke that ends up on the show ("ADD,ADHD...I remember when kids were just stupid") is itself a stolen Chris Rock bit? I believe it's from his second HBO special. Is this some intentional meta-hilarity or simple laziness? I pick the latter. This show stinks.

Anonymous said...

Matt wrote: "Actually, I'm not sure that the plagiarist knew he was stealing from a comic. I think more likely, he was looking through the old S60 'unused sketch' pile and came across this bit."

If that were the case, Matt, then the plagiarist would've copped to it straight away, and there'd be no need for whole West-Coast re-staging megillah. No, Ricky and Ronnie had to find out from that stand-up comic that HE'D stolen it in the first place. Plus, remember that guilty look on the plagiarist's face in the writers' room in Act One?

Fire his ass!

As for the Dan-Alan exchange above: One needn't know the backstory of every notch on Aaron Sorkin's bedpost to realize that Sorkin is using Matt Perry's character as a representation of Aaron Sorkin. Particularly -- and most annoyingly -- his showrunning style... the singular genuis who hunkers down in his office and writes every page, while the writing staff stews in its own juices, and the entire production gamely accommodates the genius's late pages. (Remember, by FRIDAY MORNING, for a live sketch-comedy show that night, all the material had yet to be written.)

Whitford's late exchange with Lahti, about how Matt didn't start in television so he's not used to working with other writers... that was Sorkin justifying Sorkin to whoever might give a shit. And it's hard to lose oneself in the fiction when Sorkin is working out his Sorkin issues like that.

Eric said...

Is it just me, or have we just not gotten enough Danny since the pilot. Much as I love Matthew Perry in this role, I'd like to see Bradley Whitford have some more to do. I'm guessing a romance with Dorreen Mowd or whatever her name is is on the horizon, however.

Anonymous said...

Alan, I totally agree with you hear. I really wanted this show to work because I love Matthew Perry so much. BUT, it is just so bloated and self-aggrandizing. Also I really despise the Harriet character. Never really felt the love for Sarah Paulson anyone, and I sure don't buy her as this sexy, heartbreaker that Matt can't forget. Amanda Peet should be playing that role instead. I TOTALLY agree that not revealing the plagerist is shitty not honorable.

Bottom line - if there was something better on at this time I would have already changed the channel!

BF said...

* What a relief to see the thrust of this episode wasn't "How can we pi** off Christians THIS week?"

* Since this show is so autobiographical, I'm surprised noone has mentioned the Dr. Laura diatribe.

Anonymous said...

I don't know where I've been--
well I do know that, but for purposes of this comment I never saw an episode of West Wing and saw only part of one or two Sports Nights. I'm having a helluva time keeping up with the fast pace of this show's dialogue...and the annoying fast-walking-fast-talking. One of my kids said that was a given in West Wing. Geez! So they're doing it here too...and up a spiral staircase. I'd heard good things about Sorkin; I like Perry and Whitford, so I wanted to like this show SO MUCH! So far I'm not impressed--but I won't give up.

dark tyler said...

I'm with doogald.

Alan, you claim in your post that someone who cares about stuff like the west coast delay is involved enough with the industry that he would probably know all the personal stuff. You seriously overestimate the involvment of the public with the TV business. Of all the people I know that watch the show, I'm the only one who knows Sorkin dated Chenowith-- hell, I'm the only one who knows Kristin Chenowith. The stuff about Maureen Dowd? And Lahti being Schlamme's wife? And all the other, supposedly annoying personal stuff? No clue.

So what if Sorkin works out relationship issues through his shows? Is it a good story? If it is, then that's that. If it's not, then it has nothing to do with how much all of it's based on real people, but with Sorkin's ability (or inability, according to some) to write fully formed characters.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Doogald, believe me: if I could put all the Sorkin therapy stuff aside, I would. I still think the show would have significant problems -- Harriet is an unappealing character no matter who she's based on; the sketches Matt writers are either dated, unfunny, or both; Amanda Peet only occasionally seems convincing -- but at least I wouldn't constantly be yelling at the TV about the latest monument to Sorkin's ego.

But I know what I know. And given how many better shows there are in primetime, and how TiVo and DVRs have rendered timeslots meaningless for me, saying it's better than CSI:Miami and What About Brian doesn't move me any more than the argument that the sketches are vaguely funnier than what you get on the real SNL.

Anonymous said...

Don't all writers draw from their personal experiences or from those of people they know when writing fiction? Is it such a big deal here just because some of Sorkin's details have been news items in the past?

I just don't see it as such a shocking and disheartening development that a fiction writer is using his own experiences for ideas.

That said, the show has a long way to go to live up to the hype. But, it's early yet.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I quote Ted Frank in a post on ALOTT5MA, who sums it up quite nicely:

"I don't object to people using incidents from their own life to create fiction; the game of figuring out the roman a clef elements of Studio 60 are perhaps the third-best thing about it behind Matthew Perry and occasionally-snappy dialogue. I doubt that even Sepinwall objects to that.

"The objection, I believe, is the fan-fiction aspect to it whereby Sorkin is writing himself out to be the hero in every confrontation over network notes, censorship, focus groups, the religious right, Internet chat boards, Kristin Chenoweth, drug abuse, gossip columns, the Pussycat Dolls, writing staffs, deadlines, and what looks like is going to be his relationship with Maureen Dowd. One can predict the call-girl scandal episode coming up, though perhaps that's being handled through the Jordan-and-ex-husband plotline."

Anonymous said...

My argument is, the characters have not become real enough for me to invest in them independently of all Sorkin's self-portrayal. I mean, there have been heavy autobiographical elements in both TWW and SN, not to mention heavy borrowing between the series, but it never mattered to me because I was invested in Jeremy or Sam Seaborn or whoever, and I've been given no real dimensionality to either Matt or Danny.

Anonymous said...

There was a call-girl scandal involving Aaron Sorkin??

BF said...

Will the call-girl scandal be any different than the Sam/Laurie tryst from West Wing or the Jeremy/Jenny hookup from SportsNight?

David J. Loehr said...

One thing I haven't seen in all the deconstruction is the backstory on Ricky and Ron's names. We found out in this last episode that they're Ricky Tahoe and Ron Oswald. Which must mean they're Jeff Reno and Ron Osborn, who--as I recall--were brought in by NBC to help out at the very beginning of The West Wing. Very soon, they were consulting producers, and then they were gone.

I'm still sticking with the show, but based on the last two series and the first few episodes of this, I sure hope Aaron has enough life experiences to cannibalize to last more than two to four seasons.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. I wish you knew less about Sorkin, too, because I'd like to hear your critique minus the irritation about the tv-show-as-therapy.

I'm loving Matt Perry, but really, really dislike the Harriet character. Not funny, not appealing, leaves the viewer hoping they DON't get back together. I think she may sink the ship.

Anonymous said...

I want to like the show, but it's a little meh. The constant arch and meta-references are like unsatisfying parlor tricks. Give me a complete, well-written show and then you can smarten up with some meta. In the meantime, just stick to fundamentals like character and plot development.

The previews for the upcoming week look even worse. That nonsensical 'voice of god' at the end promising a 'very special reunion' make me cringe. If I thought the show was clever enough, I'd see it as a clear set-up; the kind of thing that Hugh Laurie would eviscerate. Unfortunately, given the promience of this Harriet-Matt storyline, I have to assume they really are creating some very special moment.

The problem is, I don't care about the relationship. They tell me that it meant so much, that the break-up was bad, that tender feelings remain, but they haven't shown me. I had twice the emotional involvement with the injured QB line in "Friday Night Lights" than I did with anything on "Studio 60".

The OP said that the west coast feed was hardly a hurricane threatening the Seventh Fleet, and I'm inclined to agree. So far, Sorkin just isn't making me care about anything.