Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Studio 60: Try not to be funny, we're doing a TV show

"Studio 60" spoilers just as soon as I can get Aaron Sorkin to quit clubbing me over the head with the clue-by-four...

Hey, on the plus side, we didn't have to sit through sketches that weren't funny (though, apparently, Matt has now written Commedia Dell'Arte into three of the four episodes since he took over, because that's not remotely hacky at all), and Lauren Graham got fractionally more to do than the week before. (In fairness, she probably just ran over to the "Studio 60" soundstage on lunch breaks, so I doubt they could have given her a major role, but it was a waste.)

On the downside, Simon wasn't the only person who could see every. single. line. coming before it did. As soon as Eli Wallach wandered in, I knew he had worked in the building and waited in increasing frustration for the lightbulb to turn on above Cal's head. As soon as Jordan asked Darren to sign the ball, I knew he wrote his phone number. As soon as Matt and Simon walked out on the first comic, I knew they would wind up discovering another black comedian who was more their speed. (Did you catch the guy making a reference to 19th century madrigals as Matt was trying to shut Simon up? That's only a hop, skip and a jump away from the Commedia Dell'Arte! Kindred spirits, baby!) About the only thing I didn't call in advance was that Tom's brother was fighting in Afghanistan; I assumed it was a "Stand By Me" situation where the favorite son died. Aaron's not the most subtle writer even on his best days, but the entire hour was thuddingly obvious.

And since I didn't have any sketches to drive me up a wall (save the Commedia references at the top), I had to take comfort in the paint-by-numbers characterizations: the Midwestern parents who are such sheltered rubes that they've never even heard of "Who's on First?," or the cheap black comic who tells the kinds of jokes Homer Simpson was laughing at 15 years ago ("We are sooooo lame!") and yet is somehow considered promising enough that Bud Friedman invited Simon to watch him, or Simon revealing himself to be a character from "Boyz N the Hood" or "Juice," or the bimbettes who want to break into the business but don't understand what a writer does. And, of course, Jordan turning into Aaron's classic Seemingly Tough Professional Woman who's really just a big, messy ball of mush. Swell.

There were some promising ideas at work here, but the execution made them all seem like the sort of thing Beavis and Hackboy might dream up. Speaking of which, where are those guys? Or Young Aaron Sorkin, whose "West Wing"-esque "Nations" led to the one genuinely funny scene, with Jack hassling Danny? Will we start getting new Sorkin stand-ins every week until the show becomes, as my friend Phil joked, like that scene in "Being John Malkovich" where Malkovich goes inside his own head? Sorkin. Sorkin. Sorkin? SORKIN!!!!!!!

I could rant more at length, but I have to get back to "Prime Suspect." So what did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

I actually thought this was their best episode yet. Sorkin avoided much of his usual transitive property of diefication (Matt Albie is god; Matt Albie is Aaron Sorkin; ergo, Aaron Sorkin is god). Everything was predictable, yes, but its the execution of playing out the inevitable that I enjoyed. I liked that Tom was speaking of the history of the studio he works in and throws in what initially appeared to be an insignificant line about people working in the studio getting black listed in the '50s, then having one of the black listed guys come in for a visit.

I think the real shame is that lost in the shuffle of Sorkin's ego, which frankly has been well deserved, is Nate Corddry, who has been great week in and week out. I wouldn't know who he was if I didn't watch The Daily Show, but he was smart for leaving the variety show for a real acting job. This guy has talent.

The Eli Wallach storyline was just as telegraphed, but I really enjoyed watching Cal show so much sympathy towards this guy. He was perhaps a bit dense in not figuring it out sooner, but he was able to realize this guy was more than just a kook.

The Simon/Matt storyline wasn't perfect, but the thing is it actually had a setup and payoff. We heard Simon demand more black writers. Then we heard why he wanted it. Then we see this guy who, for some reason uknown to me, Matt and Simon think has talent.

I actually thought the moment when they talked to him backstage was sweet. It was contrived and certainly not original, but they took a formula and executed that formula quite well.

Besides, let's face it, any week that uses Harriet sparingly can't be all bad.

Anonymous said...

This summer I was really psyched for this show and I have to say that it really lost me last night.

I don't have a problem with the characters necessarily; I actually think Harriet is pretty great.

However, I absolutely agree with you that the writing/dialogue was predictable and even worse, heavy handed!

Also, definitely a misuse of L.Graham - she really could have done something fun there...

One last note, I think that the show could be really good if you never actually saw ANY of the actual S60 show; it would preserve the illusion of it being "great".

Anonymous said...

I dipped my toe back in before jumping out for good. I've got to say that the biggest shock for me is that sketch comedy writers have been pooling their resources to buy body armor for our troops. I had no idea. God bless 'em. Out with Rumsfeld, in with Lorne Michaels!

Despite a good line early -- "Be nice to him, he works for a living" -- the whole Midwestern parents thing absolutely reeked.

Can't wait until Sorkin reminds us of the topical comedic talking points to be found in the work of Aristophanes.

Anonymous said...

Ooh... harsh, Alan. Harsh.

This was Sorkin on his "A" game, and it was a very good hour of TV.

The bit with the bimbettes? "Trinket"? Funniest stuff yet on this show. ("Do you know Simon?" "He works for me!") And some truth to it... A lot of people outside showbiz don't quite understand what writers do. (And those chicks ARE on the outside of showbiz, looking in.)

Eli Wallach? Splendid. A joy to watch.

D.L. Hughley and Nate Corddry displayed heretofore unknown degrees of genuine acting talent.

Best of all: no sketches! No references to Matt/Aaron's genius! And he didn't name-check Moliere! Not once!

Best part of the black-comics storyline was Simon's embarrassment at Willie Wilz's act. I can relate, as I can't bear to watch "Def Comedy Jam" for a similar reason. This show at least acknowledged a truth about black comedy styles. About 15 years ago I interviewed Franklyn Ajaye, a great stand-up with a very hip, laid-back persona and a sharp intellect. And he understood that, during his prime in the '70s, he didn't have the "flamboyance" that's associated with black American style in general.

The second black stand-up in "S60" brought to mind the case of Warren Hutcherson, who was the first black writer ever on staff at "Saturday Night Live." He wrote on the show for two years, back during Chris Rock's tenure in the cast. (Wonder if Chris Rock laid a similar trip on Lorne Michaels?) I've seen Hutcherson in a nightclub, and, like Ajaye, he is very hip, very bright, and non-"flamboyant," which may be why you've never heard of him. You damn sure never saw him on "Def Comedy Jam." (Hutcherson has had a decent career as a sitcom writer, running the "Bernie Mac Show" for a while.)

Only thing that bugged me in the hour: Aaron Sorkin, courageously liberal, on the front lines of social criticism, never afraid to speak truth to power, had to invoke... the Blacklist. Oh God, not the Blacklist! Way to stay ahead of the curve, Mr. Sorkin. He is such a walking cliche of a Leftist, it makes me want to smack him.

If he wants to impress me with his insight into humanity, and his compassion, try drawing a sympathetic portrait of a John Bircher. Or at least a critical portrait of an old Red. It's not like the Communists were on the side of the angels. If you want to defend radicals on the basis of upholding "freedom of expression," why not defend reactionaries on the same basis? Free expression is free expression, regardless of what's being expressed.

And if you want to be on the cutting edge of social criticism, acknowledge that it's conservatives who are now being shouted down on college campuses. The Left IS the power. Speak truth to THAT power. And leave Joe McCarthy's bones in the dirt.

Anonymous said...

I thought they saved the Emmy-bait for the Christmas episode.

Tosy And Cosh said...

I agree with undercover - the show is settling in now. I think at least some of Alan's reaction may have been due to him being someone who watches a lot of TV and is very in-tune with Sorkin. I watch my fair share of TV and have seen every ep of SportsNight and most of The West Wing, and yet I still didn't see the stuff with the old man coming. And either would the average viewer, is my wager.

(I did see the "and then they find a GOOD black comic" moment coming, though, so don't think I'm TOO dumb ;) )

Anonymous said...

>>And leave Joe McCarthy's bones in the dirt

Probably my ignorance on the subject, but weren't the "Hollywood Ten" part of the HUAC proceedings? And therefore had nothing to do with Sen. McCarthy?

And there's a ridiculous gap between "being shouted down on campus" and being systematically hunted by your govt. Sorkin's problem is that he didn't find any relevant way to bring up the Blacklist.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't call Corddry's line about the blacklist seemingly insignificant - it came after we learned that the names Wallach had given were all members of the Hollywood Ten. If Sorkin had reversed those two scenes it might've worked better, but as it was Corddry's line felt like pretty obvious foreshadowing to me.

I'd call this episode a mixed bag. The stuff at the Improv was weak, the stuff with Corddry's parents was weak, and the stuff with Eli Wallach was way obvious.

But I thought Hughley's first scene confronting Perry was very good, I thought Perry and Whitford's scenes with the three dumb girls were pretty funny, and this is the first episode in which I've liked Amanda Peet - they should make her character be drunk more often. And Steven Weber's scene was great, but his scenes always work well.

Anonymous said...

I watch my fair share of TV and have seen every ep of SportsNight and most of The West Wing, and yet I still didn't see the stuff with the old man coming.

Have you seen the WW about a foreigner on the White House tour who goes crazy about some painting on the wall, and it turns out the Nazis stole it from his family or something? That might have helped see the anvil.

By the way, I was hoping at least for a scene where the Bad Black Comic explained why he thinks he has to do that crap. And are the audiences at the Improv really that stupid, and do they really yell "boring"?

Anonymous said...

You're right, j. I'm the ignorant one who conflated HUAC and McCarthy.

But my larger point -- about the undying Leftist romance, 50 years after the fact, with the martyrdom of the Hollywood Blacklist -- I stick to.

Sorkin didn't find a relevant way to bring up the Blacklist because the Blacklist isn't relevant.

Anonymous said...

tosy and cosh:

"I watch my fair share of TV and have seen every ep of SportsNight and most of The West Wing, and yet I still didn't see the stuff with the old man coming. And either would the average viewer, is my wager."

The only people who didn't see that coming were Nate Corddry's parents. Are you their neighbor?

And did it bug anyone else that the old man was at first the poster boy for Alzhiemer's, but then by the end of the hour could recall names and stories from 60 years ago with such clarity that he could hold two 'gods' of television in complete rapture? Either the old man is the type that pees himself or his isn't, he can't just flip on the Sorkin switch and transform magically. It's analogous to the sketch show - you show us one thing, but then tell us it is completely different and brilliant, even with no evidence to back it up.

Anonymous said...

I was having S3 TWW flashbacks with this episode. Most of the storylines were either boring, insulting or irrelevant, but the performances were so great that it kept me watching. As excellent as Perry and Whitford are, Nate Corddry may turn out to be the breakout star here; he nearly had me in tears.

(Interesting that the smart money was on Tom joining the Jeremy-Goodwin-Sam-Seaborn-my-father's-been-having-an-affair-for-25-years-club, when actually he's an alumnus of the Dan-Rydell-my-father-thinks-I'm-a-schmuck-compared-to-my-saintly-younger-brother academy.)

The less said about both the ignorant parents and the stereotypical black comic the better. Although I am now waiting for Chuck D. to show up as a musical guest and point out that some black comics play to those stereotypes because that's what white audiences want to hear. It's not an argument I necessarily agree with, but it's one Matt could have made instead of going with the incredibly lame "He wasn't that bad."

Does anyone know anything about the terms of Whitford's contract, by the way? I thought this show was going to be primarily about the relationship between Matt and Danny, but it seems like Perry's getting twice the screentime. Is it because Perry's the bigger name, or is it because Whitford was all "I know how you operate, Aaron old pal, and I'm not killing myself like I did for four years on that other show."

Anonymous said...

Count me as someone who was annoyed by this S60 and would've given it a D. Okay, I liked the interaction between Matt and the bimbettes (which is enough to give it just one more episode), and the Weber-Whitford confrontation, but everything else was so bleeding obviously telegraphed (why the hell else is there an open mike on a Friday night except as a plot device for sudden promotion? yes, we see the autographed phone number coming from a mile away), or offkey-wince-inducing (every scene with Tom's parents) and they didn't even have the courage to make the blacklisted guy a real communist. Slim asked: Was TWW this predictable?

Sorkin avoided much of his usual transitive property of deification

Uh, no. NB: Harriet complaining that Matt was "smug," (the favorite criticism of Sorkin), that she likes Darren because he's the anti-Matt, and then realizing that the anti-Matt is a bad thing. Ergo Matt is great, Matt is Sorkin, Sorkin is great! Oh, Mary Sue!

Anonymous said...

The only people who didn't see that coming were Nate Corddry's parents. Are you their neighbor?

Best. Line. Ever. We're using that in my household.

Anonymous said...

Fuck this once promising, now lame show. Has anyone else watched the season 6 trailer for 24? check it out at www.24trailer.com

this thing looks amazing. God, I can't wait for this show. Anyone else? thoughts? alan?

Anonymous said...

Studio 60 is officially in the toilet. Some people said this was the best episode yet, they're wrong.

This show had a riveting pilot and has been spiralling downwards ever since. Sports Night was great because it was before everyone jumped on the Aaron Sorkin bandwagon and started the lovefest for West Wing. Sports Night felt fresh and fun and you believed the drama because it was rarely, if ever as melodramatic and plodding as Studio 60 seems to be week in and week out.

Furthermore, I don't know anyone intelligent who still watches "24." The bandwagon jumpers came in after I stopped watching after the second season because there's only so many times I can watch Jack Bauer save the world without getting killed before I stop giving a shit.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I loved this episode, and it was my favorite since the pilot. That said, it was damn predictable at parts. The part with the old guy was obvious, and while I didn't guess what would happen at Improv, it was obvious once you saw the stereotypical black comic that you'd get the polar opposite. There was plenty more stuff like that, but I do tend to suspend belief while watching the show, and take a break from my typical cynicism for this one hour.

Lauren Graham was good in her albeit short role, though I will admit I am not as enamored with her as everyone else is. Looked cute though.

I know it sounds dumb, but watching this episode, I actually had a smile on my face for the whole show. It could be that I had just finished watching the first season of The Wire, so I was drastically downtrodden, but I had fun watching Studio 60.

On a side note, one reason why I love the show as much as I do could be because I don't find the sketches all that terrible. I mean, I'm not saying they're great, but they're decent enough for me. Take it with a grain of salt though, as I've hardly ever watched SNL.

As this point in the fall season, I'd say this is probably my second favorite new show, with only the perfection that is Dexter surpassing it.

Anonymous said...

And don't forget, Studio 60 was actually up in the ratings this week! Some glimmer of hope for a second season, or at least a back-nine pickup, still remains!

BF said...

Tom has so many daddy issues he should be on "Lost". You know that during an upcoming sweeps, his brother is gonna die. Less trying to win the love of your dad, more Lobster costume!

As for Mr. Unfunny Black Comic, it's once again typical Sorkin arrogance to think that he (uh, I mean Danny) can take the least successful stand-up of all time and turn him into a great TV writer.

And Commedia Del'Arte? I think Cal said it best: "They're gonna keep writing it until someone laughs".

Anonymous said...

Tom's father came off as a monster. I get the feeling Sorkin really wanted to stick it to the middle American pro-war guys, but backed off. I'd rather he go for the jugular than just end it with a sappy, "Aw dad, you know I love you" speech, especially after the revelation that Tom had paid for his brother's body armor. "Hey dad, go fuck yourself and never call me again" would have been more appropriate. I don't care if he "worked for a living", some people don't deserve the benefit of the doubt.

I knew as soon as I saw Wallach that he would be a victim of the Blacklist. And wow, I wasn't wrong. It's not that it was bad, it's just that it was there and told us nothing new about the situation.

The Simon stuff worked for me, but only because DL Hughley sold the "I'm from South Central" stuff by virtue that according to his bio, he really was in a gang and really did see a friend of his get shot.

Steven Weber stole the show. Too bad he was only in two scenes. Like ricky and Ronnie, he's more sympathetic than Sorkin probably intends.

Anonymous said...

I'm in the "worst one yet" boat. The thing about it was, I could see what they were TRYING to do, and it was good and very reminiscent of really good Sorkin. It's just that they seemed to completely miss the mark in the execution. It just all came off so contrived and disingenuous to me.

I've really been trying to give them time to settle in and give them the benefit of the doubt, but I was very disappointed with this one. Like I said, I think it was because I could see the great places they were trying to go, and watched them fly way off course.

Unknown said...

In other Sorkin stand-in news, his "pay the bills" job while writing A Few Good Men was, yes, as a bartender at one of the big theatres in NYC.


Anonymous said...

Undercover black man: Interesting stuff about Franklyn Ajaye. I knew him only as the NG on Deadwood!

Man, do I miss that show. Don't Sorkin's pretension to genius seem extra ridiculous when considered next to a real TV genius like David Milch?

Anonymous said...

TuckPendleton: The only thing we can hope for is that it does well in the Studio 60 timeslot next week, as it's getting killed in the ratings. The last episode slipped another 270,000 to 6.33 million.

I wish it could get a backorder, or better yet, a new season based just on critical acclaim, but it seems too long gone now. The whole thing is irritating, as I can understand people liking the kitsch of Dancing with the Stars, but it's just depressing that Help Me Help You is beating, hell, almost doubling the ratings of Friday Night Lights.

NBC deserved better considering their fall lineup.

Anonymous said...

annie: You can check out some of Franklyn Ajaye's comedy on iTunes. His album "Vagabond Jazz and the Abstract Truth" is half stand-up (recorded in Australia in the '90s), half jazz duets with his brother Eric Ajaye (Franklyn on clarinet, Eric on bass).

I recommend the track "Crazy Jack" as a sampler of his sense of humor.

Anonymous said...

And did anyone notice that the actress playing the black bimbette is the holder of case 25 on "Deal or No Deal?" I'm surprised Sorkin didn't write in a putdown of that show if he knew the actress' resume.

Anonymous said...

Studio 60 is a car wreck. I can't stop watching, wondering 1) how it's possible that Sorkin and the other talented people aren't seeing the wreckage they should be trying to climb out of; 2) whether it could possibly get worse; 3) if miraculously Sorkin will be visited by the ghosts of Sport's Night and West Wing past and shown the light (or just the door). I feel bad for Perry, because he's been doing some of his best work and for Whitford and Busfield who are misused or underused.

Rob Rogers said...

I'm loving Studio 60. It's very much in line with things I loved about Sports Night and West Wing before it. Yes, it can be predictable at times, but I sometimes find that more charming than annoying. I knew that the baseball player would put his phone number on the ball, but finding that confirmed was like a satisfying click of an appropriate lock being turned rather than an eye-rolling moment for me.

I'm disappointed that so many critics (including you, who I have a lot of respect for) are giving it such a hard time. It's not rocket science, but the writing is generally sharp and the acting is very good. Many of the things that I hear complaints about (the characters being too similar to the creators, etc.) are meta issues that aren't all that relevant to the show as a whole, and that aren't picked up on by the average viewer.

Yes, I think that the comedy should be sharper in the sketches. But I hope the show has a chance to grow into its stride and gain an audience, and that will be sorted out as it does.

I'm sure it's difficult sometimes for a reviewer to watch a show with the perspective of what works for a more casual viewer in mind.

Anonymous said...

F**k yeah! While it's not a full season, Studio 60 just got another three scripts ordered!


Anonymous said...

Forgive me for being lazy and all, but every time I read anything about Studio 60 I think, Who the heck is Tom?

apparently he's not standing out for me and I need a "I'm CJ and I'll be your tour guide" opener to pound it into my head. (for once, TWW is running on Bravo again and I actually *care.* The State Dinner airs today)

Pam (wondering if Alan watched Grey's last week)

Anonymous said...

Hutcherson was on "Def Comedy Jam." In the very beginning.