Monday, January 22, 2007

Studio 60: Getting personal

Today's column is my account of last week's TCA visit to the "Studio 60" set:
Aaron Sorkin isn't happy with me. But then, he also isn't happy with bloggers, comedy writers, the Los Angeles Times and numerous other people and groups who have written unflattering things about "Studio 60."

It's an uncharacteristically chilly SoCal morning, and several dozen TV critics and reporters have gathered to hear Sorkin explain how "Studio 60" began the season with more hype and promise than any show on television and will be lucky to end it with a renewal for next year.

The show, set backstage at a fake version of "Saturday Night Live," has its devoted viewers and critics, but as many or more (including yours truly) have attacked it for, among other reasons, a smug attitude; the unfunny nature of the sketches on the show within the show; the lack of resemblance to what we know about the real "SNL" and its backstage culture; and Sorkin seemingly using the series to settle old scores with former colleagues and girlfriends.

"We get a lot of negative press on this show," he says. "We got it on 'West Wing,' we got it on 'Sports Night,' I got it on the plays I've done, the movies I've done, and public comments that I've made... It's the cost of doing business."

The cost, however, seems higher than it has in the past.
To read the rest, click here. And in reading, you may note that at one point he directly adresses me by name in response to somebody else's question about the autobiographical nature of the show. I'm the only person he did this to (on several occasions over the hour), and it's not because I was the most famous critic in the room, or the best writer, or his friend. It was because he's been reading my stuff and, as the first line of the story says, he's not happy with it or me and wanted to make that clear. As the visit was wrapping up, I made a point of seeking him out to at least discuss things, and he said I had "made it personal" by writing so much about the real-life parallels in general, and his relationship with Kristin in particular.

Now, I resolved a long time ago to make my criticism be about the work and not the person doing that work, so Sorkin saying I had crossed that line struck as big a nerve with me as my writing had with him. I could make an argument that identifying what feels to me to be score-settling in the show is a criticism of the work, but I feel like I've made that point several times over in just a half-season.

So here's the deal: that column and this blog entry are the last time I'm going to write about "Studio 60" and Kristin Chenoweth together. The show's flaws, to me, go beyond that one angle, and going forward I'd rather focus on the other stuff -- both the bad and, hopefully, the good -- than to keep hammering at this one point. Back tonight or tomorrow morning with thoughts on "Monday."


David J. Loehr said...

"You've got to be careful not to let too many voices into your head, or you're not going to get anywhere."

On the other hand, you should have at least one or two people you trust to tell you what works and what doesn't. Any good writer knows that not every word he or she types is golden.

"If a character read something and laughed, I feel like the audience would be left out somehow. The character would be enjoying something they couldn't."

Um, no, the audience might be convinced it could be funny. There might even be some tension if one person laughed and another didn't, and maybe we'd see a snippet at the end of the episode and be allowed to decide for ourselves. And what about the tension created if the network found something funnier than the cast and crew? SportsNight showed it was possible to write intelligently about similar topics without going full tilt boogie into romantic comedy mode. (That was one of its weaker elements, actually.)

Full disclosure. I don't really blog. I don't have time, because I'm a professional writer and theatre artist. I own SportsNight and the first two seasons of The West Wing on DVD. And I believe strongly in the creative vision of one person running and writing a show; I love the British system of shorter series written consistently by a single person or team.

But it seems to me that most of the press when SportsNight began was uniformly glowing. Same with The West Wing, and deservedly so. They were beautifully written from the start, if maybe a little hyper-dramatic, a little more theatrical than most shows. The bad press began only when the quality of the shows slipped, and when they slipped, it was precipitous.

Studio 60 has increasingly played more like someone writing a bad parody of Sorkin's writing, combining the previous shows and highlighting their flaws. Even then, it's remarkably boring compared to even the lesser Sorkin-written episodes of the previous series. And I've been a fan for years. I have no ax, no grudge.

What makes this book, "Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live" by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad, such an entertaining read? The fact that it's so damn funny. And what makes much of it so tragic even as you're reading? Because it's so damn funny. Most of all, you get a sense of these people as human beings with particular talents and quick wits. Even if you had never seen the first five years of SNL, you would believe it was funny just from reading the book. More and more often, when I use the book in teaching, I'm coming across students who know the names Belushi and Ackroyd from movies--if at all--and have no idea who Chevy Chase is, let alone that he might have been funny once. And once they've read the book, they seek out what they can of the original shows.

The 60 pilot did a wonderful job of setting up the series, and finessing the question of talent. Since then, there hasn't been anything plausible about these people even having funny thoughts to themselves let alone being funny and/or talented enough to put on a comedy show. You never doubted that Jed Bartlett could run the country, you never doubted that Dana Whittaker could produce a sports show.

It should say something that I've still got four episodes of 60 stacked up on the TiVo--all of which I've tried to watch and slept through--but I picked up on 30 Rock thanks to iTunes and now watch it on TiVo the night it airs.

As for making it personal, he might have proven his point if he hadn't been so petty in continually addressing you.

But what does he care? I'm writing a comment on a blog. I'm working in a small theatre company in the midwest. I haven't ascended to the Ayn Randian heights of "you can't edit me, what I create is perfect because I created it"-ness. I actually listen to one or two people who give clear and concise comments on my work. And I still miss SportsNight.

Anonymous said...

Having just watched "Monday", my love of all things Sorkin is starting to wane. The episode was decent, but it really seemed like a whole lot of nothing, and a bit sluggish at times. That said, it did feel a bit more on form at other times, so it's not too bad.

The problem is that there are a couple characters there that I'm not really a fan of: Matt's PA, and the British writer. That said, the new woman brought in as a nemesis to Jordan was decent, as were the associated scenes. As always, I love whatever Jack does, even though a $78 million dollar fine is getting to the point of absurd (and not in a good, screw the FCC way).

Hell, what I'm just looking for is a shakedown of the cast, and a bit more cohesive plot developed, with arching story-lines that are more diverse than the FCC dilemma.

The show is not bad, but at the same time it's not as magical as I thought it would be. I'm not as bitter as the majority of the critics are to it, but I do see the validity of some of their points.

Side note: I am a bit more cynical against the show than I usually am, but I'm on a Larry Sanders binge, and am seeing in a way what Studio 60 could have been.

Anonymous said...

When a writer/producer uses his venue as a bully pulpit (which Sorkin does, whatever he may think or say) he can expect to generate comment. I am amazed at what a thin skin he has.

Having both watched the show and read Alan's commentary, I gotta go with what Alan's said.

Anonymous said...

Sorkin's problem isn't really the online bloggers who tear apart his stuff, or the critics who feel the show is too autobiographical. Sorkin's problem is that people -- also known as "viewers" -- aren't enjoying his show. My mom is an avid "West Wing" fan who was looking forward to "Studio 60," but told me she finds it disappointing, tedious and pretentious. She doesn't read TV critic columns; she didn't get this stuff from Television Without Pity. She just watched the show and didn't like it. Sorkin can cling to his belief that he is a superior judge of culture and television, but that's not going to draw in viewers and it won't keep his show on the air.

Anonymous said...

So you met Aaron Sorkin and he was arrogant, thin-skinned and petty?

Did not see that one coming.

Alan, don't beat yourself up for writing about the parallels between real-life and fiction. When stories are that thinly drawn, it's kind of obvious to connect the dots.

Anonymous said...

This is pathetic. Aaron Sorkin made a deal with NBC that required specific timeslots and prevented them from giving any notes on the show AT ALL. You'd think the show's failure would leave him no one to blame but himself. But, no. He's lashed out at the viewers instead. What a tool.

Anonymous said...

Alan, don't beat yourself up for writing about the parallels between real-life and fiction. When stories are that thinly drawn, it's kind of obvious to connect the dots.

No kidding. Don't let Sorkin's whining dictate what you write about his show. I don't watch "Studio 60" any more because I found it boring (despite liking Perry's character), but I enjoy reading your take on its autobiographical elements. If Sorkin's going to put himself out there like that, he's going to have to expect others will notice the parallels and may even comment on them. And he's definitely going to have to grow a thicker skin.

Anonymous said...

If Sorkin's skin were any thinner, he'd be writing Nightwing or New Avengers instead of working in television.

I posit that the reason some of this stuff bothers him so much is on some level he knows it's right.

And I say this as someone who doesn't mind the sketches aren't funny, and I agree with no one laughing; Matt's an egomaniacal artiste and he would approach the funny stuff intellectually.

The Chenoweth stuff, however... he made his own bed with that. The episode where Tom and Simon endlessly debate Harriet on not doing a spread for FHM was tiresome and felt like he was kicking at something that wasn't necessary. I find it hard to believe that Simon and Tom would be that intrusive of Harriet's career choices if they've been working together that long.

bill said...

I am now looking forward to the spring sweeps episode where the new writer they've hired--Ellen Wepinsall--makes a snarky comment about the Danny/Jordan relationship. Then, while buying a pack of gum, he makes a joke to a mugger who guns him down. The mugger walks away muttering: "In the future, if you're wondering, 'Crime, Boy I Don't Know' was when I decided to kick your ass!"

Anonymous said...

The funny thing is, even though I've trashed Sorkin regularly, after reading this piece, I'm not as annoyed with him as most people are. Maybe it's because it seems like we've heard a lot of this before. And some of the criticism of his drawing things from his personal life is overblown - does it really matter that Christine Lahti's character is a takeoff on Maureen Dowd? I don't think so. (Although I think he's gone too far with the Harriett/Kristen stuff.)

And I do accept that he knows more than I do about what works on television - maybe showing people laughing at a sketch idea would be off-putting to the audience. But I do think the interview shows why the show is just not going to work - he wants to show people working together to accomplish something. But drama is about conflict, and who are these people going to be in conflict with? Not each other, at least not in any way that will have lasting consequences. Not the network, because clearly those characters are going to be shown sympathetically too. All that's left are the outsiders, be it the Christian Right or the shallow comedy of Ricky & Ron - so it's the smart people vs. the dumb people. And as we've seen, that seems to wind up with smug lecturing.

The sad thing is there are good things about the show - most of the performances are very good, and a lot of the dialogue is fun to listen to. But the whole thing just doesn't work, there's no reason for the audience to care about what the characters are trying to accomplish, and ultimately the show won't get renewed and no one will be happy.

Anonymous said...

Isn't that what writers do, get personal? Duh. The only thing that might have made the show interesting to me was how it related to his personal life. Artists regurgitate their lives into artistic expression from which we relate, reflect, bemuse. He would hope that at least might boost the ratings. I say keep doing what your doing. At least now you've got his attention.

Anonymous said...

Wow -
You made it personal by mentioning it? But writing, recording, and airing the scenes in the first place wasn't the least bit personal? That takes a serious amount of delusion.

However, the strangest line was "I want to make it clear that you're not supposed to be finding this funny." All along when I hadn't found the "comedy" funny, I had thought he was just bad at sketch comedy - but no. It turns out he was writing bad sketch comedy on purpose, and had I been as smart as Sorkin is, I would have known I was watching deliberate badness.

Anonymous said...

He's treating you like a paparazzo because you're critiquing what he's written? And what David Loehr said about the critical response to Sorkin's past work. I guess I wasn't looking closely enough, because I don't remember seeing a bad review of The West Wing until after Sorkin left.

Grimoald said...

I like Studio 60 and I really don't have a problem with the main gripes you list (when on network TV do people laugh at what others say apart from when the story wants to make a point if it). The thing that bothers me about your approach to the show Alan, is that you can't seem to get over what you have deemed the 'mary-sue-ishness' of the show.

Yes he is writing semi-autobiographically, but that is what most writers do, no matter what the genre, it is just that as he is a semi-celebrity the experiences he draws from also may involve recognizable figures. The fact that almost everything in Seinfeld had happened to Larry David, Peter Mehlman or the other writers didn't bother me in the slightest, and it is the same here.

You may say it hasn't influenced you, but it clearly has in the way you keep on retreading the same area, and in some instances have tried to find subtext that wasn't there purely based on real life.

Anonymous said...

All along when I hadn't found the "comedy" funny, I had thought he was just bad at sketch comedy - but no. It turns out he was writing bad sketch comedy on purpose, and had I been as smart as Sorkin is, I would have known I was watching deliberate badness.

Ricky Gervais is including intentionally bad sitcom clips on "Extras" this season and they are so bad, they're hilarious. Sorkin's talking out his butt again.

Anonymous said...

Aaron Sorkin is lucky his show got a full season. The reason people are talking about how the show parallels his real life or that people don't like it is, there is nothing else to say about it.

There are plenty of people who don't like Grey's Anatomy and talk about that on the Internet. But that doesn't make it to the mainstream press cause there is so much more positive criticism. But Studio 60 has nothing else going for it. People aren't just going to start saying it is good when it isn't.

And if he has a problem with Chenoworth doing talking about him in the press.....maybe he should write an episode where Matt writes a sketch about him and Harriet and she tells the press it is about them and then he tell her off.

Joel said...

I dunno. Sorkin seems to be a bit over-sensitive about the whole thing. I'd say something worse, but this is a public forum. Suffice to say, he should stop reading what bloggers and newspaper columnists are saying and just concentrate on making a good show. It doesn't look like he's doing either.

Jason said...

Fair enough, Alan. Why not talk about his constant drum-beating of Cleveland, Reno, and Osborn in the guise of Ricky and Ron? Or his own ego stroking with the Matthew Perry character?

The show's such an ego trip, you can stop talking about Chenoweth and still go on and on with reasons why "Studio 60" is like being inside one of Sorkin's personal fantasies.

Anonymous said...


There. I'm happy. :)

Anonymous said...

Obviously the show is not the worst thing on television. There is even something good and even interesting about it, despite its many flaws (after all, we keep watching it and thinking and writing about it). I have agreed with pretty much all of Alan's criticisms on the shortcomings of 60, but I do think that after a while your assessments became almost exclusively (yes, even bordering on obsessively, sorry to say) focused on the autobiographical aspects of the show. Sorkin opens himself up for such criticism by using so much of his life so obviously. No question. You write what you know, of course; but you don't have to almost transcribe, if you will, what you've known.

Finally, I will say this, Alan, I think it's admirable that you have taken a step back, reflected on your own work, and have decided to focus more on aspects other than the autobiographical (I think that we all know there will be a lot outside of that realm that will be good, bad, and ugly enough to dish about).

velvetcannibal said...

Truthfully, I did stop reading your reviews of Studio 60 because you were beating us over the head with Sorkin's personal information. There are plenty of other things wrong that can be discussed.

Still, I don't think Sorkin had any reason to call you out in particular. His feelings may be hurt, but some other television writers choose to keep their personal lives out of their projects. (Not all, obviously.) You weren't the first to point out the parallels between fact and fiction. I don't assume that everything Harriet and Matt say and do is an exact reenactment of every conversation Sorkin has ever had, nor do I presume that I "know" him because of these characters. I don't know him. I'm not interested in his personal life.

Unfortunately, the real issue is that I'm not interested in his characters either. Shortly after I stopped reading your reviews of the show on this blog, I stopped watching. And I haven't missed it. Sorkin needs to realize that bloggers are vocal about their dislike of what had the potential to be a great show, but many of us in the lay public aren't like that. We just change the channel.

For the record, I do enjoy the rest of your reviews and don't mind the occasional foray into personal information. It's only Studio 60 with which I had a problem. And I did something which Sorkin can choose to do at any time: I stopped reading. Simple, right?

Undercover Black Man said...

David J. Loehr: I love the Hill and Weingrad "SNL" backstage history as well. If you want a sense of the drama involved in the creation of comedy (and the humor involved in that drama), that's the book.

I also highly recommend Jeffrey Sweet's oral history of the Second City stage troupe, "Something Wonderful Right Away."

Also recommended, though not so highly, is Jay Mohr's "SNL" memoir, "Gasping for Airtime."

And I can't get enough of the group discussions and track commentaries on the "SCTV" DVD sets.

Bryan Harris said...

This strikes me as a reasonable choice on Alan's part. He's certainly a nice man, and has handled what was apparently a very charged situation with grace, but I think it's a worthwhile writing choice as well; criticizing a writer for dining out on his personal life certainly isn't a cudgel he'd use on David Milch, whose excesses makes Sorkin's life look sedate and whose work teems with alcoholics, junkies, and verbose miscreants trying to rationalize away their guilt.

Anonymous said...

I think a lot of people are missing the point of Alan's discussion of Sorkin's personal issues. The point is not that Sorkin draws from his own experiences in his writing; that is the norm for writers. The problem is that there is no reason for much of what happens in the show except to bash people with whom Sorkin has had disputes. Yes, he can do this without harming the show; he did it in WW from time to time, and it was usually entertaining. However, here, his snippy comments or preachy speaches are so jarringly out of place that it becomes obvious that Sorkin is just trying to settle personal scores.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Thanks, Paul. That's exactly the point to why I was doing it. To quote my original review:

There’s plenty of perfectly solid fan-fiction out there, as well as intensely personal mainstream drama, but the thing that’s supposed to elevate mainstream fiction from the fan kind is a certain level of objectivity on the author’s part, the ability to separate what works for the story from what they wish works for the story. Too often in “Studio 60,” Sorkin chooses the latter.

Anonymous said...

You are altering content (or planned content) of your observations and content simply because of the objection of the subject of that content and commentary? This is the problem with writers and critics actually getting to meet the writers and artists they write about - too easy to become influenced by the reaction of those about whom they write. When you start limiting what your criticize because the famous person you are writing about objects, what then?

Anonymous said...

"Mr. Sepinwall, we writers aren't all smiles und sunshine."

I think the first comment upthread nicely summarizes the major difference between SNL and its erstwhile doppleganger, "Most of all, you get a sense of these people as human beings with particular talents and quick wits."

The characters on the show are very one-dimensional and without serious heft. I am not looking forward to the focus on the 'two couples' promised by the previews because they've done so little to earn any emotional involvement.

Sorkin should look at "FNL" for a show that's about more than its surface premise.

KidNoOneLikes said...

Hi, I'm in Britain and Studio 60 is still on going over here. I would like to read this article. Has it been taking down?