Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Sorkin It In

I have not blogged in awhile. I've been feeling creatively spent and unsure of what to do next for awhile, which happens. One week you bang out a screenplay in four days, the next you spend staring at the television, trying to mine the depths of your Tivo, the Band of Brothers DVDs you've just gotten from Netflix, and the features on the Quantum Leap box set your girlfriend got you for your birthday. The muse is a fickle thing, and really, have you seen the episode where Sam leaps back into himself as a teenager? Seriously, it will make you weep and give up on writing for awhile, tearing your hair out in the knowledge that you'll never write anything so beautiful and perfect and moving despite it's corniness. The guy sings "Imagine" to his little sister, a good decade before it's written, making her, and us, cry.

Speaking of television...the new fall shows have started to trickle out, none of them grabbing viewer's or critic's attention very dramatically the way something like "Lost" did a couple years ago. There's a show that grabbed you by the balls and pulled you in for the ride from the first frame. But I digress- there will be plenty of "Lost" to talk about when it comes back next week.

The season's most hyped new show, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," is not getting off to the kind of start that a cultural phenomenon like "Lost" achieved a few years ago, ratings or quality wise (and how's that for a transition?) Aaron Sorkin's new drama has gotten tons of attention and some pretty damned good reviews. It was, by far, on the top of my "must watch" list for new fall TV (full disclosure- I don't have a "must watch" list. I wonder if any critics who use that term actually compile "must watch" lists for themselves.) I was pretty excited for this show. I loved "Sports Night." In fact, before my job at Disney came to an end, I checked out the DVD box set from the library there and went on a total "Sports Night" binge, watching the whole run of the series in a week. I was not a "West Wing" guy- never really watched it, wasn't interested in political grandstanding and Sorkin jumping on a soapbox every week. I agree with the guy's politics, but seriously, those speeches get a bit pompous sometimes. But what really got me excited for "Studio 60" was the subject. I am a huge fan of SNL, but clearly not the current era of SNL. I am a fan of the history of the show, of the people who made it great over it's long life on television. I read the awesome "Live From New York" book about a year ago, inhaling it like the cocaine Sorkin got busted for possessing a few years back. I mean, for a long time, SNL was the breeding ground for the greatest comedians of the last three decades. Murray. Belushi. Akroyd. Murphy. Hartman. Myers. Carvey. Rock. Farley. Ferrell. And I don't want to fail to mention a few of the great performers of the current era- Amy Pohler, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, and the great Tina Fey (whose new sitcom, 30 Rock, looks very promising- even though it's about a very similar subject to Studio 60- confusing.) I knew that Sorkin was interested in bringing us "Studio 60" because of the same reasons I love SNL and it's history- here’s a guy who knows the history of the show, loves the stories and myths associated with it, and sees the potential for it to be great again.

Which is what the show is about, basically. In the pilot, Wes Mondell, played by Judd Hirsch as an obvious nod to SNL's Lorne Michaels, stops a live broadcast after network execs force him to cut a sketch. He steps in front of the live audience and delivers a speech about "candy assed network execs" who push idiotic TV onto viewers, appealing to the lowest common denominator with shows about people eating bugs and trying to be like Donald Trump. And there it is, in the first few minutes of the pilot- one of those grandstanding Sorkin speeches. But Wes is quickly fired, and replaced by the main characters of the show- Matt Albee (Matt Perry) and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford.) After being dropped from the show a few years before, Matt and Danny stuck together, with Matt writing and Danny directing a film that Matt is receiving an award for as we first meet them. The duo is about to launch into their next project, except for one problem- Danny has tested positive for cocaine, and won't be able to be bonded to make the movie until he has eighteen months of clean drug tests. Enter Jordan McDeer (Amanda Peet,) the new president of NBS (the fake stand in for NBC) who sees Danny's drug test failure as an opportunity. She approaches Danny and Matt about running the sketch comedy show now that their mentor has been fired, which will get the show a lot of attention and prestige, something it sorely needs after the show's legendary creator himself has gone on the air to declare that "it's not going to be a very good show tonight." Matt and Danny deliberate on the idea of taking "Studio 60" over, one of the issues being the fact that Matt just broke up with one of the show's biggest stars, Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson,) a brilliant comic talent and devout Christian. When Matt and Harriett confront each other, it is revealed that they broke up because of her appearance on Pat Robertson's "700 Club."

The pilot was okay. It's very well written, but it's also a huge pile of exposition and character introductions. I read the pilot months ago, and it honestly worked better on the page. A lot of the action takes place in network board rooms, not exactly the sexiest or most exciting of locations. But through it all, Sorkin is able to introduce a lot of characters that will surely become more developed as the show goes on.

The second episode, which aired last night, was a big improvement. Freed of the burden of introducing dozens of characters, the show actually got to be what it was supposed to be- a behind the scenes look at the making of a live comedy show. Most of the drama came from the fact that Matt was having trouble coming up with an idea to open the show- he knows that after all the drama surrounding Wes's dismissal and his and Danny's hiring, the "cold opening" needs to be show stopper, which causes is the crux of the episode. The final moments of "Studio 60" actually show the skit that Matt eventually comes up with- a no holds barred musical number with a full orchestra. Problem is, it's not very funny. And that's where a lot of the show's flaws come from so far.

"Studio 60" is supposed to be about the making of a comedy program, but the show takes itself far too seriously. I'm not saying that the most brilliant comedic minds in television don't take their jobs seriously- they do. But they're also, ya know, funny. Some of Sorkin's dialogue is mildly amusing, but not even as much as "Sports Night," which wasn't really a sitcom in the first place. Worst so far is Paulson's Harriet Hayes- she's a good actress who has been funny before, but here she doesn't come off as nearly as funny as Matt and Danny rave that she is. Maybe the contradictions of the character- that she's supposed to be one of the sharpest comic minds in the world yet also a devout Christian- are too much for Paulson to wrap her acting talent around. On paper, the idea for the character is great- in practice, everything about Harriet's character feels forced and contrived.

Paulson's character is a glaring example of the main problems with the entire show so far. Just as Matt and Danny talk endlessly of Harriett's talent while we never see any evidence of it, Sorkin and his team have talked at length about how smart the show is going to be, how one of it's main topics is intelligent art in a time of lowered standards, we're being told about it so far, not shown it. It seems like, after the phenomenal success of "The West Wing," that Sorkin and company are trying a bit too hard to make the most intelligent show on TV. Just because a show deals with issues like religion doesn't make it intelligent- it needs to deal with these issues intelligently. So far, "Studio 60" has taken a pretty cartoonish and one note view of Christians and "700 Club" viewers. Harriett calls Matt on it when he pigeonholes all of Robertson's viewers as bigots, yet even she thinks that Matt's skit called "Crazy Christians” is brilliant. I dunno, but the title "Crazy Christians" doesn't sound like intelligent, nuanced cultural satire. It just sounds like a one sided, red state baiting attack. I may agree with a lot of Sorkin's politics, but sometimes the show creates an easy target for anybody who says that Hollywood is out of touch with real people. Sorkin better add some depth to Harriett's religious character, or the whole thing will just come off gimmicky and one sided. For "Studio 60" to gel into the home run it has so much potential to become, it needs to actually and effortlessly be as smart and funny as the creators tell us it is.

With that said, there is plenty to like about "Studio 60." Perry and Whitford have a natural chemistry as Matt and Danny. Steven Weber, as Jordan's boss Jack, brings a lot of charm and more depth to what could have been a one-note smarmy exec role. Timothy Busfield rocks so far as the show's long time director, getting some of the best moments in both episodes so far. Peet is growing into her character nicely, though the pilot did feature a few too many self-conscious close ups of her smiling face as she dealt with the crisis around her. If the supporting cast, especially the people playing the cast of the show within a show, can become a bit more developed and become more believably funny, than Sorkin will have another classic on his hands.

Really, Sorkin needs to step back and take a deep breath, and let his characters do the same. Matt, Danny, and Sorkin need to stop worrying about saving the entire medium of television and just worry about making one great show. That's the only way TV will be saved anyway- one great show at a time.