Monday, September 18, 2006

Who the hell is Paddy Chayefsky?

Last night, courtesy of Toronto's CTV station that my apartment complex's antenna receives, I got to see Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The official premiere of the pilot episode in the US is tonight, so there are spoilers below. (Unless, of course, you've already seen the pilot via any of the various online distribution schemes NBC employed over the summer to create buzz for this show. Here I've seen it a day before its official US premiere, and I'm still behind the curve.)

It's a very, very, very good show. The production values are amazing, and the acting is first-rate across the board. This was a big worry of mine, but take it from me: you'll be able to watch Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford without once thinking of Chandler Bing or Josh Lyman.


Yes, I said "but".

If you've read any buzz about Studio 60 at all, you know that its basic concept is that it's a backstage show, set in and around the production of a Saturday Night Live-type sketch comedy show that's been on for twenty years, produced groundbreaking comedy and satire in its early years, but has since become safe and boring and -- the ultimate comedy crime -- unfunny. The producer-creator, played by Judd Hirsch (an actor I always love), finally snaps and walks right onto the stage during the live broadcast, whereupon he gives a long, rambling diatribe to the live national audience about the stunning wasteland that is television today. Network execs explode, exit the old producer, and the mess is dumped into the lap of the new network president (Amanda Peet), who decides to rehire the show's old head writer (Matthew Perry) and director (Bradley Whitford), who apparently quit or were fired from the show four years earlier.

The show features all the features you'd expect from a Sorkin/Schlamme show: dialogue that happens so fast you miss it if you so much as sip your beverage, long tracking shots that follow the actors through the winding corridors of a very complex set while they recite said dialogue that happens so fast yada yada yada, name-dropping galore to create a sense that this show actually is taking place in the real world, and so on. And yes, it's wonderful to have all that Sorkin/Schlamme goodness back again, four years after their departure from The West Wing (and, frankly, five years after their best TWW work was already behind them).

But here's the thing: it's almost too Sorkinesque, if that makes any sense. Watching Studio 60, I got the same sensation that I felt when I caught a couple of episodes of SportsNight on syndication a few years back. I'd never seen SportsNight in its original run, so I saw an episode of it after I'd seen three or four years' worth of West Wing. And the feeling I got was that I was hearing TWW dialogue, but not about TWW stuff. Same thing here: the tone of the dialogue is exactly the same, but the topic is TV and not politics. It may take me an episode or two to fully recalibrate myself to Studio 60.

And, of course, people like me who are pretty intimately familiar with Sorkin's writing will recognize those little "Sorkinisms" when they pop up. Phrases like "I hate your breathing guts". Someone telling a higher-up at length about this great idea they have, and when the higher-up says, "Great, when do we start?", being told something like "I already did." Characters not batting an eye when told bluntly by someone else about their own character flaws, or even seeming proud of them. Every affirmative answer to an interrogative being "Yeah". Never "yes", "uh-huh", "mmm-hmmm", "you bet your bippy", but "yeah". It's only a matter of time, I suppose, before someone on Studio 60 relates a bad experience with the metaphor, "I got screwed with my pants on", or until someone rigidly insists: "No, I didn't do that. I would never do that. It would be unthinkable for me to do that. [beat] But yes, I did that."

I once read a scathing critique of Aaron Sorkin's writing (don't remember where, or I'd look for a link) that pointed out how just about every character in his shows talks the same, with the same phrasings, the same long-winded sentences that occasionally become exercises in recursion. I can't totally deny the point, but when Sorkin's on his game, I'm left thinking, "Yeah, isn't it great!" On this pilot episode, at least, Sorkin's had time to hone this script to the typical sharpness that one expects from a Sorkin script when he's had time to hone it thusly. We'll see what happens later in the season.

And there's where some of my skepticism about this show comes into play: later in the season. The West Wing, being set in the political world of the White House, offered tremendous dramatic potential. The canvas on Studio 60, though, seems at my first glance to be substantially more limited. I'm just not sure how many stories there are to tell with a show like this, and I'm not sure how long it can go on before it starts feeling a bit stale. I'm sure we'll have stories about actor difficulties, and problems with the writing staff, and clashes with network executives, and cost overruns, and so on. There's no reason why that kind of thing can't remain interesting for a long time, but to do so, Sorkin may need to vary his writing style a bit. As much as I love to see the old Sorkin/Schlamme magic at work again, that can't be the sole thing keeping Studio 60 going.

And I'm already a little unsure of the degree to which Sorkin appears to be mining from his own personal experiences for this project: a show set in TV land about a writer-director team that left their old project under less-than-ideal circumstances, one of whom has a recurring addiction problem. There's a very definite feeling that Studio 60 is Sorkin's roman a clef, and it's very hard not to look at the show's constant indication that the fictional sketch comedy show sucked hard in the absence of its brilliant writer/director team as a slap at the three seasons of The West Wing that followed the Sorkin/Schlamme exit from that series.

But at the same time, I'm glad that Sorkin and Schlamme appear to be openly embracing the fact that show business is seedy as hell, that it really is populated with people who look for dead bodies so they can steal the coins off their eyes, and that it is a business of metaphorical incest where everybody knows everybody else and has slept with a good number of them. The West Wing somehow managed to blend a romanticized notion of politics, where public service is honorable and so are most of the people in it, with the old adage about how you shouldn't inquire too closely into the makings of laws and sausages. That same blend of tropes can't work with Studio 60; nobody really romanticizes Hollywood anymore, and certainly nobody really romanticizes television.

And there's the rub: I suspect Studio 60 will be a show that's much admired for its sheer quality. But I doubt that it'll be loved as its politically-themed predecessor was. So don't watch Studio 60 with The West Wing in mind. Instead, think of a seedy Hollywood tell-all book. Think You'll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again. And don't look for a Jed Bartlet in this show. There isn't one.

CLARIFICATION: I didn't dislike SportsNight on the limited basis in which I saw it. But what I did see made me wonder (along with movies like The American President and A Few Good Men, also written by Sorkin) if Sorkin might not be a one-trick pony, albeit with a really amazing trick. His output is excellent, no doubt about that, but his dialogue really does sound the same from one thing to the next.


Erinna said...

See, I *loved* Sports Night. I came to The West Wing a fan of Sorkin, mainly because of Sports Night. So I see Studio 60 as sort of a blend of the two...I've watched the pilot twice already, once on YouTube, and once from Netflix.

The TV-on-DVD phase we've entered has let me take a different approach to TV...because even if Studio 60 is a miserable failure, I'll still get at least a season of new Aaron Sorkin on DVD. ;)

Roger Owen Green said...

Sports Night made my Top 10 comedies. I watched it out of the box. Perhaps you should rent a season of the show; catching a couple disparate episodes is not doing it justice, IMO.

Anonymous said...

I third the Sports Night love. It might have been a better show than the West Wing. More... subtle. Aaron Sorkin seems to be taking himself a little more seriously these days. It's kinda too bad.

(Sports Night did only go two years, but two very good years. I'm betting now that Studio 60 gets about the same run. But hey, I'm good with that. If Sorkin wants to make a new series every two years, I'll watch.)

One more thing -- there is a Jed Bartlet on this show. Her name is Jordan McDeere.

-Mary (