Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Review: Studio 60 on Sunset Strip

At the edge of the awards banquet he strode - one of the few people there besides me who didn't belong in a tuxedo. He looked edgy and nervous like a psycho loner walking off some kind of amphetamine buzz. The room was full of calm silver-haired men with deep tans - powerful handsome older gentlemen with their gorgeous young wives. The hyper man on the edge of the room didn't appear to fit, and in Beverly Hills where the valets can look like movie stars, he was a decidedly unattractive sort of person. But he more than belonged. This strange wired-looking guy represented the best of television writing. The banquet was the Producers Guild Awards and this was Aaron Sorkin, best known for the show "West Wing".

There was a time, according to show biz legend, when Sorkin - high on cocaine, mushrooms, and God knows what else, would hunker down in an expensive hotel suite and bang out some of the most compelling television ever. "West Wing" at its best was brilliant, and it was Aaron Sorkin who made it happen. There were usually two or three stories in each episode and there was nearly always an emotional climax to the most dramatic of the sub-plots that was stirring, surprising, and executed perfectly. Aaron was a foreshadowing god. He loved the witty, wordy dialogue of the show, but what he really excelled at was creating an hour-long tension that would often resolve itself with a multi-layered twist that made sense and could be downright inspirational. After he left the show, the difference was obvious. Sure, the same trademark moves were attempted but the results were usually out of whack. In short, Aaron could bring the television magic.

Now he's got a new show, "Studio 60 on Sunset Strip", and the hype machine has instructed us to find it hip. The Heartland has not taken to it, and that is explained away as the inevitable result of the show's profound bi-coastal sophistication. Maybe, but I think the Mid-West may be onto something. While the cast is strong, the new work seems weak. The great thing about "West Wing" was the incredible scope. The problems covered anything in the world so it was big and as bold as it wanted to be. Just hearing the theme song was more moving than most dramas.

The new effort is a behind-the-scenes look at an SNL-type show, so the drama is inescapably tied to sketch comedy. Frankly, watching the "genius" writer character struggle to come up with sketches is ludicrous. There's nothing that he produces that justifies his description as a great artist. Instead of West Wing-level issues like nuclear war, and assassination attempts, we have the tension of whether the weekend update bit is going to get them in trouble, or whether to cut the Nancy Grace parody.

Of course, it's still Aaron Sorkin. He still has the ability to engineer those climatic moments but they seem to overpower the subject matter. I believe one recent plot was about who wrote a question that was asked of a focus group looking at the SNL-type sketches. It was Sorkin-level execution but the gravitas the characters felt, did not extend to the viewing audience. Come on. A TV focus group's reaction to comedy sketches? You'd have to be demented to get too worked up about that.

Maybe it's because I think SNL - for the most part - is lame, was lame, and will always be lame. It could be my problem - I guess I'm just not a big fan of sketch comedy. Sure, if you take the best of the stuff during the golden era you had something, but I saw some of those shows the first time around. With comedy you don't get away with sucking for 15 minutes between good work. Call me a snob but I think most sketch comedy is horrendous. This new "Studio 60" show is in trouble - in my opinion - because the essential driving plot mechanism is whether or not the sketch with the lobster costume is going to come in long enough. After the greatness of "West Wing", it seems so insignificant. I find myself asking, "Who cares?"


At 10:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't seen this show (and don't have plans to watch it anytime soon) but I did enjoy the West Wing in the early days and I loved Sports Night.

At 10:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a lot like Sports Night--same high-speed, high-intensity, smart tv show. It's not the West Wing, but it's pretty entertaining and probably the best thing on.

HBO needs to hire Sorkin so his shows can stay on tv.

At 12:17 PM, Blogger Bill McDonald said...

I might be letting my football side show here, but my favorite new show is "Friday Night Lights".

At 4:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sully--wouldn't that just be...not ironic really, but considering last night's episode about buying the show that everybody thought should be on HBO with the "smart" tv... :) Perhaps there is a word for it that someone far more literary than I can easily call to mind :)

At 5:31 PM, Blogger Bill McDonald said...

Nice catch Erin. There is a lot of parallels with Sorkin's substance abuse problems and the characters, so maybe Sully sensed a Sorkin plea for HBO last night.
I will continue watching because it's a husband thing, but before I was married I didn't bother with any of these. How about the 20 pages of dialogue from the woman about her upbringing? That was exposition overload. And sorry to mention pages at a time like this.

At 5:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Friday Night Lights is pretty good. But I have to say that my favorite new show - although COMPLETLEY not my typical genre - is ABS's Ugly Betty. Two episodes in and I'm hooked.

At 5:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops...meant "ABC's" Ugly Betty.

At 6:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I haven't seen last night's episode yet...got it queued up for tonight. It's on too late for me. Strange that they had that bit about HBO on the show.

At 10:47 AM, Blogger Bill McDonald said...

Hey, that reminds me: Boston Legal rules.

At 5:11 PM, Blogger LaurelhurstDad said...

BL is great. I love it when Spader's character rants against the new Republicans and especially when he takes on religion, as he did last night. Much better even than South Park did when they took on the silly cult of $cientology.

Too bad it takes so long to produce an episode. I really want to hear Sorkin's take on the latest Bush scare story (NFL stadiums before the election) and the disappearance of what made America such a great place (our Constitutional rights).


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