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Five O’ Friday: The Untimely Demise of Studio 60

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Those new episodes of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip which are going to start airing on May 28? Enjoy ‘em if you can, because that’s the last you’ll see of NBC’s most hyped new drama of last year.Many of you might remember just how excited I was about Studio 60 in the months leading up to the 2006 television season. Hell, I was so geeked about it I created a new holiday in celebration. Aaron Sorkin has been one of my favorite writers for years, The West Wing remains one of my favorite TV series ever, and Studio 60 had a great cast lined up. NBC, behind even FOX in the network ratings, desperately needed a new hit and were prepared to give S60 a major push. No way this show could fail, right?

Yeah, well.

I gave Studio 60 a solid chance to wow me, both out of respect for the creators involved and out of sheer blind optimism. But it didn’t take long to see the magic Sorkin and company had brought to The West Wing hadn’t followed them to their new show. A few episodes managed to be really entertaining, but none hit more than a solid stand-up double as compared to the not infrequent home runs of Wing.

(Was it fair for me to so consistently compare these two series? Probably not, but I think it was also natural given the strong creative voice behind both shows. I’m wondering if many of us judged Studio 60 more harshly than we should have simply because it wasn’t The West Wing.)

(No, I’m pretty sure Studio 60 just wasn’t that good.)

I started writing my first “what’s wrong with Studio 60” post after the fourth episode had aired, though I never completed it because I figured it wouldn’t be necessary, that Sorkin would get the show on course. Silly me. Most of the problems I had with the show early on continued to be problems throughout, and even more weaknesses became clear as the show limped along. Here now, for your Five O’ Friday enjoyment, are five of the reasons I think Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip eventually didn’t quite work:

  1. Studio 60 boasted a strong cast full of likeable actors which it nearly completely wasted. Matthew Perry played Not Chandler Bing really well. Steven Weber, who normally does charming and personable with ease, proved to be equally adept at playing an insufferable asshole. Bradley Whitford (though he seemed miserable most of the time), Amanda Peet, Timothy Busfield, the adorable Lucy Davis — this show had plenty of actors I liked, and frequently didn’t give them anywhere near enough to do. Whitford in particular, who was so fantastic on The West Wing, spent much of the series looking like he was waiting for someone to bring him something interesting to say.
  2. Countering that last point about the great cast, though was the fact that Sorkin (or his designated casting flunkies) seriously miscast both of the show’s female leads. Never for a minute did I buy that Sarah Paulson’s Harriet Hayes was one of the most beloved comedic actresses in America — she wasn’t charming and she wasn’t all that funny. I also never believed Amanda Peet as a hotshot young television executive. Can I imagine that a smart, capable, talented woman shot up the corporate ladder to run a network by her mid-30s? Oh, sure I can… but the woman I’m imagining and Amanda Peet’s Jordan McDeere don’t have a whole lot in common.You know what I would have believed? Amanda Peet as one of the country’s most beloved comedic actresses. Peet is naturally charming and funny in exactly the way the stiff Paulson isn’t. I think Peet as Harriet would have worked much, much better (and probably made the Matt-Harriet relationship less grating) — and casting an actress somewhat older than the 34-year-old Peet would have made Jordan a more believable character, too. (Yes, there are plenty of actresses in their 40s and 50s who could have done determined, capable, accomplished and damn sexy — including Christine Lahti, who guested on several episodes of Studio 60 and just happens to be married to Thomas Schlamme, Sorkin’s creative partner.)
  3. I never felt like Sorkin had a firm grasp on his characters. Most of the characters felt more like placeholders than people: the black one we can use to discuss issues of race; the Christian one we can use to discuss issues of religion and explain why Midwestern conservatives are clearly so, so stupid; the druggie one we can use to explain why Sorkin’s cocaine binges really aren’t all that bad. To continue with the unfair comparisons, the character development on Studio 60 paled next to that on The West Wing or on SportsNight, Sorkin’s first series; based on that history alone, I’d expected that the character development and interaction would be one of this show’s strengths, and was quite disappointed to discover that not to be true.
  4. Sorkin just never seemed to really get what his audience wanted out of this show — honestly, I’m not sure he ever much considered his audience at all. The show felt like his way of explaining and excusing his own demons, which would have been absolutely fine had it been more consistently entertaining. When he made his course correction after the extended winter break, bringing the romance angle more to the front (and destroying most of Matt’s likability as a character in the process — yes, he “dumped” Harriet for good because, while single, she thought about sleeping with another guy) and the show became almost painful to watch.
  5. I’m not sure the setup inherently allowed for that many compelling stories to arise from it — and many of them that did he’d already done on his previous shows. The A-plot of the second episode of Studio 60 was lifted whole from a similarly-themed episode of The West Wing (both centered on the stressful anticipation of a bunch of poll results/ratings which would determine the future course of the government/show). Much of the show’s drama came from a Matt-Harriet “relationship” that was never believable between two stars without much chemistry together (Perry and Whitford had plenty of chemistry, but that coupling might have been pushing the boundaries a bit far for NBC’s taste) or from Sorkin-serving “creatives versus suits” plotlines. Neither ever really connected enough to serve as the dramatic lynchpin for the show.
  6. Bonus sixth reason: I know it’s been said to death by this point, but holy moley did those in-show skits suck major ass.

All of that said, I still liked the show and I’m quite sad to see it gone. I’m hoping that the experience hasn’t soured Sorkin on television for good, because when he’s at the top of his game, he’s one of the best TV writers around — if not the best. Unfortunately, Studio 60 was far from Sorkin at his best, and while that might still be better than most shows currently on the air, it wasn’t good enough. Expectations both creative and commercial were simply too large and the production buckled underneath the weight. I almost can’t believe I’m about to say this as it goes against so much of what I feel about the creative process, but: I hope Sorkin takes a few years away from TV and comes back with something a little less personal.

Written by Allen

May 18th, 2007 at 10:00 am

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Ever since the move, I’ve been feeling more than a bit on the, shall we say, constipated side creatively. What with the new job and all, I haven’t felt good about writing anything during the day while at work (both because I’ve been trying to make a positive impression and because I’ve been really friggin’ busy since the day I started here, and that’s not likely to ease up any time soon). At night, I’ve been doing some freelance work for a friend and when I haven’t been, I just haven’t been able to unclog my backed-up wordflow.

But I don’t like the fact that I haven’t written anything lately. I don’t like the fact that my online empire has grown so stale during the last six weeks or so. As a friend pointed out a little while ago when Terry mentioned the aforementioned creative constipation: “The video of K is cute and all, but…he should think about fiber.”

So this is me thinking about fiber.

It’s not that I haven’t had stuff to day, but rather haven’t been able to organize anything in my head to make a coherent post out of it. Thusly, coherent posts be damned, and let’s move on to a bullet list, shall we? Maybe doing so will be like Metamucil for my brain.

  • North Carolina is just beautiful. Most of the days for the month we’ve been here have featured bright blue, mostly cloudless skies, nice breezes, reasonable temperatures, and lots and lots and lots and lots of green. (We do live in Greensboro, after all.) But man, when it rains here? It friggin’ rains. Forget those pansy little “rain showers” we got up in New England, the kind where you can’t even hear the rain on the roof, the kind where you’re actually surprised to discover it’s raining when you step outside. Here, we get real rain, big ol’ honkin’ drops that hit your skin like heavy bullets of water — this ain’t rain that’s gonna sneak up on you. It’s not quite torrential Florida rain, at least not that I’ve experienced yet, but the first time it rained on us here was yet another reminder that we’re back in the South (along with Waffle House and the ability to buy beer and wine in grocery stores).
  • Monday night, for those of you haven’t heard, is Sorkinalia (a.k.a. the debut of Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip). I doubt it’s much of a secret that I’ve been looking forward to this holiday for more than a year. But unlike the ridiculous amounts of anticipation I built up for Superman Returns, my expecations for Studio 60 are a tad more reasonable. It doesn’t have to be the best TV show I’ve ever seen; it only has to be better than most TV shows. Given that Sorkin’s behind it, I think that’s a reasonably safe expecation for me to harbor. I encourage every single one of you out there to watch it Monday night at 9 EST on NBC; I hope to be posting my thoughts about it on Tuesday.
  • I think I want my DVR back (we didn’t get one when we set up our cable in the new house). Too many new shows I want to try out and no way in hell I’ll be able to sit down and watch them all at broadcast time. Having little kids makes being a TV fan difficult, I swear.
  • Speaking of little kids, hearty congratulations are in order for my buddy Jeff Newberry, who recently discovered he’s going to be a first-time dad. Good on ya, Jeff! I fully expect to hear about you reading poetry to Heather’s belly as she hits the latter stages of her pregnancy.
  • Also speaking of little kids, Terry’s got her report on Kelsey’s initial foray into organized sports up over at Mother Mirth. Terry was all witty and wistful and pensive and stuff so I didn’t have to be.

Written by Allen

September 15th, 2006 at 12:08 pm

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Thank heavens for common sense: NBC blinked. Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip will not air opposite CSI and Grey’s Anatomy when it debuts this fall. They haven’t yet announced where it will air, but let’s all raise a glass of our beverage of choice to NBC for deciding not to cripple the show before it even got its feet under it. (They’ll be throwing an extra episode of Deal or No Deal in that time slot instead — I won’t cry if that gets slaughtered, and I doubt NBC will either, since the extra episode of an established game show likely costs them almost nothing, at least in comparison.)

Don’t worry, this can only help our plans for Sorkinalia.

Written by Allen

May 27th, 2006 at 9:00 pm

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Celebrating Sorkinalia!

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One last bit of Sorkiniana, then I’m done with talking about him for a bit:

I think the best part of last night’s series finale of The West Wing was the one-minute preview for Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, the new Aaron Sorkin series airing on NBC this fall, which showed up in the middle of the broadcast. [1] That show is, for me the Superman Returns of the fall TV season, — both because it’s Sorkin’s return to series television and because of the tremendous anticipation I’ve got building up for it. Just Sorkin’s involvement alone would have been enough to get me to watch, really, but finding out that the cast included the underrated Matthew Perry and Steven Weber and the scrumptious Amanda Peet jacked up my internal buzz even more.

And then they showed that preview last night… and holy schnikies, I hadn’t heard that Bradley Friggin’ Whitford, my favorite WW actor, is gonna be on it, too. I had been thinking to myself just a few minutes before the preview, “Man, I really hope Whitford gets to do something good after this show’s done, ’cause he’s too good not to be on a quality show somewhere.” I’ve got a hunch he’s probably not going to get more quality than Studio 60.

Apparently, the script for the Studio 60 pilot has been floating around the Internet for awhile; part of me’s tempted to hunt it down and read it, but the bigger part of me wants to be surprised when I see the show in September. Warren Ellis has read it, and had this to say about it in his “Bad Signal” email newsletter this morning:

Read a draft of Aaron Sorkin’s forthcoming Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip last night. Nearly gave up writing. I want to break that bastard’s hands, I really do.

Ellis is a pretty damn fine writer himself, so that script’s gotta be something else for him to throw that kind of praise (if you can call wanting to cripple the man “praise”) Sorkin’s way.

I’m hoping at this point that NBC will have a better handle on how to market and manage Studio 60 than ABC did with SportsNight, Sorkin’s last backstage look at a TV show. SportsNight and The West Wing had a very similar vibe to them — neither was strictly a comedy or a drama, but fluidly melded elements of each. ABC had no idea how to handle SportsNight since it looked like a sitcom and was only thirty minutes long… but had moments of seriousness as affecting as any traditional hour-long drama. NBC had an easier time with The West Wing, since we viewers tend to accept chunks of comedy chocolate in our peanut butter drama more easily than the other way around. I can’t be sure just yet, but I’d imagine Studio 60 will steer overall more closely to the comedy (especially given that it’s a behind-the-scenes look at a comedy show), but with Sorkin wrting, it’s guaranteed to have healthy doses of both.

Early indications are that NBC’s doing right by Sorkin with their scheduling: right now it looks like the show’s going to air on Thursday nights at 9 p.m. Eastern, after My Name Is Earl and The Office, the two best comedies NBC’s got right now. That’s going to make for the best block of programming the network’s had on its supposed “Must See TV” night in years, and ensures I’m going to be watching (or recording, anyway) on Thursdays. Bridging the absurdity of The Office and the perpetual torment of ER seems like it’ll be a perfect job for Studio 60.

I’m proposing, thanks to some inspriation from Terry, a new holiday to be observed sometime this September or October. I can’t give you the precise date just yet, but on whatever night it is that the first episode of Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip premieres, we here at Do or Do Not will be celebrating Sorkinalia, an evening full of fast-paced, witty banter (spoken while walking quickly around the house), sexual tension and passionate, inspiring monologues. And there will be chips. And maybe ice cream.

[1] NBC clearly knows the West Wing audience pretty well — and wants to make sure the affluent WW demographic follows to Studio 60.

Written by Allen

May 15th, 2006 at 9:38 pm

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“West” Into the Sunset

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Last night, NBC broadcast the series finale of The West Wing, and as a nice bookend before the finale, they aired the show’s pilot episode. Watching the first and last episodes of the show back-to-back really accentuated just how much the show had changed over its seven-year run, and honestly, it probably wasn’t a very fair thing to do to the series finale. The finale was good; the pilot was superb.

The biggest difference between the two episodes, to my total lack of surprise, was in the dialogue. I think we can all accept it as understood at this point that Aaron Sorkin-penned dialogue is going to be far better than dialogue written by… well, just about anybody else, and it’s certainly true that the writing in the finale is far from Sorkin-esque. As good as the last episode was, there were absolutely no truly memorable lines of dialogue, nothing that’s going to hang around in the viewer’s head later for further rumination or stick in the cultural consciousness. Certainly nothing that stuck out like President Bartlet’s “Get your fat asses out of my White House” line from the pilot (and yes, I realize that the line by itself doesn’t read all that well, but when it was delivered by Martin Sheen [1] in context, it was blistering, I’ve gotta tell you).

Watching that first episode, what really stuck out as much as the quality of the dialogue itself was the speed with which it was delivered; I’d almost forgotten how rapidly the words shot out of these characters’ mouths, as if the words themselves were coated in hot sauce and the actors needed to get them out as quickly as possible. Gilmore Girls is the only other show I know of that’s able to cram so many words into a single episode. Watching the cast deal with Sorkin’s words was always a treat, and the fact that that level of exquisite verbal gymnastics wasn’t required of them in the final episodes almost feels like a waste of their talents.

As I said a few days ago, the last few episodes certainly weren’t bad, but the finale definitely suffered in retrospect after we watched the pilot. (Thanks to the wonders of the DVR, we watched the finale before the pilot, the opposite of the order in which NBC aired them.) Those last few episodes were saved mostly by virtue of a compelling situation (peering behind the curtain at the transition between presidencies) and the abilities of the still-excellent cast. The finale was able to provide a couple of nice moments between characters (especially nice was the moment between Bartlet and Charlie, and the return of one particularly significant bit of WW mythology), but I was left feeling that I didn’t get the closure I needed with most of these characters.

Y’know, this might seem a funny thing to say about a show that won the Emmy award for Best Drama four times, but what was really missing from those last few Sorkin-free episodes I saw was the sense of fun that the show had in the early years. Even at its talkiest and most intense, The West Wing still had a well-defined sense of humor when Sorkin was at the helm, and that humor was largely lacking as the show ended its run. Even Josh Lyman (the brilliant Bradley Whitford — more on him later today), who was always the funniest, most glib and most sarcastic of the main cast, spent too much time being overworked, tense and morose to show much wit. (Not even finally bagging Donna after all that time was able to bring his funny back.) I think that as much as anything else, it was the loss of that ability to effectively straddle the line between comedy and drama (an oh-so-Sorkin trait) that made The West Wing a lesser show at the end than it was at the beginning.

At its best, The West Wing presented a hyper-intelligent, idealistic, complicated, sometimes fractious group of people who desperately believed in the righteousness of what they were doing and sincerely believed their government could help make the lives of Americans — all Americans — better. They didn’t always make the best choices, but I never doubted that that their intentions were in the right place. The fact that the show managed this feat during a time when our real presidential administration seemed to be interested in helping only itself and the wealthiest one percent of the country made The West Wing that much more poignant to me — and pushed the show beyond comedy or drama and into fantasy instead. Many times I wished these were the people really running our country and that the White House’s current occupants were nothing but characters in a horror story.

[1] At some point in the last seven years, Martin Sheen/Jed Bartlet seems to have turned into a shorter version of my father. Though I’m not sure the Republican in him would much appreciate the comparison.

Written by Allen

May 15th, 2006 at 4:13 pm

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