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Eric: Live, from Studio Sorkin on the Aaron Sorkin strip, it's Monday Morning...

Long time readers (and really, who's left around here these days) know I love Aaron Sorkin. I love his dialogue, which takes the art of broadcast (or theatrical) dialogue back to the heydey of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. I love his plots, which excel at taking the glorious and reducing it to the mundane -- and taking the mundane and exalting it into the glorious. (That's what made his tenure on The West Wing so good -- first off, he humanized the administration of the White House. You got a real sense of the everyday knocks and pressures the leaders of the Free World went under. And then, he managed to get you to care passionately about Farm subsidies and payroll deductions. The little day to day issues that are of paramount importance to actually running a nation like this were the real conflicts of the show. The big ticket stuff was just backdrop. Until he was forced out.)

Hell, the only Tom Cruise movie I've seen more than once is A Few Good Men. Sorkin's writing is solid enough that I can get over a near-pathological hatred for Tom Cruise. That's saying something.

Beyond actually loving Sorkin's work, I've also loved what Sorkin represents. In an era where, in Futurama's words, writing is essentially one of the minor technical awards at the Oscars -- in an era where what big name star you attach is paramount, what director you secure is key, but who actually writes the thing is irrelevant because it doesn't chart at the box office -- Aaron Sorkin became a significant and major presence because of his writing. His was the name to emerge from Sports Night. His was the name to cling to The West Wing. His departure from The West Wing is regarded by many as the shark-jumping moment of that series. Sorkin was like a megaphone shouting down into the well of American entertainment: the writer matters. What the writer says and does matters. And more to the point, absent the writer, none of the rest of it matters. The only way a kickass actor or director or producer can save a trainwreck of a script is if they essentially rewrite it. And that's not enough, in the long run -- there's a reason the phrase you can't polish a turd exists.

Needless to say, I watch Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

It's funny. NBC/Universal sort of owns me, right now. A year and a half ago, I'd have said that was impossible, but here we are. Of my top four slots on my Tivo's season pass list, three are taken up by NBC/Universal shows. Two of those are on NBC itself, on Monday Nights (Studio 60 and Heroes). The third is over on wholly owned subsidiary SciFi (come on -- you knew I watched Battlestar Galactica, right?). The fourth... well, I'm an old school Legion fan, and they have honest to God Interlac on that cartoon. Of course I watch it. But I digress.

Studio 60 is on one of those top four slots, like I said. But it's not number one. Nor is it second. Of the top four shows I will not miss recording at this stage of the game? Studio 60 is fourth.

And I'm not sure how solidly it's going to stay there.

On last week's show, Danny (played by ex-West Wing alumnus Bradley Whitford) looked up at the skybox in the theater -- the box reserved for the top brass at the fictional NBS television network -- and noticed that for the first time since he and fellow wunderkind Matt Albie (played by Matthew Perry) took over the venerable live late night comedy show Studio 60, the network president (Jordan McDeere, played by Amanda Peet) hasn't shown up to watch the show. Which is a laborious way to get to the quote I want to quote: "You think she fell out of love with us? It happens. People change."

Which is true enough.

Of course, Jordan hasn't fallen out of love with Studio 60. She's just out there fighting the good fight for quality broadcasting over mindless but popular schlock. But it's an interesting quote nonetheless. And it makes me wonder -- am I falling out of love with Aaron Sorkin? It happens, you know. People do change.

Only, I think it's Sorkin who's changing. Not me. Because in the old days? Sorkin was pretty good at concealing his jabs, his backbiting, and his thefts from his own life -- he certainly didn't let them interfere with his work. These days, the whole affair is All About Sorkin, and frankly it comes across as lame.

Let's start with the entire premise of the show. Four years prior to the pilot, NBS forces pioneering television producer Wes Mendell (played commandingly, passionately and all too briefly by Judd Hirsch) to fire hotshot superstar writer Matt Albie after Albie publicly supports Bill Maher after Maher's controversial post-9/11 statements blew up. Albie's BFF Danny Tripp walks when Albie walks, and the two go off to make movies, where they become so hot they're nuclear, baby -- living good is the best revenge. Flash forward four years, and the show is a shell of its former self, as Mendell's lack of backbone over Albie has translated into a complete loss of power across the board. Now his show is being written by total talentless hacks, standards and practices dictates what he can and can't do, and his life continues to be an ever descending spiral into irrelevance. Finally, after he tries to get an actually funny sketch on the show, both to inject humor into the show and as an act of penance (the sketch was one written by Matt Albie years before), only to have it shot down because it might offend Christians (the sketch was called "Crazy Christians" -- go figure), Mendell snaps on live national telvision. He goes on a rant so reminiscent of 1976's Network that the show name checks Network no less than twelve times through the rest of the show. The fallout is monumental, Mendell is fired, and in the process of damage control brand new NBS president Jordan McDeere says the core problem is people will think Mendell was right, and by firing him they just proved his point. To usher in a new era of courageous, quality television, they rehire Albie and Tripp to take over the show -- able to get them because Tripp, a recovering drug addict, fell off the wagon and failed a drug test, so for two years he can't get bonded to direct a movie. So, the pair comes onto the show to reverse its fortunes even as McDeere reverses the fortunes of the network as a whole, while contending with interpersonal issues ranging from a hack-laden writing room to Albie's ex-lover, Christian comedian Harriet Hayes (played by Sarah Paulson) distracting Albie by being all hot and sexy and stuff, while still... you know, being all Christian, too.

Got all that? Good.

A solid enough premise for a show? Sure. You have an automatic built in conflict right at the top -- every week they have to produce ninety minutes of cutting edge comedy to be performed live in front of America. You have tons of potential subplots. You have many quality actors playing many interesting characters. With quality. Granted, it's a television show about television, lacking even the underdoggish qualities that helped make Sports Night so endearing in the first place. Sure, Sports Night was about a television show -- but it was about a show that struggled hard to make third place among late night cable sports roundups. In part it was compelling because the stakes were so small. Studio 60 is a network's flagship show -- meant to be a solid competitor for comedic mindshare with Saturday Night Live itself, which is innately less interesting. But that's surmountable. In the end, we have a lot of characters, many of whom are sympathetic, and we have a lot of opportunities for that cracking Sorkin Dialogue being delivered at fast pace while the character stride through the set. And that's what we look for.

The problem is, Aaron Sorkin isn't writing the show I just described. Instead, he's writing Studio Sorkin on the Aaron Sorkin Strip Starring People Portraying Aaron Sorkin's Life, and as I said above, it's just lame.

Let's start with the whole situation. Take "Wes Mendell" and replace it with "John Wells," the executive producer who worked with Sorkin on The West Wing and who stayed on the West Wing after Sorkin was ridden out on a rail, and you have the situation Sorkin was in with NBC when he became controversial and was forced out. And you better believe he's making NBC pay for that now -- those gutless, spineless cowards who got rid of Sorkin when the going got tough are going to pay now that he's back.

Only, well, Sorkin wasn't fired for political comments. He was fired because he got arrested for drug possession years after he cleaned up his act in the first place, plus he was constantly late on the scripts he insisted on writing himself (and late in a network production means people sitting around doing nothing while being paid unimaginable salaries and overtime, which greatly upped the cost of doing business for The West Wing), in a time when the ratings were beginning to slip. But that's okay, he covers the drug issue with Danny Tripp (who mostly stands for Thomas Schlamme -- the director Sorkin works the most often with. Sorkin and Schlamme are pretty transparently represented by Albie and Tripp, though their qualities are intermingled between the pair) who then admits to the (secret) failed drug test on national television because that's courage (and thus subverts the whole point of bringing the pair in. Honestly, in the real world Albie and Tripp would be shown the door right then, because the entire point of bringing them on the show was to rehabilitate it, and they can't do that if Tripp's own drug woes become the story).

So. Matt Albie and Harriet Hayes are ex-lovers, driven apart because she's a Christian who actually recorded a Christian album and promoted it on the 700 club, and he's an agnostic Jew who thinks that Pat Robertson is evil and hypocritical. (Which she agrees with, but she still appeared on the show). Which would be a great point of romantic tension on the show, if we could ignore the fact that Aaron Sorkin used to go out with West Wing alumna Kristin Chenoweth, a self described liberal Christian comedian, television and broadway star who recorded an album of Christian music which she promoted on the 700 Club. I guess the best way to win an argument with your ex-girlfriend is to make it a subplot on your multimillion dollar television show and clearly paint you in the right and she in the wrong. Oh, wait, I don't mean 'best way to win an argument.' I mean 'most self-indulgent and moderately creepy way to perpetuate an argument.' My mistake.

Which isn't quite as unctuous as one of the faceoffs that Danny Tripp has with Jordan McDeere. McDeere has had an old arrest for drunk driving surface. Because we are meant to think that McDeere is spunky and pert and perfect in most every way (Sorkin actually quotes the famous exchange between Lou Grant and Mary Tyler Moore about McDeere: "You got spunk, Mary. I hate spunk." It is always a mistake to remind people of truly groundbreaking television on your show about television that isn't actually all that groundbreaking), it is the most bloodless "drunk driving conviction" we can possibly imagine -- McDeere pulled over herself, went to ask the cop directions, the cop had her blow in a breathalyzer, found she was over the legal limit, arrested her, and then the Judge literally expunged the arrest from her record. But, that doesn't stop Tripp from sermonizing to her about the differences between their vices:

Jordan: I'm sorry for the stupid thing I said in your office -- about the drugs.

Danny: Thirty thousand people died in car fatalities last year. Seventeen thousand of them weren't wearing seat belts.

Jordan: ...what does that have to do with anything?

Danny: No, it's just... you read it all the time. Two guys in a car. One wearing a seat belt, the other one isn't... they're doing sixty down [Mullholland Drive], they blow into a telephone pole. The guy wearing the seat belt's got two bruised ribs, a cut on his forehead and the guy without the seat belt gets decapitated.

Jordan: I was wearing a seat belt.

Danny: I'm sure you were. I'm just not as sure that everyone else on the Long Island Expressway was. When... I put a life in danger, it's my own.

Now, beyond the fact that we're talking about a drunk driving situation where the woman pulled over to ask a police officer directions and got caught over the legal limit, we're also discussing a drunk driving situation that apparently happened like twelve years before the episode. Danny, a known drug addict, was caught by a drug test two weeks before, and as a result has had his career capsized. So the argument is specious since all accounts are Jordan McDeere doesn't drink and drive. But beyond all of that....

Well, you know, I'm going to quote the master snark-meisters at Television Without Pity -- specifically, "Joe R," who says it as well as can be said:

They banter awkwardly for a moment, and then Jordan apologizes for "the stupid thing [she] said earlier, about the drugs." That's kind of her, and more than he deserves. Danny doesn't quite see it that way, however, and proceeds to, I swear to Christ, lecture Jordan about how when he does coke it's a victimless crime, because he's only harming himself, but when Jordan has a drink and then chooses to get behind the wheel, she's putting all sorts of people -- especially the seatbelt-less! -- in danger. Gee, thanks, DAD. When I first saw this scene, I almost couldn't believe they had Danny go there, and not even temper it by having Jordan call him a dick, because: oh my God, seriously. I'm sorry, Aaron Sorkin, that everyone made jokes about you smoking crack. They really should have taken a look at the gin and tonic in their hand before mocking the crack pipe in yours. Now can you please go back to making a TV show instead of telling everyone else what assholes they've been for criticizing you? Sometime before NBC cancels your low-rated ass?

Joe gets it in one.

In a later episode, the network is pitched a "sure fire hit reality show" by an extremely transparent pastiche on Mark Burnett, which all the networks are chomping at the bit at, but Jordan passes on it, and has to fight the Chairman of the network who goes to the owner of their parent organization to overrule her. She actually quotes Aaron Sorkin from an interview he had, likening Reality Television to "bad crack in the schoolyard" and goes on to say that if they stick to highbrow programming, they'll make money. Which is very Aaron Sorkin (one of the most egregious pre-Studio 60 inserts Sorkin did was a jab at ABC back on Sports Night, when he had the new corporate owner of the Continental Broadcasting Corporation say "anyone who can't make money off of Sports Night should get out of the moneymaking business") but also downright stupid. First off, reality programming is just like any other programming. There's bottom feeders and there's less so. Hell, PBS has reality shows where people try to live the way their ancestors did, and the reason The Amazing Race keeps winning Emmys is because it's actually good television. It especially amused me as the quote came out in the same week that NBC made it clear their new strategy was to program the weeknight "family hour" -- eight to nine PM -- with game shows and reality shows, from The Apprentice to Deal or No Deal, because... and I can't help this argument never got made on Studio 60... reality programming is vastly less expensive than scripted television. So, during a time when NBC is rehabilitating their last place stance with really solid programming like Heroes and (so I've been told) Friday Night Lights, they're managing to pay for it by giving over the least lucrative hour of television to the cheapest venues for television. This is how grownups do this kind of thing, you see. Grownups who understand that the television market is shrinking and ad buys don't go as far as they used to, and wishing doesn't make it any different.

But Sorkin is all about wishing. Still smarting after all this time over his Internet experiences, he throws a snarky bit into the mouth of one of his actors decrying blogging (gosh, why did that attract my attention) as being credential-less, and wishing the New York Times would go back to being the Media Elite instead of paying attention to some woman with "a freezer full of Jenny Craig and five cats." Now, I'll admit I'm not unbiased, but that's just stupid. This isn't journalism we're discussing -- this is criticism. The blogger in question was writing an opinion piece, and that kind of thing requires no more credentials than the trifecta of argumentative essay writing: a well written thesis, concrete support for one's thesis, and an audience to read it.

And then there's Darren Wells.

Darren Wells is a professional baseball player who is now casually dating Harriet Hayes. This makes him a foil for Matt Albie, who after all broke up with Harriet Hayes not long ago. She gave him a baseball bat that Wells signed -- one that as it turns out had his phone number on it. "You gave me a used cocktail napkin, basically," Albie snarks to Hayes in what was, admittedly, a fun exchange and one of the better moments of the show. Since then, we see Albie carrying the bat around, in reference and echo to Aaron Sorkin himself, who reputedly carries a baseball bat around with him as well.

But, Albie goes on long tears about Wells -- especially the fact that he gave Hayes a bat when he's a pitcher -- that he couldn't get a hit if his life depended on it -- and you know what? He's not all that great a pitcher either, damn it! And he's taller than Albie and bigger and stronger and younger, and and and and....

...and I'm sitting here going "wait a minute. His name is Darren Wells?"

Remember back above? Remember John Wells -- the producer of ER, the guy who was co-exec of The West Wing. The one who didn't leave when Sorkin got curbed? The one who took it over?

Yeah.

He's a pitcher, not a slugger. He couldn't get a hit if his life depended on it.

Pitching concepts to network executives, hit television shows. Oh, that Mister Sorkin is a clever one.

Only... ER predated The West Wing. It's still on now. And its ratings are significantly better than Studio 60's. Not only is it a pretty crass jab at someone who didn't stand by Sorkin when Sorkin was screwing up, it's a fluffed one.

And that brings us to the core conceit -- the biggest problem Studio 60 and Aaron Sorkin have: the core principle is "really good, highly literate television will work. The problem is, networks are shoveling out garbage so that's all people have to eat." And there's something to be said for that.

Only Studio 60 is operating way, way below expectations. Some people say it's too "inside," and that's true. Honestly, no one gives a damn about the high pressure world of Saturday Night Live except the people actually inside that world -- they just want to laugh on Saturday nights. All the topics on Studio 60 are fascinating, I'm sure, to the entertainment industry, but we need a lot more of that beautiful Sorkin dialogue and characters we really, really care about for anyone else to actually enjoy this stuff. And there's way too little of that right now.

Part of the problem is we lack one of the staples of the Sorkin ensemble cast. Generally, there's always a mentor figure, above the plucky heroine and snarky (Jewish) writer, who acts as a moral compass, a foundation, who lends gravitas to the proceedings. On Sports Night, it was Robert Guillaume, playing Isaac Jaffe. On The West Wing, it was the incomparable John Spencer as Leo McGarrey. And on Studio 60, it's clearly Judd Hirsch's Wes Mendell, only Wes doesn't make it fifteen minutes into the pilot before he's ejected from the building. It's like that point on Sports Night when Isaac has had a stroke (prompted by Guillaume's own stroke) and is hospitalized and far away from the proceedings -- there is a gap. An absence. A definite wrongness about everything. Only it started on Studio 60 on day one. They're all plucky upstarts or hacks or greedy network executives. We don't have that one person who can calm everyone down and get them all to talk to each other.

(It's possible the currently underutilized Cal, as played by Sorkin alumnus Timothy Busfield, is meant to settle into that role. However, on the pilot he was put in danger of losing his job and he hasn't actually settled into a firm sense of position in the cast since.)

As it is, we have morality tales and moralizers and pluck and wit and some beautiful performances. I'm serious -- I was never a fan of Friends and even within that cosm I didn't like Matthew Perry, but Matt Albie is a great character and Perry acts the Hell out of him. We also have a lot of glimpses of sketches which, to be honest, aren't that funny (to Sorkin's credit, they're unfunny in exactly the way that Saturday Night Live is generally unfunny, these days), though it makes it dissonant to hear how brilliant these sketches are. And there's some downright strange decisions. (I happen to like Sting, and I happen to like the Lute, and I thought the traditional lute piece and the cover of his own "Fields of Gold" that Sting did on the last episode were both beautiful, and I spent the whole time thinking "wow, this has totally derailed the show. Why am I watching Sting play the lute? What the Hell, people?")

But mostly, we have a show which comes across as Aaron Sorkin taking out his personal grudges against the world. And if he were doing it in a way that had us applauding and coming back for more, that'd be fine. But he's not. He's alienating people. He's boring others. He's confusing still others. And he's managed to not only not win Mondays, he's managed to be completely upstaged by the higher rated, far more compelling Heroes. In fact, he's managing to lose the audience Heroes leads in.

And each week, fewer viewers come back to watch Studio 60.

And I keep thinking "come on, Sorkin. This is you. You can pull this out. You can make it work."

But maybe he can't.

People change.

And people fall out of love.

We'll see what happens.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at October 23, 2006 12:44 PM

Comments

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 23, 2006 2:28 PM

Wait, you didn't cite "Who Wants To Be A Superhero?" as a reality show done right? Are you just rusty, or has an evil alien replaced Eric A. Burns?

Heh, in all seriousness, I can see what Sorkin's problem is based on your essay, and I've never watched anything he's done.

As cited by many artists throughout recorded history, anger can be great fuel to the creative mind. Myself, I always feel like I write better when I'm angry. My personal creative energy is to think that whatever else is out there, it can be done better, and let me show you.

And thus, I try to throw in vivid images, a few would-be bon mots, and generally try to arrest people with words. I'm not saying it's for everyone, but it pushes me to write 3000 words on cel-shaded wolves when the stars are aligned.

It sounds kind of like Sorkin does the same thing - anger often leads to the kind of snappy patter and snark that people often credit Sorkin for. But I know all too well that if the anger is uncontrolled, the anger becomes the writing and not the energy behind it. And you end up getting messy pieces in which things aren't clever, or particularly amusing, or all that insightful; they're just mean.

I'm not saying there isn't a place for such writing. I have such a place - it's in a secure folder on my computer's desktop that nobody reads but me. But it sounds like Sorkin is mistaking Studio 60 for that place - which only hurts both the network and Sorkin's reputation.

Of course, I'm wondering whether Sorkin even realizes he's basically withering before his audience's eyes. I know in the past, I've had problems seeing when I've been that self-destructive.

Comment from: quiller [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 23, 2006 3:58 PM

Some people need lots of creative freedom to work well. Other people do poorly with too much freedom and need some outside forces or restrictive structure to do well. It kind of sounds like Sorkin may not have enough of a sense of self-censorship, and nobody else is reining him in here.

Of course the real question is not that he is using the TV show to reflect his life and issues, it is that he is not being entertaining enough. There have been plenty of brilliant satiricists who've mocked their personal enemies through their work, but you need your clever to be seasoned with spite, not your spite to have smatterings of clever.

Comment from: larksilver [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 23, 2006 4:04 PM

See now, I've never paid that much attention to Sorkin's Life and Times, so I missed a lot of the "background" for what's going on in Studio 60 at the moment. Perhaps that's a blessing; I don't have any of his personal Drama weighing down my ability to just enjoy the show.

I am doing just that - enjoying the show - a great deal, to be honest. It's the first thing I watch on my DVR on Mondays, after the boy goes to bed. Then Heroes, of course, but Studio 60 is still first.

I love the characters, although it's often the supporting cast who catch my attention the most.

I do agree with you that they need a stabilizing influence, but I'm not sure that "Cal" has enough oomph to do that at this point. So far, the only one who's had that level of clout is the parent company's head, and of course, we don't see much of him.

I can see where your points are coming from, and I cannot disagree with them. However, somehow, they just don't matter at this moment; I'm having too much fun to care whose Agenda the show represents.

Comment from: Shaenon [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 23, 2006 4:06 PM

I watched the first episode of "Studio 60" and didn't come back. I agree that one of the big problems with the show seems to be the amount of power Sorkin has been given to push his vision, no matter how fatuous it may be. "Sports Night" worked partly because, even though it was an "insider" show, the creators were industry outsiders and underdogs, fighting to get their vision on the air. "Studio 60" is clearly the work of people with a lot of resources, a lot of network muscle, and a total lack of any of those annoying voices of dissent that might force them to fight for the ideas that matter and cut the fat. It's all fat. It's self-indulgent and smug, convinced that, like its show-within-a-show, it deserves to be NBC's critical darling and flagship program just for existing--but do networks even have "flagship programs" now, in these days of fragmented audiences and middling ratings? Wouldn't it be smarter to make a smaller, lighter, faster show that entertains more than it preaches--a show like "Sports Night"? Or, for that matter, like "30 Rock," which is still unsteady but is charting a lot of the same territory as "Studio 60" in half the time with twice as much humor?

And, yeah, if you're doing a show about a sketch comedy program that's supposedly wildly popular and acclaimed, it'd help to get some writers on staff who can come up with the occasional funny sketch. The climax of the first episode, where everyone hails an overblown "Pirates of Penzance" parody as a stroke of comedy genius, was cringe-inducing. One of the many hard lessons Jesus teaches us is that Gilbert and Sullivan parodies are never funny. I wish they were, I desperately do, but wishing won't make it so.

Comment from: Shaenon [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 23, 2006 4:08 PM

Oh, and I wasn't aware of all the inside baseball stuff about Sorkin's life. It just seemed really self-indulgent, not to mention didactically preachy--every character conflict was an excuse for the writers to present us with a broad ideological issue and tell us which side was correct.

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 23, 2006 4:18 PM

Shaenon, I have to disagree with you there. Animaniacs did a terrific parody of Pirates of Penzance (capped with the parody of the "Major-General's Song," "I Am The Very Model Of A Cartoon Individual") and they did do a straight version of "Three Little Maids" from the Mikado for laughs well, during the first appearance of Mr. Director (the blatant Jerry Lewis homage/parody).

Comment from: Montykins [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 23, 2006 4:36 PM

I agree with most of your comments -- I'm watching the show because I enjoy individual moments, but I've got serious problems with much of the show. My biggest problem, though, is summed up where you say:

You have an automatic built in conflict right at the top -- every week they have to produce ninety minutes of cutting edge comedy to be performed live in front of America.

...but from what we see of the show, it's clearly not cutting edge comedy. It's barely even "bad comedy". It's all very well to say "Neither is SNL", but the show keeps telling us that Matt Albie is a brilliant writer and that the show is being hailed as a triumph. But what it shows us is lame, shrill "parodies" relying on hamfistedly slamming religion and impressions of famous people from ten years ago.

Add that to the incredibly unrealistic way we see the show getting made (there's a twenty-person writing staff, but Matt is personally writing 90 minutes of comedy a week?) and it's really hard for me to suspend my disbelief. It would be more convincing, and arguably more interesting, if they were failing at their jobs and putting on a bad show. Then you'd have a lot more conflict, because instead of the fictional ratings being through the roof, they'd be up against the wall and having to try things. That was part of what made Sports Night great.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 23, 2006 4:52 PM

...but from what we see of the show, it's clearly not cutting edge comedy. It's barely even "bad comedy". It's all very well to say "Neither is SNL", but the show keeps telling us that Matt Albie is a brilliant writer and that the show is being hailed as a triumph. But what it shows us is lame, shrill "parodies" relying on hamfistedly slamming religion and impressions of famous people from ten years ago.

Concur. I mean, Jesus. "Pimp my Trike?" This is supposed to convince us that Albie's a genius and Simon's "one of the big three?"

Add that to the incredibly unrealistic way we see the show getting made (there's a twenty-person writing staff, but Matt is personally writing 90 minutes of comedy a week?)

Ah, that bit's not unrealistic. That bit's yet more Studio Sorkin on the Aaron Sorkin Strip. Part of the reason Sorkin got ridden out on West Wing is he had a prodigious writing staff and consultants, then proceeded to write every episode himself. Which burned him out (and likely led to the cocaine problems he redeveloped) and caused shows to be produced more and more late all the time. So, Matt Albie's going to write this all by himself until he falls apart doing it, and then Sorkin will show us how NBC should have dealt with the problem instead of by firing him.

Only by definition Albie can't make the cast sit around waiting for his scripts, because he's writing a live television show.

Regardless, this is more Sorkin writing from life, and in the end it comes across as broken.

Comment from: Montykins [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 23, 2006 5:48 PM

then proceeded to write every episode himself

Well, that's what Sorkin says. Rick Cleveland disagrees (and the WGA agreed with him).

Note that "Ron" and "Ricky Tahoe" are almost certainly amalgams of Rick Cleveland and West Wing writers Jeff Reno and Ron Osborn. Really, the more you know about Sorkin's grudges, the more transparent the show seems.

Only by definition Albie can't make the cast sit around waiting for his scripts, because he's writing a live television show.

Apparently he can -- last week, he still had fifteen minutes of show left to write with only twenty hours before airtime. They had already finished the technical rehearsals! It's pretty impressive that they ended up twelve minutes long, when you think about it.

Comment from: Montykins [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 23, 2006 6:18 PM

(I realize that "the more you know about Sorkin's grudges, the more transparent the show seems" was your point; it just seemed like a point worth making twice. Or more than twice.)

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 23, 2006 8:51 PM

Well I'm not sure why he *shouldn't* use his own life as grist for the mill -- certainly many other writers have done exactly the same thing. And I think you're engaging in a little too much DaVinci Code here, trying to piece together names and whatnot.

And for the record, Sorkin has managed to write a very sympathetic liberal Christian in the character Harriet Hayes, and between the two Matt Albie usually comes off looking worse (by the way, I love the way Perry plays Albie. Terriffic performance.)

My big complaint with the show is that most of the sketches aren't particularly funny. The Gilbert and Sullivan opener was dumb (I say this as someone who adores G&S) -- I confess I liked "trick my trike" conceptually, and I thought the Juliet Lewis / Meet the Press idea was fucking brilliant, but by and large, while I'm willing to accept that Matt Albie is a comedic genius, it's because Matthew Perry plays him so well that I *will* myself to believe it, not because Sorkin has any particular skill at sketch comedy.

Honestly, I think *that* is the shows fatal flaw -- Sorkin is a brilliant writer but he can't write sketch comedy. In my minds eye I see him sitting back and thinking "hey, I wrote all these fucking brilliant shows. Sketch comedy is EASY." And the gods noticed hubris, and giggled with glee...

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 23, 2006 8:51 PM

Oh, and also, I tend to share Sorkin's view of reality TV. I don't discount the possibility of good reality TV, but that is why we invented the term "outlier."

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 23, 2006 9:07 PM

Well I'm not sure why he *shouldn't* use his own life as grist for the mill -- certainly many other writers have done exactly the same thing. And I think you're engaging in a little too much DaVinci Code here, trying to piece together names and whatnot.

It's not that he's doing this -- it's that he's not doing it well. He needs to be a lot better at filing off the serial numbers. It can all come from his own life, but we have to believe it naturally occurs in the lives of his characters. And that's where it's currently failing. He's focusing so much on exorcising demons and getting his own back, he's largely failing at the development of his series.

Put another way -- maybe everything in the Dana/Casey/Gordon situation came out of Sorkin's life. I dunno. And I don't care, because it's so solidly Dana, Casey and Gordon that it doesn't matter where the idea came from. We don't have that in most of Studio 60's situations, right now.

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 23, 2006 9:31 PM

I could be embarrassed that I updated with this an hour or two after you posted this essay (though before I'd read the essay). But I'm not. Studio 60 is my new favorite show. It speaks to me, it draws me in, it makes me watch the clock (this very minute) more than anything else on right now, even Doctor Who.

Because it's about doing creative work on a schedule. The story is by and about people who understand.

Try this: watch Studio 60 as if you'd never seen a previous Sorkin production, and knew nothing of his backstory (except that he was fired from The West Wing midstream; everyone knows that). Try watching it with my eyes.

Also I liked We Are The Very Model Of A Modern Network TV Show.

Comment from: Montykins [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 23, 2006 9:58 PM

while I'm willing to accept that Matt Albie is a comedic genius, it's because Matthew Perry plays him so well that I *will* myself to believe it, not because Sorkin has any particular skill at sketch comedy.
I think he just needs to show less of the sketches. I was willing to believe that Hawkeye and Trapper were brilliant surgeons without needing to see the details. And if they had been shown doing an obviously terrible job, it would have seriously cut into the show for me.
Oh, and also, I tend to share Sorkin's view of reality TV.
Sorkin's idea of reality TV is Temptation Island, Love Cruise, The Swan, and a bunch of other shows that are all, interestingly enough, not actually on televison anymore because nobody wanted to watch them. Last week's "Search and Destroy" was a huge straw man; that show would never be a hit, and networks certainly wouldn't fall all over themselves trying to bid for it.

The success of "Deal or No Deal", which is strictly mediocre, is far more threatening to scripted television. But it's not as much fun to panic about.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 23, 2006 10:25 PM

Paul -- I'm actually pretty excited to see the Arthur, King of Time do a Space Studio 60 satire. :)

I'm also watching the current episode, and I'll admit to liking it a great deal. But dude, they gave Eli Wallach work.

Comment from: Will "Scifantasy" Frank [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 23, 2006 11:54 PM

So, now that it's over, Eric, what did you think of this week's? I liked it, but it was sort of a step to the side--they can't do a show like this one every week, and that may prove a problem.

Comment from: Bertson [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 24, 2006 1:13 AM

[quote]West Wing writers Jeff Reno and Ron Osborn[/quote]

Are these the same guys who developed Duckman? I didn't know they went on to work on West Wing. That must have been a bit of a change.

Comment from: miyaa [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 24, 2006 2:28 AM

1) I can't believe Linda Ronstat was in the movie version of Pirates of Penzance. (Angela Lansbury? Yeah. Kevin Kline, okay, maybe. Linda Ronstat? 70's Country Singer? No way.)

2) I do love the Animanics version of Modern Major Cartoon General, and in fact, I have this song playing in my head, and I have no desire for it to stop.

3) As for Sorkin himself, listen, the other difference is while Sports Night basically the "misadventurer of Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick", the two most popular ESPN anchors at the time, (whom both claimed the show was mostly about), it was done a very subtle way. It also helped that the cast was very well done, and Robert Guilliame was top-notch. It also didn't hurt that they rolled with the punches when he had his stroke.

As far as I can tell, Studio 60 is Sorkin retelling his misadventures at SNL and West Wing by hitting the viewers with a steel I-Beam. And the cast is not that great.

4) This one of a number of shows that NBC thought it was good, but just isn't playing well with the viewers and audiences. Heroes isn't doing so hot. (And I'm sorry, but Save the Cheerleader, Save the World? That sounds like something out of a Ferris Buhler movies.) They're sacrificing a lot of their news division so that they wouldn't have to consider cancelling their shows, but it seems like it's going to happen. Why? Dancing with the Stars. The umpteenth iteration of Survivor. All of those niche cable channels that are doing far better as a collective group than the mainline network and cable channels. Not to mention the CSI which is definately the 2000's version of Law and Order.

In other words, the couch potato are more picky than a room full of cats.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 24, 2006 2:54 AM

I saw the Joseph Papp/Linda Ronstadt/Kevin Kline/Rex Smith version of Pirates of Penzance in its original run as part of the Shakespeare in the Park series. On opening night. John Gielgud, Martin Balsam, Joanne Woodward and Paul Neuman were all in the audience along with us. (Neuman and Woodward were like six rows ahead of us.) It was a fantastic production.

This was 1980. I was twelve years old at the time. Yes, I'm pushing 40 now. Leave me alone.


In 1983, we went back to Shakespeare in the Park in New York and saw Non Pasquale. It was not opening night and Paul Neuman neglected to show up, though we saved him a seat. It is worth noting that Non Pasquale, like Don Pasquale -- the opera it is based on -- are both more modern versions of Commedia dell'arte, which Sorkin won't shut up about in Studio 60. Not that any of the thousand people who revere Commedia dell'arte can pronounce it.

I have never actually seen Shakespeare in New York's Shakespeare in the Park. I assume this is some sort of oversight.

Comment from: Wistful Dreamer [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 24, 2006 3:25 AM

As far as the sketches, let's make it clear: No one has !consistantly! made a good sketch comedy show for over two and a half decades. That Sorkin hasn't done so either is not a particularly strong criticism against him either. I don't know if Jim Bulishi was unique, or that no politician can be so aweful as Nixon, or what the problem is, but even so-called successes such as Wayne's World (as mentioned in a recent Studio 60) are frankly downright pathetic (and I'm trying to draw as much strength to that term as I can, because I can't think of a stronger one). Let's face it, the humor of the skethces is adendum to the story of Studio 60. If it were a written peice instead of TV, the phrase, "and they went on to create the best sketch comedy of the decade," would have successfully blocked all argument, because that's not what the story was about.

Still, The plot is not what it should be. An entire episode basically dedicated to showcasing Sting - a musician with a large following, but still essentially on his way out, so far as audience share is concerned, being showcased for onvious "we didn't have enough plot, so here's an extra 3 minutes of Sting performing," is something GOOD shows don't bother with until season 6 or so, when Clooney has left, and the writer's haven't figured out what to do next.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 24, 2006 9:30 AM

As far as the sketches, let's make it clear: No one has !consistantly! made a good sketch comedy show for over two and a half decades.

I humbly beg to differ. The Kids in the Hall, Upright Citizens Brigade and Mr. Show were all uproariously, consistently funny. They really were. And that's just what I came up with off the top of my head.

That Sorkin hasn't been more consistent in sketch comedy as, say, Mad or SNL doesn't really track -- he's not writing ninety minutes of sketch comedy every week. He's writing maybe six or seven minutes of sketch comedy. If he can't actually write six or seven minutes of sketch comedy and make it really, really funny, he should hire Mark Mckinney or David Cross or the Groundlings or Second City to actually do the sketch writing for him, and focus on the stuff he can write.

And last night's episode proved he can still write. The character development on Derek, Simon, Cal, Jordan and (briefly) Jack were all solid, the situations were engaging and human, the stories he told were really good ones. And Eli Wallach remains Eli Wallach.

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 24, 2006 9:55 AM

As far as the sketches, let's make it clear: No one has !consistantly! made a good sketch comedy show for over two and a half decades.

I humbly beg to differ. The Kids in the Hall, Upright Citizens Brigade and Mr. Show were all uproariously, consistently funny.

But none of them were on for twenty five years, while the-Studio-60-within-Studio-60 has been. Perhaps that's Wistful Dreamer's point.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 24, 2006 10:17 AM

But none of them were on for twenty five years, while the-Studio-60-within-Studio-60 has been. Perhaps that's Wistful Dreamer's point.

Perhaps so, but the cumulative fatigue that put SNL on autopilot (as well-parodied in a musical number by Steve Martin many years ago) doesn't apply here. Sorkin hasn't been doing this for twenty five years. He's been doing it for five shows, with only a few minutes of sketch per show. If we were watching the Wes Mendell era, where the point was "this show is really tired and we aren't allowed to let it die," then a simulated fatigue would make sense. Matt Albie is supposed to be a comedic genius, and the show is such a runaway hit under Matt and Danny that they had their strongest night in fourteen years under their tutelage and the most conservative areas of the country were buried in phone calls demanding they put the show back on the air.

It doesn't track. It just doesn't.

It's interesting -- one of the cool things about Sports Night was how solid the show within a show was. You believed the banter, you believed these two sportscasters were at the top of their game. You believed that this would be a good, good show when you saw it. The show within a show wasn't the point of Sports Night, but it works within the context of it.

Comment from: Stephen G [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 24, 2006 11:33 AM

And last night's episode proved he can still write. The character development on Derek, Simon, Cal, Jordan and (briefly) Jack were all solid, the situations were engaging and human, the stories he told were really good ones. And Eli Wallach remains Eli Wallach.

Note that Sorkin was credited for the teleplay and not the story.

I'm agreed with you, Eric, on just about every point. I'm a Sorkin fanboy, and yet I've been watching Studio Sorkin with ever-growing dismay. The pilot was tightly put together, but his habit of striking back at people through his show is souring the entire exercise for me. I watched last night's episode and at every point I wondered, is this some coded attack on people Sorkin doesn't like?

Comment from: Stephen G [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 24, 2006 11:37 AM

And for the record, Sorkin has managed to write a very sympathetic liberal Christian in the character Harriet Hayes

I don't entirely agree. While I do find Harriet to be sympathetic, I feel that her Christianity exists only so she can in effect apologize for it. "Sorry, I know I'm a Christian..."

Comment from: Montykins [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 24, 2006 11:58 AM

he should hire Mark Mckinney or David Cross or the Groundlings or Second City to actually do the sketch writing for him, and focus on the stuff he can write.

Comment from: Montykins [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 24, 2006 1:23 PM

Huh. The part of my comment that was actually a comment vanished. It turns out that Mark McKinney is actually already on the Studio 60 writing staff (the real one, not the "within a show" one), but it doesn't seem to be helping much. Then again, when Mark was on the actual SNL, he didn't get much accomplished either.

Comment from: Montykins [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 24, 2006 1:34 PM

[blockquote]his one of a number of shows that NBC thought it was good, but just isn't playing well with the viewers and audiences. Heroes isn't doing so hot.[/blockquote]

Actually, Heroes is doing very well. In the overnights, Heroes got 8.6/12 (and was the night's top show among adults 18-49); this drops to 5.1/8 for Studio 60. That's poor retention, and it's why Studio 60 isn't on next week -- NBC is trying out Friday Night Lights in its slot.

Comment from: nedlum [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 24, 2006 3:59 PM

"...modern versions of Commedia dell'arte, which Sorkin won't shut up about in Studio 60. Not that any of the thousand people who revere Commedia dell'arte can pronounce it."

Apropos of nothing: I've always wanted a Commedia dell'arte TV show..

Comment from: siwangmu [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 24, 2006 4:43 PM

Fun coincidence--I really need to get back to spending time here and you're writing about one of my new random obsessions. I'm familiar with a good portion of this issue, as you'll find me in every week's episode thread at twop, for some unaccountable reason--I usually lose stamina after finally making it through enough pages to add my two cents, since I feel compelled to read the whole dang thing as per the faq (I just still cherish the twop faq for making it a rule that you can't start posts with "Um").

Minor note: could needing 15 minutes and ending up 12 minutes long reflect a deliberate requirement of writing too much show every week so you can cut the bad stuff?

I can't counter any of the factual things, here, although please note my desperate, desperate hope that the "pitch, not hit" stuff with Wells was somehow a coincidence, because Jesus. Plus, my ignorant enjoyment of all that "Like it's hard to be big" stuff was too great to screw with. Perhaps truth hurts. It apparently hurts comedy.

I've written several next bits here and erased them, because what I think my response is revolving around is my pre-existing status per reading the responses on twop every week, which is a slightly shell-shocked feeling of focusing so, so hard on everything that's wrong with the show (which is not intended as any indictment of the twop boards, as prevailing opinion is prevailing opinion, each iteration of which is still a valid individual contribution).

On one hand, you're right. My enjoyment of the show and my investment in it already are both clearly shaped by my experiencing show developments first and finding out about Sorkin second. It's also possible I'm enjoying it because I have no prior Sorkin experience to feel it pale in the shadow of, having never watched his other shows (actually, I had a slight resentment for the guy's reputation as "that guy who writes the smart TV" as I was off in the corner cradling my Whedon DVDs).

Anyway, the reflection of Sorkin's personal life so directly onto the show is a huge and legitimate issue, but I wonder whether others would seem so huge if it weren't there. Things like Jordan's old arrest making the news don't really seem so "other universe" to me; I don't remember those kinds of stories, but I'm pretty sure I remember forgetting them--some publicist ran a Jeep or something into a bunch of people at a club a while back, right? I have no idea who that was, and while it's way different in terms of harming people and happening in the now, the kind of attention Wes' meltdown would in fact be likely to draw in real life seems to make some spillover notoriety, well, totally believable to me.

Sting and the lute? Loved it, so it worked for somebody. The Gilbert and Sullivan? It wasn't an immediate "awesome" for me, but I really think the idea was solid; in order to make it as funny as it ought to have been, I personally think we needed to be a little more used to the images of the cast members as our wacky sketch-comedy faces (like having witnessed the opening credits montage at some point, or something?). When I imagined tuning into a stupid-sketches show full of silly people (when I imagined members of the cast I really know in their places) and seeing the Gilbert and Sullivan thing, the whole funny-by-contrast thing was suddenly hilarious to me. I don't know if there was a way to shoot it that would make it more like that, and it's certainly no ringing endorsement of the section as it stands, but I just can't agree with the (many) who think it was an utter and complete bomb. No cringes were induced for me.

The addition of Wes or someone like him back into the mix could very well help in the way you're suggesting, but I find that it's sort of interesting to see if these people can hack it without someone who pretty much always knows best. It's a different kind of challenge, all of them negotiating it mentor-less, more or less, and I think it's an interesting one.

It could also be that I'm stubbornly more committed to the show because I insist on checking out criticism of it all the time (in the negative criticize sense), that'd be like me. But the bottom line for me has been that I like the show. I care about the characters, I get into their little adventures, I was thrilled for them during "Will You Still Love Me," touched during "Fields of Gold" and I laugh pretty darn frequently.

Jesus, started this last night and it got, er, incredibly long. It's just... it makes me so sad that this show has pissed so many, many people off. It's hard, because many of the things you feel it hasn't been doing, the essential things, making us invested enough in the characters to feel invested in broadcast details, feeling like the story comes out of the characters even if it's secretly stolen from life... it does that for me. And for someone who's always secretly wanted every difference of opinion to be traceable and explicable... well, apparently it leads to posts like I'm about to make, which I hope most people just skipped anyway, sorry.

Comment from: siwangmu [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 24, 2006 4:48 PM

Oh my God, it was longer than I even feared. Um, sorry. Also:
[quote]The character development on Derek, Simon, Cal, Jordan and (briefly) Jack were all solid, the situations were engaging and human, the stories he told were really good ones.[/quote]

Did you mean Tom only say Derek 'cuz his last name's Jeter? I'm actually asking, since otherwise it means I've forgotten someone named Derek on the show.

Comment from: siwangmu [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 24, 2006 4:51 PM

Aaaaand I've forgotten how to format things. Shit. Sorry again! Perhaps I should lurk for awhile 'fore I start mucking up the blog again.

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 24, 2006 4:55 PM

Heh, phpBB is ruining everyone's ability to tag things on the Internet. I'm personally hoping it pushes people towards less tagging and more usage of fun things like asterisks and quote marks, myself.

Comment from: Chris Crosby [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 24, 2006 8:16 PM

AARON SORKIN'S DARKPLACE

Comment from: masque12 [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at October 24, 2006 10:08 PM

I've watched all of both Sports Night and West Wing, and while Studio 60 hasn't grabbed me quite like those did yet, I still love it. Like Paul I didn't know anything about Sorkin's history prior to this post, and I still don't really care about it. I'm digging the hell out of the show.

I loved the Gilbert and Sullivan schtick, as well.

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