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Eric: Another damn Sorkin essay. It's like the buildup to the GPF snark, only not about webcomics.

Way too much to write about, but I'll be quick about this one. It's yet another comment on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

In my earlier comments, I made mention that Aaron Sorkin needed to let go of all the axes he wants to grind in his own life and let the life of the characters of the show take shape. I had a few people disagree -- in particular, they said that if one didn't know about Sorkin's various references, but took the show on face value, it worked a lot better than I was giving him credit for.

And you know, I was willing to entertain that possibility.

Well, last week's show was particularly disappointing, in my estimation. And here's a simple spoiler warning, for those who... well, care.

Last week's show just fell flat in so many places. All the Jordan and Danny scenes lacked conviction, passion or sympathy for the characters. Cal was at least vaguely unbelievable (why wasn't Cal going to the party? He didn't need to hang around watching basketball -- and why did he think it would be appropriate to wander in and interrupt meetings between the show runners and the network president? I'm not comfortable interrupting my supervisor when she's talking to the front desk worker in her office, much less the Head of School). Requisite preaching point A -- the evils of product placement -- just rang false given the plethora of obvious product placements on the show. (What, you didn't notice the top of the line 17" MacBook Pro being slid back and forth between the Brit and Ricky, open and then closed and then open again? Not to mention Final Draft being mentioned by name?) There was no electricity anywhere in the piece, with the obvious and specific exception of the scenes between Matt, Ricky and Ron. Those were electric, with actual, engaging conflict and a real sense of character. Those scenes were real, the dialogue was sparkling and potent, no one was in the right and everyone was in the wrong -- it was fantastic.

And then Ricky and Ron left the show (and all of Studio 60, as near as I can tell). It was like watching the last canteen of water pour out into the desert sand.

But most of all, there was an extended scene where Tom, Simon and ultimately Matt were arguing over Harriet "changing her mind" and deciding to do a lingerie spread for a magazine. It was at best creepy (all three men talked about how desperately they loved naked women and trashy magazines, but Harriet was a good Christian Girl and should be above all that -- which came across as thinly disguised Madonna/Whore syndrome). But even worse than that, it was out of nowhere. This was the third show surrounding one episode of the show-within-a-show (This episode was "The Option," and it took place immediately following the episode that the cast was rushing to get back to during "Nevada Day" parts one and two.) Why didn't we hear word one about this until now, in and around the pervasive Harriet plotlines of those earlier episodes? It was way too weak a B plot to simply be a B plot -- so what's the deal? Why was it here? And why was it so creepy?

Well.

The Matt Albie/Harriet Hayes relationship is a very very thinly disguised pastiche on Aaron Sorkin's ex-relationship with Christian Broadway Star, Comedianne and annoying-voiced girl Kristin Chenoweth. It's been mentioned before that this was Sorkin's chance to "win" arguments with his ex on national television.

As it turns out? Kristin Chenoweth did an FHM bikini shoot.

Before I knew that, I literally couldn't work out why this B plot had shown up. It seemed clunky, moderately out of character, and clumsy. It didn't work for me -- it flat out failed in terms of characterization and the actors had difficulty playing it and having it work. (Say what you like about D.L. Hughley -- the man can take anything and make it work as dialogue. And even he had a harder time with this week's script than with two solid weeks of breaking in on a judge to insist a joint was his.)

After I knew that, it made perfect sense. Aaron Sorkin was taking his ex to task again. Sure, he doesn't like Christianity and he doesn't believe in Christianity, but good Christian Girls don't take their clothes off, Kristin!

I thought the Madonna/Whore overtones of the B plot were creepy before. Now, they're cringe-worthy. And worse than that, they were ham handedly forced in without setup, contradicted characterizations as we've seen them, and boring to boot. And they were clearly there purely so Aaron Sorkin could snot to an ex-girlfriend about her choice to wear a bikini in a Men's magazine.

I keep hoping. I really do. I keep hoping that astronomically bad ratings will force Sorkin to wake up, to get story help, to stop grinding his axes and start doing the stellar storytelling that has always been a hallmark of his career. That's why I'm still there. It's faith. I have faith that the man who wrote A Few Good Men and The American President and "Two Cathedrals" on The West Wing and the wonderful verbal tango between Dana and Casey on Sports Night will pull it out.

But faith is finite. For me and a lot of the faithful. And the faithful is all Studio 60 has left.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at November 27, 2006 3:10 PM

Comments

Comment from: Glaser [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 27, 2006 4:45 PM

Well...

Frankly, the only source of information I have regarding what Sorkin is using for this is you. I don't know anything about what you say he's preaching or arguing about with people from his own past. I'm going to assume you're telling the truth about it, because as far as I can tell you've never lied here before.

I loved the last episode. I think that Cal barging it worked precisely because it was weird, and it emphasized just how little formality there is, and that that can even be a bad thing, no matter how much the main characters treasure it. Nobody on the show seems to have a great deal of respect for the network president - they might like Jordan, personally, but they don't respect her position, which just goes to show why she's not particularly good at her job. It's very difficult for people to be leaders and buddies at the same time, and Jordan is explicitly going to look for buddies.

As for the posing thing... nowhere in the episode did I see a thing that said it wasn't Christian to do what she was doing. In fact, I saw self-mockery at people who think that.

If you're waiting for great things like Two Cathedrals, or something like that, I think you'll be waiting for a long time, because this sin't that kind of show, and except for very special episodes, the kind of episodes that require weeks of buildup, this kind of show can't do that without betraying the kind of audience this appeals to.

I think that the only actor who's not carrying his role, interestingly enough, is Brad Whitford, who seems to be trying to go for the suave guy Josh of the West Wing always thought he was, except there's no one who brings him back down, whereas on the West Wing there was Donna and Toby and even Leo to handle it.

Is the whole no writing staff plot probably reminiscent of when everyone walked out on Will - I was about to call him Jeremy - during the West Wing? Yes. Might it be an attempt to do a plot line he never got to explore with that? Sure. But none of that, and none of Aaron Sorkin's private life, have anything to do with the quality of the actual television. What I'm seeing may not be great television like the West Wing was, or like Heroes and BSG could be now, but it's entertaining, and it's certainly better than anything else on, outside of BSG, Heroes, House, and Doctor Who.

That's all for now. I'll probably think of more later.

Comment from: Montykins [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 27, 2006 5:50 PM

For me, Studio 60 is massively disappointing even before the "everything is from Sorkin's own life" angle. It's when I'm asking why such-and-such a story was written that I find out, for example, that Aaron Sorkin disdains the use of his writing staff and feels that he should do all the writing himself because he's the only one he trusts. Tom and Simon harassing Harriet was, in my eyes, obnoxious and condescending for a number of reasons, only one of which was that Sorkin wrote the scene to lecture his ex-girlfriend on what he feels she did wrong.

There are other shows that are better than Studio 60. I'll just throw out "Ugly Betty" as an example of a show that amazes me with how good it is (instead of depressing me with ruined potential, S60-style). Heck, "30 Rock" is better than Studio 60, partly because they've started openly mocking Sorkin's style. See, I approve of mean-spirited fun-making in general; it's Sorkin specifically that I don't think is doing it well.

Also, 30 Rock's "Gaybraham Lincoln" is a funnier pun and sketch idea than Studio 60's "Cheeses of Nazareth" for like ten different reasons.

Comment from: Chris Crosby [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 27, 2006 7:06 PM

I don't think Aaron Sorkin should change a thing. S60 gets way more laughs from me for being hilariously bad than it probably would from being good.

If you want to watch a good show about sketch comedy creators, watch 30 ROCK.

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 27, 2006 7:09 PM

I remain disappointed that you're disappointed because I remain enthusiastic. And I'm beginning to wonder whether the Department of New Criticism is going to come after your license.

Comment from: Honi Soit [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 27, 2006 7:31 PM

I think there's a little circular reasoning in your criticism of the argument about product placement, Eric.
You seem to view it like this:
Sorkin never stops using his "mouthpiece" characters on Studio 60 to preach to the audience,
and
Sorkin's mouthpiece characters are claiming that product placement is bad,
and
the argument against product placement rings false,
therefore
not only is Sorkin using Studio 60 as a bully pulpit, he's making a bad job of it.

Wouldn't it a little less problematic to view it this way?
Sorkin's mouthpiece characters are claiming that product placement is bad,
and
the argument against product placement rings false,
therefore
in this particular case, Sorkin is not using his mouthpiece characters to preach to the audience.

Maybe I'm missing something. But it seemed to me that you criticized the Matt/Harriet argument about gay marriage on more or less the same grounds.

Comment from: Montykins [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 27, 2006 8:22 PM

Honi Soit, doesn't your second syllogism have an unstated major premise that Aaron Sorkin cannot be wrong? Just because an argument rings false does not mean that Sorkin wasn't attempting to deliver it.

I believe that Sorkin is, in fact, strongly against product placement, which makes me tend toward the belief that when his characters delivered monologues on the subject, they were speaking for him. That he didn't do a very good job objecting to product placement (not as good a job, in fact, as 30 Rock did only four days earlier with the "PosMens" plot, in fact) doesn't mean he wasn't preaching, it just means that he wasn't preaching well.

I didn't mind his preaching in The West Wing (most of the time), even when I disagreed with him, because on that show, he was also providing me entertainment. On this show, I feel like the preachiness is coming first.

Comment from: Doug Wykstra [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 27, 2006 9:33 PM

I saw Studio 60, and thought it was okay. Probably because I don't have a great ear/eye for character, and I know nothing about Sorkin. But I have to say that I liked 30 Rock's whole protest against product placement better: Whenever one of the characters talks about how horrible it is that their show has to use product placement, at least one person talks about how much they love Snapple. Or a person in a Snapple Bottle costume walks into the foreground. It seems to be the sort of self-deprecating humor Sorkin is unable to even put down on his word processor.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 27, 2006 10:33 PM

Wouldn't it a little less problematic to view it this way? Sorkin's mouthpiece characters are claiming that product placement is bad, and the argument against product placement rings false, therefore in this particular case, Sorkin is not using his mouthpiece characters to preach to the audience.

Not really -- Sorkin's characters go unrefuted (with the exception of a few obvious strawmen put into Jordan's mouth) in their rant about product placement. What makes that rant ring false is the fact that this episode of the the Aaron Sorkin produced/NBC broadcast show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip has obvious product placement in it -- and unlike a recent episode of 30 Rock, that product placement isn't meant to be ironic. When they pass the brand new 17" MacBook pro around the table, they're cashing an Apple check.

That rings false. So yeah, they're ranting about the evils of product placement, but they're also cashing the checks for it.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 27, 2006 10:43 PM

I remain disappointed that you're disappointed because I remain enthusiastic. And I'm beginning to wonder whether the Department of New Criticism is going to come after your license.

Actually, this particular reader response on my part (viewer response, actually) was interesting from a New Critical perspective. Absent cultural/historical context, the Harriet Hayes lingerie shoot B plot just didn't work for me. Standing on its own merits, it failed to engage -- there was no subtextual hooks leading to it. There was no appropriate setup to deliver the textual effect. It was just there, and lackluster, and it showed a serious break of characterization. (Remember, Simon and Tom spent like eight hours in a marathon session of going to a Nevada Jail and having heavy emotional stuff go down before even Dress Rehearsal. You're telling me after they had a show go down -- one everyone described as tanking -- they're up for an intervention which includes a downright rude and unactorly breaking in to the girl's dressing room and staring at her while she frantically tries to cover herself instead of going off to get drunk at the party?

As a result, the only way I (and your mileage may vary) could decode any kind of dramatic meaning was contextual meaning from outside the text. From a New Critical standpoint, I define that as textual failure.

So no, they won't take my license away. Had the piece worked without that bit of historicism, we would have no conflict here.

Comment from: Chris Crosby [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 28, 2006 12:35 AM

Mark McKinney was really great on tonight's episode. I hope they bring him back.

Comment from: Starline [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 28, 2006 8:10 AM

I still knew all the info, and found the episode to be throughly enjoyable. I think with Studio 60, people just can't set their standards so high. This isn't West Wing, its not any of his other shows. Pretend its not Aaron Sorkin, would you still like the show?

Comment from: Dragonmuncher [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 28, 2006 9:35 AM

I thought that the whole photo-shoot layout was awful. Even if Harriet's motive WAS to get back at Women United (or whatever it was called), pretty much none of the arguments the Men were putting forth had to do with that. It was basically, "If you pose in a magazine shoot, you'll be a lesser person."


Glaser- " I think that the only actor who's not carrying his role, interestingly enough, is Brad Whitford, who seems to be trying to go for the suave guy Josh of the West Wing always thought he was, except there's no one who brings him back down, whereas on the West Wing there was Donna and Toby and even Leo to handle it."

I think I agree. Danny doesn't really have anyone that operates on his level, except maybe Jordan. With Matt it's usually just continual banter, and with the rest of the staff there's always the "boss-staff" dynamic. There would be that dynamic with Jordan, too, except Danny seems to be a very arrogant character, which just offsets the whole boss-subordinate thing he and Jordan would normally have.

I forget where I read it- either here, or at TWoP- but the lack of a "wise mentor" figure is hurting the show. Issac from Sports Night was an awesome character- an older, experienced man with tremendous dignity and a genuine care for what he's doing and the people around him. Plus he could knock some network heads when he wanted to...


As for last night's episode (B-12)... I'm undecided. There were some really good parts (the whole spit-take thing, Lucy and Darius's subplot) and parts that annoyed me (Jordan's interview, that annoying hostage situation, the abrupt time-changes). I think it did bring into focus that there needs to be a female character who can stand tough. Harriet and Jordan both could have done it, but Harriet seems to be in a neurotic spiral ever since the gay thing, and Jordan's been either annoyingly whimsical or annoyingly stubborn recently.

Jeannie could do it, but she needs more lines, and a plot or two of her own.

New assistant-girl could do it (everyone loves a snarky assistant!), but we'll see.


Finally, I heartily recommend the S60 recaps over at Television Without Pity. They're slightly too bile-filled for my taste, but the recapper does make good points. Actually I recommend reading everything written on Television Without Pity, ever, but that's neither here nor there.

Comment from: Dragonmuncher [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 28, 2006 9:41 AM

Also, yes. Matt McKinney was awesome.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 28, 2006 9:53 AM

I am a long time Television Without Pity fan.

Comment from: Montykins [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 28, 2006 1:10 PM

I used to have some miscellaneous recaps up at Television Without Pity, but in the intervening years, they've taken them down so that the only things on the site are by the regular recappers. Sad!

Last night's show had some things I liked, but I kept getting distracted by things I disliked, like Harriet (who we were told last week is a brilliant comedian who "transcends sketch comedy like no woman has ever done") being unable to remember a two-line joke. I bet Gilda Radner could remember a two-line joke. There are so many better things to steal from My Favorite Year, why go with that one?

Starline, if it weren't Aaron Sorkin, I wouldn't still be watching. I still hold out hope that the flaws will get fixed and there will be a good show there. The appearance of Mark McKinney was a good sign.

Comment from: Doug Wykstra [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 28, 2006 4:48 PM

So when are we getting a Heroes snark? I was on the fence about that one until about an hour ago, when I watched the latest episode online. It'd be nice to hear about a TV show that doesn't involve the side of you that loves all things Sorkin duking it out with the side of you that dislikes Studio 60.

Comment from: Glaser [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 28, 2006 5:21 PM

You know, the hostage situation just didn't work for me. I swear, if it had been anywhere other than Grosse Point, it would have worked for me. But the whole time I was just thinking Grosse Point Blank.

The new writers turned out spectacularly. The parts where they were talking to their parents was brilliant. My worry with the "mitzvah" character, whose name I can't remember, is that he's so much better - better acted, funnier, more leaderly - than Matt and Danny are, that he would end up overshadowing them. Still, if his character gets flaws and soon, he'll be great.

Jordan's pregnancy was handled really, really badly, in my opinion. Maybe it's just because I've watched so much Sorkin stuff I know instinctively what's coming next, but the repeated jokes by Matt to Danny just made it incredibly obvious what was coming.

If they had gone just a bit further with Jordan's moral anger I would really like her character. I really mean it. If she had been really pissed about her ex-husband, it would have worked for me. If she had something in which she was not able to deal with it easily, it would have worked for me. But this man is talking about a difficult, embarrassing part of her life and she reacts exactly the way she should, and then network executives get angry at her.

The show was funny, but it could do with something more. There are a lot of comedies out there, just like there have always been a lot of dramas out there. Sorkin didn't settle for one of the crowd on the West Wing, and though I'll keep watching Studio 60 even if it is one of the crowd(or slightly better, like it is now), Sorkin's never settled for that in the past.

Comment from: Honi Soit [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 29, 2006 6:56 PM

Montykins - "cannot be wrong" is probably a little extreme, but you're right - my construction does require you to give him the benefit of the doubt, and I hadn't really thought about that. Still, when a fictional character makes an unconvincing argument, it suggests either that the writer isn't trying to preach through the character, or that the writer has forgotten how to frame a convincing argument. And that's a heck of a thing to accuse Sorkin without supporting it.

Of course, Eric wasn't accusing Sorkin of forgetting how to frame an argument, just of being a hypocrite. (Also a harsh charge, but he supported it, so that's fine.) Somehow I missed that, although it looks pretty clear in retrospect... Oh well. Sorries!

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 29, 2006 7:28 PM

Actually, on this week's episode, we had a good example of a character making an unconvincing argument. Danny's tirade over forum posters and their anonymity was heartfelt to the character, but his utter lack of headway in making it, coupled with his own ironic fallback on Dilbert27's opinions later, made it clear that this was an argument Danny wasn't supposed to be infallible on.

Not that I paid a lot of attention to it. Not with the nearly toxic levels of awesome that Mark McKinney brought to the episode.

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at November 30, 2006 8:51 AM

Last night's show had some things I liked, but I kept getting distracted by things I disliked, like Harriet (who we were told last week is a brilliant comedian who "transcends sketch comedy like no woman has ever done") being unable to remember a two-line joke. I bet Gilda Radner could remember a two-line joke.

The more I think about this, the more I disagree with it. It takes a similar but not identical skillset to carry a joke to the skillset it takes to carry a scripted character, even a new character every four minutes, even if one of them is you-reading-the-news (which is all we've got an at all substantial sampling of Harriet doing to date). The joke bit was funny precisely because it's intuitive but untrue that the skillsets are identical.

Comment from: Zeke [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at January 6, 2007 9:32 PM

The weirdest thing about this for me is that my mom -- who by all rights should be even less likely to be well-disposed toward a Sorkin show than I am -- loves Studio 60. I told her what I'd read here, but she doesn't care. She takes the show on its own merits and ignores whatever's behind it. Makes me wonder if I should check it out myself and try to do the same.

- Z

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