Monday, October 16, 2006

Studio 60 and Allusion 1

I wanted to walk through a few allusions in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, to show on how many levels Aaron Sorkin’s writing works. You don’t need to have noticed any of this to love the show; much of it works on a subliminal level anyway.

This post is, I think, a good example of the intellectual back-patting that Ping33 and have complained about. While I still think Studio 60 is one of the best shows on television, I will admit that some of the old Sorkin magic is missing. Until I am ready to articulate exactly what has gone wrong, however, I want to concentrate on what I do like, even if it is exactly what others hate; the show has problems, but I don't think the smart stuff I am going to discuss in this post and at least two others is among them.

Sorkin alludes to his two other television shows in the teaser to the pilot of Studio 60. Long before Desperate Housewives and Transamerica Felicity Huffman was one of the main stars of Sorkin’s Sports Night, like Studio 60, a television show about putting on a television show. She is here to remind viewers of the continuity between Sports Night and Studio 60. When Judd Hirsch interrupts the fictional Studio 60’s live broadcast, he interrupts a sketch about George Bush in the Oval Office; Tommy Schlamme – Sorkin’s main director on both Sports Night and the West Wing – alludes to their second earlier show as he copies his famous camera push through the Oval Office Window – though here he breaks into a sketch comedy recreation of the Oval Office of George Bush rather than President Bartlett’s Oval Office. The set of the West Wing was the most expensive set ever built for a television pilot; here we see it for what it always was – a set.

At the end of the second episode of Studio 60 Steven Webber says to Amanda Peete “You’ve got spunk, kid,” and she replies, and he says it with her, “I hate spunk.” It works even if you don’t know where it is coming from, but it works better if you know that the line is from the pilot of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Like Amanda Peete’s character Mary, on the show, is a single woman trying to make a career behind the scenes of a television show. And of course, the line quoted in the show is delivered by Ed Asner, who had a cameo in the pilot of Studio 60, and appears in episode five.


robogeek said...

Hi, Geoff. As a fellow Sorkin devotee / cult member, I've been trying to figure out what the problem is with Studio 60 (and I think most everyone agrees that there's at least one). Here are some candidates...

Like Sports Night and The West Wing, Studio 60 is a "behind-the-curtain" show, offering an inside look into the making of something so ubiquitous we tend to take it for granted, whether it's thinly-veiled SportsCenter or unveiled government or, here, thinly-veiled SNL. The key to this working, however, is that the behind-the-curtain stuff always has to be more interesting than the in-front-of-curtain we're given glimpses of... but in the case of S60, I for one find myself thinking I'd rather watch the show-within-a-show than the show itself. Which is a problem. (On Sports Night one never thought, "gee, I would rather be watching the show-within-a-show than the actual show.")

Another problem is that Sorkin's staple "wish fulfillment" component of the show falls flat here (lacking any of Wing's resonance), while at the same time straining (or outright exceeding) credulity. There's not enough struggle/challenge/obstacles to yield any sufficiently compelling fulfillment, while at the same time I'm just not feeling the verisimilitude (sorry for the big word) that Night and Wing exhibited so effortlessly.

And finally, I hate to say it, but I find the music score almost thoroughly annoying (even cloying at times), and often tonally wrong - which is confounding, since Walden did such great work scoring Wing and Night. (One wonders if perhaps this show just isn't as inspiring to him as those were.)

Then again, what the hell do I know?

James said...

I agree, robogeek, that the glimpses of Studio 60's Studio 60 are frustrating; I think it's because I want to see the proof of Matt's comedy genius as much as anything. Unfortunately, the only part of the show-within-a-show that has raised a chuckle from me so far was that one guy's Tom Cruise impression. It's not even that I don't buy Matt's credentials, or that it's hurting my suspension of disbelief, it's just that being an amazing comedy writer is a big part of his character, and I genuinely want to see the guy in action.

As a sidenote, it amuses me that Studio 60 is one of those shows that exists in a magical universe where TV writers/producers/network presidents are A-list celebrities.

Scott said...

I agree with a lot of the criticism against Studio 60 but think the last two episodes have done a lot to bring up the quality of the show by focussing on the characters more than the setting. The final scene last night with Matt and Harriet was probably one of the best, short scenes on the show yet. And Danny actually did something this episode, telling the kid to give his show to Jordan.

mitch said...

Wow. I totally missed that Mary Tyler Moore reference. Did I really watch all of that Nick at Night for nothing?

Still loving Studio 60--Though I agree that the score is a little... generic.

(BTW-I've just this morning submitted a feature to SBC about Ordinary People, which discusses MTM.)

Geoff Klock said...

James: right now that bothers me the most -- I am told Matt is a great writer but what I have seen of his work is not great. Ping is right to complain that here Sorkin is telling and not showing, which is a problem. And the music has been a little obvious.

Marc Caputo said...

I have always loved Sorkin's work, especially Sports Night. One of the types of TV I enjoy is stories about people who are great at what they do. In Sports Night and The West Wing, however, we had background situations which demanded that the characters be the best; in SN, that fed the irony that the channel and show were always in 3rd and in danger of cancellation/ being sold. In TWW, well...they ran the freakin' free world! They damn sure better have been the best there is at what they do (!). But here, the scenario doesn't have the weight to support that. I'm totally enjoying the show - it's my favorite new show, the only new show I look forward to and keep on tape (I'm paranoid about an early cancellation and storing for pre-DVD release.) It's no 24 or Lost yet, and may never be, but it beats the hell out of 90% of what else is out there.

Anonymous said...

I think perhaps Sorkin is doing a lot of things that people are not picking up on yet. Why does he keep telling us that Matt is the golden boy of comedy but not showing it to us. "The lobster skit isn't funny yet." ect. He is telling us rather than showing us. The first rule of writing is "show don't tell."

Why does Sorkin violate a rule that he knows quite well . . . to set us up for a great joke. After all thats what I feel that he is good at. Setting a stage that may or may not become important for several sessions.

I think he is setting matt up to lose, to burn out, and thats the real show. But it may take a while to get there. Once Matt is taken back to squre one, then I think Sorkin will show us what he really wants to.

ping33 said...

these are the kind of bland, one-dimensional connections which led me to put 's around Smart. At some point a knowledge of minutia started to pass for intelligence in this culture... I blame Trivial Pursuit. Moving to England and Pub Quiz made me realize how much of this stuff was ephemera designed to make stupid people with a decent memory think that they were smart.
Studio 60 uses these one note trivia shout-outs to define its one dimensional characters while making them seem smarter for every loose pop culture thread we (the audience) manage to catch.

I still like the show... but it is what it is.

ping33 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
ping33 said...

(that was me)
also: Pop Culture Ephemera:
Mary Tyler Moore and Taxi were both James L Brooks shows. "Jack" used to be on Wings which was on after James L Brooks' Cheers... MTM and Taxi were both on CBS but Brooks now has a production deal with NBC which is where he did Cheers... the network in S60 is called NBS.

Studio 60 is like Infinite Crisis at network TV... but who cares?! What does it MEAN?! I say not much, other than that these actors/shows STAND for something within our collective not so unconscious.

I think that this is the heart of my problem with Studio 60, it says SO much while having SO little to say. (meanwhile The Wire says so little bit conveys SO much)

James said...

Sort of on-topic, here is a funny thing from about 5 years ago. And anyone who doesn't read Achewood really should.

Björninn said...

(Way off-topic:) That's good stuff. Reminds me of David Mamet's "The Gift of the Magi".

Geoff Klock said...

Ping: as I said, I think you are right, something is off. But I don't think it is a content problem. I don't care what shows have to say (what shows say is almost always very dumb), I care how they say it. As someone famous said, John Milton could have put his thoughts on God in a pamphlet of some three or four pages. That's not the point. The poetry is the point. Sorkin is like Milton here. I think his problem is elsewhere. I am just having trouble putting my finger on it.

One thought: West Wing and Sports Night are team shows. Studio 60 looked like a team show, but it seems really all about Matt so far and I don't think he can carry and hour show all by himself.