Saturday, June 30, 2007
What Kind Of Day Has It Been
So now we’ve reached the end of STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP. What was supposed to be The Next Great Show from Aaron Sorkin, creator of SPORTS NIGHT and THE WEST WING, just never quite happened.
Those two shows are favorites of mine and at times have meant a great deal to me. SPORTS NIGHT in particular came at a point in time in my life that enabled me to realize just how right a show it was. Its examinations of relationships, friendships, the continual issues between men and women, how you become a man, how you’re supposed to behave in this world…THE WEST WING was the more successful expression of these themes, but SPORTS NIGHT at its very best, maybe ten or so episodes in the middle of season one, was the absolute purest display by Aaron Sorkin of what he wants to say that he has ever written. We’re also from the same hometown, a fact that I can’t help but feel is slightly significant.
Months before the pilot of STUDIO 60 went into production I got a look at the script, still titled “Studio 7 on the Sunset Strip”. Simply put, I thought it was brilliant and found myself nearly shaking from how good it was. Here was a chance for Sorkin to deal with television, the media and what those things mean in this age in a way that hadn’t fully been explored yet. When I saw the pilot I thought it was good but…not quite what I had pictured. Some of the casting seemed iffy and there was an overall feel to the tone that was slightly darker and more bitter than I had imagined from what was on the page. But I still had that hope.
Tone is an important issue. Any TV show or film needs a certain sense of realism in the world it is presenting or, to say it in a fancy way, verisimilitude. SPORTS NIGHT had it, so did THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW. In the case of a show like 30 ROCK it succeeds because even in the farcical larger than life approach it takes we can believe that reality because we can believe that the sketch show writers we see really talk and behave like this. To go way back, there was even believability in the interplay between the writers on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. I don’t know what daily life is like in the White House and I’m gonna guess it’s not really like what it was on THE WEST WING, but it doesn’t matter. What was important was that I believed that reality completely and totally.
Right from the beginning there was a believability issue with STUDIO 60, a lack of that verisimilitude, that made things some things almost puzzling. On occasion it was hard not to sit and go, Really? Constant arguments about Christianity? Really? Gilbert and Sullivan? Commedia dell'arte? Really? Tom Jeter’s parents don’t know about Abbott & Costello? A two-part detour into Pahrump, Nevada? We’re supposed to believe that Matt Albie is writing the entire show by himself? Really? Harriet is a comedy genius but can’t tell a joke? And she plays Anita Pallenberg in a film about the Rolling Stones? Really? Really??
I’ve probably read way too much about the auteur theory and, I admit, I always try to find value in creations by writers and directors that fits into the larger picture of their overall work. I’m the guy you’d expect to be bending over backwards defending this show and how it fits into what Sorkin had already done in his other shows. But by a certain point, even I had to admit that this show was getting hard to defend.
As for the actors, I will defend the work of Matthew Perry here. I think Steven Weber was just fantastic week after week. Amanda Peet as network president Jordan McDeere had potential at first but had more and more problems with how her character was written as the show went on. Bradley Whitford was another problem. Not the work he did and not so much the issue of mistaking him for Josh Lyman. But in some ways the character of Josh Lyman burst to the forefront of THE WEST WING so fast and so effectively that I wonder if there was a mistake in his casting here simply because of the possibility that Sorkin had already explored his creative relationship with Whitford in four years of writing that show. Maybe there wasn’t much more to creatively mine between the two men, at least not at this point in time. I also found myself wondering what exactly the character of Danny Tripp did on Studio 60, a question that was never answered.
There was a bigger problem in Sarah Paulson, so good as the Paula Prentiss-like sidekick in DOWN WITH LOVE. The character of Harriet Hayes, the big comedy star of the big comedy show, was written as somebody in a bad mood for the first several shows and the unfortunate result was that we were watching a wet blanket, a supposed big star who wasn’t projecting an iota of the natural charisma that such a star would have. I had issues with some other casting on the show but people who emerged in their roles like Lucy Davis, Merritt Wever and Mark McKinney did make favorable impressions. Unfortunately, some of them never got the chance to do as much as they should have.
Aaron Sorkin had been talking about doing a Behind the Scenes at Saturday Night Live show several years ago, so he obviously had this percolating for a while, maybe going way back to some natural fascination with how something like that must be put together. Obviously, I think he pulled off something very promising with the pilot script. But I have to wonder if he ever realized that maybe he didn’t have as much to say about the subject as he thought he did. Instead, he focused on fights with a girlfriend that ties in with the Christian Right (Sorkin’s relationship with Kristin Chenoweth is well known) and what seemed like some long-dormant issues that he could never deal with on THE WEST WING, such as Reality TV and 9/11. Hey, I hate Reality TV too. Unfortunately, the way the show addressed it came off as simplistic, bitter and ultimately a dead end. He also seemed to fall back way too much on plot points and dialogue phrasings he had used before. Phrases such as “Small fraction of a man”, “I go home when you go home” and “This isn’t TV Camp” were heard before and heard again here. This sort of thing used to be fun back in the days that Sports Night and The West Wing overlapped, but several years down the line his bag of tricks just seems a little bit more transparent.
“The Christmas Show”, which aired in early December, was possibly the best episode after the pilot and gave hope that this show might actually succeed. Unfortunately, what appeared after the New Year was a group of episodes that were trumpeted as emphasizing the show’s romantic comedy elements instead of the look at the making of the show. Well, they got it partly right. Emphasis on the show was decreased, but what we got instead was Danny Tripp stalking the pregnant Jordan McDeere, much more of Matt & Harriett fighting and supporting characters engaged in subplots about keeping secrets from potential girlfriends that made no sense on any planet. When the show came back from hiatus to run the final episodes after the season had officially ended, what remained was a lengthy arc all taking place over one endless night designed to wrap up certain plotlines and toss in whatever arguments Sorkin felt he still needed to make. There was also one standalone episode entitled “The Disaster Show” which focused on Timothy Busfield’s show director Cal and guest star Allison Janney (playing Allison Janney, former star of THE WEST WING).Presumably as a cost-saving measure, the episode eliminated the three main leads and also attempted to be broadly funny to an extent that the show never did otherwise. When placed in context with the other, much more serious episodes that come before and after, it may be one of the most bizarre hours of television I’ve seen over the past year.
The final moments of the last episode of Studio 60--titled, like the season one finales of SPORTS NIGHT and THE WEST WING, “What Kind Of Day Has It Been”--have lingered in my brain as a curious combination of regret and hope. Regret that Sorkin somehow, inexplicably, screwed this up. Hope that he, to recall a phrase he’s used before, is gonna get up off the mat and once again show how good he really is. “We can do better,” says Danny Tripp near the very end. Several moments later, Matt Albie says, “I’m gonna make a friend out of you yet,” in what turns out to be the last line of the series. It’s like Sorkin is speaking to us and saying that he’s not gonna let this get him down. Among the many, many constants that recur in the fictional universes of Aaron Sorkin, one of the most potent is that the man always believes in the continual optimism of what’s next.