Friday, September 14, 2007


Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Eight episodes in, Richard last night suggested we stop bothering to watch Aaron Sorkin’s much-hyped, soon-cancelled follow-up new show (and we gave Robin Hood the full series). The first two years of The West Wing – those on which Mr Sorkin had the most control – are among the best television anyone has ever produced; this has the same writer, the same producer and many of the same faces. Yet it comes across as a bunch of not very funny people who are terminally up themselves about their own genius, with an underlying suggestion of ‘TV series as multi-million-dollar therapy’.

This may sound strange, but Richard and I don’t watch all that much TV. That is, we don’t follow much of it as it’s broadcast, generally watching a fifty-year stretch of favourites on DVD instead. Over the last couple of months we’ve tended to tune in for Studio 60 and Heroes, while in the last few weeks I’ve often caught Hollyoaks (at which Richard rolls his eyes on the occasions when he gets home early enough). Which one ought to be the high-concept, high-budget, highbrow show, and which the clichéd pile of old tat that panders to bigotry? I ask the question only so that, in the style of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, the revelation at the end is pre-telegraphed in letters sixty feet tall.

A Show Within a Show

The format is that we see the making of a show (also called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) within a show, with some of the ‘hilarious’ sketches that might bear some resemblance to Saturday Night Live if any of them managed actually to be hilarious. The episodes in part tend to revolve around new President of Studio 60’s home station NBS, high-achieving party-girl-but-not-so-much-as-her-slimeball-ex-husband’s-tabloid-friendly-memoirs-make-out Jordan, who despite her role on paper is perhaps the nearest thing the show has to a rounded character, and the big three actors in the show. These are Tom Jeter, token looks-gay-but-isn’t-so-don’t-drop-our-show-please, Harriet Hayes, token Southern Christian, and Simon Stiles, token black guy (again, usually rising above the material). I sometimes want John Simm to pop by and congratulate them on ticking every demographic box, then tell them to run for their lives. Or just telling them to run for their lives and having people shooting at them would do at a pinch.

The two members of the cast that really matter, though, are ‘the one from Friends’ Matthew Perry as writer Matt (who’s on-off involved with Harriet) and ‘the one from The West Wing’ Bradley Whitford as producer Danny Tripp (who’s in trouble for having had trips with cocaine). I rather like both performances, actually, and for me they carry the show, but of course any resemblance to writer Aaron Sorkin and producer Thomas Schlamme is completely coincidental. I mean, look! It was Mr Sorkin, not the producer, who was busted from The West Wing for cocaine! And the show is, essentially, about how unbelievably brilliant these two guys are. If you think this sounds self-congratulatory… That’s one of its typically subtle and hard-to-spot messages. This is laid on particularly thickly in the first couple of episodes, the linked Pilot and The Cold Open, in which once-fired golden boys Matt and Danny are brought back because only they have the quality and genius to save the show, television, and perhaps the United States of America. Danny, like Mr Sorkin, has had a cocaine habit. Matt and Danny, like Mr Sorkin, worked on a brilliant funny-but-political show which, after they were fired, went slowly downhill (“it took four years, but the show collapsed without them” – uncannily, just about the length of time it took The West Wing to be cancelled). By the time beautiful young women are throwing themselves breathily at our heroes with cries of ‘Only your adorable genius offers hope for quality TV! Forgive our foolish ways, and please come and save us, Aaron! Er, Danny and Matt!’ it’s become clear that what the series wants to be is not a showcase for funny sketches and fully-formed characters, but the most expensive therapy session in the history of the world.

The Opening Episodes

The pilot episode opens wanting desperately to be (and referencing) the film Network, with the producer bawling out the viewers after deciding the show-within-a-show has stopped being cutting-edge political and social satire and started pandering to cheap laughs and the middle ground, because, you know, TV is really bad, yeah. And so after that smack in the chops, we’re ready to get a reinvigorated show-within-a-show with brilliantly funny humour and cutting-edge political and social satire once the bright new station president brings back the genius writer and producer that can deliver all this. This may happen fictionally, but to those of us watching the whole show at home, it’s the same problem identified in Cornelltoppingday’s review of The Armageddon Factor (they think it’s a bit Shapps) in their influential Doctor Who – The Discontinuity Guide:
“There’s a parody of bad television and propaganda in the first scene, complete with hackneyed dialogue… However, this would only work if the rest of The Armageddon Factor were lavish and believable and populated by actors working at the height of their powers.”
Most of the actors here are pretty good, but you can tell just how far the fictional talent in Studio 60 lies from what we’re actually given to watch when their first relaunched show is a much-lauded smash hit. In their very first show, they come up with a brilliant and innovative new opening sketch to get people punching the air in delight: do some Gilbert and Sullivan shtick. I stared in horrified disbelief. What really irritated me was Mr Sorkin repeating his trick of ‘two-episode build-up with no delivery’ from the opening two-parter of The West Wing’s third season; in that, we kept hearing about President Bartlet’s brilliant upcoming speech, and the second episode cut off just as he took to the stage. In exactly the same way, the first two episodes build around a controversial but astoundingly funny sketch called ‘Crazy Christians’, which is just about to begin as the episode goes off the air. Grr. Anyway, the next few weeks bumbled along in similar we’re-new-but-brilliant-and-wrestling-with-our-brilliance fashion, until a fortnight ago, when we had the first ‘ordinary’ episode, where it felt like the show had stopped being ‘new’ and settled down. Was this one a success?

To discover just how badly wrong the first ‘ordinary’ episode went, read its surgical evisceration by James Graham. The Wrap Party was the ludicrous episode a fortnight ago in which young actor Tom thinks inviting his stereotypically redneck parents to an after-show party will change their minds about Hollywood (well, it changed mine; I was amazed at the lack of sex and drugs) and a dazed old man wanders about the studio, wanting a photo from the 1950s in which, as every viewer guesses at least forty minutes before the cast do, he inevitably features. To be fair, Eli Wallach is so good as the old blacklistee that he almost, almost beats the treacly script and even more treacly strings that smother the climactic scene. It’s also the episode in which The Middle-Class White Liberals Confront The Black Issue, which turns out in every way as you’d expect. James’ review was great fun to read and pretty much said all that was wrong with the episode, though on the other hand, James had slightly more patience than I did – yes, that’s one of those sentences at which you have to look twice – with one aspect of the show:
“The fact that it tackles the subject of live TV comedy with the same reverence as the top tier of US politics is simultaneously ridiculous and sublime.”
I tend more to the view that it just shows them to be up themselves beyond belief. When people took things extraordinarily seriously in The West Wing, they were debating issues of global importance, and that they could sometimes behave in over-the-top and childish ways became realistic and sometimes amusing character flaws. When they do the same in Studio 60, the bathos is overwhelming. It comes to something when, having spent my whole life bristling at the words ‘It’s only a TV show,’ I have to bite back the urge to bellow them at the cast every time they furrow their brow to a full orchestra at the thought that one of their affiliate stations may be down a point in the ratings that week. I know people in showbiz indulge in queeny strops; this is not lifting a lid on some great revelation, just Mr Sorkin revering his own work again. I. Don’t. Care.

How Not To Deal With ‘Issues’

What tipped us both over the edge, though, was the latest two-parter just shown on More 4, Nevada Day Parts I and II. Having wrapped up everything anyone could possibly want to say about black people, a climate of fear and family tensions in the previous episode – and still had time for the much more important fall-out from a nearly-kiss – Nevada Day was the show’s time to deal with rising capitalism in the China, Christianity, women, gay people, drug laws and small-town America. First, the good bit. Getting out of the studio worked, as did the fish-out-of-water West Wing staple where powerful people are stranded somewhere that ignores their power, this time starting with Tom under arrest, dressed as Jesus, with a spliff in his pocket and in Pahrump, Nevada. John Goodman was funny as the absurdly over-the-top redneck judge; Richard was appalled at his flagrant abuse of all due process, but I suspect by that stage I’d long since stopped hoping for any realism from the show and was relieved to get some broad comedy. Of course, he makes fourth wall remarks about them expecting him to be a redneck, then goes all redneck anyway, the resolution to the storyline is a heartwarmingly predictable homily to America and our boys, and I was only laughing at an offensive small-town America stereotype, but when the laughs are as thin on the ground as they are in this show I take my fun where I can find it. Still more amazingly, the bits we saw of Tom in rehearsal as Jesus placed in charge of TV regulation had the makings of the show-within-a-show’s first funny sketch, even though ‘people who claim to be Christians always focus on telling people off for little things and not on loving their neighbour’ is such an old joke even I’ve made it.

The point where I started growling, however, was when, after the leading lady tells an interviewer that homosexuality is a sin but she’s courageously not really made her mind up about it, Matt exasperatedly tells Harriet there are “any number of gay people working here”. Any number? Would you like to pick one out of the air, based on every single Studio 60 character we’ve met so far? Yes, the number is zero. Even with the stereotypical-gay-character-shaped void that is Tom, who is a bit camp and shy and has issues with his right-wing parents who don’t like or understand his theatrical lifestyle but who, PLEASE LISTEN, SPONSORS, is very definitely dating a LADY.

It’s not that the story didn’t have a little potential, despite its unlikely premise. Rough, tough gays on the streets in conflict with the straight man that ‘looks gay’ – a point nobody made, though in between chiding Harriet for her homophobia, obviously the rest of the cast take time to ridicule the idea of aggressive gay men because they’re all so wimpy and limp-wristed, and men overdo being wound up when asked to rate the appearance of other men. The main problem with that side of it was simply that Harriet sits on the fence, and so does the show. When she says in effect ‘I abdicate my critical faculties to a higher authority’ she’s posing as a dumb blonde, but we’re supposed (in less sexist moments) to find her intelligent and sympathetic. She comes across as cowardly, dim, and a bigot who doesn’t want to admit it. Riled about ‘Hollywood morality’, she instantly names three ‘scandals’, the clichéd bigot-propagandist association of one consentingly gay adult proposition with two underage mixed-sex cases. But no-one points out that leaping straight to the ‘gay = paedophile’ line is like her citing a Jewish ‘scandal’ alongside usuring baby-eaters. Yes, Matt answers her back on why civil unions aren’t good enough; they’re saying that “homosexual love isn’t as good as heterosexual love”. But he can’t answer back often enough or persuasively enough, because that might lose ratings in the real world. And he has no effective answer when her character’s given one of the most ludicrous lines to say, when (as bigots usually do) she claims you can’t compare gay people with black people. Why? Because your lot used to hang black guys from a li’l ol’ tree, but used to burn gay gays at the stake? But no, she argues. It’s because people have had four hundred years to get used to black people, but gay people have only been around openly for thirty. So of course Matt can’t say what he’d really think of Harriet for that, because it would make the idea of their will-they, won’t-they relationship untenable. Black people were only invented when they came to America? Uh-huh. Gay people were only invented when they started coming out? Uh-huh. We were never, you know, called ‘faggots’ because the religious right had hundreds of years to light fires under us? Uh-huh. Because we were driven into invisibility, though everyone knew about the idea, we should wait another 370 years for the people who forced us to be invisible to get used to the idea? Uh-huh. But, instead, so as to remain the charming female lead, all this is presented as her not having made up her mind.

Richard was particularly incensed by Harriet’s complaining that the interview had only quoted her in saying that the Bible says we’re sinful, but not that she had added “Judge not lest ye should also be judged,” and that this meant she left the decision to ‘wiser people’. Actually, he argued, this makes it worse. Either you stand up and be counted for gay rights or you don’t, Richard pointed out. Harry doesn’t. She puts forward the ‘Bible view’ and (never mind her hand-waving qualification) by default she agrees with it. She just doesn’t want to take the blame for that.

Then another woman character performed a clever feint because, ah-hah, I thought her overdone ‘English accent’ was going to be the most irritating thing about her, but no, it’s that she (being a weak and feeble woman who really has no place as a writer) dissolves into floods of tears which only Matt’s manly arms and Danny’s manly orders can dry. Pinch yourself again, and remember which century this is. ‘Tonight, from the 1950s… Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip!’ Like the ‘Operation’ sketch the poor weak girly proposed, you can see how all the parts of this show are assembled, but they don’t add up to convincing human beings. Studio 60 didn’t handle racism well. It handled homophobia very badly. And it seems to have no conception of just how sexist it is. If the show hadn’t been cancelled already, I’d suggest they find other subjects to ‘do’ than ‘diversity’ stories, and not just because they always come down to two self-satisfied straight white guys wisecracking about their ‘chicks’. Which is a shame, because the two lead actors are much better than that (and I never even liked Friends).

Meanwhile, the occasionally-cameoing head of NBS’ parent company does another little turn in the style of the original concept of President Bartlet as an infrequent but powerful presence (Mr Sorkin kept that idea on file, then), though Ed Asner’s not a patch on Martin Sheen; his henchman evil station chairman Jack has some effective moments; and, unusually seeing a cliché and swerving away from it, they didn’t do the ‘hard-faced Chinese man secretly understood every word they were saying all along’ revelation. So that’s one up on Eli Wallach.

Aaron Sorkin. Bona fide record of TV genius behind him. Now churning out self-obsessed, patronising, mediocre pap. It isn’t meaningful, and it isn’t funny, so why bother? Embarrassingly, the show I’m much more embarrassed to admit I’ve dropped in on since a friend told me about a gay storyline a couple of months ago is far more stylish, inventive and raw. Hollyoaks is a cheap teen soap I’d only previously noticed to make fun of. Yet, despite such staples as the hilariously bad soap gangster, it’s mostly well-acted, significantly better-written, and each episode opens with a wordless montage that often dispenses with realism and convention in favour of sheer creativity (though it’s sometimes worth turning off once you’ve seen the first minute or so). It also has actual gay characters, rather than taking the 1950s option of a straight one who’s a bit camp. Heroes, too, soars above Studio 60 for writing and creativity (and hasn’t Steven Carrington aged very well). You know that guy in Heroes who’s an inspired artist and can actually paint the future – but only when he’s off his face on heroin? Maybe Mr Sorkin should never have given up the coke.

26th October Update: Oh dear… So much for the saving grace. You remember I said they swerved away from a cliché by not doing the ‘hard-faced Chinese man secretly understood every word they were saying all along’ revelation? Well, against my better judgement I was watching last night’s feeble episode (The Harriet Dinner, Part II), in which Zhang Tao returns to the show and reveals… Sigh.

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Hah! Thanks for saving me the bother of watching the last couple of episodes stacked up on the TiVo. It is a pity: quite apart from Sorkin being capable of so much better (all we're left with is a succession of Sorkin Moments™, which were always the most nausea-inducing parts of The West Wing), the basic premise of a self-referential critique of the rot in broadcast television had real potential. Not something that could actually be realised on broadcast television, of course, but 'twere better not done at all than done badly.
Not particularly a comment on this post, but the easiest way to get back to you after you left a comment on my blog. So:

Sorry I missed you, and indeed all the Lib Dem Bloggers, at conference. I was unable to get there until the Monday, and thereafter unwilling to do much in the evening on the basis that having to catch a train at about 11pm each night is always such a drag on an evening. Consequently, I didn't do much socialising, and short of going round peering at people's lanyards to verify their identities (which I am far too antisocial to do), had little way to identify anyone I might know. But thanks for your comment anyway. The next time I can make it to conference, I intend to do it properly!
Hi Andy!

Thanks for dropping me a line – been busy since Conference, but just in case you look back at this, my e-mail is right down at the bottom of my list of links. Perhaps I should move it to the top? ;-)

Next time, I shall endeavour to bombard you with comments in advance to make sure you know where to find people…

And hi Pete: last week’s episode was rather better, but I think we may still have broken the habit.
What makes the portrayal of Harriet even more annoying is that the character is apparently based on Sorkin's ex-girlfriend Kristin Chenoweth - someone who is, I'm told by those who know, very supportive of LGBT people.

The fact that the Matt-Harriet relationship is supposed to be one where Chenoweth just couldn't get over Sorkin does make the show funnier on one level, I suppose.
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