Under 30

I can't complain but sometimes I still do

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Under 30 Blog's Totally Random Fall TV Season Review: "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip"

I like TV. I know it's cool to be one of those people who doesn't like TV, and maybe I should be climbing mountains and jumping out of airplanes instead of curling up in front of the tube with my "Deadwood" DVDs. Actually, no, there's no way I should be doing anything else.

Armed with only an overstocked DVR, I am trying to catch the best shows of the fall season. Obviously this is not a comprehensive method but I'm just one man, people.

"Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," 9 p.m. Monday, NBC

There is no mistaking an Aaron Sorkin show. How's that? It's the dialogue. What about the dialogue? It's rapid fire, witty, like the cast of "Friends" watched a Howard Hawks marathon. Sounds wonderful except it doesn't seem very realistic. People get enough realism. You want realism look out the window. Maybe people have had enough of Sorkin. "The West Wing" was nice and all, but didn't the over-caffeinated banter come off a wee bit smug and self-satisfied after the first couple of seasons?

Sorry, I need a breather from all the snappiness. Trying to make it in Sorkin's world of young urban professionals who are never at a loss for words is an exhausting enterprise. At least when Kevin Smith puts ridiculously overstuffed dialogue in your mouth you get to be stoned and covered in Chee-tos on Jason Lee's couch. Sorkin's characters never seem to sleep, and his relentless steadicam never stops moving.

At least with "The West Wing" the safety of the free world was at stake. His new show, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," is about a long-running "Saturday Night Live" style sketch comedy show in desperate need of a makeover after the show's producer Wes Mandell (Judd Hirsch) goes on an on-air rant about the evilness of network television. (An obvious "Network" reference Sorkin underlines several times by explicitly referencing the film. Ripping something off is bad; admitting you ripped it off is good.) Foxy studio executive Amanda Peet decides "Studio 60" needs a jolt of creativity and veneer of credibility, so she hires hotshot director/writer team Matt and Danny, who were fired from the show four years prior and went on to acclaim in the movies.

Matt and Danny are played by Bradley Whitford, a Sorkin vet, and Matthew Perry, whose smirky portrayal of Chandler Bing on "Friends" is one of the most annoying things to come out of American pop culture in the past 20 years. Perry is a little less smirky here, and I was surprised that I didn't only not hate him but kinda liked him as the idealistic fudge-up writer. Whitford is perhaps the perfect Sorkin actor, the De Niro to his Scorsese. He's obviously smart, funny and incredibly deft at spitting out run-on sentences packed with Very Important Thoughts. He's also more than a little smarmy, and unabashed about showing how clever clever he is. Whitford is basically Sorkin's Roman a clef, and a channel for the writer's talent and limitations.

I gotta admit, the "Studio 60" pilot captivated me. It was fast-paced, entertaining and set up enough spinning plot plates to make me curious about next week. But I also loved "The West Wing" in the early going. The problem is Sorkin's talent can't outrun his limitations, chief among them being his massive self-regard. "Studio 60" has a similar vibe of "I'm out here creating quality TV, dammit, and aren't you lucky for it?" He puts his feelings about the rest of TV in the mouth of Hirsch in the pilot-opening scene when his character breaks down and tramps in front of the camera to cry about the battle between art and commerce on television, and how art is "getting its ass kicked." Does Sorkin actually watch TV? If any medium is suffering from an art/commerce imbalance, it's the movies. TV is more daring that ever. Hey Aaron, did you notice NBC let you make a show where you mock the network and satirize one of its biggest franchises? Art on TV is doing just fine, I think.

So, I'm going to keep watching "Studio 60" and hope the show doesn't eventually get on my nerves like "The West Wing." Fat chance. Don't bring that Oscar the Grouch attitude around here. Nice reference. Thanks. I was being sarcastic. I know. I chose to ignore your sarcasm and go along my merry way.

I think I have a sideache.


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