March 22, 2007

Shows You Should Be Watching Number 1: Studio 60

First Aaron Sorkin made Sports Night: a sitcom/drama set behind the scenes of a sports news programme. Then Aaron Sorkin made The West Wing: a political drama set in The Whitehouse. And now we have the natural progression: Studio 60 – a drama set behind the scenes of a topical (and primarily political) comedy show. A show which is Saturday Night Live by any other name.

The show is crucially flawed, as Sorkin simply cannot write comedy sketches: so when they show the sketches the fictional cast and writers have produced (often after a lot of hyping them up) they fall flat. The show is in the strange position where much of the dialogue between our fictional characters is funnier than the sketches these characters are writing. I remember one episode of The West Wing where the entire build-up was about what would go in the Presidents State of the Union address. Everything builds up to this and as Bartlett takes to the podium we fade to black and run the credits. It feels frustrating but it happens as we all know that after all that hype nothing Sorkin puts into Sheen’s mouth will live up to expectations. This is what Sorkin needed to do here, but he doesn’t. Thankfully later episodes of the show fix this a little by showing less sketches.

Second problem: holy schizophrenic show Batman! For the first 5 or so episodes it’s a straight behind-the-scenes drama, then it raises it’s game and has a lot of plots on the wider nature of the studio and the fictional TV company, NBS, their battle with censors and so on. Then it focuses in massively for four episodes and becomes a bit of a romantic comedy between four of the characters. It’s a show still finding it’s feet, though whether it will be given a chance to do so is now in question as NBC have withdrawn it from the schedules early, to replace it with The Black Donnolys. But with hope and good heads prevailing, it’ll get to air it’s remaining episodes and hopefully get a second season. Because it’s really good.

One criticism aimed at it (and all Sorkin’s previous work) is that it’s massively unrealistic. Not only does TV not work like that, but people don’t speak like that either. And that’s true. But it’s not a bad thing. It’s a drama folks. A dramatic interpretation. People didn’t go around criticising Shakespere as people didn’t actually speak in iambic pentameter – it was like that as it made it sound good. That’s how Sorkin’s dialogue works too, it has a unique flowing rhythm to it that just makes it real fun to listen to, and the characters are all smart, witty and far quicker than and of us. Which makes them eminently likeable.

The other great thing about the show is the cast portraying these characters. Matthew Perry is simply brilliant and shows that while the likes of David Schwimmer and Jennifer Aniston may be getting all the movie deals, Chandler was everyone’s favourite not just because he got all the best lines, but because Perry can act the rest of them out of the country. In a brilliant move Perry’s character spends the entirety of the first episode drugged up on painkillers, so we get all the silly comments, clowning and other ‘Chandler-isms’ out of the way. For that one episode, Perry is basically playing Chandler, and it’s established that his character is as high as a kite. So in one deft move the type-casting is broken. We’re no longer waiting to see the character of Matt Albie act a bit like Chandler; it’s come, it’s gone, it’s over, let’s move on.

West Wing regular Bradley Whitford (arguably the ‘star’ of The West Wing, as when it came down to it, that show was basically the story of Josh Lynman) plays Matt’s creative partner Danny with aplomb, while Amada Peet is actually quite brilliant as the network president, despite many critics unfairly slating her. Steven Weber is brilliantly cast as the network chairman Jack Rudolph – hero and villain in one, while Timothy Busfield and Deadwood’s Sarah Paulson are great as Cal and Harriet, if under-used and over-used respectively. The entire ensemble cast works brilliantly, even if we haven’t had a chance to see all the relationships forming yet, as the fictional cast, the writers and producers, and the network execs don’t interact between groups much. The other thing strangely missing is a father figure: The West Wing had Bartlett, Sports Night had Issac, but Studio 60 is really missing that figure to truly add a sense of gravitas to the proceedings.

It’s a brilliantly enjoyable show to watch despite its flaws because of the sheer awesomeness of the writing and performances. Hopefully the show will get renewed for a second series, and if it does it should make its way to More 4 in the UK later this year.

- 4 comments by 1 or more people

  1. tom h

    Having now watched every episode of this available, it feels like watching a show that knows it could get cancelled at every moment. The later episodes have so much packed in that it gets a little silly. That being said, anything which is about the making of a tv comedy show is going to hold my attention – and I think Harriet is a brilliant character. “I get paid for my imagination”, brilliant.

    22 Mar 2007, 18:29

  2. AnnaWaits

    What a fabulous review! Haven’t seen a moment of it, but enjoyed reading that :) I’ve flagged it up on my (curretly pretty dead) blog! xx

    22 Mar 2007, 20:56

  3. Tom – did you manage to get hold of the last four then? I have to admit I thought the two-parter (Nevada Day) the few episodes after that were some of the best television I’ve seen in a long time. Harriet is great (apparently a lot of it is based on Sorkin’s actual relationship with Kristen Chenoworth) but I do think the later episodes suffer from focusing on it a bit to much. But yeah I do worry I’m not entirely unbiased given the nature of the show (ahh, look at all these people living rich and fancy lifestyles from writing comedy…) but still.

    Cheers for the plug Anna!

    22 Mar 2007, 23:48

  4. Rullsenberg

    “arguably the ‘star’ of The West Wing, as when it came down to it, that show was basically the story of Josh Lynman”

    Indeed. And as much as I loved CJ, and indeed so many other characters, Josh was the heart of TWW for me: the perfect flawed hero. Great review BTW!

    23 Mar 2007, 18:54

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