Just forget the words and sing along

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Welcome back to Fishing in the Discount Bin, where I watch one of the many DVDs in my collection, and then rant about it.  We get to the first TV show in this series.  I never really figured out how to do TV shows.  Should I binge watch the entire series?  Just watch a handful of my favourite episodes?  It's something I'm still figuring out.  For our first series, we get to some of Aaron Sorkin's work, his short-lived series about working on a TV series...Studio 60 on the Sunset StripThis article is originally dated February 16, 2011.

One of the things I love about the DVD format is how dead TV shows have a chance to live forever.  My collection is full of "brilliant but canceled" TV series...those shows that only lasted 13 episodes or so, only to be promptly canceled but develop a huge cult following.  I still haven't decided how to deal with these in Fishing in the Discount Bin, though.  Should I watch just a handful of my favourite episodes and use that to make generalizations about the whole series?  Should I spend a week or two and watch every episode, analyzing every episode?  I really don't know.  But I'm going to attempt something here anyway.

Over on a friend's blog, she was recently talking about watching some old The West Wing reruns.  I'm one of those nerds who's absolutely amazed by Aaron Sorkin's work.  His writing...gah.  I just don't know what to say.  I was thoroughly hooked on SportsNight in its original run.  I never got into The West Wing, though.  Probably because Sorkin's work involves a lot of characters giving long speeches, and a lot of The West Wing's speeches worked on the theme of "America is AWESOME," which gets old kind of quick when you're not American.  However, I did adore Sorkin's other show about the behind-the-scenes workings of television, the short-lived Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.  Since I'm a guy who loves to watch TV, and a lot of the speeches in Studio 60 are on the theme of "television is AWESOME," I was more able to get behind it.

Studio 60, for those who don't remember, followed the behind-the-scenes workings of the fictional TV show Studio 60, which is a live sketch comedy show just like Saturday Night Live.  It wrestled with the big issues facing America today, the workings of a TV show, and the politics of the big business of show.  But, I can see why it never took off.  The first thing that a lot of people picked up on was that, the few times we saw sketches on Studio 60, they just weren't that funny.  And as much as I loved it, the show just never really found its point...it couldn't decide what it wanted to be about.  It wound up having the same problem as a lot of David E. Kelley shows.  Instead of being about something, it was just a bunch of quirky characters running around being quirky.

Maybe part of the reason was Sorkin never got to do his proper research.  One thing I've learned about Sorkin was that he really believes in "write what you know," and as such, researches the fuck out of everything he writes.  I once read an interview with some West Wing writers who said they didn't feel like writers as much as they felt like Sorkin's researchers.  Sorkin asked Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels if he could observe SNL for a few weeks to see how it works, but Michaels said no.  As you may recall, that same year, SNL alumni Tina Fey was launching her show about the behind-the-scenes workings of a live sketch comedy show, 30 Rock, and we all know who Michaels was rooting for.

(Speaking of, did you hear that Aaron Sorkin will be playing himself on an upcoming episode of 30 Rock?  Talk about a crossover 5 years too late.)

Another thing that made this different from Sorkin's other shows was there was no "mentor" character.  I'm sure there's a proper term for this TV trope, but I like to call it "the Silent Bob."  Essentially, our main character fucks himself up into a corner, and "Silent Bob" will speak his only line, dropping the wisdom that our protagonist needs to get out of his predicament.  On Sports Night, it was Robert Guillaume as editor Isaac Jaffe.  On The West Wing, it was Martin Sheen as President Bartlett.  Back when Studio 60 was still on, I know a lot of fans were hoping that Judd Hirsch would return as his character of Wes Mendell to fill that role, but he never did.

But there was still lots of good in the show. 

What sparked this all off was I was tempted to throw in disc 1 and watch the pilot episode again.  Despite the show's flaws, a lot of TV critics still regard the pilot as one of the most compelling hours of television ever produced.

The show opens on a typical night at Studio 60...but not so typical.  The show's creator and producer, Wes Mendell, is nervous and fidgitey.  He's seen fighting with the broadcast standards people from the network over a controversial sketch.  The network orders it pulled, Mendell caves, and he becomes a shadow of his former self.  When the show starts, Mendell interrupts the first sketch, and does a rant live from coast to coast about the state of television.  He goes on about how the show isn't funny anymore, about how TV appeals to the lowest common denominator just to make a buck, and he lets it all out.  He's pulled off the air after 53 seconds of his rant.

We then cut to a dinner party, being held by the media conglomerate to welcome the new president of the network, the young, plucky Jordan McDeere.  Everybody's cellphones start going off with news of Mendell's meltdown, and they instantly go into crisis mode.  They head down to the studio, and while everyone reviews tape of Mendell's rant, McDeere goes to talk to him about why he felt the way he did.  But, before she can get any answers out of him, the chariman of the board, Jack Rudolph, marches in and promptly fires Mendell.

An emergency meeting of the board is called to start plotting damage control.  Jordan promptly accuses of the board of underreacting, and says that the biggest problem they'll face is that media will agree with Mendell.  She has a private meeting with Jack, and she has a radical solution for the network to save face and turn things around.  To be the new bosses of Studio 60, she wants to hire back Matt Albie and Danny Tripp.  Matt and Danny were a very popular writer and producer team on Studio 60 around 5 years ago, and have now gone on to become the new critical darlings of Hollywood.  Jack is opposed to the idea, as he was the one personally fired Matt and Danny 5 years ago.  But, Jordan brings Jack around, and Jack reminds Jordan that while she has an impressive resume and most find her charming and clever, he finds her annoying as fuck and if she screws this up, she'll be fired.

We now meet Matt and Danny.  As I said, they're the new critical darlings of Hollywood, and they're at yet another awards ceremony accepting yet another award.  Talk soon turns to Matt and his on-again/off-again relationship with Harriet Hayes, one of Studio 60's stars.  Matt is sad to report that it's off again, but before he can go into details, he's called up to the podium to accept his award.  While Matt's in the middle of his acceptance speech, Danny's assistant tells him about Mendell's meltdown, and how he's being summoned to meet Jordan.  Danny is stolen away, leaving Matt all alone.

From here, we catch up with the cast members of Studio 60.  Of course, they're at their favourite club, holding a postmortem, trying to figure what Mendell's freak-out means for the future of the show.  Harriet takes a moment to comfort Cal, Studio 60's director.  Cal knows for allowing so much of Mendell's rant on the air, his days, nay, minutes, are now numbered.  Harriet meets with the other two breakout stars of Studio 60 -- Simon Styles and Tom Jeter -- and they retreat to a moment of calm.  However, before they can escape, Harriet is accosted by a rookie cast member who mocks her for `not praying hard enough` before the start of the show.  Here`s where we learn an important part of Harriet`s character:  she`s a devout Christian.  Harriet immediately lays the smackdown on the rookie for being a jagoff.  While Harriet, Simon, and Tom share their quiet moment, they get word that they're all being summoned back to the studio.

We cut to Danny, who's watching video of Mendell's rant, and it's time for his meeting with Jordan.  Jordan makes the official offer for him and Matt to come back and run Studio 60.  Danny immediately says no, but then Jordan reveals she's become privy to some information.  Danny, as it turns out, is battling a drug addiction.  He recently fell off the wagon and failed his recent drug test.  And now, he can't be bonded to direct his and Matt's next film until he's had 18 months worth of clean drug tests.  Danny asks if Jordan is blackmailing him into running the show.  Jordan says she's not...just pointing out that he's going to have nothing to do for the next two years while he gets clean, so he may as well run the show.  Rather than accept the offer, Danny runs off to find Matt, because as it turns out, he hasn't told Matt yet, and wants to be the first to tell him.

We catch up with Matt, who's been summoned to the Studio 60 studio, but rather than go inside, he's been pacing around outside nervously waiting for Danny.  Danny arrives, and tells Matt everything:  his falling off the wagon, how he needs 18 months of clean tests before he can direct their next movies, how Jordan knows, and the offer to run the show.  Matt instantly assumes that Danny is being blackmailed, and runs into the studio to accuse Jack and Jordan of doing that.  Of course, Jack didn't know, but now that he has this leverage, he fully intends to get Matt and Danny on board.

So, Jordan, Jack, Matt and Danny all sit down to have their meeting and for Matt and Danny to be formally offered the show.  As expected, it's a very tense meeting where a lot of old wounds are re-opened.  Danny eventually storms out of the meeting in disgust.  Matt, however, is willing to wait for Danny to get clean to direct their next movie, and still has a love for the show, so he agrees that they'll do it, and that he'll bring Danny on board. 

When Matt goes off to find Danny, he runs into Harriet backstage, and we find out why their on-again/off-again relationship is off again.  As I said, Harriet is a devout Christian, and she is currently plugging a new gospel album.  However, Matt refused to appear on The 700 Club with her to promote it.  Matt says he refused to because he finds Pat Robertson to be a homophobic, bigoted douchebag, and couldn't stand that Harriet may harbor the same beliefs.  After they fight a bit to get their argument out of their system, they agree that they'll have to put their argument aside now for the sake of the show.

(As the show progresses, we find out that that's the main reason why these two, who are madly in love, can never seem to make it work.  She's a devout Christian, and he's a devout atheist.)

Matt finds Danny, and they chat about Danny's problems and how he's working to get clean again.  Danny agrees to do the show.  They run into Cal, and assure Cal that his job is safe because he really is the only one with the experience to keep on directing the show.  They run into Jordan, and to prove that she's the real deal, she gives them the controversial sketch that was pulled and orders them to open with it on their first show.  At this point, Matt reveals that he wrote that sketch back when he still worked for the show.  And then, with the strains of the Queen classic Under Pressure starting to play, Danny and Matt announce to the assembled cast and crew that they're now in charge.

And that's the end of the pilot.  I'm always amazed at how fast the pilot episode moves.  It all happens in one night.  It goes so fast, you almost think it happens in real time.  All of Studio 60 is a great exercise in compressed vs. decompressed storytelling.  The pilot episode takes place all in one night, the final 5-part episode also takes place all in one night.   

One thing that still amazes me is Matthew Perry as Matt.  Having only been familiar with Perry as the wisecracking Chandler Bing for all those years on Friends, I watched this pilot and the whole series in amazement, going, "Oh my God!  Perry can actually act!"  In fact, Sorkin once said that the only reason why the character was named "Matt" was because Matthew Perry was the only guy he thought of to play the part.

But yeah.  It's getting late and this is getting long.  I liked the show, but damn it, it just never found a point. 

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