Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Studio 60 and Television

I don't watch much television. Much of the year we don't have cable -- we turn it on when the Lakers season starts, and turn it off when the season ends. If it weren't for the Lakers, we'd have no television at all.

-- which is not the same thing as saying I don't watch tv. I do – back in the day I watched NYPD Blue religiously until Bobby Simone died. A decade or so prior to that I watched Hill Street Blues religiously – saw every episode until the fifth or sixth season, after which I lost track of it. And let's not forget The Rockford Files, still the high point of all television anywhere since the dawn of time …

There have been other shows that have caught my attention over the years, if not quite the same degree of passion I invested in the Bochcho shows & Rockford. When I was young I watched James Garner's Maverick, before Rockford came around. I was a regular for The Wild Wild West, too, though I didn't come to that until it got into reruns. And Star Trek, of course, the original – when I was in my early twenties my sister Jodi and I used to go to Hakata Sushi on Wilshire and drink beer and watch, in order:

9 PM – Channel 9 – The Wild Wild West
10 PM – Channel 11 – The Rockford Files
11 PM – Channel 13 – Star Trek

Jim West, Jim Rockford, and Jim Kirk: we used to invite people to come drink with us for "Three Hours Of Jim," or "Jim, Jim, and Jim" …

My sister Jodi turned me on to Quantum Leap as well – a good show made great by its final episode. If you want to know what a Good Guy looks like to me, watch enough Quantum Leap to get a feel for the characters, and then watch that last episode. There are very few real heroes in television, but Sam Beckett is one, a man who does the right thing no matter what it costs him, and it costs him everything, at the end.

In the 90s I sold an episode to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – which was the best of the various Star Treks after the original show, which isn't as big a compliment as some people might think. I could write a long post about what was wrong with Star Trek, or I could observe that they whored that property out for every nickel they could squeeze out of it and move on to talk about what I was actually watching, which was Babylon 5, Joe Straczynski's show. Aside from occasionally clunky dialog B5 had great characters and great story arcs. I always like the aliens better than the humans – G'Kar and Londo were probably the two most fully realized people in the history of televised SF, funny accents and latex be damned. I rewatched Babylon 5 with my 3 sons recently – exactly their speed – and there's a season 2 episode, "The Coming of Shadows," which is tragedy, and art, of a high order. I can't think of anything comparable in any other SF television show, ever – even B5 never quite reached that peak again, though it came close multiple times.

Quite recently I ran across Firefly – Joss Whedon's show. I never watched it while it was on the air, but I took the boys to go see "Serenity," the movie based on Firefly, and the movie was so good we went back and rented the DVDs and watched those. It's a brilliant show – never quite hit the highlights of Babylon 5, but it was wittier, better acted, and better directed – and might have ended up superseding B5's accomplishments, had it survived. But it didn't and last I've heard there's no "Serenity" sequel in the works. And in the last few years, on DVD, we caught up with "24."

Covering all that in order it sure sounds like a lot of television – mind you, I'm covering 35 years in that listing. Possibly another way of looking at it is to list the shows I've never watched a complete episode of – The Cosby Show. Seinfeld. Friends. Frasier. Any version of Law & Order, any version of CSI. Northern Exposure. Homicide. The Sopranos. (The West Wing, for that matter.) And I could go on, but really, what I mean is, I probably haven't watched three hours of television a week over the last two decades, averaged out.

Right now we're doing the Ritual of Grieving for the latest Aaron Sorkin misfire. My wife and daughters and I were huge Sports Night fans. Sports Night ran two seasons and it was the funniest half hour sitcom I'd ever watched, and the most touching. Any real Sports Night fan can reel off lines of dialog from that show from memory – "You're wearing my shirt, Gordon." "Swallow, Jeremy." "And some days you just stand there, knee deep in pies." "I just want one good thing to happen before the day is over!"

Cancelled at the end of the second season. Sports Night was the first television show I absolutely had to watch pre-recorded, because I laughed so hard at it I'd lose huge chunks of dialog otherwise. "Swallow, Jeremy," made me laugh until I fell off the fucking bed.

We never watched West Wing. It came on while Sports Night and NYPD Blue were still on the air, and I didn't have time. And then it was too deep in and I didn't want to try and catch up. To this day haven't seen a whole episode end to end.

When we heard about Studio 60, Amy and the girls and I decided we'd take a run at that. We'd been watching 24 on DVD – so we figured that this year, on Monday night, we'd watch 24 at 9:00 on Fox, and Studio 60 at 10:00 on NBC.

It was a disaster and reminded me why I watch TV on DVD and not on cable. 24 was terrible. I don't mean bad, I mean deranged awful terrible to the point that I went back to the DVD to see if it was just trying to watch it week to week that made it so bad, or if the show had just gone completely off the rails the moment Amy and I decided to watch it live. Turns out it was the latter – the DVDs were still good. The show on Monday nights was still stinkin' bad.

But Studio 60 saved the night for us. It was Sports Night again, creative people with rough edges putting on a show under substantial pressure and tight deadlines. And about the 4th episode in, I said: "This show is doomed." It was brilliant, vain, sometimes shallow, not terribly interested in being accessible – appeared anti-religious and might have been – I'm sure religious people thought it was. The show is probably a close reflection of who Aaron Sorkin really is. I suspect I'd like Aaron Sorkin – I've hugely enjoyed both of the shows he's written about people like himself.

NBC put the show on hiatus after the 16th episode, "The 4 AM Miracle." They cancelled it while it was on hiatus and then started running the final episodes. The last 6 episodes are currently airing – and it looks like they're doing "24," sort of: the last 5 episodes appear to cover a single day in the lives of the cast and crew of "Studio 60."

A lot of people hated Studio 60 and are happy it's gone. I won't be, obviously. I'll be quoting lines from it at my wife and daughters for the next decade – Danny Tripp, after the accident with the robot baby and the guillotine: "Oh, my God, what have you done?" Harriet Hayes mocking a guest star who was supposed to be shot, but whose squibs didn't go off: "You looked like this!" and then shaking her body and laughing at the same time as she pretends to get shot. A dozen others – but finally, the one that's really going to stay with me.

It's the end of the third episode, I think. Everyone's terrified about the ratings – the first episode did well, and they're waiting on the overnights to see if the opening bump is sustained – and at the after party, they get the news: the ratings went up from the premier.

Everybody rejoices – jobs for the rest of the year, anyway! – and party away, everyone really, really happy …

Matt Albie, played by Matthew Perry, smiles at everyone and leaves the party, gets off in his car and drives away … as "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" plays over.

Nothing lasts. Life is loss, to paraphrase Rocky Balboa, and there are three more episodes of Studio 60 to enjoy before the lights go out.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

The sad thing is that these last few episodes they started airing after the hiatus are even better than the episodes at the beginning of the season.

The writing is only getting better. It's great television.
If only they had been viewed before it was cancelled.

I will miss them when they're gone.
btw: I would highly recommend renting the West Wing episodes on DVD. It's very addicting. I'm currently on season 4.

JTHeyman said...

Mr. Moran:

Ah ... television. I was one of those people who grew up watching the British imports more than the American shows. "The Saint" ... "Benny Hill" ... "The Prisoner" ... "Dr. Who" ... "Monty Python" ... and, of course, "The Avengers" with the lovely, kick-ass Emma Peel. Silly, now, but so much fun to watch again.

Of the shows you mentioned, I particularly remember "Babylon 5", which did have its share of melodramatic monologues (often spoken by a character when no one was actually around to hear it, which was kind of funny), and "Sports Night". The latter was a great show, which I was began watching only because an actress named Sabrina Lloyd was on it, who until that time had been on "Sliders" (great concept, badly executed show, but with a few bright spots and the first two seasons are still a sentimental favorite). I don't usually quote lines from "Sports Night" (I didn't know anyone did) but, ah, the memories that come flooding back at the lines you did quote.

I probably would have watched "Studio 60", except I stopped watching TV last year. After "Farscape" took its final bow, things seemed ... pointless, especially on the sci fi tv front. Of course, I've missed all the frenzy about "Heroes" and "Jericho" and so on but, these days, such shows live forever on DVD, it seems. Plus, "withdrawal symptoms" have been eased by the discovery of free time for other things.

Such as watching TV shows on DVD.
*grin*

Thank you for the recommendation for "Studio 60". I'll check it out.

~ Jas.

Dan Moran said...

anonymous,

"It's very addicting."

I believe you -- I decided sometime during West Wing's run that I'd catch it on DVD when it was over. Now it's been over for a year, we'll probably fire it up sometime after our current drama subsides. (Of course, Alan Rodgers presence in your life is a guarantee of ongoing drama, so we'll just have to see how thoroughly we can shut him out of our lives. Doing our best on that one....)

Sean Fagan said...

You know, I am Aaron Sorkin's bitch. Nearly as much as I am Joss Whedon's.

And even I think S60 failed. One of the reasons it failed is because the sketch comedy it showed just wasn't funny. Later episodes seem to have figured this out, and have even less.

I'll still watch anything Sorkin does -- I'm still watching S60, in Glorious high definition -- but I don't find it compelling.

I showed the WW episode, "Isaac and Ishmael," to my fiancée, who'd never seen an episode before, and she laughed, and cried.

Dan Moran said...

The sketch comedy wasn't funny -- which was never the point. Didn't matter to me. The characters were funny --

Coming to Studio 60 for sketch comedy is sort of like coming to Sports Night for sports.

Anonymous said...

Hi from Downunder,
Can't say I've ever heard of Studio 60, I can say that The West Wing is my favourite all time TV show.
Looking forward to the AI WARS and more then happy to purchase in Hard Copy - just get it up to scratch and printed please. The Last Dancer is one of my top 3 favourite books of all time. I know a lot of your fans go on and on about The Long Run, and while it is a good read, personally I thought you nailed it in The Last Dancer.
Programing might be a living and I have to respect that, but you'll be remembered long after your gone for your writing :)
But hey, stick around and write more first please.
PS Firefly was great, B5 was good and I know you don't think much of Star Trek - the later productions ,but I 'gotta' say Enterprise sucked me in, especially the episodes where they are from a parrallel universe and all bad people- now that was entertaining..
..anyhow good luck with everything
cheers
BP

Sean Fagan said...

The sketch comedy needed to be funny because it was a show about a sketch comedy show. Worse, it was supposed to be a funny sketch comedy show.

The fact that it wasn't -- the fact that the lead actress, described in the show as someone who could read a phone book and make people laugh, but came across horrifically unfunny -- means that the real show (S60) just wasn't credible.

It's not enough to have people say, "Wow, this is a funny show. You guys are great writers. You've written some great sketch comedy! Look how funny this show is!" If the show is about a sketch comedy show, the sketches they show have to be funny.

How watchable would Sportsnight have been if they got all the facts about sports wrong?

Dan Moran said...

Sean,

I used to do standup. Was never great at it, but got paid -- a couple times in L.A., several in New York (Dangerfield's) ... and "dying is easy, comedy is hard."

Sports Night did get the tone of that job wrong -- people who worked at sports shows at the time said so. Even so I'll concede your core point -- the Sports Night crowd got closer to getting the tone right than Studio 60 did to getting the comedy right. But that's back to "comedy is hard" -- much harder than faking a sports show.

Sorkin is great at character-based comedy -- as good as anybody anywhere. But he's a slow-build kind of guy -- sets a scene, wanders away, scatters a few details, wanders away, comes back and sticks the robot baby in the guillotine ...

He's not a sketch writer. He's obviously never done standup. And it was always really OK with me that the sketch wasn't very good. I never thought Mary Tyler Moore's crowd did a good news show, if you know what I mean -- though I always did think Sam Malone kept a good bar, and that Hawkeye was a good doctor.

This show was better than Sports Night, as a drama -- I mean, that argument montage the other night, covering all the years of the religion argument: they spent the whole season setting that montage up.

And it was almost as good as a comedy. Worked for me. Didn't for you. Fair enough. Taste is personal.

Anonymous from downunder -- when I'm gone, my kids will remember me and know I loved them and did my best for them. It's better than having had a writing career -- if that's the choice. I still have hopes it's not, but if that's what it is, that's OK.

:-)

Dave said...

Dan, I wish to hell there were two of you, so one could write while the other one was daddy, but I have to say I think the world would be a far better place if more parents had your priorities.

Anyone can write. Being a good father? Now that's hard.

Sean Fagan said...

No, I didn't say that it didn't work as a comedy (although I don't think it's anywhere near as funny as either WW or SS -- but I think that's intentional).

I'm saying that their sketch comdey just wasn't at all funny. And that made the show too unrealistic for me, really -- I just couldn't believe that these people were actually on a show that was acclaimed for its sketch comedy.

For drama... a lot of misses early on, I think, but the past two episodes were great. The part I'd twigged onto was Jeter: the press, giving preferential treatment to him; the network, doing the same; the military not doing that; and Jeter himself, just worried shitless about his brother.

Evan said...

My favorite critique of Studio 60 ever: If Aaron Sorkin Wrote a Show About Baseball, by Ken Levine.

I agree with Sean: A show needs some verisimilitude. A show about a great sketch comedy writer and a great sketch comedy actress needs to at least show some pretty good sketch comedy, or I just can't buy it.

Worse, in the early part of the season, I just couldn't bring myself to care as much about the central issue of the show as it seemed to want me to. The whole fate of the network apparently turns on how a late-night comedy program does in the ratings--what, they don't have any dramas, or sports, or news? And why do I care about a network anyway?... I basically loathe TV!

I was tuning in because I adore Aaron Sorkin's dialogue and characters, but after a few weeks of it I just wasn't enough in love to put up with watching commercials and remembering to be in my living room at a particular time. I'll probably rent the DVDs from Netflix when they come out, but the show just didn't pull me in enough for it to be "appointment television".

My condolences to its admirers, though.

James Millar said...

Dan,

about 12 million years ago I told you that Iain Banks, Neal Sephenson and you were the best authors I had every read. Well I get the same rush from West Wing...

Nice to see you back on the net.

- James (Perth, Australia)

jj sutherland said...

Dan...

I too loved S60 at first, but it seemed to get so wrapped up in itself and kind of preachy. I didn't mind that on the West Wing (you'd hope the govt geeks who work there can quote all sorts of statistics on poor people) but it just seemed weird to me to hear the same tone out of a bunch of comedy writers.

The show to check out, IMHO, is Battlestar Galactica. It can be very powerful. One episode that dealt with suicide bombings was almost too painful to watch. (that could just be me, but the show is damn good).

jj

Dan Moran said...

JJ,

A lot of people I respect are big fans of Battlestar Galactica, and Ronald D. Moore is one of the Star Trek people I actually did respect. So it's likely I'll give that series a run some day, probably years after it's off the air.

"it just seemed weird to me to hear the same tone out of a bunch of comedy writers."

Shrug. Sorkin's a comedy writer, and obviously he thinks about this stuff. I'm a sql server architect with a minor in creative writing, and I can tell you off the top of my head that George Bush won 14 of the 16 poorest American states, in 2000.

Dan Moran said...

Or to put it another way, "liberal states are richer than conservative states." There's a post coming about that.

Steve Perry said...

Me, too. Lonesome Dove and Sports Night -- West Wing, the first few seasons until Sorkin got kicked off it, and now, Studio Sixty.

I used to work for Joe before he did Babylon 5, back when he was story editing The Real Ghostbusters, and while he gets a lot of flak, he stood between his writers and the studio like a stone wall.

One of my funniest Hollywood stories came Joe ...

Dan Moran said...

Did the post box cut off your story? C'mon, tell us ...

Steve Perry said...

Ah, it's too long to try and shoehorn in here.

If, however, you want to drop by my blog, it's here:

http://themanwhonevermissed.blogspot.com/2006/11/adventures-in-hollywood.html

digitalred93 said...

Dan,

Fans from around the world have banded together to raise funds for a full page thank you ad in the June 28th Hollywood Reporter. The ad is a tasteful goodbye to the cast & crew and also encourages readers to contribute to the Tipitina Foundation (the NOLA music organization).

Tommy Schlamme has approved the ad, as has Tipitina's. We're now waiting on WB but their publicist has assured us its a mere formality. We hope to have the ad up for folks to see in the next few days.

To date we've raised about $1400. Only $1,100 to go. Any mention in your blog would be greatly appreciated, thanks!

More info at http://thanks2studio60.livejournal.com.

Dan Moran said...

Steve, that's an hysterical story. People should click through for that.

eponymous said...

I'm ashamed to admit that I never knew Steve Perry had a blog until seeing his comments here. I will further admit that I have always wanted a spetsdod and I have a copy of "The Man Who Never Missed" that has been read so many times it is held together by willpower alone.

That story is one of the funniest blog posts I have ever read. I will henceforth be a regular reader.

ObTV: My "late to the party" series is "Boston Legal" came in sometime last fall and am now watching Season 1 on DVD. Best. Shatner. Ever. Just a year ago if you had ever told me that Shatner and Spader would be one of my favorite "buddy" pairs ever I would have laughed in your face... and there are times when Alan (Spader's character) lets fly with something and you can't help but think of Trent (Dan, you haven't been writing for them have you? ;) )

Dan Moran said...

I didn't know Steve Perry had a blog either -- I'll link to it on the links section of this blog, once I have a moment to start filling that out.

I've never read The Man Who Never Missed, but I did read Matadora back in the day -- long after it was released, which still makes it more than a decade ago I read it. It's stayed with me pretty well -- I'd probably have gone further with that series except I just about stopped reading new SF right about then.

Eponymous -- I made a list some years back -- a long time ago -- of actors I'd like to see play Trent -- Val Kilmer was at the top of the list. I don't remember where Spader was on that list, just that he was on it.

eponymous said...

Dan,
I remember "Kilmer as Trent" was bantied about on the Continuing Time mailing list sometime in the 90s during one of the "who would you cast?" discussions. I still think Ed Wasser would have made a great Emile Garon way back then... ;)

Steve Perry said...

I feel compelled to add that SNL, upon which Studio 60 is certainly based, fell (and still falls) flat on its sketch comedy *most* of the time.

Memory is kinder than videotape.
If SNL had three sketches out of ten or twelve that were really funny, everybody did handsprings. A lot of the bits were juvenile, over-the-top, way too long, and while some of the hosts were very entertaining in the show's heyday -- Paul Simon, Steve Martin, Candice Bergen come to mind -- it never came close to batting a thousand.

Still doesn't.

Studio 60 isn't about the sketches, it is about the relationships of the people who do the show, and that part works fine.

Sports Night was the same way, as was West Wing. No political person I know thinks the Bartlett administration could possibly work in the real world -- but they all wish that it did. That people who cared that much were running things.

Sorkin's dialog isn't realistic much of the time -- but you wish it was, least I do.

I'd tune in anything he did, and I expect he could make two guys reading the phone book and bantering as they did so brilliant.