Monday, July 17, 2006

EVill TV: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip--Pilot



Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is the most buzzed-about new show of the upcoming Fall Season, an hourlong, ensemble drama about the struggle between art and commerce (in particular, the sorry state of network television) set behind-the-scenes at a thinly-veiled version of Saturday Night Live. It will air Mondays at 10 on NBC, which won an intense bidding war for the right to be pilloried on a weekly basis.

I've been gushing about Studio 60 here and, for almost a year, in a tracking thread on the Ex Isle message board. I've now seen it a couple (or 5) times, so the haze of Sorkin geekdom has lifted (yeah--OK), and I think I can evaluate the pilot based on its actual merits, or lack thereof.

I'm sorry to report that it's not a homerun. Major, major bummer. Certainly, the bar was set very high. Sorkin & Schlamme's last pilot--for (my beloved) West Wing--is, in my view, one of the two or three best pilots ever made. So I was expecting a homerun.

Studio 60 is more like a stand up triple. With Jose Reyes on deck. (Did I just draw a sports metaphor? And correctly, even? I am so butch.)
"How many of you have been watching Studio 60 since high school?"

The teaser takes place in the moments before a live, national broadcast. Legendary executive producer Wes Mendel (Judd Hirsch)--read: Lorne Michaels--is arguing with the network executive in charge of Standards & Practices, Jerry Jones (Michael Stuhlbarg), over a sketch.

Jones prevails upon Mendel to cut the sketch "to avoid offending millions of Christians," whereupon Mendel has an on-air meltdown reminiscent of Paddy Chayefsky's Network.

This isn't gonna be a very good show tonight, and I think you should all change the channel... This show used to be cutting edge political and social satire, but it's been lobotmized by a candy-assed broadcast network hellbent on doing nothing that might challenge their audience. ...

We're all being lobotomized by the country's most influential industry, which has thrown in the towel on any endeavor that doesn't include the courting of 12 year old boys. And not even the smart 12 year old boys. ...
That remote in your hand is a crack pipe.

Brilliant. A stunning indictment of our out of control mass media, and (I'm sure) a great example of the sort of commentary we can expect from the show on a regular basis. Nice hook.

Michael Stuhlbarg, as Jerry, the Standards & Practices guy, was outstanding. He makes it look easy. Ditto Steven Weber, who plays the CEO of the fictional network's parent company. Loved his hint of a New York accent, too. A lot of backstory in those elongated dipthongs.

And Judd Hirsch was fantastic. He had quite a memorable rant, and he sank his teeth into it.

Mendel, of course, is instantly fired.

Newly minted Network President Jordan McDeere (who is based on Jamie Tarses, the youngest woman ever to run a network) decides the real problem is that Mendel is right.

JACK
Was he talking about our shows?

JORDAN (trying not to laugh)
We're not sure which sister-pimping show he was talking about?


"What's required here," she argues, "is a tacit admission of guilt and a silent act of contrition." She wants to bring back a pair of critically acclaimed producers who had been fired from the show within a show 4 years earlier for pushing the envelope a bit too far. She plans to lure them back with both carrot & stick, but mostly with the promise that they'll be able to run the show as they see fit. (Any resemblance to Sorkin & Schlamme's relationship with NBC is... totally deliberate.)

Here's a taste:

MATT
When I scerw up, you know about it.

DANNY
When you screw up, I read about it.

MATT
No, I tell you, you're the first one I tell. Now we're
back in the NFL and only one of us can screw up at
a tme and I think we both know that most of the
time, it's gonna be me. You're the big shoulders.


Whitford effortlessly distinguishes Danny Tripp from Josh Lyman. Apparently, NBC didn't want to sign-off on the "double booking." They wanted someone new, and while I suppose I can see why they'd resist--so many people identify Whitford so closely with Josh, it may be hard for people to differentiate. Especially since S60 will have the same auctorial voice as WW. But I'm glad they relented.

(Whitford wrote as well as acted in a couple of the best episodes of WW's post-Sorkin era. I hope he'll have the opportunity to actually collaborate on a script or two with Sorkin this time around.)

Matt Perry... is a little stiff. I think he's still settling in, still finding the character. (And he's not the only talented actor in the cast who is.) I want to like him, and I'm pretty sure I will like him. He was very good in his two WW guest shots, which were, no doubt, seen by Sorkin & Schlamme as an audition for this already gestating project. (He spent the subplot of one episode--"Evidence of Things Not Seen"--doing an extended one-on-one with Brad Whitford... In fact, it was a job interview.)

We'll see.

I had a similar reaction to the Sarah Paulson, the phenomenal actress who plays Harriet Hayes, one of the Big Three stars of the show within a show. She's still fine-tuning her portrait of this compelling character, a Southern Baptist celebrity.

Throughout the pilot, people are asking Harry if she was offended by the cut sketch. Her response?
HARRIET
I was offended I wasn't in the sketch.


The sketch title: "Crazy Christians." And, it turns out, Matt wrote it. It's the sketch that got them fired in the first place.

McDeere tells Albie & Tripp, "open with it next week."

DANNY
You gotta ask yourself... What if she's for real?


Sounds pretty fuckin good, right?

So, what's my problem? Two words: Amanda Peet.

She does not seem at all confortable here. The role, as written, exudes smart, sexy charm--think: Allison Janney's CJ Cregg. But Peet plays it pretty bland, occasionally like a deer with its eyes caught in the headlights.

It must be said: she's no Allison Janney. (Hell, she's not even Moira Kelly, who played WW's original--abortive--female lead.) And it was weird having Felicity Huffman in the episode (as that week's celebrity guest host), since Huffman was the female lead on Sports Night. By those yardsticks, Peet just doesn't measure up.

Put it this way: when Jordan says she's pleasantly surprised to learn that the news networks have even heard of Paddy Chayefsky, I'm not convinced that she knows who he is, either.

That's my one big beef. The rest is nitpicking (e.g., they should lose the super-titles introducing the characters--"Jordan," "The Big 3," etc.)

OK, here's the caveat: I'm not coming to this cold. I'm coming to it knowing the script so well I'm practically "off-book." So I cringed at each bit that didn't come together exactly as I had envisioned it.

It's also true that the pilot gives very little indication of what the show will be from week to week. I'm sure a lot of structure, a la Sports Night, will be incorporated into the format. Presumably, each episode will center around the creation of that week's installment of the show-within-the-show, so this was one of those "secret origin" pilots. This is what happens when the show goes off the rails--when the shark stops swimming.

But--to reiterate--Studio 60 is not that far off the mark. Maybe Peet will improve--and, if she doesn't, maybe they'll fix that situation. (Jamie Tarses' tenure at NBC was just 11 months.)

In any case, I'm still very much looking forward to this show.

3 Comments:

Blogger dirk.mancuso said...

I have to say I am far less enthusiastic about the Aaron Sorkin canon than you are. I've always found him to be rather long on the preachy and short on the actual plot.

But that is most likely me. Everyone I know swears THE WEST WING is one the best shows ever. I never got past the second episode. Ah, well, different strokes and all that.

I will most likely give this one a viewing or two, mostly out of good will toward Matthew Perry (and to see how he is doing based on his weight).

7/18/06, 4:17 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

great dialogue is (almost) better than great sex.

7/18/06, 5:12 PM  
Blogger dirk.mancuso said...

Mmm, I would be inclined to remove the (almost) from your response...but again that is most likely me.

7/19/06, 1:45 PM  

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