Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Thoughts on Studio 60 and Sorkin...

I watched 60 Sunset Strip, or whatever, last night. I’m sure for Sorkin fans it’s like stepping into a warm, comfortable bath. However, as someone who was never much of a fan of the guy’s work, I can’t say it offered much that was new to win me over. In fact, many of the elements feel like simple rehashes, and if I didn’t like them when they were new, I unsurprisingly found them worse the third time around.

Feel free to write off my complaints because of my conservative leanings, and it’s true that Sorkin’s ongoing attempts in all his shows to write ‘conservative’ characters are hilariously patronizing and completely off the mark. However, while I find such material predictably irksome, it’s really his incredible smugness that turns me off. Sorkin’s characters have as much a tendency to moral superiority as any of his cartoonish Christians are supposed to have, and that’s the element that’s always turned me off.

However, this excerpt from a blog dedicated to Studio 60 does suggest that part of the show’s appeal to Sorkin’s longtime fans does indeed derive from its preaching to the choir:

”[Actress] Sarah Paulson as Harriet Hayes was someone I heard a lot of people complain about...And she isn't all over this episode but I sort of see the problem…Paulson seems too mature and, I'll be frank, too intelligent to play this part…Paulson just isn't convincing as a conservative, I guess the problem is. Now, I say this as someone who can not stand conservatives, Paulson should probably feel honored by this but I just am not sure she was right for this role.”

When Sports Night came out, it was lauded by lots of people. I checked it out, and while it was indeed smartly written, it was also (to me) unbearably pompous. Each episode I saw literally ended with a Big Lecture from one character or other, in the face of which the character’s opponent would inevitably crumble. These always struck me like those fantasy conversations teenagers dream up in their heads, in which they force some icon of the Adult World (parent, boss, teacher) to admit that the kid is morally and intellectually above them in each and every way.

Part of the problem was that I was already addicted to a Canadian show called the Newsroom, which was far more cynical and had no heroes of any stripe. Sorkin’s programs are chock full of sacred cows, and I’ll admit that gives me gas. I honestly think I’d have had about the same reaction if his incessant preaching had been conservative, but admittedly, maybe not.

West Wing seemed the same show as Sports Night, although at least the White House setting made the pompousness a little more natural. However, now we’re back to a TV show setting, and it’s the exact same thing. Maybe the show will do well, but again, I certainly don’t think it’s going to bring in many viewers who didn’t watch Sorkin’s previous two shows.

Again, many of Sorkin’s dependable riffs are increasingly threadbare. Like many liberals, Sorkin doesn’t seem to like [conservative] bloggers much. One character notes in dismay, “I like authority.” (In terms of ‘official’ gatekeeper media outlets like the New York Times.) I found that a pretty amusingly reactionary position for a ‘liberal,’ although it’s an opinion I’ve seen on lots of left-wing sites. However, if the position is at least something you can argue about, the tired japes about bloggers being “people in pajamas” and “surrounded by cats” seem like lame, already age-old stereotypes from some grumpy old man. That’s smart, with-it writing?

[To be fair, although it goes by without comment, there is a funny scene where Perry holds a writer’s meaning and is solely pitched a succession of skits by different writers, all based on the idea that President Bush is Stupid. I did think that was pretty funny, if only because such sketches are so stale after six years of them.]

The manifold attacks on conservative Christians, meanwhile, seem even more tiresome, especially five years after 9/11. Really, are conservative Christians really America’s biggest problem right now? I honestly think Sorkin is trying to stir up controversy and publicity with this stuff. The early episodes have spent a lot of time talking up this sketch Perry wrote called “Crazy Christians.” It’s supposed to be brilliant, but if it is, why doesn’t it have better title than that? I mean, “Crazy Christians?” There’s a knee slapper.

One main character—the Matthew Perry guy—earlier broke up with the love of his live because she appeared on the Pat Robertson show. That seems insane to most of us, I think, but was justified because her doing so was, as he says—and he really does say this—like attending a Klan rally. Anyhow, I don’t think stuff like this will provoke more than yawns. First of all, Robertson hasn’t been anything but a fringe figure for decades now. Second of all, ho hum, a TV show attacking Christians. Whatever, dude. I look forward to Perry later getting equally uptight about somebody invited Al Sharpton to be on the show. Certainly Sharpton is at least as loathsome as Robertson, right?

Even the show’s big plot device, the Last Minute Brilliant Sketch Idea That Saves the Day, is wearisome, being—get this—a parody song set to the tune of I’m the Very Model of a Modern Major General. Gee, that’s fresh.

Anyway, for those who like Sorkin’s stuff, have fun. I’ve never been one of those people who think people who don’t like stuff I do are dumb or something. I’m one of apparently few Firefly fans who doesn’t blame Fox for the show’s failure. To my mind, there just weren’t a whole lot of people who fell into the Space Western demographic. What’ya going to do?

In contrast, a letter printed in this week’s Entertainment Weekly snidely opines that Sports Night failed because the average viewer was “not intelligent enough” to appreciate the show. Well, maybe. (Although West Wing did fine for a number of years.) Or maybe in the Age of Seinfeld a show that demanded it was About Something each and every week just grated on the nerves of many. Or, conversely, perhaps a sitcom set at a sports news cable TV channel wasn’t very appealing. Who knows?

Anyway, while I’ll probably occasionally drop in here and there, I think I’m more likely to find the SNL-derived Tina Fey sitcom more up my alley.


At 6:30 PM, Blogger Mike P said...

I didn't watch "Studio 60", but I did watch "Heroes", and thought it was nifty. The reason I bring this up is because one of the characters had a Godzilla figure on his desk.

At 2:20 AM, Blogger Jessica R. said...

I'm a totally bleeding heart and I agree with you and it's why I burned out on the west wing after 3 seasons. I don't want to be patted on the head for having the "right" ideals and I don't want to feel that those who would dare disagree with me are cartoonish buffons.

At 8:18 AM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

Well, yeah, the politics are lame, and the stuffed shirtedness more so (and again, portraying a Gilbert & Sullivan parody as a stroke of brilliance--how middlebrow). However, the real problem is that Sorkin has now been entirely revealed to have no new tricks in his bag. It's not just that all three programs have essentially been the same show with different settings, but that he's already re-using a TV show as that setting. I know you should write what you know, but yeesh.

And again, after doing a program set at the White House, it's hard to take a very similar show about producing (basically) SNL very seriously. Sadly, though, Sorkin disagrees, and sure enough, Studio 60 takes it *very* seriously. Is there such a complete lack of fun in all of Sorkin's programs? My impression is that all his characters on all his shows act as if the weight of the world was on their shoulders, and that they had to constantly fight the wearying good fight to keep the barbarians (i.e., Christians) at bay. Again, in the White House, maybe. When Producing Sports Center or comedy skit broadcasts? Not so much.

And I do again want to emphasize the fact that Sorkin seems, like many seeming savants before him, to be losing that cutting edge. The crack about bloggers being losers in their basements wearing pajamas was played out over a year ago (and in fact at the time was instantly adopted by a snarky group who started a group called Pajama Meda). This is about half a step up from having a black character say "Word to your mother" all the time.

At 10:45 AM, Anonymous the rev. d.d. said...

Did the show really attack Christians that way? It seemed more like they were hacking away at the fringe elements of it, rather than Christianity in general. I seem to recall someone saying the magazine Sarah Paulson's character represented was way out on the right, as is Robertson. Where the kind of people that would demand to take the decision of whether or not to watch the offending material out of the hands of everyone that happens to live in their viewing area, regardless of whether or not they agree with them, dwell.
I don't think the intent was to drag all Christians through the mud because of their fringe members, and they seemed to be pretty careful about saying that. (Mostly because it'd be real stupid to piss off the vast majority of their viewers, I imagine.)
As to the merits of the show...I liked Sports Night all right, although I only caught it in reruns on Comedy Central, and I never watched The West Wing. So far, I'm not a big fan of this show, although I like enough of the actors and their characters to at least give it a little more time to win me over for good.
I do agree about that "Modern Major General" parody song being pretty damn lame, though. Bleh. I've seen funnier stuff on the real SNL. And I'm talking the last couple of seasons.
During the last half hour of the shows.
Hell, during the musical acts.

At 1:43 PM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

I'd say it's an attack on serious Christians, by which I mean those who make an earnest attempt to run their life by Biblican tenets. Certainly any Christian that was intractable and 'judgemental' as Sorkin's lead characters would be scathingly rebuked.

Even the Christian character Perry broke up with says that in retrospect she wouldn't have gone on Robertson's show. Again, I'm no Robertson fan, but frankly after Perry compares the 700 Club to a Klan rally, such a capulation smells a bit.

The problem with saying that Sorking isn't attacking all Christians is that the ones he does attack are, like all of the conservatives I've yet seen portrayed on his shows, are cartoonish portrayals of what he thinks such Christians are like, rather than real life ones.

The real tiresome aspect is the idea that Sorkin (and his audience) believe he is being 'brave' with this sort of out of date material. Look at South Park if you want to see guys who really have the guts to make a statement and slay sacred cows of any type.

At 7:45 AM, Anonymous the rev. d.d. said...

I guess I took it at face value...overreactive fringe Christians protesting a ridiculously harmless (judging by the name "Crazy Christians") skit. It seemed too broad to be a parody, but rather something so out there in all ways that they were hoping it wouldn't be offensive to serious Christians. (I also don't think serious Christians worry overmuch about TV comedy skits, but that's me.) However, as I've said, I'm not overly familiar with Sorkin's ouevre, so perhaps he's done this regularly enough that it is indeed an attack on Christianity in general, which is definitely not brave or edgy.
I'd agree with the KKK-Robertson comparison (and I say that as someone who finds him fairly loathsome). Now, the KKK and James Dobson... *rimshot*
No arguments with South Park. While guilty of sometimes being overly juvenile (the Timmy & Phil Collins episode comes to mind, even if they DID deserve that Oscar) and repeatedly smashing their point over the viewer's head instead of trusting them to get it, the hit-miss ratio's definitely in their favor. I wish we could get more shows on the air with that level of thought, guts, and humor.
Or at least a Professor Chaos/General Disarray spinoff.

At 4:00 PM, Anonymous Kevin said...

Oh, trust me, Sorkin hates *all* bloggers and internet critics (though I'm sure he has a special dislike for conservative ones).
I remember there's one episode of the West Wing (after the show had been criticized on TWOP, I think) where one character - obviously speaking for Sorkin - goes on this rant about them being stupid losers or somewhat...
I remember thinking at the time he was *incredibly* thin-skinned, and apparently that hasn't changed, which is a little childish.


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