e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu

5/20/2010

worth a second look

Four years after its initial run, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" is a blip on the proverbial pop culture radar. A famous flop. One and done...one season that is. A much hyped, self-serious dramedy overshadowed by Tiny Fey's "Thirty Rock," which premiered the same season.

Like Fey's successful sitcom, "Studio 60" is about the staff of a sketch comedy show that draws so heavily on "Saturday Night Live" lore that you can barely call the show-within-a-show fictional. "Studio 60" came from the same creative team as "The West Wing." Most notably, both shows were created by the writer Aaron Sorkin, who has always had a brilliant ear for smart dialogue. Sorkin loves to stage smart, earnest, liberals talking with one another. This talent served "The West Wing"--about the hard-working, erudite, overeducated, progressive people who run the free world--very well and the show was a hit. "Studio 60"--about the hard-working, erudite, overeducated, progressive people who run a comedy show--had less gravitas (in the minds of many) than a show about a fictional president and thus bombed.

In 2006, audiences went for the slapsticky, self-reflexive of "Thirty Rock" while rejecting "Studio 60," preferring self-aware over self-righteous. Sorkin also wrote the film "A Few Good Men." He likes to have his characters give speeches (remember Jack Nicholson telling Tom Cruise about how the Marines do the jobs that the elite don't like to talk about at cocktail parties?) and have Big Emotional Moments ("you can't handle the truth!"). Seemed kinda silly to watch a guy writing goofy jokes think he's the savior of the western world.

But here's the thing. I'm crazy about the show. For the first time since it aired, I'm rewatching the program (thanks, netflix) and getting a lot out of the dialogue and the great relationships. I like shows about people who are really smart and really hard working. Sorry. The show centers of the writers, performers, and producers of the show but also the network brass. Everybody has loads of wit. Their conversations are hilarious but also reveal that they aren't ashamed of their knowledge. Okay, they (like the show itself) can occasionally be a tad pretentious. But funny and smart? Great combination. And like "The West Wing," loyalty is a big theme. Matt Albie (Chandler from "Friends") and Danny Tripp (Josh from "The West Wing") have this intense, admirable friendship.

I'm liberal and have loved "Saturday Night Live" since middle school, so Aaron Sorkin pretty much wrote this show for me. I can see why its appeal is limited. But as I rewatch, I can't get over how damn compelling the show is. Wes Mendell having his nervous breakdown on live tv, ranting ("Network" style) about the dumbing down of the U.S. media. Comedienne Harriet Hays reconciling her conservative Christianity with her work on a show that loves to knock conservative Christians down a peg or two. Tom Jeter--the goofy star of the show-within-a-show--who refuses to use his war hero brother to get out of a speeding ticket. Lots of great moments. But I'm not surprised it didn't last. A real case of television for one.

1 comment:

Nels said...

The reason why I could never get into the show was because of all of the inside jokes. It seemed like something would happen that was so odd, and I'd find out later that it was based on something that really happened or a real person or whatever. Like finding out later the one woman was based on Kristin Chenowith and her Christianity and things she supposedly actually said and did on The West Wing set. It ended up making me feel like the worst part of high school: the kid who doesn't get the joke.