Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

"Studio 60:" I'm In Love.

That's it. I'm totally hooked. It took less than five minutes.

Thank goodness, I have appointment television again (other than, of course, Mythbusters and Redskins games). It was looking pretty dismal there, with Friends and The West Wing off the air. I've never gotten into 24 or Lost, I'm six years behind in Gilmore Girls (though I'm quickly catching up on DVD), and I really don't have any appointment TV any more.

Here comes my hero, Aaron Sorkin, to save me, back from a three-year hiatus during which his flagship show, The West Wing almost crumbled but managed to put itself back together as a great show again, and during which reality television carved out even more of the market share.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip to the rescue.

Sorkin's new show, on Mondays at 10, is exactly what you expect from him. Snappy, literate dialogue coming at highly-caffeinated speeds. A pair of writers at the show's core. Deeply flawed characters with dark histories and secrets. Unresolved personal relationships strained by work. People with fascinating jobs that turn out to be far less glamorous that you'd think. Singular moments of whimsy and nonrealism that either work spectacularly well or devastatingly not, with no middle ground. Soapbox monologues that make you either cheer or groan with no middle ground. And Sorkin's real appeal: singular characters who are all brilliant and are unashamed of their intelligence, talent, and education.

But it's also something else. For me, it's the show I've wanted Sorkin to make since the pilot of Sports Night aired.

I have always contended that Sports Night, a show I always liked better than The West Wing, would have run for seven years if it had been an hour long. There were problems. For one, the ever-present and inappropriate laugh track, ABC's desperate attempt to make sure audiences knew when the show was funny; a subtle yet pervasive dumbing-down of television's smartest half hour. These days, it's common for a "smart," filmed sitcom to have no laughter. Can you imagine how annoying Scrubs or The Office would be with a laugh track? The sitcom has changed. For Sports Night, it was not an option yet.

For two: As well as Sports Night worked (well enough to win Emmys and Humanitas awards, not well enough to make season three), the ideas always felt truncated. The relationships changed in huge leaps, events took gigantic steps, and there seemed to be very little middle between the beginnings and ends of things. It barreled along, break-neck and desperate and beautiful, with every episode feeling like a single chapter of an exceptionally good novel, except that you couldn't turn the page for a week and the author died before he could write an ending.

For all that, I used to watch every epoisode of Sports Night the night it aired, and then two or three more times on VHS the week after. I watched it on the edge of my seat, a smile straining my face, thrilled and delighted that someone was producing a television show that seemed custom-made for what I wanted to see. Every episode made me want to write.

Then it was canceled.

It was The West Wing that showed us the true genius of Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme, a show that gave us a mini-feature film every week. As soon as The West Wing premiered, its first season shooting and running concurrently with Sports Night's last, I knew the shorter show was doomed. It was just obvious that Sorkin likes to use a lot of storytelling techniques that take an hour to really germinate, and what's more the audience likes them, too. So Sports Night, which felt crammed into twenty-two minutes plus commercials, died despite ABC's love for it, and The West Wing became a gazillion-time Emmy winner and NBC's flagship show.

Now we have Studio 60. Granted, I've only seen the pilot at this point, but here's what I know:

  • Aaron Sorkin is at his best when he's writing about writers. Matt (Matthew Perry) and Danny (Bradley Whitford) are writers who write scripts, unlike Sports Night's sports and The West Wing's speeches. This is direct-line stuff, and should be just wonderful.
  • Aaron Sorkin is at his best when he's allowed to be funny. In The West Wing, comic characters and moments sometimes seemed a bit too precious in the show's context; quirky because it was a television show, not because such people would actually be in that time and place. Studio 60 is about a TV sketch comedy show. Oddballs and jokes abound.
  • Aaron Sorkin is at his best when his characters have psychological and/or substance abuse problems. Enter Danny, a recorvering coke addict who recently fell off the wagon. Sound familiar? Wrestling with his own demons in the arena of the collective unconscious is Aaron Sorkin's bread and butter. (I should know; I do exactly the same thing with my own scripts.)
  • Aaron Sorkin likes the name "Danny" a lot. It's getting ridiculous.
  • Matthew Perry is the perfect Sorkin actor. When he appeared briefly in The West Wing just as Friends was coming to a close, I assumed he was going to make the jump. He did, but it turned out the jump was delayed three years.
  • Bradley Whitford is also the perfect Sorkin actor. How there can be two of them is a mystery that can only be solved using the Pythagorean Theorem.
  • Using the Pythagorean Theorem, you can see that Matt Perry² x Bradley Whitford² = Timothy Busfield². See? I can prove with math that this show will be great.
  • Amanda Peet's character, Jordan, brings a serene quality that I'm not sure we've seen in a Sorkin show before. I was expecting Dana Whittaker or CJ Cregg, and this was a pleasant surprise.
  • Sarah Paulson's character, Harriet, is an Evangelical Christian in the middle of a decidedly secular humanist field. In other words, she's me. Sorkin has always been more respectful of religion than any show this side of 7th Heaven, and I can't wait to see what conundrums this show deals with. Prediction: The 700 Club will hate it and I won't.
  • This show looks and feels so much more like Sports Night than The West Wing that I'm not sure I'm not in a time capsule of some sort.

So I'm in love. Granted, it's the wow-she's-got-a-great-smile, hope-she-doesn't-make-me-look-stupid, love-at-first-sight kind of love, but I'm totally feeling it. And it's going to keep me up past my bedtime every Monday for the forseeable future.

Check out the premiere episode online if you missed it.

And no, I don't work for Sorkin or NBC, but I'd be willing to talk.


  • At 10/06/2006 4:31 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Too bad everyone is the same clever, glib person in each Sorkin script.

  • At 10/07/2006 9:03 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    A fair criticism, though I obviously disagree. I have never found any of Sorkin's characters to be unintentionally glib, and I have a hard time seeing "clever" as a problem.

  • At 10/18/2006 9:14 AM , Blogger Patrick said...

    yeah. apparently Studio 60 is not doing well in the ratings. I read an article somewhere (don't remember where) saying it wasn't doing well, but that it wasn't in danger of being pulled, at least not before the first 13 episodes get aired.

    Meanwhile, I wouldn't be suprised if Studio 60 helps Saturday Night Live's ratings. Seeing a show like that being made (albeit in fiction) makes me want to see Saturday Night Live and imagine what's going on backstage, and maybe even be a little forgiving of how sucky SNL is these days...

    So. yeah, I love Studio 60. Great show. I hope it catches on...


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