Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

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

Sunday, September 24, 2006

A Open Letter to Mark Brunell

Dear Mark,

I apologize. Please forgive me.

As you may recall, I suggested that you should be removed as starting quarterback for the Washington Redskins. More than suggested, I may have used the sentence "Mark Brunell must go." In fact, that may have been the title of my blog entry. In fact, I went so far as to suggest that Heath Shuler may be preferable as a starting quarterback right now. See, the joke there is twofold: 1) Shuler was a terrible NFL quarterback whose career was ended by chronic turf toe, of all things, and 2) He is in fact running for Congress right now, and not a quarterback at all. Put simply, I was dissatisfied with your performance thus far this season.

As I type this, you have just thrown an incompletion. That is worth mentioning because it was your first incompletion of the game, coming late in the third quarter and mere seconds after you set the all-time NFL record for most consecutive completions in a single game at 22.

Please please please forgive me. All is forgotten. Welcome back to my good graces.

I have no excuse. Yes, I used to write an NFL column, so I'm a bit more knowledgeable and less knee-jerk than your average football fan. But there's really no excuse. I should have known better. Blame it, if you will, on the culture of being a Redskins fan. It often seems like the last quarterback we had who was an uncontested #1 was Sammy Baugh. We are a fickle and often-stupid breed, we Washington Redskins fans. Yes, we rode Brad Johnson out of town in favor of Jeff freaking George. Yes, we actually thought Heath Shuler versus Gus Frerotte was a meaningful competition. Yes, we liked Jay Schroeder's arm more than Doug Williams' guts. Blame it all on Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer; it all started back then.

But that's no excuse. I should have stayed faithful. I should have believed that the offensive line would get its act together. I should have remembered how much a healthy Clinton Portis means to this team. I should have remembered that last year was statistically the best of your career. And I certainly never should have said "Give me Jason Campbell or give me death."

So as I type, you're ahead 31-15 in the fourth quarter, and frankly should be ahead more; that big Andre Johnson reception in the first quarter was the result of a blatant and uncalled offensive hold, and Portis' 15-yard taunting penalty seemed to make the referees disregard the fact that Houston defenders were throwing him down three yards out of bounds.

There's 12 minutes of football left, but I'm feeling good about your work today. 22 straight completions. Nice job.

I'm with you, man. Please accept my wholehearted apology.

If I may make a few suggestions, now that we're cool again: The penalties are killing you guys. Seriously. Stop with the holding and the pass interference. And maybe you want to look at some game film from last year where you made 40-plus-yard passes to Santana Moss look so easy. And you might want to knock it off with the Jekyll-and-Hyde thing. It makes us fans irritable.

While I've got your attention, can I ask you a question? What's with all the defensive backs with the long hair?


Andrew Hamm

"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.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Mark Brunell Must Go.

Give me Jason Campbell or give me death.

I have been one of Brunell's biggest supporters for quite some time, but after tonight's performance--or, rather, complete and total lack of performance--in Dallas, I'm through. I don't want him to get better, I want him to get so bad so suddenly that he has to be yanked instantly. Oh, wait--that happened tonight!

Pull him out. Sit his ### down. Start Jason Campbell next week. Even Todd Collins.

Heck, start Heath Shuler.

No, wait, forget I said that. Make it Gus Frerotte.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Steve Irwin: 1962-2006

The list of my life heroes is strange and varied, and oddly doesn't contain anyone in my chosen field of theatre. Rich Mullins, who lived God's will for artists so clearly. My brother Peter, who gave me a flashlight years before I knew I was in the dark. Darrell Green, whose speed on the football field is dwarfed by his swiftness to lift up children at risk. And Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter.

Steve was killed today while filming a documentary off the Great Barrier Reef (CNN article). A stingray's barb, usually just an annoyance for a scuba diver of Steve's vast experience, pierced his chest. He leaves behind his wife and partner Terri and two children, Bob (3) and Bindi Sue (8).

Karen and I are just completely devastated. We feel like we've lost a brother.

At 44, Steve has done more for wildlife conservation and education than anyone I can think of. There are Marlon Perkins, Jack Hanna, and Jacques Cousteau, but Steve's charisma and prolific documentary output single-handedly fueled the creation of an entire cable network, Animal Planet, while re-envigorating the Discovery Channel. What Animal Planet will do without him I can't imagine.

Hidden beneath the schtick and the "crikey!"s was a keen scientific mind. Steve published many scholarly articles on reptiles around the world, and was an internationally-renowned expert not only on crocodilians but on monitor lizards. There are several species of animals on multiple continents discovered, named, and first described by Steve Irwin. And let's face it, he was great television. The khaki shorts, work boots, crooked nose, and that unruly dirty-blond mullet were undeniably charming. A photogenic family didn't hurt: Terri, his beautiful wife, a match for him physically and mentally. Bindi Sue, named for a crocodile and a dog, the image of her father right down to her courage and too-wide smile. And little Bob-Bob, all curiosity and potential. But entertainment value and wildlife expertise are not the main reasons he's one of my great heroes. Steve was my hero because of the complete lack of shame he had in being as passionate as his body could contain and express.

I take this from the life of Steve Irwin: love something, learn about it, practice it, and share it, and do all of these things with every ounce of your being all the time. If my enthusiasm and passion for theatre, music, or even my faith seems to come on a bit too strong at times, remember that it is a pale reflection of my hero Steve Irwin's passion for wildlife conservation.

For you, Steve:

Crocs rule!