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Intelligence is mandatory
A taster review of STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP and subsequent musings on the state of today’s TV
by Camus
 
  Danny Tripp: I have no reason to trust you and every reason not to.
  Jordan McDeere: Why?
  Danny Tripp: You work in television.


No drama on TV gets me more excited than intelligent actors playing intelligent characters in conflict and resolving them intelligently with wit, honesty and creativity. But, I hear you shout, The West Wing is not on TV anymore... Well it may not be but the soul of it lives on in another show.

At the time of writing, less than a fortnight ago, on May 14th 2007, Warner Brothers officially announced that Studio 60 - a behind the scenes drama of a Saturday Night Live-type comedy - was cancelled. If intelligence on TV is a lonely ship on a vast ocean of mediocrity, this was a significant rent made in its hull. Passengers on this ship are few but still on board (albeit with wet feet) are Joss Whedon, Aaron Sorkin, David Shore, and more I've yet to unearth (I'll get there, it's just that 24 hour in a day thing. And I need to work for money eat and say "Jesus, life is short" a lot). I fear we've lost Joss to movies. This is OK as long as the damn things get made but I felt I lived in a better world with 45 minutes of Joss a week rather than 2 hours every five years). Has Aaron Sorkin another smart ace up his sleeve? We'll have to wait and see. New episodes of Studio 60 are still leaking out but when your network has lost confidence in you (a euphemism for 'not making enough advertising dollars'), it's time to find another weak spot in the TV giant stuffed to bursting with makeover shows, cookery shows, reality TV (sheesh) and four hundred and eight ways - with lights and overbearing music - to ask ordinary and sometimes unintelligent people questions; my favourite wrong answer by the way is from 'The Weakest Link' and no, I don't watch this stuff.

  Question: What 'S' is one of the seven deadly sins in Christianity?
  Answer: Science.

Isn't that adorable?

I only really registered the power of TV (or its mass communicative effect) after I stepped out of a yellow taxi and stood in the middle of New York City for the first time. I was petrified - almost paralysed with fear because TV had told me (and it was true, wasn't it?) that everyone in New York was a mugger and I only had to walk a few blocks and I'd be murdered for the twenty bucks in my wallet. If I took out a map it was like screaming "Here! Come and get me!" Real life experience has nothing on TV because that little glass box sits in the centre of your home and throws out stuff, stuff which sticks (this is why commercials cost gadzillions of dollars - they know that stuff works). Unless we are hermits, uninterested in the world outside our grazing range, our entire world view is cosseted, buffeted and entrenched by what we are told and read online and in newspapers, hardly ever by what we actually experience. Slarek once said that distance defines the level of care we show others. If an old man trips up in front of you, you instinctively reach down to help (or so I'd dearly like to think). If a quarter of a million people lose their lives in the far east, we say "Oh, that's awful," and take the dog for a walk almost instantly flushing the tragedy from our minds (it's a long way away after all so what can I do?) and letting in the inanities that control our day to day lives. Relative is a very powerful word. Dismissing any tragedy with the words "it's all relative" is a one-way street with apathy waiting at the end (if it could be bothered to show up). If we are to climb out of this morass of moronic TV pap, we need to care more. Who cares?

The following three stories (one personal and two insider-TV ones) are true and say a great deal about our TV culture and those who control it. I devour books and can't understand why those that don't, don't. I have a need to read and if I'm not working or sleeping you'll find me flipping pages. Novels, non-fiction, any subject as long as it's passionately communicated. Just let me take it all in. A shy girl I once knew admitted to never having read a book so I picked up the most charming, exciting and easily digestible story I could find (The Chrysalids by John Wyndham) and gave it to her. Reading it in bed, her TV watching boyfriend said "So what are you now, an intellectual?" She never finished it. Isn't that just heart breaking? Can we battle and even defeat every kind of ignorance with smart TV? Well, smart TV is not oxymoronic but hell, you'd be hard pressed to argue in my corner. Here's the TV tittle-tattle. All true.

A friend of mine, one who until recently worked in TV in an executive capacity, was at a meeting about new programming. As the ideas were getting more low-brow, he decided to make fun of the process by pitching a makeover series about pets that have their living spaces redecorated - "Just imagine the look on the dog's face when he sees the rococo finish on his kennel!" I'm going to make a leap and suggest that anyone reading this article/review would know that my friend was being sarcastic. At the end of the meeting, a higher ranking exec thanked him for the idea but told him that pet shows were over for a few years. I'd laugh if this wasn't true. It is and it's not funny. These people's decisions (those whom TV critic A.A. Gill calls 'Tristrams') end up in your lap. And another beaut from personal experience. A famous wildlife producer once made a 15 minute piss-take on the state of the industry culminating in his Steve-Irwinesque parody employing what he called 'crap cam' to get those hard to get shots. It was a serious charge of TV dumbing down, one impossible to deny from where I sit. Years later, David Attenborough hosts a special on the wildebeest migration with a variety of different camera techniques on show (why, oh why do wildlife shows insist on showing how ingenious and wonderful they are during the damn programmes?) Well, you've guessed it. Attenborough had his own 'crap-cam' for real. I think I threw something at the TV when I saw that.

We have sailed off the edge of reason and are clutching at anything while we fall. But on the edge holding out are those film and TV-makers with integrity and purpose and we must seek out their stuff or see them teeter and fall like everyone else. Care more about what you invite into your home.

 
Only available for US customers located in the 48 contiguous states,
Alaska, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia.
Amazon.com's legal download stipulations for
episodes of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip
 

Why am I reviewing a TV show that is not yet available on DVD and its episodes only available for legal download in the States? As far as I know, it certainly isn't available to rent. To rent. Do I have to spell it out? I'm not reviewing it per se. I'm here just to say "Watch it!" I can't imagine how anyone would get their hands on this show but do so, by fair means if humanly possible (which may involve moving continents and by thunder, it would be worth it). As of writing I have seen the pilot and I am as buzzed as I was seeing the pilot of The West Wing. That should be no surprise. Creator/writer and director and star are all the same folks (respectively Aaron Sorkin, Thomas Schlamme and Bradley Whitford). Hell, it's even the same font for the credits. The pilot sets up the milieu with a panache bordering on televisual genius.

Studio 60 is a late night satirical network show that's lost its bite. Cowed by the sponsors, standards and practises and religious lobbying, the producer has had enough and after an anti-Christian sketch is axed from that night's live performance, the show's producer does a Howard Beale. If that name is unfamiliar to you then Outsider really should review Network by Paddy Chayefsky. Based on his original novel, the movie is about a newsman (Beale) who suddenly has an epiphany. He sees through the bullshit and demands that people wake up. His catchphrase (see how even that word reduces him to a feckless TV character?) is "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore…" The movie is a black comedy and vicious satire (and the more vicious the better it is). So back to Sorkin's show. The producer (a superb extended cameo from Judd Hirsch) has an on air rant about the state of the world - all of it from any knee jerk liberal's perspective (like my own) is true. Here's a taste...

"The struggle between art and commerce. Well, there's always been a struggle between art and commerce and now I'm telling you art is getting it's ass kicked and it's making us mean and it's making us bitchy. It's making us cheap punks and that's not who we are! People are having contests to see how much they can be like Donald Trump. We're eating worms for money. "Who wants to screw my sister." Guys are getting killed in a war that has theme music and a logo. That remote in your hands is a crack pipe, oh yeah sure every once in a while we pretend to be appalled. We're becoming Pornographers! It's not even good pornography. It's just this side of snuff films and friends that's what's next because that's all there is left."

That's pure Sorkin gold. Hang on, I'm going to watch that scene again... Marvellous. And in my many years in the TV industry, it rings horribly, horrifically true. This is exactly what we should be hearing from our entertainment demi-gods. The producer is, of course, fired. The show even name-checks Network (as it should or be accused of unsubtle plagiarism) even having the new boss (a superbly judged performance by Amanda Peet) congratulate the TV news stations that cover the story; "They've heard of Paddy Chayefsky, that's a step in the right direction..." To those who've never heard of Paddy Chayefsky, you can go in several directions. Number 1: Like my shy girl's boyfriend, you can turn over ("can't be having with intellectual crap...") so advertisers are not happy. Number 2: You can wonder who this man was but still enjoy the show for its obvious quality, speed and smarts. Number 3: Enjoy the show as per number 2 but bloody well Google Chayefsky and broaden your horizons. The more you know, the more you can hone down and concentrate on the good stuff. And there is good stuff out there. We just have to make a bit more effort to dig the nuggets out.

The two stars (Friends' Matthew Perry and West Wing's Bradley Whitford) make a terrific double act. These are classy actors and the whole show moves a notch up on the quality bar just by having them in it. The former's the great writer, the latter a director. It takes some balls to write a show with a great writer as a character. It raises the bar somewhat. Timothy Busfield (the DC reporter Danny in The West Wing) has a great time playing Cal, the vision mixer (think of him as a sort of live picture editor) and in the latest episode aired (number 17) he gets to play some lovely scenes with the actress Alison Janney (as guest host Alison Janney) whereas in the White House press room, he got to flirt and finally secure the character Janney was actually playing, C.J. Cregg. It's all connected in Sorkin-World.

The rest of the cast make a solid ensemble and I am so looking forward to the few episodes I have left to watch. Like Whedon's Firefly, knowing there are so few Studio 60s to raise the consciousness of the great unwashed is a miserable thing but this makes them more valuable. So to the shows that try and sometimes thrust out from all the worm eating C-listers and make a difference to a grateful audience, I raise a glass of something decidedly alcoholic. Raising consciousness is the name of the game but so few of us seem willing to play it. So a final suggestion. Seek out the pilot of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, (to rent if you can) enjoy and if you need to, Google Paddy Chayefsky. You won't be sorry.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

USA 2006
60 mins each
directors
Timothy Busfield
Thomas Schlamme
John Fortenberry
producers
Mark Goffman
Dylan K. Massin
Patrick Ward
writers
Aaron Sorkin
Cinque Henderson
Melissa Myers
Amy Turner
Christina Booth
Jessica Brickman
David Handelman
Dana Calvo
Mark Goffman
Mark McKinney
Eli Attie
cinematography
Thomas Del Ruth
Dennis Hall
editors
Rob Seidenglanz
Janet Ashikaga
Russell Denove
starring
Matthew Perry
Amanda Peet
Bradley Whitford
D.L. Hughley
Sarah Paulson
Nathan Corddry
Timothy Busfield
Steven Weber
Nate Torrence
article posted
27 May 2007