Studio 60 – oh yeah

I just watched the pilot of the new NBC Aaron Sorkin/Thomas Schlamme hourlong Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. It’s set backstage at a thinly-veiled Saturday Night Live, when Lorne Michaels (or whatever they call the Judd Hirsch character) has an on-air meltdown. Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford play the writer/director team brought in to replace him… and one of them has a drug history. (Oh, did I mention that this was from the experienced Sorkin/Schlamme writer/director team, one of whom has a drug history?)

The pilot is filled with people having sharp and witty conversations while walking somewhere, which really is the primary material of Sorkin TV. (I sometimes think of writing a parody called Aaron Sorkin’s In Hell, which is nothing but people exchanging witty banter as they walk through endless hallways.) The real question is whether it will have enough serious plot to carry the weight. There are a couple of danger signs, notably a cartoonishly-drawn antagonistic studio exec played by Stephen Webber… but all in all, this was so much fun to watch that even if the underpinnings are hollow, it will take a while to become not worth watching. Definitely try this one.

The cast is large and respectable and acquits themselves well. I can’t help but assume, however, that getting a respectable cast was quite easy for this show. When word got out that there was a new Sorkin show in the works, I’m betting that just about everyone who was respectable and available was trying to find there way in on this. There’s nothing like getting the best dialog in Hollywood on a show that is likely to be a hit, and apt to be respected even if it isn’t. Some have’ faced the problems of dealing with a Sorkin production, but even that has to be worth it (at least to those who haven’t already lived through it — and as the participation of Bradley Whitford shows, even to those who have.)
Quick TV nerd note: Felicity Huffman is in the pilot playing herself as the guest host of the show-within-the-show. Ed Asner plays a studio executive. I suspect it may not be an accident that they launched this series with actors from the two highly-respected behind-the-scenes-at-a-TV-show series.

How Nat is stupid: The show is set in L.A. This is practical on two fronts. It gives them some excuse for claiming it’s not actually SNL. Probably more importantly, it means that the show and the studio execs are in the same city, allowing for conflict. But I thought I saw a problem with this set-up. The real SNL is performed on the east coast, broadcast list to the east coast, and is tape-delayed for other time zones, so it shows at 11 PM in the west as well as in the east. “But,” I thought, “if you’re on the west coast, then you’re showing it live here as a late night show, which means either it’s broadcast live here at 8 PM and shown at 11 in the east… and 8 is too early for a show like this. Or it’s broadcast live here at 11, and tape delayed to the next day in the east, and that too sounds unworkable.” Stiupid me. Once I took the time to think, I realized that obvious: it’s never broadcast live in the west. They perform it at 8 PM here, show it live in the east (where it’s 11), and tape-delay it until 11 here. The episode actually makes more sense once you realize this; the people who are at dinners while the show is filming aren’t having organized meals in the middle of the night, it’s 8 PM.

Oh, and in case anyone’s wondering: no, I did not get somehow on some Hollywood insider list to see this. NBC arranged for Netflix to make a DVD of the episode available to their customers. They actually promote it as two disks, one with Studio 60 and one with the pilot of the series Kidnapped, but when the disk arrives you find it actually has both shows on it. Haven’t watched Kidnapped yet; will review it when I do.

Published in: on August 10, 2006 at 1:25 am  Comments (4)  

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  1. “Oh, and in case anyone’s wondering: no, I did not get somehow on some Hollywood insider list to see this. NBC arranged for Netflix to make a DVD of the episode available to their customers.”

    Ok, thanks—I was gonna ask about that ’til you mentioned it.

    Despite the nationwide acclaim for various Aaron Sorkin productions I’ve just never become a fan for one reason or another. I think it’s mostly a matter of his taste (or style) just does not sync up with my taste. A few examples:

    1. “The pilot is filled with people having sharp and witty conversations while walking somewhere, which really is the primary material of Sorkin TV.”

    And for some reason this “gimmick” always bugged me about SportsNight, which I found unwatchable despite the presence of Sabrina Lloyd whom I like a lot. I just never could believe that there would really be that much continuous activity and commotion (or that much off-the-cuff rapid-fire dialogue/banter) in such an environment. Now maybe there IS, but I as a layman just don’t buy it. I would think there’d be a lot more people in various offices sitting behind a desk (with occasional meetings for some activity). Maybe my perception is my own “reality” and not true reality, but I probably can’t change my sense of what feels right or wrong.

    Hmm, as I was typing this comment I just loaded this SciFiWire page regarding CBS’ Fall series Jericho which mentions:

    “…Steinberg and Schaer spoke in the writers’ offices, adjacent to the show’s soundstages, in this Los Angeles suburb; the offices had been transformed, at least temporarily, into the ‘Jericho Medical’ clinic set, complete with a sign out front and hospital-style decor in the hallways, for an episode that was just filmed. One producer’s office had been transformed into an exam room, complete with a medical-style exam table.”

    So THAT sounds like it could indeed lead to some chaotic and/or activity-laden areas. Still, that’s a whole different scenario from a show purporting to be SportsCenter-like.

    2. Politics has always bored me and the higher level the politicking the more bored I become. The fictional political intrigue of The West Wing while more dramatically staged and entertaining (I assume) is still too wrapped up in political gamesmanship for my taste to the point where I never even bothered to sample TWW.

    3. “It’s set backstage at a thinly-veiled Saturday Night Live”

    I have never found SNL the least bit funny, even in its early heyday. Points two and three are really just separate instances showing how Sorkin’s tastes and mine just don’t sync up. Sometimes that happens. Since Sorkin’s productions usually garner wide critical acclaim, if not actual ratings, I’m sure it’s more my own shortcoming than his. But oh well, that’s my take.

    I see Studio 60 is on monday nights at 10 PM. There’s nothing else I watch at that time so maybe I can give at least the pilot episode a trial viewing just to check it out. We’ll see.

  2. If you don’t like Sorkin’s work, I’m certainly not going to think that there will be some quantum leap forward for you with this one. I will, however, batter down some of your points into submission. Point 3… is moot. I care little about sports, and don’t even watch the sort of show that SportsNight was about. Didn’t matter, it was about the people, not the things that the show-within-a-show was about. (Having said that: one thing that they did well with SportsNight was’ establish in the first episode why this was, if not truly important, at least significant stuff, in a very literal sense of the word significant. We got why the characters cared about sports as something vital. They try that with Studio 60, but I’m not sure they pull it off… perhaps the main problem being that the person who gives the big speech here is not one of the key ongoing characters. Understandably, The West Wing needed no such statement of importance.)
    As for the question of the chaoticcness of SportsNight, apparently compared to the real thing it was not chaotic enough – not so much in when and where people were having concersations, but in simply the tidiness of the whole place. Everything should have been buried under stacks of video tape and papers.
    Anyway, for you Rich, it is a far from guaranteed thing. But I wouldn;t be that shocked if it were to surprise you. (At the very least, being backstage at a comedy show, there is a good excuse for the characters to be able and ready with witty banter.)

  3. I first thought that they might at some point play with the notion that this fictional universe is the same one that SportsNight existed in, but the presence of Felicity Huffman as herself mught scuttle that. (Or not – were Huffman’s SportsNight character to ever appear here, I can easily imagine some tossed off “you look just like that Desparate Housewife” comment.

  4. I was thinking much the same thing, but reckoned that that would be too cutesy on some level for Sorkin to do, particularly since his work is more witty drama than comedy. Still, I wouldn’t be that shocked to see some background reference to CSC, to Continental, to Quo Vadamis… nor would it be that shocking to see more of the acting batch recycled. (Six Feet Under is gone, as is West Wing, Sabrina’s off of Num3ers, the role of narrator on Desperate Housewives can’t take that much time, Veronica Mars is leaving high school and is not likely to see her guidance counselor again, and I haven’t been with Her for a while now (and isn’t Hope & Glory gone this season?)… really, the only SportsNight folks to be generally otherwise booked up on TV are Felicity and Lisa “Bobbie” Edelstein.

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