Thursday, October 26, 2006

Bartlett at the Improv

Aaron Sorkin never troubles himself with the final product. It’s always the process that makes his shows special, and for the most part he explores it wonderfully. The long shots are glossy, and the dialogue--though sometimes admittedly a bit of a caricature of itself--remains some of the smartest on TV. Mix in a cast of smart, good-looking people working hard at what they love, and for the most part, you’re all but guaranteed success.

But, and maybe this is a cherry of Sorkin’s past shows, the end-product always winds up being really good, always winds up becoming the actual product of those smart, good-looking people whom you’ve been watching working hard at what they love. Sure you only see clips of Sportsnight, Sorkin’s first and very underrated show, but when you do it feels real, feels like you’re watching any two anchors chatting sports on ESPN. And when Martin Sheen delivers a speech it sounds—hell it even feels—like how a President should sound.

And I guess that’s why I’ve been grappling with Sorkin’s latest, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” It has big, beautiful, Goodfellas-esque long shots. It has snappy dialogue. It has an emphasis on writing (a TV show with a self-conscious emphasis on writing, let’s all marvel at that for a second or two) and, while I miss Toby and Leo, it does have smart, attractive people working hard at what they love.

But now, and for the first time, it’s what they make (and not how they make it) that has unfortunately eclipsed the Sorkin magic. The skits, or at least what we see of them, never seem to click with what everyone is working on. Unfortunately, this new show feels like a clearing-house of all the lefty topics he wanted to address during his time on ‘The West Wing’ but never got around to; ‘The West Wing’ was a perfect launching pad for all of Sorkin’s gripes with the right and the left. It was even great at suggesting policy based around those gripes, policy that remained congruent with the drama’s setting. But it can’t work like that in a show about a comedy show. Studio 60 has become a sketch show, but its Sorkin’s sketches that we see aired, and never the characters’.

Why? Because the skits simply aren’t funny. Sorkin has pulled a Dennis Miller like mistake it seems, trying to prove how smart he is while ignoring the only—I repeat: the only—rule that everyone has to abide by while writing comedy: Be Funny.

In comedy, you can be political, you can attack pop culture. You can air out social, economic and national tensions in a healthy and safe way. But before you do you have to earn it, and you earn it by making us laugh. Remember that while those great and original SNL episodes? Yes, they had Pryor and Chase screaming racial obscenities at one another. But they also had Ackroyd and Curtain donning cone heads and chugging six packs. They had landsharks. They had Belushi slicing through hoagie with a samurai sword. And eventually they even had Gumby, damnit.

But Sorkin gives us ‘Science Schmiance’, a watered-down game-show intent on attacking the religious right’s oftentimes tenuous relationship with the physical universe. He goes after CNN talking heads, easy targets sure, but Jon Stewart can do more with just one mug to the camera in response to the discussion of Sadaam’s “hidey-hole” than Sorkin can with five hundred words of scripted dialogue going after Nancy Grace. They even have another cast member appearing in a nearly suicidal role as a medieval warrior-Queen alluding to ancient battles while dealing with modern life. Yikes.

It might have started with the very first bit, the first ‘revolutionary’ skit that Matthew Perry’s character was going to use to revitalize the fictional Studio 60. So he puts on a musical send-up of ‘Modern Major General’. Cute. Clever. Predictably Sorkin. But not funny.

(I said ‘predictably Sorkin’ and I meant it: I really wonder if Aaron is trying to write himself in to what used to be the duo of Gilbert and Sullivan. Sorkin displayed his infatuation with G&S already in The West Wing with Ainsley Hayes’ character. Enough, Aaron. We get it. You like musical theater. Maybe you should put on a show about the backstage goings-on of a musical theater troupe and get it over with. Enough already. Just stop it.)

Perhaps what’s most disappointing about it all is that Studio 60 is funny: Nathan Corddry’s character walking around in a lobster suit, Matthew Perry reacting to the ‘cocktail napkin’ of a bat that Sarah Paulson hands him, and Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford squabbling are all funny. But the show-within-the-show never clicks the same way that Jed Bartlett’s speeches would click with Jed Bartlett.

Maybe Sorkin is trying to write Studio 60’s skits poorly to more accurately mirror SNL. But I doubt it: Sorkin gives us bad comedy when he means to (the most recent episode showcased two terrible Black comics) and Perry’s and Whitford’s characters are meant to resurrect the show, not dig it into a deeper hole.

Sorkin and SNL should both follow this advice: just turn down the politics. Our elected officials will always be ridiculous. That staple of American comedy isn’t going anywhere, so be patient. Come back to ridiculous caricatures, awkward situations, or just plain goofy for a little while and make Studio 60 the example for sketch comedy in the same way that President Bartlett was for American politics.


Ben Lebeaux said...

Ugh. I can't even get through the second sentence without making a colassal grammatical error. So much for turning the tide.

John A. Atchley III said...

You're fixed. Thanks to John.

Ben Lebeaux said...

Thank you John.

Diana said...

Now you make me really, really want to take your advice and watch the West Wing.

Great little article, by the by.

Ben Lebeaux said...

Recently, Studio 60 characters discussed the merits of an upcomming 'Cheeses of Nazareth' skit. They laughed at what a funny idea it was. Sorkin has to fire the eighth grade punsters he has generating skit ideas right now.

For further corroboration, the following appears in Bill Simmons' ESPN Page 2 column:

"But I'm glad you brought up "Studio 60" -- it might be the most frustrating, should-be-good show in the history of television. I know this has been brought up ad nauseam around the Web, but seriously ... how can you create a show about two guys who save a sketch comedy show and make it funny again, then be completely oblivious to the fact that the sketches aren't funny? It would be like watching Gene Hackman "turn around" Hickory High, only none of the players can dribble and Jimmy Chitwood is shooting jumpers like an 93-year-old guy attempting a half-court shot at an NBA game. It's such an unbelievable miscalculation, and it's so damaging to the credibility of the show within the show ... I mean, I have NEVER watched a TV show with the potential to be this good that had such a glaring flaw. It would be like watching "24" if Kiefer Sutherland was six inches shorter than everyone else. All right, bad example. But you get the idea."