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Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip 1.01 - 1.04

The pilot for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was released a few months ago as a teaser - and the marketing tactic worked, for me at least. After one viewing I knew this would be my favourite new show, possibly my favourite current show. It had every Sorkin trademark except Joshua Malina: wit, intelligence, drama, articulate discourse, an ensemble of likeable characters, high calibre acting and production values. And I'll bet a herd of oxen that Malina will make his inevitable Sunset Strip appearance.

The chemistry between Matthew Perry's Matt and Bradley Whitford's Danny felt real and established. At no point was there a sense of two actors finding their feet. Their friendship - immediately more powerful even than Sports Night's Dan and Casey's - was what hooked me.

Sure it had its flaws. For example, Amanda Peet's Jordan (in a role reminiscent of Isaac in Sports Night, ie the supportive network executive) was perhaps too perfect to be interesting. But these were insignificant.

The pilot rightly focussed on Matt, Danny and Jordan, while giving us a glimpse of the other members of the cast. It didn't overwhelm unlike, say, the Rome pilot, where every character's introduction was important to the episode's story and the myriad of new names and faces became confusing.

Studio 60 is much closer to Sports Night in conception than The West Wing. It's a TV show about a TV show and it looks like there'll be a greater emphasis on relationships over issues, which is not to say that topics like the decline of television standards won't get play, as they did in the pilot. But inherently these subjects won't have the same dramatic potential as nuclear proliferation, terrorism or international warfare. Given it's a show about people being funny, I also expect the tone to be a bit lighter too - though there were many moments in TWW that were fall-over hilarious. Thank God there's no laugh track.

The second episode, "The Cold Open", didn't quite live up to the promise of the opening. It was decent, and had another killer opening scene (in fact, many of Sorkin's own "cold opens" are tremendously amusing, and something he probably labours at - some self-referential writing going on perhaps?), but the relationship issues between Matt and Harriet seemed forced: perhaps the confrontation scenes - while certainly well acted - had a particular meaning for Sorkin (given how widely it's been publicised that Harriet is based at least in part on Sorkin's own ex-partner Kristin Chenoweth). But if so, the resonance didn't quite reach this viewer.

And why come up with a G&S number? The "Modern Major General" parody has become such a cliche that it could easily be set as a lyric writing excercise for aspiring songwriters. Not that the "intellectual reach-around" line wasn't amusing. But that's all it was. Again, it seemed more like Sorkin indulging in his own G&S fetish (as he did, to better effect, with Ainsley and Sam in TWW).

Still, if the show-within-the-show comedy sketches won't be as accomplished as the Sports Night anchor banter, then the polish of the "real" scenes will make up for it. And while Studio 60 almost certainly won't have the weight of The West Wing, it might just have more heart.

The third episode, "The Focus Group" was a step up. Exposed were skeletons in Jordan's closet, which makes not only the drama better, but the character more appealing. Our heroes can't be too perfect, they need to have foibles and wrinkles to for us to love them: like Isaac's crotchiness, or Bartlet's self-indulgence. Danny has them - he's a drug addict. Matt has them - he makes a fool of himself and his partner in the opening episode. But until now Jordan didn't: she had everything - looks, smarts, success, a belief that quality in television can win out, and the perfect way of establishing she was on the side of the angels - her first question to Wes in the pilot was about the joke. She was too perfect a character to be not just true, but interesting. That started to change in "The Focus Group", though she is still portrayed more as the victim of a despicable act than someone whose own flaws got her into trouble. (Incidentally, I wonder if the sex club thing was based on Jeri Ryan's own troubles with her ex-husband, or if it's a relatively common Hollywood indulgence?)

We got to know the other characters better (and worse) and got to see more of the show within the show, so that for the first time it looked like there was actual sketch comedy going on. Sure, none of it was brilliant - the game show Q&As were more polemical than hysterical - but, like Sports Night it's not about what goes on in front of the cameras.

The backstage character moments were actually much funnier than the skits. Even more so than the equivalent moments in Sports Night. Sorkin's earlier stabs at humour were often too obviously constructed. Granted, that's always been the case, but the construction flows more naturally with four seasons of TV writing (including some classic comedy moments) on his awards cupboard.

And I adored Harriet's Holly Hunter. The throwaway "I think you're the Devil" confirmed what I had suspected: that Sorkin loves Broadcast News - surely as much a progenitor of Studio 60 as Network is. Perhaps more so given the warmth with which James L Brooks treats his characters, something that certainly can't be said for Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet's icy classic.

"The West Coast Delay" is the best post-pilot episode to date. The Matt/Harriet dynamic does evoke Casey and Dana from Sports Night, but the emergency live break into the West Coast broadcast comes across as fresh. The ending was perhaps too contrived, but it's a comedy episode, so it works.

As anticipated, the show's inciting incidents aren't world-changers: the state of modern television (so far the topic with most punch), writer's block, focus groups, unintentional plagiarism - but that doesn't mean you can't build solid, entertaining television hours around them.

And we did get a truly funny, slapstick scene (as opposed to most of Sorkin's really funny moments, which are character-based). The bit with the baseball bat in Matt's office was almost as funny as "I work with some of the smartest people on the planet" from TWW's "What Kind of Day Has It Been", which is high praise indeed. (It occurs to me that Sorkin loves to break windows for laughs - more stories from his own life?) Matthew Perry, incidentally, has been really impressive, perhaps the best of the cast. I don't associate him at all with his Friends character, nor with Joe Quincy from his West Wing guest appearances. He works in the dramatic scenes and he's got the ability to be funny without asking for the funny ... he knows how to ask for the butter.

Interesting that the extended steadicam walk-and-talk, which seemed to go on forever thanks to the rapidfire dialogue, actually only went for 60 seconds, plus some more after a near-seamless join.

Ricky and Ron were indued with their own integrity - good to see that they won't just be incompetent stock villains. (Similarly, Jack Rudolph was given his own sympathetic dimension in the episode before.)

Sorkin, Schlamme and the cast have such an impressive track record that I'm being extremely picky. Even the worst of the episodes so far make for highly entertaining viewing. And, significantly, highly rewatchable viewing. Like Sports Night, The West Wing, The American President and A Few Good Men I can happily watch Studio 60 multiple times, even back-to-back, and have already done so.

Note: Apparently the ratings have shown a steady week-on-week decline, which is not good news given it's one of the most expensive shows on the air. Could Studio 60, like Sports Night, be too "inside" for mainstream success? Or was the bar set too high for viewers to accept anything less than perfection? Even before I saw the pilot I cynically gave it no more than two years. Hopefully I'm wrong and there are a lot of Vanity Fair readers watching.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip 1.01 - 1.04:

» Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip 1.05 - "The Long Lead Story" from world in progress...
A relatively soft episode. Some nice moments, but as a whole it didn't come together. [Read More]

» Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip 1.09 - "The Option Period" from world in progress...
Product placements this episode: Nokia (twice). Adidas. Universal Pictures. Apple (thrice, twice via iPod brand). Gibson Guitars (thrice). Final Draft. Sony (twice). Samsung (twice). [Read More]

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 12, 2006 5:58 PM.

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