Friday, March 31, 2006

Script review: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

How it came into my possession, you shall never know.

To the person I got it from, thanks.

If you want it. . .do I look like a law breaker?

Anyway. . .

Aaron Sorkin has been missed since he left the TV universe after The West Wing's fourth season. Sports Night is one of those great shows that didn't last long enough. The West Wing was incredible for two years, pretty good for another and middling for yet another. But it was still better under Sorkin's purview than it has been ever since.

And that's why Sorkin's return with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (which was once Studio 7) has been so anticipated. That's why he's attracted one of the best casts in TV history. That's why he was able to get such a great deal from NBC, who committed to 13 episodes with nothing more than the pilot script.

Reportedly, Sorkin has wanted to do a "behind-the-scenes at a sketch comedy show" series for some time. Rumors of the idea have been kicking around since at LEAST when Sorkin left The West Wing (or was fired, take your pick). And so, when the actual announcement came down last fall, it seemed like it had been a long time coming.

But it's clear that even though Sorkin had the idea long ago, the idea really took hold of his imagination in the past few years. There are references to drug problems (which Sorkin has had) and a character who appears to be based on his ex-girlfriend Kristen Chenoweth. The central characters of Matt and Danny appear to fulfill both sides of the Sorkin male dichotomy (and call back to Casey and Dan on Sports Night, though their traits are shuffled a bit). And there are plenty of supporting characters who could be spun off into fun and wacky storylines or ignored completely. Sorkin loves huge casts full of talented actors, and he's assembled one here (Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford and Amanda Peet are the leads. . .and the supporting cast is just as solid).

What's to like here? A lot. It's unmistakeably a Sorkin script. The characters speak in torrents of words. They have opinions and points-of-view. The world is highly romanticized, the sort of one where just the right people can change everything. No one can write Sorkin-style dialogue. To be sure, it can turn twee and unbelievable, but when he's on, he delivers every time. This is the sort of stuff that proves that some of the best American playwrights are actually working in television, adapting the constraints of a DIFFERENT medium into well-made drama.

And it's funny. The quips and banter that Sorkin is known for fly off of every page of this script. With this script and this cast, this is going to be a show that's fun to watch. All in all, I'm looking forward to this. I want to see it brought to life. It's sure to be one of my favorite pilots next year.

I say all of this as precursor. Because I think there are some problems.

For starters, there's no "authority" character to give the show weight here. Well, there is one, but he's gone rather quickly (ideally, he'll be a recurring character). Sports Night had Isaac, and The West Wing had the president. When either character was missing in action, you could feel it palpably. The shows were missing their centers, and Sorkin knew how to make that pay off dramatically (the moment when Isaac comes back after a stroke at the end of the first season finale of Sports Night remains one of my favorite TV moments ever). Here, the show is missing its center, and it feels rudderless. Again, Sorkin knows how to make this dramatically interesting (the feeling of indirection is entirely appropriate), but it's hard to see how Sorkin is going to make the characters he intends to be central figures into those central figures.

Sorkin also has a lot to say. He's been away for a few years, and by gum, he's going to let us know what he thinks about the current situation in America. As I said above, the torrent of words is stunning and fun to read, but it also feels. . .unrestrained. Sorkin's at his best when he's pulling in the reins just a bit, and this feels like a great mind set loose on the page. It's all over the place.

Finally, the whole thing sort of reads like fan fiction. It reads like Aaron Sorkin imagining what it would be like if he were to run Saturday Night Live. It's passionate, incredibly well-written fan fiction, but it has that sense of "OMG! WOULDN'T IT BE COOL IF THIS HAPPENED?!"

And the man can't write a comedy sketch. He writes around this remarkably well, but the idea he has for the great sketch that will save the show at the center of the show. . .isn't that great. I'm pretty sure every sketch comedy has done variations on it, as have many, many, many sitcoms. It's not as revolutionary as he thinks it is.

But those are quibbles. This is going to be a very, very good show. And there's a great one lurking inside of it. I have every confidence that Sorkin and the cast he's assembled (and the incomparable Thomas Schlamme, one of the best TV directors working) will find what works and doesn't work in this series and have it humming along in no time.

But will anyone be watching?

Behind-the-scenes show-biz shows and movies haven't done tremendously well in the past. Sure there are a few exceptions, but by and large, the public doesn't seem to care how its entertainment is assembled. It cares about CELEBRITIES, but it doesn't care about the nuts 'n bolts of a TV show so much. The West Wing broke through because it felt like it MATTERED. Sorkin took government esoterica and conducted a civics lesson every week. Is there ANY way he can do something like that with a sketch comedy show? Actually, I'm sure he can, but I'm not sure the subject matter is going to draw people in.

Mercifully, Sorkin keeps the talk of ratings points and such to a minimum. The technical stuff is done in such a fly-by-night way that I don't think it's going to matter to people. They're going to want to hitch on for the ride.

I know I will.


Greg! said...

I can't wait.

I love Amanda Peet and Bradley Whitford and I loved Matthew Perry for the first few seasons of Friends before they made his character annoying. And Sports Night and the first 2 seasons of The West Wing are just fantastic.

I don't know if I've ever anticipated a TV show like this THANKS FOR THE NEWS!



freshplays said...

Thanks for the insight on the Aaron Sorkin script. I was looking for some background as to how he writes and this blog entry supplements my search. Your liberal references to Sports Night shows you have more than a passing interest. I so loved that show, too. God. What I would give for a peek at those hallowed pages.

Seth Fine

Kim Moffat said...

Now that Studio 60 has come and gone, how do you feel about the show? I was kind of excited about the shows when the promos first aired, but now that the whole thing has been aired, cancelled and put on DVD I have to say I LOVED this show. I thought it was brilliant, well written (obviously), perfectly casted down to the extras, the set was so incredibly detailed that it was almost mind blowing... I could totally keep on out this show for a while so I'll stop now. But anyway, I'd be interested to read how you fell about the show now that you've probably watched it all.