Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Eli's Coming: Why 'Studio 60' Fell

So Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip fell. What happened?

Sorkin Got Too Cocky

Aaron Sorkin, writer of most Sports Night episodes, the first four seasons of The West Wing, and Studio 60, got too cocky. It’s easy to understand how he got cocky. In his last gig, writing and creating The West Wing, he had made a drama about issues one of the most popular shows on TV. It had seemed like everything he touches turns into gold.

Matthew Perry, playing the writer on Studio 60, seemed to be saying things that the writer writing him now believed.

Time and again, Perry told other writers that if you’re really good, you’ll make it in Hollywood, so why don’t you get your act together. This is not true, but hard to disprove. It is easy to prove with actors, though. There are droves of supremely talented, past actors that have proven themselves in Hollywood but can’t get a gig today for various reasons. If it’s true with actors, it’s probably true with other artists, like writers.

Time and again, Perry’s character seemed to think that if you’re really talented, then whatever you write is good. That is not true, either. There are many styles, and even talented writers can be terrible at other forms of writing. But at the end of the day your story’s good only if you write about something you really care about.

In addition, Sorkin was sure that his writing was working because he was so freaking talented. Unfortunately, just because you’re better than anyone else in Hollywood (but one), that doesn’t mean that what you wrote today is any good. In fact, the more cocky you are that your craft is good enough, the less you search your soul for something good to write about.

The Show Wasn’t About Anything Important

Shows have volume and weight.

An hour-long show has to carry more volume and heft than a half-hour show. Otherwise, something feels wrong and out of balance.

The West Wing had appropriate volume for its length. Even CSI has appropriate volume for its length. Sports Night was appropriate for a half-hour show. Studio 60 had enough volume to justify 15-minutes of TV or, at most, 30 minutes. It wasn’t actually about anything.

Sorkin had a chance to talk about every subject in the world. He had set up an SNL-like environment that can take on any issue in the world, in the same way the west wing in The West Wing could tackle any issue in the world. Instead, he’d made it a dating show. An hour-long drama about relationships is great, but then you have to get elbow-deep as, say, Thirtysomething or My So-Called Life did.

Sorkin and Decadence

The show was about decadent people. Although in the pilot, the show’s leading men fought for their morals, in later episodes the decadence of Hollywood had spread to them.

One time, Lauren Graham was a guest on the show. Matt insults her, deeply, then asks for her phone number. Which he gets.

Danny, Matt’s friend, gets some extremely stupid girls to come to a party so that Matt can get over the woman he loves. Even though none of them can grasp the idea of what ‘writing the show’ means, Danny still tries to schmooze them.

Sorkin wrote those things because that’s what happens in Hollywood. But are those the people you want us to root for? Sorkin’s characters were never like this before.

In addition, the Hollywood norm of judging people by their salary, of people with lesser salaries not having the complete right to talk to people with higher salaries or, god forbid, date them, was rampant in the show. Hollywood’s decadence got to Sorkin.

The Actors

Although we don’t usually talk about acting, a bit of Studio 60’s problems goes to tremendously horrible casting choices. (Sorkin’s choices, no doubt.)

Bradley Whitford, Steven Webber, and Timothy Busfield gave virtuosic performances. And Merrit Wever, who had a small part as Suzanne, Matt’s assistant, was great.

Matthew Perry should have given a great performance, too. He was hired to play a man who knows he can be funny whenever he wants to be, but usually chooses not to, a role we all know he can do. But Perry took the dramatic side of his character, and magnified it so much as to overshadow everything else, bringing down his own character’s pace and rhythm, the overall mood, and the occasional comic lines.

Next, Amanda Peet may be hired to play many parts, but she shouldn’t be hired to play an alpha female. She isn’t one, and there are many strong women who don’t have to raise an eyebrow to be one of the strongest people in the room (Christine Lahti, for example, who had a small role in the middle of the season). In addition, Amanda Peet isn’t secure enough to try anything new. In the beginning, she chose to play an alpha female by getting a sexual ‘zing’ every time she manipulated and/or got her way. That’s not how it works in reality and it destroyed the believability of her character.

Next is Sarah Paulson. Every scene she is in has crap timing, which to the audience translates as “something’s wrong here but I can’t put my finger on it.” Now, for some reason, Sorkin kept giving Perry lines about how, although she is the famous star of a sketch show, only Perry knows how good a comedian she is.

This never happens in reality.

You can’t be a star comedian and not be appreciated for comic talent. No one needed to be told that Robin Williams is a comic genius because when he first burst on to the scene in Mork and Mindy, people couldn’t stop laughing. No one needed to be told that Eddie Murphy is a comic genius when he first appeared in SNL because people were too busy rolling on the floor. The test for comedians is immediate, and if you’ve passed it you’ve passed it. Sorkin’s reality test here was off.

And lastly we have the other actors playing the actors on the Studio 60 live sketch show. They occasionally had to play only two or three lines in the middle of an SNL-like sketch. That means that your mission, as an actor, is not to be funny, but to know what it’s like to be in a sketch after you got a laugh. You need to know how to get a laugh in the middle of a sketch, when things are going well, and not just how to be funny. These are roles that have to be played by comedians with vast comic experience onstage, and of them only D.L. Hughley fits the bill.


Back to Sorkin. There are different kinds of comedy, and the fact that you’re good at making someone laugh doesn’t mean you can write any other kind of comedy well.

Sorkin writes very funny throwaways. That means that he can insert really funny lines into serious conversation as a throwaway - if someone in the audience got it, good; if not, they never noticed it. The conversation is never broken, and no one waits for a laugh. Here are a couple of examples:

In The West Wing, the staff is debating what to do about a group of Cubans who are at this moment making their way in ramshackle boats towards Florida.

Toby says, “Oh, for God’s sakes, forget about the journey. The voyage is not our problem.”

“What’s our problem?” asks C.J.

Toby says, “What to do when the Nina, the Pinta, and the Get-Me-The-Hell-Outta-Here hit Miami.”

If you got it, you got it. If not, who cares. You still understand the story and what he was trying to say, and you didn’t feel Sorkin was talking down to you.

In Sports Night, Dan picks up on the fact that his friend, Casey, likes the scheming and conniving Sally. He urges him not to go for it: “Don’t do it, Casey,” he says. “She’s got an agenda.”

Casey asks, “You think she wants a job on Sports Night?”

“No, I think she wants to rule all of Metropolis.”

And this discussion goes on. If you get all the jokes, it’s great. And if not, the gist of it is very clear.

Casey: ”You’ve seen the job she does on West Coast Update. She’s a very skilled producer.”

Dan: “Of course she’s skilled, she’s Satan’s handmaiden.”

Casey: “She’s not Satan’s handmaiden.”

Dan: “On the entire planet, have you ever seen anyone with eyes like that? She’s a Stepford producer.”

Casey: “I say she’s a very nice person.”

Dan: “I say she has no reflection.”

Another time, Sam and Toby get lost trying to find their way in the country, in order to solve an embarrassing incident with their Supreme Court nominee. Even after they find the police station, where the judge had been placed under arrest, Sam still kibitzes, “Let me tell you something. If we’d stayed on the Merritt parkway instead of getting off at Exit 29 and going east to Greenwich, I don’t think we’d have wound up in Bridgeport so many times.”

Sorkin also writes situational comedy (comedy that arises from the situation) very well.

One time, Casey came back from the doctor temporarily blinded, and Dan was having a field day getting him to duck, crawl, and scream by shouting at him about things that weren’t there.

Then there are the Cheese Day episodes on The West Wing, which you just have to see to believe, the fact that Josh was manipulated by the press to admitting the president has a secret plan to fight inflation, the Thanksgiving pranks, the Thanksgiving pardon of the other turkey, the Star Trek holiday, and Josh’s horrific encounter with people in the internet. And that’s just to name a few.

Sorkin, however, does not write good sketch comedy. That requires a different set of skills. He assumes that he can do it because he knows he can be funny. There are, unfortunately, many forms of funny, and being good at one doesn’t mean you’re good at the others.

The Good Old Days

Only once in all the episodes of Studio 60 did Sorkin write about the things that really matter to him, from his gut.

There are many things that matter to Sorkin, and one of them is clearly: The freakiness of happenstance, the junctures in life caused by coincidence. Sometimes unrelated events seem related while events that seem related aren’t that at all.

When President Bartlet explains the Latin phrase, Post hoc, ergo procter hoc, he says, “ ‘After, therefore because of’. It means one thing follows the other, therefore it was caused by the other. But it’s not always true. In fact, it’s hardly ever true.”

Take, for example, an episode of Sports Night called Eli’s Coming. Our heroes are having a very weird day. Rebecca, the woman Dan was in love with, was having conversations with her ex-husband. Isaac, the boss, was supposed to have returned from London already, and yet wasn’t there. Bobby Bernstein was coming to guest-host, and every time she would come, she would blame Dan for not having called her after he’d slept with her in Spain. Dan, meanwhile, believed she was a crazy woman, seeing as he’d never been to Spain and had never slept with her.

Dan says to Casey, “Rebecca isn’t here, Isaac isn’t here. There’s a strangeness about this day.” He looks around, and says, “Eli’s coming.”

“Eli?” Casey asks.

“From the Three Dog Night song. Eli’s something bad. A darkness.”

Casey doesn’t get it, “ ‘Eli’s coming, hide your heart girl.’ Eli’s an inveterate womanizer. I think you’re getting the song wrong.”

“I know I’m getting the song wrong, but when I first heard it, that’s what I always thought it meant, and things stick with you that way.” He looks around again. “They say it’s always calmest before the storm. That’s not true. I’m a serious sailor. It isn’t calm before the storm. Stuff happens.”

Sorkin is blindsiding us here. Because almost immediately, Bobby Bernstein finally enters, and Rebecca returns. Rebecca, it turns out, isn’t really divorced, she’s just separated. And the husband that used to abuse her now wants to reconcile, and she doesn’t know what to do. Meanwhile, it turns out that Dan actually was in Spain and did sleep with Bobby, and didn’t call and didn’t remember. But none of that is the storm. Because soon they learn that Isaac has had a heart attack in the airport, and no one knows how serious it is.

Another time, during their hour-long Sports Night show, everyone is freaked because this is the anniversary of the ghost of Thespis, who likes to slap people around who appear in front of audiences. Everything that can go wrong does: There’s a mysterious drip on the desk, a thawed turkey falls down on the desk right as they head to commercial, they forget text, they miss cues, and they go off the air for a minute or so. Are these things connected? No, but they seem to be. It’s the freakiness of happenstance, and Sorkin loves it.

In fact, it’s in the little things, too. One day, simply because things happen that way, Casey is kicked out of two or three rooms, for reasons that have nothing to do with him. It’s the freakiness of happenstance.

A while ago, we named Sorkin the second-best writer in TV today, and in another article, we talked about why. Here’s hoping he takes a long vacation and writes with a less cocky attitude about things that are important to him.


Janus said...

You surprised me by writing about the minor problems (which you did insightfully) as well as the killer. I tend to fault the actors less than you do for their mistakes, because if an actor makes the same mistake in more than one episode, I blame the producer\directors. The fact remains, if they had solved all the other problems, and more, I still couldn't stand the show, because they made it so much less than what they could and should have done with it. Had they solved the big problem, and screwed up everything else you wrote about, and more, I could still have watched.
You nailed it:
"Sorkin had a chance to talk about every subject in the world. He had set up an SNL-like environment that can take on any issue in the world, in the same way the west wing in The West Wing could tackle any issue in the world. Instead, he’d made it a dating show."
How did this happen? Didn't anybody tell him?

Guy Hasson said...

Nice to see you back, Janus.

Actually, I was talking about the casting more than I was talking about the acting. Just as good writers can't write everything well, good actors can't act every character well.

MikeTheMan said...

This was a well-written, in depth review of the why's and wherefore's - but do you have an angle on what it would've taken to get the show renewed? What does it take to have a show that was canceled brought back to glory? In other words, how would you save Studio (City) 60?
I think you captured the essence - I for one was a big fan of Sports Night, and was very sorry to see it go. Thanks for the revival memories.

Guy Hasson said...

Saving 'Studio 60' is about politics and the way the Hollywood machine works, and I don't know anything about that. But I'm not sure I want to save 'Studio 60'; I want to save Aaron Sorkin. If he gets over himself, then the next thing he's going to write is going to be great.

How will Sorkin return to himself? I think that's taken care of. The domino that started this awful chain reaction really was his cockiness. If you think you can do no wrong, you do plenty wrong. Now that he had his ass handed to him, he won't be as cocky, and he'll know the sky can fall, he'll take better care of what he does, and his writing will get better.

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