Studio 60: Take two

Sunday, July 29, 2007 by

Ian Jones’ review of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is now online. But, as it happens, Steve Williams also sent in a piece, which arrived mere minutes later. Here it is…

Thursday 26/07/07, More 4
reviewed by Steve Williams

It’s obvious why people would want to work in television. You get to enter famous buildings that the general public can’t. You get to casually mention technical terms and can talk about having new projects “in development” to amaze people at parties. You might get to go to a glitzy awards ceremony, and you can turn on the telly and say, “I made that!”.

Of course, you can do similar things in more or less every other job in the world. If you were a pest controller, for example, you too could enter famous buildings – albeit when they’re infested with cockroaches. Again, you could casually mention technical terms and might have a new piece of hardware “in development”. The pest control industry might host a glitzy award ceremony and you can drive past offices and houses and go, “I fumigated that!”.

Clearly, though, one of these is more glamorous than the other, which is why some of us can’t get enough of watching television shows about television programmes. It’s not a hugely successful genre – you’ve got The Larry Sanders Showand then a couple of rip-offs of The Larry Sanders Show - but for anyone who always watches out for BBC Television Centre when they travel past it on the London Underground, it’s always going to be appealing. Hence why Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip promised to be a real treat, as it comes from the pen of Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing. Who could resist some classy West Wing-style dialogue and intelligent plotting applied to the world of television?

The show-within-a-show in this case is Studio 60, a live topical comedy sketch show which after 20 years is showing signs of decline. The existing producer is so pissed off by the network’s interference he decides he’s had enough, and interrupts the broadcast to tell everyone this programme is a mess, and that telly has gone to the dogs. He’s immediately fired, and new network president Jordan McDeere, on her first day in the job, decides she needs to headhunt former writers Matt and Danny – who worked on the series when it was at its peak before being sacked and becoming hugely acclaimed Hollywood big shots – to bring the programme back from the brink.

At the end of this first episode, Danny breaks it to Matt that, as he’s failed a drugs test, he can’t direct the film they were going to make, so they decide to come back to the show.

Throughout the rest of the series, we’ll root for Matt and Danny and their efforts to make the thing work. If they succeed, all will be right with the world, and maybe the network’s share price will rise a few dollars and they might supply some slightly better champagne for the after-show party. If they screw up, everyone dies!

Oh, hang on, no they don’t. The show might get axed and the cast might have to do some adverts or TV movies instead. And really, this is the problem I have with this series. At the end of the day, who cares? While the liberal grandstanding and cutting dialogue works in The West Wing, you can at least understand the people in it are doing an important and exciting job. It’s hard to buy into the drama if the worst that can happen is someone gets slightly embarrassed at an awards ceremony, or a sketch doesn’t get a laugh.

In addition, it’s a drama about a comedy show. You could perhaps understand the sense of importance if they were working on a news programme or documentaries, and having to face dilemmas over political balance, or how to deal with serious and upsetting issues. There’d be plenty of points to be made about how the media can represent and influence society, and how to engage the younger generation with world events. However, the production they’re making here appears to be something along the lines of Dead Ringers. Surely no comedy writer, on either side of the Atlantic, has such an inflated sense of their own self-importance to consider what they’re doing actually matters in the long run?

In fact, in this first episode we see very little of the titular Studio 60 to actually understand why we should care about the state of the programme. The only items we see that represent the bad old pre-Matt and Danny days are five seconds of a White House-set sketch which seems fairly inane but doesn’t progress long enough to allow us to hear any of the “jokes”, a performance by a (real?) hip-hop act and the titles to a sketch called Peripheral Vision Man, which we’re told is not funny but we don’t see why.

Presumably the idea is that the name is enough, and it’s sad a topical show has been reduced to such pointless fillers, but to be honest it just sounds like a piece of unpretentious whimsy.

Indeed, it’s a bit of a wasted opportunity. Had we seen any of the programme itself then there could have been the chance to make points about the general low quality of topical comedy that exists these days – rubbish like The Trail Of Tony Blair and other useless satire that thinks just saying George Bush is a bit thick and that Tony Blair sucked up to him a bit is enough – but no. In fact, one of the main flaws of this series so far has been the fabled Sorkin dialogue. Surely the first rule of drama is to show rather than tell? We’re told plenty about the old show being crap, and about how Matt and Danny are going to save it, but there’s precious little evidence to support this apart from people saying it over and over again.

Indeed, in this first episode Matt and Danny didn’t have a funny line between them and if all comedy writers are this miserable, it’s no wonder the genre appears to be in such dire straits.

To be honest, Studio 60 isn’t really telling us anything we don’t already know. It’s summed up by the huge rant Judd Hirsch’s outgoing producer character comes out with that leads to his dismissal. We don’t get to hear this in full, but from the bits we do catch there are endless references to pornography, reality TV, the religious right, the networks … all the usual bogeymen when people are discussing why telly is doomed. Not only is this an argument that’s been trotted out a million times, it’s also mostly rubbish. 20 years ago, the American networks were screening the likes of Manimaland Falcon Crest in prime time. Now the US networks are showing LostHeroes and, well, this show, and broadsheet critics are forever questioning why British telly can’t be as challenging or as original as the classy and intelligent American productions. In addition, it can’t help make Sorkin, a man who has made his career and reputation from network television, sound rather ungrateful.

Well, maybe the points they’re making are quite novel for an American audience. Really, I wonder if it was even worth Channel 4′s while buying Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, because vast swathes of it are frankly irrelevant for a British audience.

This self-importance is one thing. In the US, the television industry is a big business, with the fall schedule greeted with as much wonder and discussion as a new translation of The Bible. In the UK, nobody really cares that much. Hence, while the fate of Studio 60 seems to take on as much importance as the war in Iraq, you can’t imagine Kevin Lygo and Andy Duncan running around shouting if The Friday Night Project starts running out of steam, demanding their PAs locate Jimmy Carr this instant, to avoid the disaster of having a few jokes made at their expense in the diary column at the back of Broadcast magazine. British viewers – and, more than likely, most American viewers – will simply fail to understand why these things are being taken so seriously.

In addition, the problems of the media in the US have little impact here in the UK. The rant mentions that broadcasting in America is being killed by the FCC and religious lobby groups. In the UK, it blatantly isn’t. The FCC may be fining the US networks the annual GDP of an African nation for screening a one second shot of Janet Jackson’s nipple, but over here the series has debuted in the same week as BBC3 are screening an hour long documentary about the word “cunt”, and nobody’s bothered about it. Meanwhile while the religious right may exert huge power in the States, in the UK they consist of a couple of easily-ignorable websites, so much so that the forthcoming episode of Star Stories on Tom Cruise seems to consist in its entirety of jokes about scientology being a load of bollocks.

It looks like religion is likely to play a major role in this series. It transpires that the producer’s rant was brought on by the network demanding a religious sketch was removed. Of course, we don’t see this sketch, but invariably we’re told it was very funny. Later too, we’re told the sketch was called “Crazy Christians”. However, this tells us nothing. Maybe it was a challenging look at how religion plays a role in 21st Century America, making some serious points along the way. Alternatively, maybe it was just some unpleasant sneers at evangelical Christians for being thick enough to believe the Bible. It could have been like The Vicar Of Dibley for all we know. The point seems to be that just the idea of mentioning religion is an incredible thing. Again, there’s a sense of “been there, done that” in Britain – see Jerry Springer: The Opera, but also see Simon Amstell doing jokes about Judaism on Popworld on Saturday mornings.

So far, then, all we’re getting is a bunch of self-important people treating the business of irreverence with ludicrous reverence, while ladling on some Dummies’ Guide To Liberal Politics-style points – so the men in suits who run networks are bad, reality TV is bad, organised religion is bad, and so endlessly on. Of course, we know now that American audiences failed to be spellbound by the series and this no-holds-barred look at how the telly industry is sidelining intelligent programming was ironically booted around the schedules and finally axed. It’s hard to see how British viewers will be any more impressed.

If you’re looking for a new project, then, Aaron, how about a drama about pest controllers? If they mess up, people could actually die!


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