Monday, September 25, 2006

More Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip or How To Tell When Someone is BSing You or Winds light to Variable

First of all, Television Without Pity's recap of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is up, and while it's not brilliantly insightful (like Jacob's reviews of Battlestar Galactica (see here, for example), or hilariously funny (like Key Grips reviews of Boston Public (see here, for example), it's enjoyable and has some insights.

Truthfully I think there's a bit of timidity towards Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip that is readily explainable. The show's smart, has good characters, moves fast, and is on NBC. So you have to assume it doesn't have much of a chance. Because people don't want smart - they usually want familiar. Why do you think there are three Law and Orders and two CSIs (one of which, CSI Miami, knocked Studio 60 on the Air out of the water)?

On the other hand, TV critics are inclined to like Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, for exactly the same reasons TV viewers aren't as likely to cotton to it. TV critics like seeing new things, they like seeing snappy fast dialogue, they want to be challenged by their TV. I mean given the choice between reviewing "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" and "Here's another wacky family" what would you want to review?

On the other hand they don't want to get burned. They don't want to praise another show that NBC pulls the plug on halfway through the season. Which brings us to the second number in today's seminar. Let's give a nice big heading.

How To Tell When Someone is BSing You

One way is when they take a longer time than they should to get across a simple point. If they take 20 words to say something they could say in 3 words, it means they are hoping to shade and color and soften what they are saying out of existence.

Heather Havrilesky, writing for Salon, has a very simple thesis for her review of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Put simply it's "Who gives a crap about TV writers? It's not like they are doing something important." She's got a point.
The trouble is that, when Danny and Matt stop to gaze around the set of their new show, and the camera circles them dramatically like it's the last scene of Werner Herzog's classic film "Aguirre: The Wrath of God," at least one or two cells in our bodies can't help but rebel against the pomp and circumstance of the moment. It feels wrong, somehow, to romanticize TV writers this much, however talented and witty they might be. Meet a few TV writers and you'll see what I mean. It's not that they're bad people -- many of them are charming and smart and extremely friendly -- but they're richer than God, yet they always seem to be jealous of someone who's even richer and more successful than they are. Plus, even the ones who write for really crappy shows, shows that they should pay a tax for inflicting on the human populace, talk about their bad shows like they're saving the free world.
Like I say, it's not like this isn't a valid criticism.

On the other hand, this problem is built into the foundation of the show, isn't it? I mean complaining that we shouldn't be glorifying TV writers is the same as saying Aaron Sorkin shouldn't be writing this show - this particular show shouldn't exist. She makes it clear she'd be happy about a show that was really going to stick the knife into TV writers and make them out to be the full of themselves bastards they are. And presumably she'd be fine with Sorkin writing a show about a place where the people who are full of themselves work someplace important (like, say, the West Wing). So basically, no matter how skillfully this show is written, directed and acted, she would rather that energy and skill go somewhere else.

Fair enough. I don't agree with Havrilesky, but she's entitled to her opinion. So where does the BS come in? Why does she have to spend three pages on an idea she could comfortably cover on a page and a half (leaving room for one of the many other new shows)? Two possible reasons.

The first is that Havrilesky, like most TV editors, know that the odds aren't in favor of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. So she, like many others, are hedging their bets. While they would like to see four or five seasons of this show, they know their readers might not, and they want to make that the shows fault as much as the readers/viewers. Or to put it another way, some people who write about TV must be tired of telling the public they are stupid for not watching X. And I'm pretty damn sure TV viewers are tired of being told that their failure to save Sports Night or Arrested Development or some other program is indicative of the fact that people who watch TV are stupid. So rather than putting the blame for quality programs failing on the shoulders of those who failed to watch them, both people who write about TV and viewers would like to read about how it's the creative peoples fault. Studio 60's possible failure isn't indicative of an America that doesn't like smart TV; Aaron Sorkin just picked a crap subject, out of vanity.

Secondly Havrilesky clearly resents TV writers, but doesn't want that to be the reason for her disdain for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. She doesn't want to say "I don't like TV writers so I don't want to watch a show in which they aren't castigated." It's worth noting that out of the eight principle characters - one is a TV writer. The other seven are two Network Executives, a director, a control room person, and three comedic actors. So maybe the cats out of the bag on Havrilesky's personal biases. The question is whether the rest of America shares her biases.

Hard to know - even if Studio 60 fails, does that prove that people don't like shows about TV writers? Or does it prove that Sorkin's writing style doesn't connect? Or does it prove that CSI Miami is an unstoppable juggernaut of doom, and NBC has no guts?

I have more to say on this subject, but this post is already too long, so I'll cut it here and come back later with more.

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