Sunday, October 01, 2006

TV: White Man Talking (and talking and talking . . .)

Studio 60 Yadda-Yadda-Yadda airs on NBC's. It's the latest from a press created "genius" and we're all supposed to ooh-aah over it. Which only demonstrates that the Water Cooler Critics have water on the brain.

How bad is the show?

Pretty damn awful.

Or as Aaron Sorkin might put it: "The show is tragically misquided, weighted with excess wordage, moralistic in the most simplistic way and will leave you dazed in a most unfortunate manner."

What most people could say in three words takes at least twenty for Sorkin. If he needed a psuedonym, we'd suggest Gabby Hayes. But when all you excell at is wordy bits of dialogue, you market it like an aging pitcher reduced to sliders and curve balls.

Brief history. Sorkin wanted to be an actor and couldn't cut it (we're told he recited dialogue word for word but couldn't manage emotion). So he stumbled around and became a "playwright." The play, A Few Good Men, flounders around with the usual conventions and provides various monologues. When he adapted it for the big screen (with Rob Reiner directing), he had to an add a female character (played by Demi Moore). Pay attention, this does matter. He was brought in on numerous scripts to provide a flashy speech here or there. (Carrie Fisher, by contrast, actually writes dialogue when she script doctors.) The modest-sized hit An American President was more of the usual conventions and wordy-words from Sorkin.
With the spare parts/wordy-words cut from that project, he crafted West Wing. Prior to that he crafted a half-hour show, Sport's Night, that the promos swore would make you laugh but audience thought otherwise so now it's usually referred to as a "dramedy."

So NBC decides to make his Studio 60 Yadda-Yadda-Yadda their tent pole for the fall season. They don't have enough confidence in it (for good reason) to air it, as originally planned, on Thursdays, so they bench Medium for the fall and give that spot to Sorkin's show.

Thus far, two episodes have aired* (we've also seen the third and fourth, expect more of the same) and the Water Cooler Set is drooling like crazy. So spellbound by dialogue, they've yet to notice that there's no writer behind it, not a thinking one, not an instinctual one. Speeches do not make for exchanges. Which is why the majority of the actors flounder as they attempt to do slow dead-pan line readings.

Let's talk characters and actors, then we'll get back to the bad writing.

The only one who succeeds is Amanda Peet. She succeeds in spite of the writing and in spite of Water Cooler Critics grabbing bits she thought up for her character and crediting Sorkin for them. Sorkin's put no thought into her character -- she's a female, he has no interest. For those who missed that obvious fault, West Wing started filming without a First Lady -- a look at the White House with no First Lady? The character Stockard Channing would bring to life was an after thought to Sorkin -- so it's no surprise that Peet's getting by largely on her likeability. There's no character for her to play so the show's very lucky that someone as likeable as Peet is in the cast.


And that's really it. Matthew Perry (Friends fame) and Steven Weber (Wings fame) are like Carol Burnett in a seventies TV drama: desperate to prove they can "Act" (with capital "A") and not just make you chuckle. The Burnett path means that you water down every talent you possess, you slow your delivery and you reduce all body movement to eye motion. Water Cooler Critics declare Weber 'reborn' and Perry 'gifted' -- we just think they look like they're underwater.

Who else? Well Water Cooler Critics say this is a 'diverse' cast so we should probably note that D.L. Hughley plays a poorly written stereotype and can't seem to figure out what he's doing in the cast (the audience won't be able to figure it out either). Diversity?

Sarah Paulson has the worst problem of anyone in the cast, Sorkin's basing the sketch on an actual person he knows. He's placed the sketch of a character into a world that she would never be in and you grimace as Paulson goes from moment to moment with dialogue and scenes that not only make no sense, they also aren't consistent.

Studio 60 Blah-Blah-Blah is a behind the scenes look at a live, sketch comedy, late night show. It wishes it were Saturday Night Live. (Sadly, the show within a show plays more like ABC's forgotten Fridays.) Paulson plays Harriet Hayes who is supposed to be the star, the audience favorite, of the live, sketch show. That would never happen and not just because no one in their right mind can think of a funny comedy star named "Harriet."

It would never happen because Harriet's a priss and a drip. This has nothing to do with the character's religion (which we'll get to in a moment), it has to do with the fact that Harriet is not Gilda Radner, she's not Lily Tomlin, she's not Whoopi Goldberg, she's not Molly Shannon, she's not even Christina Applegate. She does not catch your eye. She's a sad sack. She's a wet blanket. She couldn't even hack it as the last billed performer on Mad TV. (We're speaking of the character Harriet, not the actress Paulson.)

Outside of Paula Poundstone, we're having a hard time thinking of any female comic that's found success (forget stardom) doing deadpan. Poundstone didn't achieve fame by doing comedy and Harriet couldn't get booked at the lowest of low comedy dives. There's nothing magical about Harriet. Performing in a skit, she's a scold. A polite one. That doesn't bring in the laughs. If you don't bring in the laughs, you don't become a star.

That's the character as comic. Now let's talk the character as character. Harriet's a prissy thing there as well. She's the soul of the show (presumably because the character is religious) so when someone comes to her concerned about their job, you don't have two characters communicating, you have two speech makers moralizing. Now when this comes from Perry's character, for instance, it might make sense. Glib is what all the characters except for Harriet are supposed to be. Harriet's supposed to be quite a bit more. She's not.

Paulson needs to dye the hair red, cut it and figure out what the hell she can bring to the show because only she can save Harriet at this point -- Sorkin's not interested in the character as anything but a moralizer.

Sorkin, the man who knows nothing about comedy (knows nothing other than how to write speeches) wants to take an inner look at comedy. In the second episode, he swiped lines from The Mary Tyler Moore Show's first episode ("Love Is All Around") but he seems to have missed the one about "whimsical" (which, for the record, Lou Grant also hated). That's really too bad because the show within a show is nothing but whimsy.

Why does it matter? Well, it would be good if the audiences watching actually thought the onscreen writers and cast could be funny. It's a bit like watching Mickey and Judy try to put on a show and discovering Rooney has two left feet and Judy has a range of one note.

Sorkin's all talk and it's not funny, and it's not deep and it serves no real purpose other than to mark time and show Karl Rove that there's more than one press created 'boy genius.' Now you may be thinking, "But Ava, C.I., the Water Cooler Critics love this show."

That's because they're idiots. There's no other reason for it. There are certain rules in drama and you either obey them or you don't. Sorkin's not a "maverick," he's an incompetent.

Here's what the babbling Water Cooler Critics failed to notice. On the first episode of Studio 60 Blah-Blah-Blah, the show-within-a-show's producer is fired after he goes out on live air ranting and raving (a sermon meant to inspire and alarm) after a skit is pulled moments before air. Amanda Peet hires Perry and Bradley Whitford (playing Danny) to run the show-within-a-show. She promises them they can lead their first show with the canned skit. The skit's called "Crazy Christians" and you hear that over and over. Over and over. In the first episode and in the second. There's an uproar over the skit. There are boycotts and threats. Peet puts her job on the line so that this skit can air.

The second episode ends with the show-within-a-show performing a skit. Guess what? The much talked about (a given in a Sorkin show) isn't shown. No "Crazy Christians." Instead you get a song and dance number.

Now the song and dance number isn't funny. (Not even prissy Harriet's aside qualifies for funny.) It's also nothing a studio audience at a sketch show would cheer even with the "APPLAUSE" sign flashing. It's not funny. This matters for a number of reasons including that Perry and Whitford are supposed to be making the show-within-a-show funny again -- that's why they were hired. The song-and-dance is a nice little pandering sermonette so you grasp that Sorkin has a second talent -- besides writing bad dialogue, he can also set bad dialogue to music.

But it's not funny. No one's going to chuckle out loud, not even politely. The real audience watching Studio 60 Yadda-Yadda-Yadda is supposed to root for Perry and Whitford and think they can pull it off. Sorkin's not interested in that, he just wants to sermonize.

Bad writing is spending two episodes refusing to shut up about one skit ("Crazy Christians"), hearing about who really wrote it, hearing about the outrage the planned airing of it is causing, hearing that Peet's job hangs in the balance, hearing of how the show's original producer went loco on air because the skit was pulled. Bad writing is wasting two hours of primetime with that crap and then, when you finally show the show-within-a-show, failing to deliver even thirty-seconds of "Crazy Christians."

You go to a circus, you expect to see a clown. You go to a fair, you expect to see rides. Studio 60 Yada-Yada-Yada opens with a producer being told "Crazy Christians" is being pulled, suffers an on air meltdown and loses his job, Peet promises "the boys" they can do "Crazy Christians" on their first show, the big brass tries to get Peet to break her promise, a boycott starts, yada-yada-yada. Habeas "Crazy Christians" -- produce the sketch! Sorkin can't even grasp that.

It's always tease, tease, tease, as the Clash once sang. And that's because the press created 'genius' can't write comedy and he can't write drama. He can write speeches and sermonettes and Water Cooler Critics are too terrified to tell you the emperor (that they created) has no clothes on so they waste even more words than Sorkin could dream of to prop this empty show up.

[*Last week, we reviewed Heroes and apologize because we weren't aware that the show hadn't aired yet. At least two readers felt the review had spoilers. They were unintentional. We were watching tapes provided by friends -- as with this review -- we weren't watching it over the airwaves. Our apologies. Clash song is "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" off Combat Rock.]
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