Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip - 'Pilot' (1x01)

Aaron Sorkin's a writer I respect, I watched and enjoyed all of his years on The West Wing, and the second season finale, 'Two Cathedrals,' stands as one of the best hours of television ever. But, I'm also aware of his flaws as a writer, a preachiness and tendency to engage in sentimental storytelling. In a show set in the White House, preachiness wasn't as big a problem as it was on his previous series, Sports Night, where a nightly sports recap show frequently turned into a meditation on the resilience of the human spirit. This worked at times, but sometimes it just got ridiculous.

But, I was still really looking forward to Studio 60, if only for a ridiculously stocked cast. This is one of the best network pilots I've ever seen, certainly the most stylish and assured. And on top of that, it even manages to make most of Sorkin's problematic tendencies work for the show. Most shows, even great ones, have some kind of adjustment period, but this one was in total control of its voice right from the beginning.

One of the issues with making a pilot is that your pilot has to set up the show's status quo, but anyone watching the show likely already read a description of it, so we know that Danny and Matt are going to take over the show. So, you're already starting at a disadvantage since the audience knows the basic story of this episode. But, I think there was still a good amount of dramatic tension here, and more than that, the production was so well done on all levels, every moment has something enjoyable about it.

The one major issue I have with the opening sequence, and the show in general, is the fact that TV, for all its reality show excess, is actually in a golden age right now, surpassing any era of previous production and the vast majority of films coming out right now. So the classic "idiot box" rant doesn't really work. That said, the idiot box stuff is only on the surface, the real issue there is with corporate ownership of media and the Christian right's dictation of terms, which is something that's very relevant, so relevant in fact, I'm working on a film about it. So, I can definitely sympathize with that, broadcast television producers should have greater freedom.

The other main issue I've got with the pilot is along the same lines, the fact that these jokes cracking on television just feel old, plus a bit arrogant considering that it is a TV show. It's one thing to say that today's music doesn't live up to stuff from the 60s, but it's pretty clear that TV now is so good, it feels off to crack on it. And besides that, those jokes were already old when Seinfeld did its pilot arc.

Other than those two issues, I loved everything else about the pilot. The West Wing got a lot of attention for its walk and talk scenes, which were lauded primarily from a writing perspective, but were equally remarkable for the cinematography. Tommy Schlamme's fantastic direction is more front and center here, the camera moves are fantastic and he keeps up a fantastic level of energy throughout. I love the neon interiors of the club, as well as the winding shots through the Studio 60 set. Combine that with some really well chosen music and you've got a show with a distinctly cinematic energy and style.

Each of these characters feels remarkably real right from the start. They're not based on archetypes, but the writing just gives you a total sense of who the person is. Matt and Danny seem like classic Sorkin heroes, in the sense that they're idealistic and really believe in doing their job right. I think that's why the chance to run Studio 60 is so irresistible for them, because it's a chance to make something better than what already exists.

Sorkin heroes are a bit like Michael Mann's, in the sense that they have total devotion to their job. There is no personal life, be they the president or sportscasters, life is work. For Mann, this means a gradual dehumanization of heroes, but Sorkin celebrates it, for him, home life is what would dehumanize, one is only really alive when on the job. That's why Sorkin would agree to return to NBC after being dismissed from The West Wing, he can't live without the grind of creating a TV show.

Now, one could say that it's crossing the line to infer that about the man from watching the show, but this series is so obviously based on his own life, it's impossible to seperate the reality from the fiction. And, in the same way that Matt and Danny see Studio 60 as their chance to bring quality to television, Sorkin is doing the same with this series.

I really like the flashier aesthetic of this show versus the staid, reverent West Wing. As I mentioned before, the music gives things a real energy. The moment at the end, when Matt and Danny go out to rally the troops is just like the 'Bartlett for America' moment from The West Wing, and the difference between the soaring trumpets of TWW or the riff from 'Under Pressure' for S60 underscores the difference between the shows. This is a poppier, more fun show. If it can find the same balance between comedy and drama as something like Gilmore Girls, I think it'll be a great show.

The pilot ends on a high note and I was ready to go into the second episode right there. The show may be a bit self indulgent, but it's so good, I don't really care. And if the second episode teaser's any indication, the show's going to go in a great direction. I'll be there next week.

No comments: