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If I could do last season all over again…

November 14, 2007 Leave a comment

… I’d have watched the show from beginning to end.

Knee-jerk reactions… In some cases, they can be a sign of excellent reflexes. In others, they can be a sign of immense ignorance.

Last season I wasn’t sure what I was going to watch, but I was fairly certain that I wouldn’t be tuning in for one particular series: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. In fact, I made the decision early on. It was debuting to much buzz and fanfare over at NBC, and at times it stole the spotlight from Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, which also premiered last season. I was irritated because I felt that Fey’s Rock had come first and that Aaron Sorkin’s rapid-fire drama, starring a very talented ensemble cast (Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, Amanda Peet, D.L. Hughley, Sarah Paulson and Steven Weber) was a gorgeously dressed knock-off of an original series that was developed and nurtured by people who actually worked in the business of sketch comedy. I was mildly bitter on Fey’s behalf, having been a fan of her work for a few years. In my eyes, 30 Rock was the underdog, and Studio 60 was the brawny big brother who easily got all the attention from the social elite.

It’s been suggested that Studio 60’s talented cast may have eventually cost the series when it came to its inflated production budget and waning ratings. Photo ¬© Warner Bros. Television

And, to be honest, I wasn’t too far off. Compared to 30 Rock’s motley crew (no matter how deliberately crafted), Studio 60 had a beautiful cast. They were the guys getting most of the buzz, both from NBC and the critics. They also had Sorkin, who had just come away from his long-running, acclaimed hit The West Wing. They had the dynamic duo Matthew Perry, of Friends fame, and Bradley Whitford, also from the aforementioned Sorkin drama. Like Rock, they had snappy banter and long-winded monologues that seem almost too complex to have been concocted on the spot. Unlike Rock’s single-camera style, Studio 60 had complicated blocking in scenes and sometimes ethereal (perhaps sunset?) lighting that created a distinct West Coast tone.

On the surface, they seemed a bit too perfect. And I wasn’t impressed.

Unfortunately, neither were American viewers. The show was cancelled after being dragged out throughout the entire season in intermittent spurts — something that isn’t bad, when I think about it. I’ll elaborate on that later.

Fast-forward a year. I recently acquiesced, and finally purchased an iPod. This last weekend, on a whim, I bought the pilot episode of Studio 60, along with two others — just for kicks. I’d cooled off from my annoyance a year ago, and I was ready to give the intelligent drama a go.

To be frank, after seeing the first two episodes “Pilot” and “Cold Open,” I was blown away. Intelligent doesn’t even begin to describe it. I began to question my own sanity. Certainly a year ago maturity made a difference, but how could I have been so blind? Yes, Tina Fey’s half-hour comedy is brilliant and hilarious, but couldn’t I have found room in my viewing schedule for both? I mean, for crying out loud, they aired on different nights after all.

When Judd Hirsch, whom I’ve admired since his role as Alex on the 1980’s sitcom Taxi, performed that intensely volatile opening monologue in the pilot episode, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him for fear of missing a beat. Like many others, I’m sure, I rewound the scene so as to get the full effect. I found myself doing that a lot actually… All the characters were quite compelling.

Bradley Whitford (left) worked with Aaron Sorkin for seven years on the Emmy Award-winning series The West Wing, while Matthew Perry is best known for his decade of work as the sarcastic Chandler Bing on NBC’s other Emmy Award-winning hit, Friends. Photo ¬© Warner Bros. Television

Peet’s Jordan McDeere was as endearing as she was steadfast. As the president of the fictitious National Broadcasting System’s programming, she took no prisoners, but did so justly. There are few female leaders on TV like Jordan, who can be firm without being portrayed as an ice queen.

Perry’s Matt Albie was lovably neurotic and testy. With his self-deprecating humor, it would’ve been easy for the former Friends star to fall back into some well-rooted Chandler-isms, but Matt was a completely separate entity who probably would’ve gotten Perry an Emmy nod had the show been given another chance.

The same goes for Whitford’s honest-to-a-fault Danny Tripp, who is outed within the first episode for his recent drug abuse. Whitford’s solid portrayal of Perry’s other half was great. I believe he too could’ve been up for an Emmy had the series gone to a second season.

I was interested in Paulson’s portrayal of right-wing, Christian comedienne Harriett Hayes. This character may have been an artistic extension of Sorkin’s beliefs regarding the radical Christian right, but I like the fact that he made her an obvious protagonist. Alongside Paulson, Sorkin made Harriet a flawed, yet intriguing, character.

I could go on, but the show had a large ensemble cast outside of these four main players. Needless to say, the show was incredibly strong. I have no good excuse for not enjoying the series while it lasted. However, I think it does say something about the bar and level of expectations Sorkin and his cast and crew held, and how those expectations differed from America’s own threshold. This series was the epitome of quality programming. And while I’m sure it hit some rough spots, perhaps was a bit too serious, and lacked action, from what I’ve seen, it was an amazing show with superb characters. In short, it had a lot of potential. Here’s TV Guide’s Matt Roush feelings on the series finale, in response to a reader’s question.

Sorkin was accused of being too liberal. Unfortunately, it’s probably monologues like the one Hirsch delivered that drove away many viewers. Even well-educated viewers who make sixfigures a year (the demographic some networks seem to brag about to their advertisers as a last resort or alternative to the preferred¬† demos) might’ve been turned off by what some may have considered to be a liberal sermon of morality. I’m not one of those people, but I can understand why Sorkin had to tone the preaching down a bit.

For what the series lacked in the Laugh Out Loud department, it brought a lot of other positive attributes to the fore. For one thing, I think I learned more about network politics and shenanigans in the two episodes than I have in four years of college. Studio 60 contained humor that made you think — really think — about the underlying message.

In an attempt to rectify my egregious mistake last year, I will probably be buying Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip on DVD as soon as possible. As I mentioned earlier, the series aired in random trickles throughout the season, which gave the show an opportunity to have roughly 22 episodes. There are those who still rave about the series, and others who remain skeptical. I’m willing to give it a shot now, if only to prove that I’m able to admit when I’m wrong. For all of the series’ shortcomings, it truly was intelligent entertainment at its finest.

Unfortunately, this means I have to turn over a new leaf and catch up on shows that I’ve deliberately neglected this season. Cavemen, anyone?

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Strike Turns Hollywood Upside Down! Yikes!

November 7, 2007 5 comments

WGA Strike, Part III of ?

I know I’ve been talking about the WGA strike a lot lately, but I do have my reasons: This is an “intelligent entertainment” blog, and if talented, tenured writers are no longer producing content, there’s not going to be much entertainment in our future. Worse still, it probably won’t be all that intelligent, either. More than likely decisions will be made on the fly and off the cuff, by actors, producers and directors alike.

Heroes is reportedly filming a new ending to a December episode this week in anticipation of it filling in as a season finale. Photo copyright NBC Universal Television.

At this point in time, ABC’s Desperate Housewives, NBC’s Heroes and ER, Fox’s Back to You and ‘Til Death, and CBS’ Two and a Half Men, Rules of Engagement, The New Adventures of Old Christine, and The Big Bang Theory are all halting production, among many others, as shown in the updated grid on latimes.com. The scary part is that many of the series listed in the table only have anywhere between three and seven more weeks of programming left before their done. I say “scary,” because TV is going to be inundated with unscripted, reality television shows come January, and I was so relieved when that trend took a downward turn. We can only hope that it doesn’t become uber-popular again. That would be the worst kind of irony for writers once this whole issue is resolved.

The way I see it, this strike could essentially cause one of two things. Short of costing Hollywood much more than the $500 million it cost them in 1988, it may bring crews together in that sometimes elusive, yet collaborative, effort to create quality programming. Without writers to do the work, others will have to step up to the plate. It could be downright inspiring.

Or, sadly, it could cause an even deeper divide in Hollywood.

So far, it’s looking pretty bright. Actors like Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, America Ferrera and cast members from The Office have reportedly expressed their support of the writers, though many of their colleagues have remained coy. According to Variety, executive producers have been “refusing to cross the picket lines even to perform non-writing chores on scripts that have already been completed.” It’s great to see that there is such a unified front from Screen Actors Guild members and executive producers.

The Hollywood Reporter has a great article that documents the back-and-forth debate between Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP) president Nick Counter and WGA leaders. Make of it what you will.

It looks like many in the media underestimated how badly the strike was going to hit production on a variety of shows, but I think it’s a good sign that everyone is still supporting the writers. We’ll see how far that support goes in two months’ time, though it’s fairly clear which side of the debate is causing the problem here. Hopefully the writers will get what they want (and deserve) in a timely manner, so everyone can get back to work.

Still — and this is pure speculation here — I wonder if this may be drawn out longer so as to stop any chances of a precedent being formed. There’s been talk of a Screen Actors Guild/Directors Guild strike this summer, and maybe The Powers That Be are hoping it will be reconsidered, so as to prevent another huge hit like this. I don’t think anyone wants to see production halt from coast to coast, but if SAG members have justifiable reasons like the writers, it may be quite necessary. According to Firefox News, SAG president Alan Rosenberg was pretty confident, saying, “We’ll get what they get.”

For everyone’s sake, I hope that confidence is bankable.