The media buzz tonight is about Aaron Sorkin’s new show, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” What’s been a bit interesting to me is how the show lends itself to different interpretations from different sides of the political spectrum. The first thing I read about the show was Brent Bozell’s column pointing out the anti-Christian angle in the show:
Maybe it’s a good thing that television writers don’t try too hard to get involved with plots about religion. The thoroughly secular TV world seems to tolerate about one seriously religiously themed series at a time. It’s much more common to engage the topic of religion as an odd joke, as an intensely greedy racket of quacks or as the inspiration for a flock of oppressive mind-numbed zombies out to ruin everyone’s guilty pleasures. Usually, they’re simply “crazy Christians.”
That’s the central plot twist in the premiere of the new NBC drama “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” created by “West Wing” producer-writer Aaron Sorkin. The show goes behind the scenes of a fictional sketch-comedy program resembling “Saturday Night Live” at a fictional network called UBS. The censors at UBS have scratched a skit titled “Crazy Christians,” and now all hell will break loose. We’re never shown the skit, but we’re told repeatedly that it’s demonstrably hilarious.
Sorkin uses his first script to throw sharp knives and rusty razors at the Americans who’ve lobbied for less filthy television. The show begins with an improbable “standards and practices” censor telling the producer of the fictional “SNL” that he can’t run “Crazy Christians” because “what do you want me to say to the 50 million people who are gonna go out of their minds as soon as it airs?” The producer cracks wise: “Well, first of all, you can tell ’em we average 9 million households, so at least 41 million of them are full of crap. Second, you can tell ’em that living where there’s free speech means sometimes you’re gonna get offended.”
As described above, the show sounds more like a polemic than entertainment.
I’ve never been a big polemics fan — even when the polemics favor my point of view. For example, I’ve quit halfway through Brad Thor’s Takedown, which is a thriller imagining what would happen if terrorists blew up all the tunnels and bridges leading into (and out of) Manhattan. I like thrillers, so I really ought to enjoy it. Even more, I should appreciate Thor’s point of view, which is that radical Islam is waging a war against us, and we need to take it seriously. However, Thor has positioned every one of his good guys as a spokesman for the “Good War.” It makes for some decent speeches but, to my mind, results in a rather boring thriller. So, the likelihood is that, even if I were to agree with Sorkin’s take on things, I’d still find the show dull. In any event, that’s what Bozell had to tell me about the show.
The local SF Chron reviewer, Tim Goodman, had a totally different take, which has nothing whatsoever to do with Crazy Christians. Instead, he’s very excited about the fact that the show takes on corporate control in the media. Goodman starts off by revisiting Sorkin’s own tortured relationship with NBC, and this is the part that interests me:
“Studio 60” — in case you’ve been under that proverbial rock — is a behind-the-scenes look at a late-night sketch comedy series that appears awfully similar to “Saturday Night Live” (and yes, this series airs on NBC). If Sorkin captured all the frantic action and lower-budget hipness of a place like ESPN when he did “Sports- Night” — a series that showed great love not only for the profession of live television but of sports and scrappy cable channels — he turns here to the darker side of broadcast television, where all the networks are owned by huge corporations and money matters more than art (or even the love of the game, as we witnessed in “SportsNight”).
There’s a real logic to this jump, even though Sorkin has been deftly deflecting comparisons to real life (his — both personal and professional). His departure from NBC and the helm of “The West Wing” was uglier and more complicated than is generally understood. While it’s true that Sorkin was busted with a number of illegal drugs as he tried to pass through Burbank airport, his real woes began when he essentially wrote every “West Wing” episode and couldn’t delegate. His alleged tardiness on scripts cost NBC money and was reportedly the center of his conflict with NBC. You can guess who won that. (Emphasis mine.)
Don’t you love those sentences I emphasized? Clearly, in Goodman’s world, running a business efficiently and to make money is a bad thing. How dare those corporate troglodytes demand that Sorkin abide by his commitments and obligations.
Reading that language, I kept thinking of the movie Ghostbusters. As you may recall, Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd and Harold Amis start the movie as wacky academics. Within ten minutes of the movie’s opening, they’ve been fired from their jobs for rank incompetence. Bill Murray is sanguine, but Dan Ackroyd panics:
Personally, I liked the university. They gave us money and facilities, we didn’t have to produce anything! You’ve never been out of college! You don’t know what it’s like out there! I’ve worked in the private sector. They expect results.
I don’t find much else in Goodman’s review that interesting. To him, it’s all about idealistic comedy writers and big, bad studio executives. While I hold no love for studio executives, I’m still a fan of the business model, so Goodman’s impassioned defense of standing up to the hand that writes the paycheck leaves me cold. Indeed, I’m sure Goodman also can’t understand why Air America is going under. He’s probably bewildered as to why something so artistic and meaningful had to collapse for sordid economic reasons.
I will watch Studio 60. My husband wants to see it and Sorkin can be a very witty, erudite writer. I’ll get back to you if I have anything interesting to say on the topic.