Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Studio 60 Remembered – The Pilot

studio60-1They say that hindsight is 20:20. A lot of critics looking back at Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip – including several that I have tremendous respect for – have retroactively claimed that they were “suckered” by the show’s pilot. It should serve as a reminder to those who do reviews as a profession that they should keep their powder dry until they see what the next few episodes are like, or preface heir statements about how promising a show’s pilot looks by saying something like, “It’s really impossible to praise or condemn a show based on the pilot but…” Of course professional critics have an advantage in that often, before a show debuts, they get screeners that include not just the pilot but also a couple of subsequent episodes, which allows them to say that “While the pilot looks (great/good/poor/horrible) the episodes that follow are really (terrible/weak/acceptable/brilliant)…” It’s not that easy for someone like me who watches a show at the time that it airs and has no idea of what will follow. I can either judge the show on the pilot and risk the rest of the season being totally different from what I reviewed, or I could wait for another episode or two before reviewing and hope that a) the show isn’t cancelled before I can write a review (see – or rather don’t see – Lonestar) or b) the ratings don’t discourage me so much that I don’t write about the show because I know it won’t make a lick of difference and the show is doomed. The latter happens a lot incidentally, and may be why I didn’t write a lot of reviews in the past couple of years. But to the review.

The series opened on the set of a variety show just before it’s about to go on. The show has been on the air for twenty years according to the man who is warming up the audience (who we’ll later learn is Simon Styles – played by D.L. Hughely). While he’s going through his well rehearsed routine he notices something going on off-stage. It is an argument between the show’s Executive Producer, Wes Mandel (Jud Hirsch in a special guest appearance), and a network official named Jerry. Jerry is demanding that Wes pull a sketch that did well at rehearsal, because it will offend religious people. Wes is adamant that the sketch go on, to the point where he wants to call Network Chairman Jack Rudolph, or new network executive Jordan McDeere, but both of them are at a party – actually a party for Jordan. Wes then asks Jerry what would happen if he just decided to go ahead with the sketch over Jerry’s objections. Jerry responds that Wes won’t do that and the reason why he knows is that, “if you still had the muscle to do it you wouldn't have asked.” Wes pulls the sketch, much to the irritation of the show’s director Cal (Timothy Busfield); not as much because the sketch was good – he says that it didn’t stand a chance – as with what is replacing it, a continuing piece called “Peripheral Vision Man” which is not only not funny but has never been funny. Down in the dressing rooms Wes is a beaten man. When guest host Felicity Huffman (playing herself) asks Wes why her monologue hasn’t been changed in spite of the fact that they had agreed it needed changing she notices that Wes doesn’t look alright. He tells her that he’s fine, and that her instincts about the material aren’t wrong – it isn’t funny – but that they didn’t get a chance to change it. As the show – which is done live – gets underway, Wes suddenly decides that  he’s had enough. He stops the “cold open” sketch just after it starts and delivers a long and rambling rant (which I’ll reproduce below). In the control room all hell is breaking loose. Jerry is demanding that Cal take Wes off the air or at the very least mute his mike, but the best reason that Jerry can give for this is that, “he’s telling people to turn their televisions of!!!!” When appealing to “reason” doesn’t work Jerry resorts to threats, telling Cal that if he doesn’t take Wes off the air, not only will Cal be fired but he’ll never work in the industry again. Finally Wes goes a word to far and Cal is able to cut the cameras and sound.

At the party for Jordan Wilson White (Ed Asner), the Chairman of the Tunney Media Group which owns the Nation Broadcasting System has just finished a toast in which he notes all the high points of Jordan McDeere’s career (including four years at NBC where “where she saw to it that Jay Leno spanked David Letterman on a regular basis”) when a waiter brings Jordan (Amanda Peete) a note from her assistant that something has happened at Studio 60. She comments that it can’t be anything too bad, not on her first day. As she finishes saying that every cell phone in the room starts ringing. Jordan and Jack Rudolph (Steven Webber), along with most of the network executives at the party rush down to the studio, where Jerry gives his explanation of what happened: “I cut a sketch and he went crazy.” The executives take over the dressing room being used by the show’s musical guests, Three Six Mafia, to watch the video tape of the episode…when they can finally find a copy of the tape that will work on the commercial VCR in the room. Meanwhile Jordan slips away to find Wes and after introducing herself asks him what happens. Before he can answer Jack comes in and says “Wesley, you’re fired.” Wes’s response is “No kidding.”

Jack is determined to keep as much of a lid on the story as possible, but it’s already out there and every news story has a reference to Paddy Chayefsky’s movie Network. The company’s executives meet in their boardroom to figure out where they stand. They’re worried about possible fines or law suits from the FCC, and how the advertisers and the affiliates will react. Jordan laughs at the executives’ concerns which irritates Jack, but she points out that they’re worried about the wrong things. Nothing was said that would trigger FCC fines and any lawsuit would fail the “laugh test.” There’s no way that they can keep the cast quiet, particularly “the Big Three” (which prompts one of the executives – I think the one in charge of advertiser relations – to ask what Detroit has to do with this; Jack has to explain to him that in this case “the Big Three” refers to Simon Stiles, Tom Jeter, and Harriet Hayes, the leading members of the cast). Jordan points out that despite this they’re not over-reacting, they’re under-reacting because the real problem is that Wes’s tirade will be fodder for every cable show around with discussion on the state of television…unless they can defuse the problem by giving the media a better story. Jordan needs to talk to Jack privately on this. She wants to rehire Matt Albie and Danny Tripp who had been fired from the show five years ago…by Jack Rudolph. Jack is dubious but Jordan says that rehiring them will be seen as “a tacit admission of guilt and a quiet act of contrition,” and will make that the story, not Wes’s rant. Jack doesn’t think that Jordan will be able to get them but she knows something he doesn’t. She has to move fast on this, with an announcement on Monday morning. Jack tells her just one thing: screw this up and he’ll fire her faster than he did Wes Mandel.

At that moment Matt (Matthew Parry) and Danny (Bradley Whitford) are attending the Writers Guild Awards, where Matt is nominated for a movie that he wrote and Danny directed. Matt has had back surgery two days before and is one a mixture of Vicodin and Percoset and a steroid to deal with the pain, so he’s both talkative and a little out of it. The discussion soon turns to why Matt is at the ceremony alone. Matt had been involved with Harriet Hayes from Studio 60 but they broke up. He offered up a long and rambling explanation of why they broke up which had to do with her singing the National Anthem, but after telling the whole story he added, “but that’s not why we really broke up.” He continues talking even as his category is announced…and when the winner is announced. He’s so involved in his story (and the drugs aren’t helping) that even when Danny hugs him he doesn’t realise that he won. It takes Danny telling him that he’s won for it to sink in. As he goes to the stage an assistant comes up to Danny and whispers something to him. He responds by walking out and saying that he needs to see tape, so that when Matt cites him in his acceptance speech for always being there for him, Danny isn’t there.

We next see Harriett Hayes (Sarah Paulson) arriving at a club where the show’s wrap party is being held. The nature of the sketch that was cut had leaked out and she is mobbed by the press who are all asking two questions: as a Christian was she offended by the sketch, and what did Matt think of what happened. She doesn’t say anything to anybody. In the cub she takes a moment to talk to Cal who is sitting all by himself and looking depressed. She asks what happened in the control room and he tells her that he left Wes on the air for 53 seconds despite orders from the Standards and Practices representative on the set. According to Cal, “Guys I know who have done that feel lucky to get a job directing Good Morning El Paso.” Leaving Cal, she finds the rest of the cast and sits down with Simon Stiles and Tom Jeter (Nate Corddry). She tells her cast mates that she’s been asked whether the sketch offended her and what Matt had said (in that order) about fourteen times. So Tom naturally asks what “What did Matt say?” and gets a withering look from Harriett, who reminds him that they have broken up. She expects that Matt and Danny are laughing their asses off over what happened. Harriett then suggests that they go outside so she can watch Simon “smoke a cigarette.” As they’re leaving Dylan (Nate Torrence), the newest member of the cast (and who is thoroughly wasted) asks Harriett if she had prayed before this show as she usually does and if so why didn’t it work. Harriett quickly cuts him down to size: “You know what, rook? When you start making a contribution to this show, you can talk to me any way you want. But you had two lines tonight and you stepped on one of them. So until you either accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior or make somebody laugh, why don't you talk to somebody else?” Outside, Harriett answers the other question, about whether she was offended by the sketch; she wasn’t, she was offended that she wasn’t in the sketch because it was the best piece of writing that the show had seen in a long time. They all assume that Wes wrote it himself (and are surprised that he was capable of it) because it couldn’t possibly have come from Ricky and Ron. Almost immediately they are interrupted by an assistant from the show who tells them that they’ve all been call back to the studio immediately.

Jordan has arranged for Matt to be taken to Studio 60 by the network’s head of public relations Shelly Green (Wendy Phillips), but he refuses to go in, probably out of fear of running into Harriet. Meanwhile Jordan is meeting with Matt at the hotel where the Writers Guild Awards were being held. He’s just finishing watching the video of Wes’s meltdown. Jordan offers Danny the opportunity to take over the show. Danny immediately says no and adds that he’s uneasy even talking about this without Wes’s approval, which Jordan assures him that Wes is okay with this. Danny also informs Jordan that he and Matt are getting ready to do another movie, but Jordan knows differently. Thanks to an ex-boyfriend who works at a major insurance company and tells he things he shouldn’t in hopes of dropping the “ex” from “boyfriend” has let Jordan know that Danny has failed a drug test and can’t get a completion bond for the movie without 18 months of clean drug tests. Jordan needs him and Danny for two years, and is prepared to pay him more than he would make directing the movie…which he cant do for 18 months anyway. Danny wants to go see Matt before Jordan can tell him about the drug test, which he assumes is going to be her first move. She assures him that this information will stay between the two of them. Danny is doubtful. He tells Jordan, “I have no reason to trust you and every reason not to." When she asks why he says "You work in television."

Matt meets Danny outside of the studio and lets him know about the drug test and about Jordan’s offer. He wants Matt to do the movie without him, but Matt is determined to do it with Danny. He first suggests bonding Danny himself, except he’s basically broke. He suggests cutting corners, maybe shooting in Vancouver. Danny is adamant about that idea. According to him, "Vancouver doesn't look like anything. It doesn't even look like Vancouver. It looks like Boston California." Then Matt comes to the conclusion that the network is trying to blackmail Danny into taking the show. He runs into the building and finds Jordan, Jack and a number of other executives in Wes Mandel’s old office. Matt immediately accuses Jack of blackmailing Danny into taking the show. This is the first that Jack has heard of the drug test. Once that’s out of the way Jack asks Danny what he thought of Wes’s tirade. At first Danny gives a stock answer but Jack presses him about the content of what Wes said, and Danny says that it covered a lot of ground. Jack doesn’t take Danny’s answer very well and Danny storms out of the room.

Matt follows Danny, but stops outside where he gets a view of the stage. He goes back in and tell Jack that they’ll do it, and he’ll talk to Danny. Jack reminds Matt that he didn’t fire them, they quit. Matt says that it’s true but he knew which way the wind was blowing when the network slapped an American flag on the network bug, and suddenly his jokes weren’t so funny anymore. Jack responds that if he showed them the door it was their hero Wes who opened it. He then goes on to say that he trusts that Matt won’t say anything at the press conference on Monday that will embarrass the network. Matt responds angrily that it shouldn’t be too hard; if you pointed the camera at two people masturbating it would still be the least embarrassing thing on NBS.

Matt goes into the basement area of the theater where the dressing rooms are located. He’s looking for Danny but almost literally runs into Harriet, and we learn the real reason why they broke up. It wasn’t about her singing the anthem at the Dodger game, it was because while she was supportive while he was promoting his movie, he was absent when she was promoting her CD of spiritual songs. He responded that he was there for her right up to point where she put on a dress and sang for a bigot – that is she appeared on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club. She insists that she wasn’t singing for Robertson she was singing for; she was singing for Robertson’s audience, people who often had little except their faith. In spite of this she stood by the sketch that got cut, and the name of that sketch was “Crazy Christians.” Matt and Harriet come to the conclusion that they aren’t going to recover from this argument but they can work together.

Matt finds Danny sitting in one of the show’s sets, the back half of a taxi cab. First he tells Danny that they’re taking the show, then he finally asks Danny what happened. According to Danny, nothing happened it just happened, meaning that there was no real trigger. After eleven years of sobriety he just slipped. More to the point he asked why Danny didn’t tell him; when Matt screws up Danny knows, and not just because he reads about it in the papers but because Matt tells him. He also tells Danny that now that their doing the show only one of them can screw up at a time and they both know that most of the time it will be him so Danny has to have the big shoulders.

Jordan interrupts them as they leave the cab. She tells them that while they don’t know it yet, she’s going to be their dream come true. She gives Matt the script for the sketch that got cut. She thinks it’s inspired but she wants an expert opinion. He doesn’t need to read the script - he wrote it, four years ago just before he apparently quit. She already knew that, and tells Matt and Danny to lead with it next week. Danny asks Jordan how much leeway they’ll have in staffing and she tells him that there are a few people they have to keep, like the current writers and co-Executive Producers Ricky and Ron. Matt says he doesn’t want “Beevis and Hackboy,” but they’ve got a two year deal and the network isn’t going to eat their $30,000 per episode salary. As Jordan departs Danny sees Cal. He tells Cal that there are procedures that you follow because it’s live TV - they practice this stuff often enough – so he thinks that Cal deliberately let Wes go on for 53 seconds. Cal admits that he did and that the guys need to do what they need to do and no hard feelings. Danny immediately tells Cal that they need him to stay on. Just before they go out to meet the cast and announce what is happening to them Danny tells Matt, “We live here now.”

I want to mention three things in this episode, and I want to keep Wes’s meltdown for last. First is Jordan’s actions. As we find out in later episodes Jordan didn’t just put out the possibility that the guy from the insurance company would get back together with her, she slept with him. Now I’m not sure how much of this was due to Amanda Peet’s real life pregnancy and the need to provide an identity for the biological father (since clearly Jordan and Danny aren’t at that stage yet, though it seems apparent that the attraction was there from just about the start) but I’m not sure that that matters. What matters is that Jordan has basically prostituted herself to get the information on Danny, using her sexuality to acquire a reward. And that leads to the question of why she did this. Clearly she didn’t know that Wes was going to go into a 53 second tirade on the state of television – at least I don’t think she did. So essentially this woman has this information and it has a time limit to it; in 18 months (and probably a lot less) it loses any value. So she must have some reason for taking this rather extreme action, having sex with a man she really didn’t care about except as a source of information. Is it a question of having knowledge for knowledge’s sake? Does she have another show for them? I don’t really think so. What other project would be worth it for her or  for them? No, what I think is that Jordan intended to ease Wes out of the show and replace him with Matt and Danny, sooner rather than later. Circumstances forced her hand but she’s too much of a player in this world not to have a reason for her actions.
The second thing – or rather person – I want to look at is Steven Weber who played Jack Rudolph. I always like it and am usually impressed when an actor that I associate primarily with comedy does drama and does it well. Most of my exposure to Steven Weber comes from seeing him in Wings, a show that I admittedly didn’t watch much. Watching Weber as Jack Rudolph is one of those great things, in much the same way that watching Matthew Perry in the handful of episodes he did on The West Wing was something of a revelation. Jack initially appears to be the show’s bad guy, the network executive that Matt and Danny and even Jordan are battling to revive Studio 60, but in later episodes it becomes increasingly clear that he’s not entirely the bad guy. He has to see the whole picture of which Studio 60 – our little corner of the network world – is just a small component. Arguably even Jordan’s part of network operations, the entertainment division, is a small component. Jack is someone who picks his fight. I can’t help but think of him as a “smiling cobra” type (the nickname given to James Aubrey who was the head of CBS TV in the early 1960s).
The way that Weber plays Jack is interesting to me and feels about right. He maintains a certain air of arrogance and is all business. It’s in the words of course but it’s also in the little things. When he and Jordan leave the boardroom and Jordan tells him that she doesn’t know where her office is his reaction is just a quick sucking sound through his teeth. It is the absolute perfect reaction, it says in an instant what you couldn’t say in ten seconds of dialog and it says it all about Jack. Jack almost never lets his vulnerability show. He owns any room that he’s in. Where it becomes scary/interesting is when he’s placed in a circumstance where he’s out of his environment as we see in the two Nevada Day episodes. When he’s facing John Goodman as the judge in Pahrump he yells and blusters and it’s at least in part because he’s in a situation where not only is he not the most important man in the room but he’s really powerless to affect the situation in any way.
So now we have to turn to Wes’s burnout moment. Here’s his speech, as taken from one of the TV sites (I’m cutting the stage direction – you’ll know where they fit):
It's not going to be a very good show tonight…. I think you should change the channel, change the channel right now or better yet turn off the TV, ok? No, no, I know it seems like this is supposed to be funny, but, uh, tomorrow, tomorrow you're gonna find out that it wasn't and by that time I'll have been fired…. No, this is not a sketch. This show used to be cutting edge political and social satire, but it's gotten lobotomized by a candy ass broadcast network, hellbent on doing absolutely nothing that might just challenge their audience. We're about to do a sketch that you've seen already about 500 times. Yeah, yeah, no one's gonna confuse George Bush and George Plimpton, now we get it. We're all being lobotomized by this country's most influential industry. It's just thrown in the towel on any endeavor to do anything that doesn't include the courting of 12 year-old boys. Not even the smart 12 year-olds, the stupid ones, the idiots. Which there are plenty thanks in no small measure to this network. So why don't you just, change the channel? Turn off the TVs do it right now…. The struggle between art and commerce. Well, there's always been a struggle between art and commerce and now I'm telling you art is getting it's ass kicked and it's making us mean and it's making us bitchy. It's making us cheap punks. That's not who we are! People are having contests to see how much they can be like Donald Trump…. We're eating worms for money. "Who wants to screw my sister?" Guys are getting killed in a war that's got theme music and a logo. That remote in your hand is a crack pipe. Oh yeah every once in a while we pretend to be appalled …. Pornographers! It's not even good pornography. They're just this side of snuff films, and friends that's what's next because that's all that's left. And the two things that make them scared gutless are the FCC and every psycho religious cult that gets positively horny at the very mention of a boycott. These are the people they're afraid of. This prissy, feckless, off-the-charts, greed-filled, whorehouse of a network. And you're watching this thoroughly unpatriotic mother-

The rant reads well, but when delivered by Judd Hirsch it really sings to the point that as the show went on, people (smartasses commenting on various blogs really) were harkening back to when the show was good… when Wes was on. It’s a really stupid statement of course. Wes Mandel was a beaten man. He was the reason why the fictional Studio 60 had slid the  way that it did. He compromised years before when Matt and Danny were forced out and from there on it was nothing but compromises – letting Ricky and Ron pretty much write the show despite their obvious lack of ability on that front, giving in to Standards and Practices without a real fight. Jerry had it right when he said that if he had the muscle left to put the sketch on he wouldn’t have asked. Wes had lost the war and his rant was a final kamikaze attack aimed at exposing all the problems with network TV. As to what it accomplished, well that’s harder to figure out beyond accelerating Jordan’s plan.

But of course this isn’t a real ad libbed rant delivered on the spur of the moment by someone who has finally reached his breaking point. It is the very least a plot device to create dramatic interest and to create the situation where these people who were insiders and are now outsiders are brought in. In comic book terms, this whole episode is an origin story and in a good origin story you need a reason why the hero or heroes gain their powers – in this case the power to run the show. That being said I think that Sorkin used Wes’s meltdown as a way to express his own disgust at the direction that TV is going down, and on the whole I think he’s absolutely right. Network television – and I think to that you can add a many of the basic cable networks – has largely given up on the new and innovative. They’re playing it safe to gain and hold the largest portion of the 18-49 demographic. They don’t innovative shows that challenge the established norm because they feel it won’t attract that mass audience. Even if you don’t consider the protests by organizations like the Parents Television Council (“every psycho religious cult that gets positively horny at the very mention of a boycott”) a show like that first season of NYPD Blue wouldn’t be made today – with or without the nudity – and neither would the original Defenders or a St. Elsewhere. And when you add in organizations like the PTC that demands that every show – not every show in the mythological “Family Hour” or in the first two hours of Prime Time, but every show – has to be fit for the children and the dumb children at that (dumbness being defined as the kids who do and say everything that they see and hear on TV; where the influence of the parents is less than the influence of a box of electronics) well then Mandel, and that really means Sorkin who put the words in Wes’s mouth, was right about things being lobotomized.

Of course I could be wrong about all of this.

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