Tuesday, June 28, 2011


I decided that I wanted to redesign my blog a bit. Quite frankly I was getting a little sick of the white on black look and I wanted to spark it up a bit in much the same way that my friend Ivan Shreve has done with Thrilling Days Of Yesterday. I’m not sure that I’m quite where I want to be with it yet, so consider the sand coloured background and the “Indian Head” Test Pattern design feature (I assure you, it is the “Indian Head” Test Pattern that so many of us boomers would start the day with) and all the rest as permanently temporary features until I come up with some better ideas. Right now I kind of like it.

This Expedition (Not Race) Is Impossible (Not Amazing)

Expedition ImpossibleA few days ago I wrote a post about the new ABC series Expedition Impossible: Kingdom of Morocco. The network had released a “sneak peak” video which was supposed to be embeddable. I had watched that sneak peak and to be very honest was very enthusiastic about what I was seeing. My one big concern was whether the rest of the show would live up to that first fifteen minutes. If the commenter at the Television Without Pity forums are to be believed, it was a boring Amazing Race rip-off, lightened only by a couple of comments by local Berber tribesmen.

Me? I liked it. So I guess that puts me in a minority position.

Expedition Impossible features thirteen teams of three individuals with a pre-existing relationship, and a first prize of $150,000 and three Ford Explorers. Series Producer Mark Burnett has stated that the prize was set so low to encourage teams who were in it for the adventure rather than for the money. The race will consist of ten stages with one team being eliminated at the end of each stage. So in that way at least it does sound like The Amazing Race. On the other hand Expedition Impossible doesn’t go around the world; it doesn’t even go outside of one country. In a way it is a lot more like Burnett’s original reality series, Eco-Challenge. In Eco-Challenge teams of four raced over a 300 mile course, but without set rest stops. Teams weren’t eliminated they either completed the course or dropped out.

Expedition Impossible takes elements from both shows but does it in some interesting ways. There are stages in Expedition Impossible, and at the end of each stage a team is eliminated. There are checkpoints and challenges, but for the most part the challenges follow fairly well out of what the teams are doing in the stage. The biggest thing of all of course is that the challenges are not the dominant aspect of the stages. In a lot of stages of The Amazing Race – a show which I love with a hot burning passion as just about everyone who knows me understands – the challenges dominate while the travel may have an impact but it isn’t expressly designed to. Position may depend on whether or not you can drive a stick shift or whether your cab driver knows where you want him to go (some of the best/worst incidents on The Amazing Race have been Racers dealing with cab drivers, including one incident where a contestant was nearly arrested in Kenya) but accomplishing challenges is the bigger deal. In Expedition Impossible getting there isn’t half the “fun,” it’s all the “fun.”

The first episode begins with thirteen white Ford Explorers driving across the Sahara desert while Berber horsemen ride along with them. The thirteen teams are:

- The California Girls: three women who met while attending UC Davis
- The Cops: three male police officers from suburban Boston
- The Country Boys: three boyhood friends from Mississippi
- The Fab 3: a brother and sister and the brother’s ex-boyfriend who all live together
- The Fishermen: two brothers and a cousin from Gloucester Massachusetts
- The Football Players: the former pro football players who first met while playing at San Diego State
- Grandpa’s Warriors: three generations of a family from central Illinois,father son and granddaughter
- The Gypsies: three self-described free spirited nomadic adventurers
- Latin Persuasion: three Latina women who are friends and co-wrokers
- Mom’s Army: a mother and her two daughters, both of whom have served in the US Army
- New York Firemen: three New York firefighters who all grew up in the same neighbourhood
- No Limits: three friends from Colorado, one of whom (Erik) is blind
- Team Kansas: Three sisters who were born in Kansas though one now lives in Houston Texas

The racers leave their cars and line up before show host Dave Salmoni who is a Canadian born wildlife expert who has hosted TV series for Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. He tells them that they are running the race in this area with the blessing of the local Berber Tribesmen and give a basic introduction to the contest. He also tells them a traditional Berber saying: “Choose your companions before you choose the road.” Good advice, because the contestants on this show are going to have to depend on their teammates, and possibly on other teams in order to complete every stage. Moreover, if one team member quits that team is automatically eliminated. With that he gives them their first task – to pass through a pair of flags and then find a camel camp where they’ll pick up their next instructions. The flags are on the top of a sand dune, Akbar, one of the football players, estimates that the sand dune is about four or five football fields high, so between 400 and 500 feet. Then at Dave’s signal the tribemen fire their rifles and the race has started.
The trip up the sand dune appears to be a trying one, although most teams follow the same route along the ridge of the dune to the flags. The lead alternates between the Fab 3, No Limits and the Gypsies. Trailing behind are the Country Boys and Latin Persuasion.part way up the dune one member of the Country Boys seems physically beaten and stops climbing. This is enough for the women of Latin Persuasion to pull past them. The Country Boys, who had been very disparaging towards the women from New York (CB1: “They look like a dance group.” CB2: “A damned ugly dance group.”) use this to try to motivate their colleague, and after the commercial it seems to have worked.

When the teams reach the Camel camp they receive their instructions. They have to select three camels from the handlers at the camp, load them with baskets to carry some firewood and other equipment, and take them to their next checkpoint, Lone Palm. The instructions say nothing about riding the camels although most of the teams try to do so. They soon discover something: camels are very ornery animals. In fact one of contestants say that instead of saying “stubborn as a mule,” people should say “stubborn as a camel.” For their part the camels aren’t exactly happy about being loaded or ridden by people whose main experience with the animals is seeing them in the zoo. A couple of people were kicked and several were thrown, with the local Berber tribesmen hired to control the camels until the teams arrived looking on knowingly and occasionally shaking their heads in disbelief. Some teams had better experiences than others, and some teams opted to lead their camels  rather than have one or more members of their team riding them. The focus at the Camel Camp is on the leading teams – The Gypsies, the Football  Players Fab 3, and No Limits – and on the final three teams Country Boys, Grandpa’s Warriors and especially on Latin Persuasion, There is a lot of focus on the disputes between the three women of Latin Persuasion who seem to be fighting practically from the beginning. Their lack of teamwork is definitely having an impact on them.

The walk to Lone Palm Camp – about a mile and a half from the starting line but probably longer because there is a specific route laid out in the instructions which is not stated in Dave Salmoni’s narration – apparently takes a considerable time. When they get there they have an assigned task. They have to “find water the local way,” but there is no indication of what that way is, or apparently a local “Berber dude” to suggest how they should do it. They have to fill a glass jug with water which they will then use to water the camels. The first three teams to arrive are Fab 3, No Limits and the Football Players, and none of them has any ideas of where the water might be. One of the Football players thinks they can cut open the hump of a camel because of course that’s where they store their water. And this is from a guy with a college education! (Okay, admittedly there are different standards for football players, but still…) The players look around at the various things scattered around the area, including some buckets and the glass jugs they’re supposed to fill, and there’s no watter. Eventually one of the people of Fab 3 decides that the water must be under the sand, and starts digging. This is an idea which the Football Players ridicule: “there is no way you are going to find water under the sand in the Middle of the Sahara Desert.” However Fab 3 persevere and are joined by the Gypsies and No Limits who help to dig. Meanwhile the newly arrived Fisherman start digging their own hole. When the three teams stop digging to see where they are, they’re astonished to see their hole filling with water. They’re almost as astonished to find the Football Player helping themselves to the water they dug for. As a result the Football Players leave in second place behind Fab 3, with the Gypsies close behind. As other teams arrive they are able to use the holes that the other teams had dug which allowed them to reduce the gap between them.
Meanwhile the three members of Latin Persuasion continue to argue with the greatest antagonism being directed at Mai, who seems totally disinterested in doing anything except sitting on the camel and looking prissy. When they reach Lone Palm Camp her two teammates do all of the work while she just stands around watching. Their constant yelling leads to a captioned statement from one of the Berber tribesmen at the location: “I would never have these women for my wife.” Smart fellow. Eventually, when her two teammates stop yelling at her and work at persuading her to contribute more because they need her and if they all work together they can kick some ass in this, Mai comes around and tries to contribute.

Before leaving Lone Palm on foot the teams have to give the water in their jugs to the camels. Then they head of to Todra Mountain on foot. They have o climb the mountain, which in truth sounds harder than it actually is; there seems to be a recognizable path at least at the start. The teams have broken into three groups. The lead pack are Gypsies, Fab 3, Football Players and No limits, followed by Fishermen, Cops, New York Firemen, Team Kansas and California Girls in the middle, with Mom’s Army, Country Boys, Grandpa’s Warrior and Latin Persuasion in the final group about an hour behind. Interestingly the youngest participant in Grandpa’s Warriors considers herself to be the weakest member of her team, becoming increasingly exhausted as they go along. And the terrain worsens as they go along, as evidenced by the addition of safety ropes on the steeper portions of the route. Reaching the end of their climb they find that they now have to rappel down the equivalent of 30 stories to the bottom of the Todra Gorge. It is one of the highest rappels in northern Africa. Once all of the team members are at the bottom of the gorge they must follow the dry river bed to the center of Snake Valley and their next checkpoint. Most of the teams have never rappelled before. Several team members worried about this, particularly the female member of Fab 3, but most took it ins stride. One person who had a lot of difficulty was Akbar from the Football Players, who explained that he didn’t have a fear of heights, but rather a fear of going backwards down something that high. According to him, even Superman wouldn’t have done that rappel. It must have shocked him when Erik, the blind competitor on No Limits zipped past him. Of course Erik has had significant experience in mountain climbing, including climbing to the summit of Mount Everest. The person who has the biggest problem with the rappel is the mother from Mom’s Army. She’s never done anything like this before and she’s clearly outside of her comfort zone. She’s tentative and nervous and worried abut her arm strength. Still one of the members of Latin Persuasion thinks that she’s amazing for even trying this: “My mother would tell me to go to hell if I told her to do something like this.” By the time they finish the rappel Latin Persuasion are ahead of Grandpa’s Army by a few minutes.

When the teams had reached the check point at the center of Snake Valley they found the final task that would lead them to the end of the stage. They had to watch a Moroccan snake charming performance, and pay particular attention to the number of snakes that were used. Once they had what they believed to be the correct number of snakes they had to find a box with the corresponding number written on it. Inside that box would be a set of instructions. If they picked the right box they’d find the finish line for the stage about five miles away. If they picked a box that was wrong, they’d be directed on a half hour trek that would lead to a sign telling them that they’d gone the wrong way, and that they’d have to go back to the original checkpoint and recount the snakes. There are eleven snakes in the act. Of the first four teams, Gysies, Fab 3, and Football Players all say eleven, but No Limits see only ten (and as Erik says he sees no snakes – and as a result he has to trust his teammates because he can’t contradict them). As a result Gypsies finish the stage in first place, with Fab 3 in second and the Football players in third. Meanwhile No Limits find themselves mired in the middle group, As for the back of the pack it is coming down to a race between Latin Persuasion, who left the checkpoint in twelfth place and Grandpa’s Army who are in thirteenth. Night had fallen by the time that the fourth place team, Team Kansas reached the finish line. The next seven teams come in in what appears to be short order. All that are left are Latin Persuasion and Grandpa’s Army, and in typical reality show fashion no indication is given as to their relative position to each other. We see two sets of headlamps moving down the mountain towards the finish line, and shots of the two teams trying to move down the path, but there is no indication of who is in the lead. In one of these shots it appears as though one of the women from Latin Persuasion is throwing up. Certainly they feel as if they are shutting down. Finally a team emerges from the darkness at the finish line. It’s Grandpa’s Warriors. Somewhere on the mountain they passed Latin Persuasion who come in in thirteenth place and are eliminated. It’s late when they arrive, too late for them to be taken out so they stay in the camp with the rest of the teams. Then, as the rest of the teams watch them go, they are flown out the next morning.

As I’ve said, I Iike this show. I don’t like it more than I like The Amazing Race but I do like it differently, because quite honestly they are different shows. I find it difficult to react to the claims that this is just an Amazing Race knock-off. Yes, there are elements that are taken from The Amazing Race – the various checkpoints and the tasks that the teams have to perform at each stage of the respective events. But those are hardly original aspects of either show. They operate much the same as a road rally in which there are stages to compete and in some rallies assigned tasks to complete during a stage. And I think that Expedition Impossible addresses some of the problems that some people have complained about during most seasons of The Amazing Race. At least so far there have been no “bottleneck” points where all teams are suddenly placed on an equal footing because something hasn’t opened when they get there and I don’t think there will be. Admittedly allowing teams to use the work of others at the water hole challenge had a similar effect since the leading teams had to spend much more time figuring out how to get the water and actually digging the holes than the trailing teams who found the holes dug and full of water. Another aspect of the Amazing Race that people have traditionally complained about is the influence of third parties in the race, whether it is getting assistance from locals to accomplish tasks or to serve as guides, or it’s cab drivers who have no idea where they’re going.

A huge difference between The Amazing Race and Expedition Impossible is the amount of endurance that a given stage requires. One of the football players stated that this race is harder than playing football because football players don’t train for endurance. This was jumped on by a number of commenters in the various TV related blogs who claim that football coaches do train for endurance, but I think that there’s a difference between the sort of endurance that a football coach requires of his players and what is required in this sort of event. It’s not absolutely clear how many hours this first day of Expedition Impossible lasted for the leading teams, but the final teams to arrive came in well after dark, so it is fair to say that they were out there for a significant period of time. And for all of that time they are doing hard physical tasks, most of the time in temperatures of 100 degrees F or higher with little protection from the heat. During the climb of the sand dune they showed the temperature on at least three occasions; it went up from 95 to 110 during the time it took for the final team to reach the top. I don’t think there are too many football teams that train that sort of endurance. In all honesty these are not the sort of tasks or conditions that you regularly see on The Amazing Race.

The fact that I basically like the show should not be taken to mean that I find it without flaws. There are plenty of those, starting with Dave Salmoni. The camels in the first episode had more personality than he exhibited here, and while I understand that he works with wild animals on his Animal Planet show I never get the feeling from him that he could do what is being asked of the teams on the show. You see Phil Keoghan doing these things all the time on The Amazing Race. There’s no real indication of the passage of time during the episode. We really don’t know how long it took them to run that stage of the event. Was it four hours? Six hours? Twelve hours? If they spent the entire day running that course it is a far more significant endurance contest than if they took four or five. Another issue is the position of teams relative to each other. Mostly what we had was Salmoni telling us that this group of teams was out if front, this group was in the middle and then there was the back group. And of course, inevitably, there was a significant difference in the amount of coverage that teams received. We spent a lot of time with the Gypsies, Fab 3, No Limits and Football Player teams and with Latin Expression (and to a lesser extent with Grandpa’s Warrior) and virtually no time with teams like The Cops, or the California Girls. I suspect that this is a problem that inevitably shows up in this sort of programming – there isn’t time to focus on all of the teams so you focus on the leaders, the last place teams and the ones with the most interesting stories. Still I think that this show has done a worse job of this than other shows of this type have done in the past, including Burnett’s shows Survivor and Eco-Challenge.

Although there are weaknesses to Expedition Impossible, I generally like the show. It looks spectacular in High Def of course but I think we’ve reached a point where that isn’t a consideration. I’m impressed by the endurance aspects of the competition and that Burnett has deliberately sought out people who are in this for the adventure rather than to get a lot of money or use the show as some career boost. I think that a lot of the complaints that others have voiced will be addressed in later episodes if the first episode was a relatively easy stage and subsequent stages involve more difficult challenges.

I think that the show has tremendous potential if renewed; the next season could be set in a different country with different terrain. There’s room for improvement but people who don’t remember the first season or two of The Amazing Race don’t realize how much that show has evolved since it debuted. Given time I think that Expedition Impossible could evolve, learning the lessons of the first season. I don’t anticipate this series becoming a mainstay of the regular season the way that The Amazing Race has (and was planned to be) but I think that it has some potential as a regular summer series. I liked it and recommend it, if not whole-heartedly then at least with fewer reservations than other people have expressed.Or maybe I'm just glad to have something to watch that's not another dating show or talent competition.

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.

Monday, June 13, 2011

My Summer Project – Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip

One of the things that I promised myself that I would do to try to get back in the swing of writing again was a summer recap project. I want to recap a single season of a show that I’m particularly fond of, and it would help if the show ran a single season, and that I had the boxed DVD set. Well actually there are a couple of series that I would have broken one of those rules for. I was tempted to do the first season of Life even though I don’t have the second season (I’m too cheap to buy it at the local HMV and I haven’t seen it anywhere else), and I would love to do the seventh season of The Amazing Race, and would have except that I’ve lost two of the DVDs (I do have the complete first season, and maybe next year I’ll write it up).

Realistically though the only show that I really wanted to do was Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. There are several reasons why I want to write about the show, besides the fact that I didn’t at the time and regret it. First up, I know that it has gotten a bad reputation in the years since it left the air and I don’t think that it is entirely deserved. It is a poor effort by Aaron Sorkin, but the fact that people usually won’t acknowledge is that a poor show by Sorkin is generally better than most of the stuff that’s on TV today, and I think that’s true of Studio 60. Some people regard the show as a ratings bomb, and to a degree that’s true, but if you look at the NBC ratings for dramas in that time slot (or indeed any time on Mondays) since the show left the air, most have not performed as well as Studio 60. Certainly the show did well with DVR users, with the highest gain in viewership on the “live plus seven” ratings of any network show. According to the Nielsen ratings at the time, “Studio 60 adds nearly 11%, or almost a million viewers, to its total every week as a result of these ‘live plus seven’ viewers.” But ratings at the time only included those who watched the show as it aired. Today, ratings are based on “Live plus Same Day” viewing figures. And this is despite the fact that I think that the network reached a point where it treated the show worse than what you’d scrape off your shoe after a run through a dog park.

Two other reasons why I wanted to revisit Studio 60 are that I think that a lot of the criticism of the show that I can remember was more about what people wanted the show to be than about what it was, and that it provided more than a bit of insight into the big picture of TV. Those are tied together, and I think they’re more than a bit important. The critics, or maybe just those who wanted to watch a show about a show like Saturday Night Live wanted to see the comedy and when they did they found it wanting. and to a degree they’re right, but a lot of the show isn’t about the comedy, it’s about the making of the comedy and about the bigger picture of network politics and control. The show talked about issues that are coming to the fore today: “incidental indecency,” product placement, and the bi-coastal nature of the medium just to name three (there are more). It maybe “inside Baseball” to a lot of people but it’s the sort of stuff that I find interesting.

So let’s start looking at Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip.

Friday, June 10, 2011

James Arness - 1923-2011

Obit James ArnessHe was a big man. He stood 6’7” tall…on his left leg. His right leg was 5/8ths of an inch shorter, a result of his military service in Italy a few days after the landings at Anzio. He wore a lift in his right shoe to balance him out. James Arness was a big man, and the role he played in the early days of television was fittingly a big part.

James Arness was born James Aurness in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1923. Never a good student – he often skipped classes – he managed to graduate from high school in 1942. Rejected by the Army Air Force – he had wanted to be a fighter pilot but was five inches too tall – he worked at various menial jobs until being drafted in 1943 as an infantryman. Serving with the 3rd Infantry Division he was the first man off his landing craft during the Anzio landings because of his height; his commander thought that how high the water came on him would be a good gauge of the depth for the rest of the men – it came up to Arness’s waist. A few days later he was shot while serving as point man on a night patrol. He spent over a year in Army hospitals and was honorably discharged in January 1945. At the suggestion of his brother Peter (who would later act under the name Peter Graves) he enrolled in a radio announcing school and got a job as a disc jockey at a Minneapolis radio station. A few months later he quit that job and joined a friend on a trip to California.

In California, Arness made a variety of show business contacts and decided to use his GI Bill benefits to study acting at the Bliss-Hayden Theater’s little theater school. His first screen role was in the Lorretta Young film The Farmer’s Daughter as one of Young’s brothers. Other small film roles followed in such films as Battleground (directed by William Wellman and starring Van Johnson) and Wagon Master (directed by John Ford and starring Ward Bond, Harry Carey Jr. and Ben Johnson). He also appeared as the title character in The Thing From Another World, and as an FBI agent in Them. His big break came when he signed with John Wayne’s production company Batjac. They developed a close friendship and Arness co-starred with Wayne in four films – Big Jim McLain, Hondo, Island In The Sky, and The Sea Chase. And it was through John Wayne that Arness got the role that made him a legend – Matt Dillon.

While there is apparently no truth to the story that Wayne was approached to play the role of Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke, he was a vocal advocate for his protégé James Arness to get the part. Initially Arness was uncertain about taking the role. Like many actors of the time he worried that doing television would stall his film career. Nevertheless he took the part, and after getting an enthusiastic endorsement from Wayne, who filmed an introduction to the first episode of the show, he stayed with the show for twenty years, as well as five made for TV movies. Including the movies, he played the character of Matt Dillon in five decades; the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s for the series, and the 1980s and ‘90s for the movies. After Gunsmoke was cancelled in 1975 Arness appeared as Zeb Macahan on the ABC series How The West Was Won from 1976-78. His last series was McClain’s Law. The drama was something of a departure for Arness in that he was playing a modern role rather than appearing in a period piece. The series ran on NBC for sixteen episodes and was criticized for its violent content.

James Arness didn’t create the character of Matt Dillon. Beyond the shows creators, the elements of Mister Dillion’s character were really put into place by William Conrad who played the part on the radio show. Conrad had a tremendous voice that fit our collective image of the Western lawman. If you ever have the chance to hear Conrad playing Dillon on one of the radio episodes – and heaven knows there are a ton of podcasts that play episodes of the radio Gunsmoke on a regular or occasional basis – do it, setting aside what you know of how Conrad and Arness looked, and you’ll understand how perfect Conrad was for the part…on radio. The trouble is that Conrad, who had been a fighter pilot during World War II, was a big man who got bigger over the years. Although my good friend Ivan Shreve points out that Conrad looked a lot like real western lawmen of the period looked, his body type was not what we the audience expected out western heroes to look like. We wanted John Wayne in Stagecoach or Fort Apache rather than John Wayne as he would appear in True Grit. We wanted someone big and powerful who radiated power and masculinity. In other words we wanted James Arness. Arness created the visual image of Matt Dillon and in so doing created a visual template for the way that Western lawmen should appear, at least if they were the lead character in their shows.

And because Arness played the role of Matt Dillon for so long, he had the opportunity to get better with age in terms of fitting the role. It used to be a feminist talking point the while women got wrinkles, men got “character,” but in James Arness’s case it was true. As James Arness grew older he face grew craggier and became more interesting. He increasingly became the wind-blown and dried plainsman, tough as rawhide but with a kindly side that you saw in his eyes. I suppose that if anyone remembered the radio shows with Conrad’s voice they might say that as he aged, Arness looked more and more like Conrad sounded.

By most accounts Arness was a generous actor in terms of letting his co-stars carry episodes from time to time. While Gunsmoke had a very strong primary supporting cast for Arness – including Milburn Stone, Amanda Blake, Dennis Weaver, and Ken Curtis, as well as Burt Reynolds and Buck Taylor for shorter terms – the show could hardly be described as an ensemble show. Marshal Dillon was very much the most important character on the show, and there were indeed episodes where the supporting characters were seen only in cameo appearances. For Arness to allow himself to be put himself into that sort of situation, particularly early in the show’s existence, shows something about the man’s self-confidence and his willingness to let others have their time in the sun. Later these absences had a practical aspect to them. As he got older Arness’s war wounds were becoming increasingly stressed by the physical aspects of playing Marshal Dillon. By the end of the series Arness was having considerable difficulty mounting a horse, which is a definite liability when doing a Western series. Thus you had episodes that focused almost entirely on characters like Festus, Doc Adams, Miss Kitty or even Newly O’Brien (Buck Taylor), where Dillon would only appear sitting at table having a cup of coffee with other characters on the show.

In the wake of James Arness’s death there have been numerous comments in various blogs and in response to newspaper articles that spoke quite glowingly about him, and Gunsmoke, particularly the early seasons of the show which in the opinion of most commenters were the show’s best seasons. I won’t dispute that. I would however point out that Gunsmoke was a show that lasted twenty years on network television at a time when network TV was the only game in town and there were only three networks playing the game. It survived that long by adapting to the changing trends in the medium, and by responding to actions like the protests about violence in the media. The show evolved over time. But Matt Dillon didn’t evolve; he didn’t have to. The ideals that he stood for, upholding the law and making sure that the the weak were defended from the strong were valid throughout the show’s run. They may have been black & white concepts that wouldn’t necessarily be in keeping with the whole notion that things have to be looked at in a nearly infinite number of shades of grey, but for this show and this character they were the right ideals. In the end James Arness’s portrayal of Matt Dillon embodied these ideals.

In the end, James Arness and Matt Dillon were lucky to have found each other. It is impossible to imagine anyone else – including John Wayne – being able to fit into the role of Matt Dillon, and it is just as had to imagine Arness having the success that he did without being Matt Dillon. It was the perfect confluence of actor and part. James Arness was meant to be Matt Dillon and Matt Dillon wouldn’t have worked if he hadn’t been played by James Arness.

I’m including two clips of opening sequences from Gunsmoke here. The first is from 1964 (based on the clip for the next episode), and the second is from the period after the show was cancelled in 1967. The first title sequence is the classic “the bad guy shot first but Matt shot best” opening, while the second version is the only one that I could find of the “Matt racing his horse across the prairie” opening that turns into the insets of the actors along the Main Street of Dodge City. The riding sequence was reportedly shot on the day that the cast found out that the show had been cancelled. Reportedly they were shooting a scene where Matt was riding across the prairie and he just let go in and rode his horse hard as a sort of catharsis and the director decided to keep the cameras rolling.