Tuesday, October 12, 2010

50 Different Ways to criticize a show + Me: Studio 60

I recently came across a great article in the Los Angeles Times about three years ago concerning the sharp and rather open criticism the comic community was throwing at TV show "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" (2006 to 2007).

If you've ever seen this TV show that detailed the backstage workings of a fictional version of Saturday Night Live, it was simultaneously one of the best and worst things you've ever seen. The acting was impassioned and there was a palpable drama to it but there were a number of jarring problems with the show as well. It was such a delight to know that people shared the same level of frustration with me at watching this show three years ago. Considering TV critics were in the sack for it at the time and Aaron Sorkin continues to have a career in Hollywood (he wrote the biggest film of this past weekend: "The Social Network"), who'd have thought.

It appears that there was a tremendous amount of very creative Studio 60-hate when the show was on. There was a comedic sketch troupe in Los Angeles who would reenact the truly awful sketches within the show. There was also a live blog in which a rotating group of panelists would critique Studio 60 episode-by-episode and talk about why this show was not good. That I absolutely loved reading every single guest blogger's take either says something about the nature of criticism when done well or the power of that one show to invoke such a large volume of insighftful criticism.

I thought I'd add my own unique voice on why this particular show was such an abomination of TV. Here are five completely original reasons why I didn't like Studio 60:
1. The characters all sounded like the exact same person. That should be the first rule of screenwriting: Don't make every single character in the movie sound like yourself. They were all highly intelligent, impassioned and could easily quote various sources of knowledge which they would throw out in conversation as if they were constantly at the world's most pretentious cocktail party. More than anything else, I wanted to see the introduction of some character in a scene who had an IQ under 150 and just go "huh?" to whatever the other characters were saying.

The characters also had a terrible habit of going on tangents when they spoke, but what was even worse was that the other participant in the conversation would willfully follow them. Two executives would be walking down a hallway talking about how the ratings have taken a turn and all of a sudden one of them would talk about the critical concensus on Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gough. How many business executives would willingly want to hire people who all of a sudden start breaking out into tangents like that? Fortunately the guy who likes to start talking about Dutch filmmakers lucked out by being surrounded almost entirely by people who have the same problem as him, so they all willingly participate in each other's tangents.

2. The laugh track of a show that isn't funny-One of the biggest complaints was that the show-within-a-show wasn't funny. I completely agree. It is interesting to note that the real SNL used the same premise as one of Studio 60s sketches "Science Schmience" to pretty good effect in the Michael Phelps episode. The way that the show suddenly stops becoming realistic and/or entertaining lack of has been covered pretty excessively, but I'm going to add something new to the conversation: How about that obnoxious laugh track? To me, the most obnoxious thing a sitcom can do is to have more laughter than the show's humor merits. Everybody Loves Raymond, Will and Grace and The Cosby Show all dissapointed me on this level. They were funny shows at one point but oftentimes the audience was laughing just because Bill Cosby or Ray's mom entered a room and the audience was just familiar with how funny that character was. It was an unearned laugh.

An overused laugh track stings far worse here because the show was never even funny in the first place. It was excrutiating, however, in scenes set in dress rehearsals or the writer's room where the characters are cracking up at each other's jokes. Because the jokes aren't there, if the characters are laughing at those non-funny things then you stop beleiving that they are competenet.

3. The idea that Harriett Hayes' religion would be an issue for anyone beyond Matt Alvey. Two of the most universally agreed upon flaws of the show were that Sara Paulson was terribly miscast as the show's star comedienne and that the show practically turned itself into a dysfunctional romantic comedy with all the attention between Matthew Perry's Matt Alvey and Paulson's Harriet Hayes.

For reference purposes, Matt used to date Sara but it didn't work out because they had religious differences and they are now awkwardly working together.

It was a pretty dysfunctional relationship which understandably might consume a lot of Matt's thoughts for a variety of reasons, but the show's flaw is assuming that anyone else would care about it. First of all, no one should care about Sara Paulson's Harriett Hayes because she was uninteresting, broody and not geared to be the star of a comedy show. But more to the point, the personal hang-ups that Matt has about Harriett shouldn't be an issue to other cast members (in an opening episode, a fellow cast member teases her for praying to God), the press or the show's viewing audience. The very idea that you could use a joke in a sketch (the episode where they did a Gilbert and Sullivan cold open) wish a verse of that song focusing on Harriett's religious beliefs is rediculous. What makes this worse is that Aaron Sorkin used his real-life break-up with actress Kristin Chenowith as inspiration for that plot so he basically thinks on both a show and a show-within-a-show level that his romantic hang-ups are something that a TV-viewing audience should know.

4. Nate Curddroy-There was a lot of talk about how obnoxious Harriet Hayes was but how about Nate Curddroy as Tom Jeter (he played another one of the actors on the show-within-a-show)? He was also not particularly funny on camera or off-camera either. At best, his comedic instincts might make him a somewhat decent character in a dramedy by Wes Anderson, Sophia Coppolla or Noah Bombauch.

Needless time was also consumed on a secondary romantic pairing between Tom and one of the show's writers that had no believable chemistry. Did the two have anything in common? Was there any reason for the writer to ask him out other than that he was the same height as her or famous?

One of the most rediculous attempts the show ever made to try to imbue serious themes was an episode in which Tom's parents came to visit the set and they tried to link one of thse oft-used "Dealing with Daddy's Dissapointment" subplots in a context that didn't makes sense. The dad's all grouchy throughout the episode and it's revealed that he doesn't think much of his son because he's not in the military. Seriously. That's his dad's big thing. He finds the idea of someone not being in the military distasteful. He basically wants the U.S. to be Ancient Sparta where every single able-bodied man must fight.

5. How obnoxious is the nickname "Big Three"? Coming up with this nickname for the three cast members who are also members on the show-within-a-show was an effort by the show to explain to the audience why the producers and directors would spend so much time talking to and talking about just three of the SWIAS's seven character and neglect the other seven so heavily. It was because these guys were the core of the show? But honestly, what lazy journalistic outlet would come up with such a dumb generalized nickname and what do these three performers have in common? The only people who get nicknames on Saturday Night Live would be like "The Women of SNL" because they're all...you know..female or "The Lonely Island guys" because they were on the Lonely Island before. The "Big 3" is a weekend update anchor and two disparate performers. Plus it assumes the show is that important with such a catch-all nickname.

On another note, please oblige me by checking out my columns

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