Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


-- television -- you take romance, i'll take jello

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip - Report - New York Times By EDWARD WYATT January 18, 2007

Aaron Sorkin has a new pitch for all those viewers who did not fall in love last fall with “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” his behind-the scenes look at a late-night comedy show.

Try it as a romantic comedy.

When the show returns Monday with a two-month run of new episodes, “we happen to be falling into a period where there’s a lot of romantic comedy on the show,” Mr. Sorkin said Tuesday during a meeting with television journalists on the show’s set at the Warner Brothers studio in Burbank. “Hopefully that is going to bring some people who wouldn’t have otherwise been interested in the show,” he added. The emerging interoffice romances will revolve around several of the show’s main characters: Matt Albie, played by Matthew Perry, will rekindle his romance with Harriet Hayes, played by Sarah Paulson, while Bradley Whitford’s character, Danny Tripp, will disclose his relationship with his boss, Jordan McDeere, played by the obviously pregnant Amanda Peet....

...Oh, dear.

Oh, dear.

So basically, for the nonce, Sorkin is retooling Studio 60 to be an hour-long version of Sports Night. Which would be fine, if the romance landed or was believable ... but it isn't. It really really REALLY isn't.

Leave aside the fact that they've never given us any reason to believe that Harriet (played by Sarah Paulson) is the comedy genius actor that they keep telling us that she is. After all, that's not really relevant to the romance angle. Leave aside the fact, that, even in concept, most of the sketches they talk about sound either deadly dull, so insulting that they'd alienate even people who kind of agree with their viewpoint, or just plain not funny. (People, a commedia dell'arte sketch in this country will never ever EVER land. It requires too much background knowledge to ever be funny.) Leave aside the fact that, for the most part, the most interesting aspects of the show have involved Jack (Steven Weber) and the character played by Ed Asner -- and when the most interesting parts of a show about making a television show are about the business of making the show, you have some real issues.

Leave all that aside. Let's focus on our romantic couples, shall we? Let's shall.

In this corner we have Matt (Matthew Perry) and Harriet. Matt is running hot and cold, for no easily expressed reason, and Harriet is both confused and tired of it. It would be understandable if he were having qualms because he is, despite their past romantic history, her boss, and going after her is, as a matter of law and company personnel regulations, sexual harrassment. (It doesn't matter that he hasn't, and would never, threaten her job or force her to sleep with him. It matters that he's her boss, and that the company they both work for almost certainly have regulations in place that say, in effect, "The boss shall not engage in sexual or romantic conduct with any subordinate, forever and ever and always, on pain of immediate dismissal." After all, regardless of how voluntary it may be, if the relationship ends badly, the subordinate can always scream sexual harrassment and be believed in that situation.) However, aside from an early early qualm, none of that is coming into play.

What has periodically come into play, and what should be given more focus except that it would kill the romance, is that Matt has no respect for Harriet's beliefs. She's a very religious person, and he has nothing but contempt for her religion and the organizations for which she works. Whether or not that contempt is deserved is entirely beside the point; what it says is that he simply does not have any regard for her mind or her choices. (For the sake of sanity, we will ignore the fact that Matt was entirely willing to give a hefty chunk of change to an organization he loathes, purely to keep Luke from having a date with Harriet. We will also ignore the fact that apparently the idiot, in his quest for an organization opposed to pro-abstinence Catholics to which he could donate an equal amount of money, has never heard of Planned Parenthood or other well known educational organizations. We will even ignore the fact that Harriet herself doesn't like the organization giving her an award. If we don't ignore all that, our head will explode and we will wind up talking about ourselves in the third person plural ... yes. Well. Moving on.)

Harriet understandably seems to resent both Matt's lack of respect for her and the fact that he continually preaches at her. What has never been clearly articulated is what she sees in him, aside from the simple fact that he's attracted to her, that gets her past his lack of regard for her beliefs.

Studio 60 seems to be aiming for a Hepburn-style relationship with Matt and Harriet -- by which I mean either Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy or Hepburn and Cary Grant, take your pick. The idea is that it's going to be that sort of itch/scratch, push-me/pull-you relationship: screaming, fighting, snapping at each other and then suddenly they're kissing frantically and thinking to themselves, "Wait ...what just happened here?" The problem is that, in this relationship, they've taken the wrong tack. Lack of respect was, typically, an issue in the Hepburn/Tracy relationships, and those usually started with the audience understanding that the lack of respect was essentially due to lack of information, and showing how that lack of respect got rectified. Typically, one or the other of them got the information they needed to understand the other as much as they were going to, or the erring Hepburn would correct her ways as much as she was going to. (Well, this was the 40s and 50s, after all.) However, Matt and Harriet don't lack information about each other -- if anything, they know too much to make this relationship believable except as something purely physical -- and neither of them seems likely to change anything major about themselves. The Hepburn/Grant relationships were distinguished by the same lack of information leading to lack of respect -- corrected in the same way -- or by massive charm offensives, or by realizing that they'd always loved each other, despite everything. Studio 60 seems to be aiming for Philadelphia Story/High Society territory here; however, it's worth noting that it only worked in Philadelphia Story because a charming outsider (Jimmy Stewart) and a charmless outsider (whoever the guy Katharine Hepburn started out engaged to was) stood in stark contrast to what they'd had, and made them realize what they really wanted. That option isn't easily available here; the guy playing Luke is not Jimmy Stewart, and is barely seen besides, and there's no counterweight on Matt's side to make the balance apparent.

They can probably find some way to make that romance -- if nothing else, Matt Perry and Sarah Paulsen are good actors, and do seem to have some chemistry together -- but it's not at all clear that they should, and even if they do, it's not going to be terribly believable.

(2) Danny and Jordan:

This is the romance that makes you think that maybe Sorkin and Schlamme need to get themselves a clue. Because this simply cannot, does not and should not work.

Leave aside the fact that, in the last episode before the break, Danny's interest in Jordan came as, quite clearly, a complete surprise to her. Leave aside the fact that, again, it would be spectacularly inappropriate for either of them to pursue this, given their working relationship. (Actually, don't; we'll come back to this point later.) Leave aside the fact that, given the turmoil going on in Jordan's personal and professional lives, most of which Danny knows about, perhaps what she would like best at this point is a friend, which she thought she had. Leave aside the fact that having 48 people fax romantic recommendations to Jordan was, as she said, unprofessional, inappropriate, and utterly humiliating. Leave all that aside, for now.

The fact is, Jordan said NO. She did not want this relationship. (And this was either bad writing, or scenes trimmed for time: the audience should have seen Jordan reject his advances at least once before the confrontation at the end. As it stands, she says, "I told you no, three times," and all we can think is, "She did? Oh. Well, then. Ick. But ... she did?") She apparently said it clearly and repeatedly.

And Danny refused to accept it.

Now, to be sure, in any romantic comedy, there's some sort of obstacle for your romantic hero or heroine to get past. But ... it cannot be structured like this. On the business side, Jordan is Danny's boss. His fax blitz not only publicly embarrassed her within her industry, it brought his attentions into the office in a truly inappropriate way -- after all, her secretary receives and no doubt reads her faxes before she gets them. Moreover, she's now in a very awkward situation; she can't take what would be normally appropriate actions to end his interest -- such as writing him up or firing him -- without both exposing herself and the company to sexual harrassment charges, and damaging the show and her working relationship with Matt, who seems to be guiding the show fairly well as its head writer. On the personal side ... they took one character that we're supposed to like, who we've seen badgered and beleaguered by people that we know aren't really on her side (and threw another character at her from that angle in the bargain), and made her badgered and beleaguered by someone we thought was on her side. She had to plead for the simple right to be left alone, and that plea was rejected out of hand.

To be fair, I thought the scene at the end between Jordan and Danny was either misplayed or misdirected for the effect they wanted. For the sort of romantic comedy itch/scratch push-me/pull-you they needed, Jordan needed to be either tightly controlled and angry or flaming over-the-top furious, but tired and quiet was simply the wrong way for that to head to romance and comedy. And Danny needed to be angry back at her; that way the scene would have felt more like an argument between romantic equals. As it is, it feels like Danny has all the power in this relationship; he can keep annoying Jordan, and there's just not a lot she can do to make him stop.

I have a horrible feeling that Jordan will wind up calling in either Jack, both indirectly and as their ultimate supervisor, or Matt, as Danny's friend and coworker, to try to get someone to sit on Danny. Either one is going to be lethal to her character's credibility as someone who can run a network.

I don't know that romantic comedy could save Studio 60 from the morass that it's in right now. But it's certain that these romances, as they're currently being approached, really cant.

Sad thing is, the one thing that landed in Monday night's show was, of all things, the drama. The conflict between Simon and Darius felt very real, and mostly hit exactly right. The story with Jack and Wilson White kind of worked, in the sense that it's fun to watch Steven Weber and Ed Asner working together; there is the slight headscratching that businessman Jack has suddenly turned First Amendment warrior, and that Wilson White has suddenly turned into an old codger from the rather sharp person he was before, but it was still enjoyable to watch.

Posted by iain at 12:13 PM in category television