Category Archives: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Words and Pictures: Emmy Writing and Directing Contenders (Drama)

Every year, writers and directors kind of get the short straw, if you will, when it comes to Emmy night. In the past, these categories have served as catch alls for the Academy to recognize series that aren’t getting the same level of attention at higher levels. Two years ago, House won for Best Writing in a Drama Series while Lost swept Directing/Drama Series; last year, My Name is Earl won writing and directing despite being otherwise shut out. This year, these categories will be yet another chance for shows to be recognized.

Today, I want to highlight five drama episodes in both directing and in writing that, I believe, should be recognized by the Academy and its voters this year.

Oustanding Writing in a Drama Series 

Lost“Through the Looking Glass” (Writers: Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse)

Taking over as full-time co-showrunners, Lindelof and Cuse were behind some great episodes this season. Nothing, however, lives up to this beautifully plotted and mind-bending finale that incorporates action, drama, romance and of course the season-ending twist that was eloquently foreshadowed throughout. It’s a great piece of script work, and deserves to be considered for an Emmy award.

Lost“Expose” (Writers: Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz)

This is perhaps a surprising choice, as the episode was quite divisive. However, in terms of single episodes, this was a wondrous throwback to Twilight Zone storytelling with an amazing slow reveal to the buried alive conclusion. It was a tragedy and a morality tale all wrapped in one, and I think it was an achievement that the writing came together in such a sharp fashion on what could have been (And may have been, for some) a complete disaster.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip“Pilot” (Writer: Aaron Sorkin)

Say what you will about what the series became over the span of its twenty-two episodes, but this pilot is still a fast-paced rollercoaster that does a brilliant job of setting up a series with a lot of potential. It’s contrived, but so is just about everything else on television: Sorkin’s work on the pilot was his best in the series, and I think it is the show’s only chance at garnering a nomination. And, well, it kind of deserves it.

Heroes “Company Man” (Writer: Bryan Fuller)

Rumour has it that Tim Kring might have a better chance with the series’ pilot, and if that is nominated but Company Man is not I will personally hunt down Bryan Fuller and apologize to him on behalf of the Academy. The single best piece of writing to come out of the series if not the season, Company Man shined a magnifying glass on the world of Heroes to find stories, people, development and subtle qualities I didn’t know the show had. Fuller elevated the material, without a doubt, and deserves recognition for the amazing achievement.

Battlestar Galactica“Occupation / Precipice” (Writer: Ronald D. Moore)

As the show’s third season began, BSG turned into a post-colonial study of people being oppressed, and their only hope losing hope that they could do something about it. Having flashed forward over a year, Moore had a lot of pieces to pick up and did it well. The introduction of the resistance and its plight was real, relevant to today’s politics, and felt like the series was finding a new ground. It is almost unfortunate that they left New Caprica so soon, because the material to be mined there was very solid. And Moore knew it.

Oustanding Direction in a Drama Series

Friday Night Lights“Pilot” (Director: Peter Berg)

Some people are turned off by the show’s handheld style, but without it I think this pilot may have been just a pedestrian football drama. So much of the show’s heart comes from our intimate location during both the football games and conversations: being able to capture that allowed his characters to grow, and Berg’s touch made sure that happened.

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Filed under Award Shows, Dexter, Emmy Awards, Friday Night Lights, Heroes, Lost, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Television

How Aaron Sorkin Ruined ‘Studio 60’ – Part Two: Comic and Dramatic Execution

I had said before that I would be discussing Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip in comparison to 30 Rock, and I will be…but not to the extent I was before. I didn’t want this to turn this into a question of whether 30 Rock or Studio 60 is the better series, because I really don’t think that there’s a challenge there. What I want to take a look at is how each show took their initial premise and turned it into a series that combines comedy and drama, because their pilots are more or less entirely the same concept. Revered sketch comedy series faces creative problems and network pressure, and in that state of upheaval they must pull themselves together. I attempted to consider this piece as a competition between them, but I’ll just make this simple statement: Tina Fey got it right, and Aaron Sorkin got it wrong.

The Comedy

I know that Sorkin isn’t a comedy writer…but why the hell does he even try, then? He is great at writing short little quips (And there’s some great ones), but he isn’t capable of writing capable sketch comedy if his life depended on it. And yet, for some reason, it’s basically the way they’ve injected comedy into the show’s format since its pilot. While the pilot showcased some very funny stuff from funny people, I am entirely convinced that none of the characters themselves are capable of telling a joke: in fact, that was even a plot point for Harriet! Sorkin should have left the sketch comedy alone and let these characters define their own comic style. By relegating the comedy into sketch comedy format, even Matt and Danny have been unable to define themselves as something other than comedy writers. I’d say that only Jack, untainted by the show within a show, remains funny out of the show’s regular cast.

While the show may not be a drama, it is inherent that it be at least a little bit funny for its premise (A comedy show’s cast) makes a lick of sense. Sorkin’s rapid fire dialogue is funny, yes, but often takes for granted the fact that the people saying it are funny. I believe that Sorkin’s decision to make these characters simple actors as opposed to people, when it comes to comedy, forces us to believe they’re funny without actually ever showing it to us. And that’s poor writing.

Smartly, 30 Rock made a distinct decision to pretty well ignore the sketch comedy itself outside of spot bits in certain episodes. The comic focus, therefore, switched to Tina’s neurotic behaviour, Tracy’s paranoia, Kenneth’s awesomeness, Jack’s awesomeness, Jenna’s awkwardness, etc. In other words, we found these characters funny not because they wrote or performed comedy, but because they were actually funny.

The Drama

Okay, this is going to take a while here. When Aaron Sorkin ran The West Wing, he was able to tackle enormously large issues thanks to his setting; by placing his characters smack dab in the middle of the world’s most powerful government, he had free reign to do whatever he wanted…and the result was a compelling drama that was varied and interesting and was willing to tackle things other shows didn’t dream of tackling.

And Studio 60 started on the right path: early season drama reflected exactly what it should have. Jordan was a great source of this drama, a young executive struggling to appear presentable (Whatever happened to that assistant of hers, she was intelligent and called Jordan on her bullshit). Jack was another great source, as his dealings with Macao were actually kind of interesting to see and added some level of depth to the proceedings. And, even the show within a show offered some perspective on ratings and cast drama. That setup, then, was combined with Matt/Harriet, with interpersonal conflict, with all of that jazz. It’s just like The West Wing: presidential drama takes center stage, Josh/Donna supports it.

However, after the show was clearly not coming back for a second season around midseason, Sorkin apparently decide to ignore all of this. Suddenly, Jordan became a hormonal mess who was in love with Danny of all people, and stopped being a network executive except when Sorkin wanted to have a reality TV rant. Matt/Harriet suddenly became the entire show, not even leaving room for poor Jack forced to sit back on the sidelines. Suddenly, this wasn’t a show about television, it was a show about two people who just won’t get over one another and a completely contrived relationship that has never, ever made sense.

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Filed under 30 Rock, NBC, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Television

How Aaron Sorkin Ruined ‘Studio 60’: Part One – Pilot Potential

[In this three part series, Cultural Learnings will investigate the fall of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, the much-buzzed about NBC drama that failed to find ratings traction and lost creative drive throughout the series.]

Part One: Pilot Potential

I LOVED the Studio 60 pilot, just downright loved it. I watched that thing four or five times in August of last year, fascinated by the dialogue and the camera movements. Sure, it was all stuff that Sorkin had done on the West Wing, but back then I was young and didn’t understand most of it. Now, with an understanding of it, the decisions Sorkin made all seemed to contribute to the development of a show that I would want to watch on a weekly basis. Looking back now, however, this pilot was an entirely misleading, unrepresentative portrayal of the universe Sorkin intended to create. And, in the weeks that followed, Aaron Sorkin ruined Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

The pilot established various elements that could have made for an incredibly interesting show; unfortunately, Aaron Sorkin found a way to drive every single one of them into the ground.

– Matt and Harriet’s history could provide dramatic and comic tension for the series.

Well, it could have, but instead Sorkin turned it into the only dramatic tension in the entire show. And their “Jesus vs. Not Jesus” arguments were always the same, always not that interesting, and always something we’d heard before. In the pilot, Matt and Harriet working together was something that was to be awkward and difficult; in the rest of the series it just seemed like two people bickering all the time. When the rest of the cast calls Harriet on the bullshit in something like episode 17, it was about 15 episodes too late.

– Danny’s drug problem could be a recurring focus of his character, and a source of conflict between him and Matt.

Except that they completely disappeared after week one, only to reappear at strange times like this week’s episode where he referenced being an alcoholic. A cocaine addiction isn’t something that should go away that easily, and Sorkin is basically admitting that it was only a contrivance to get him away from the movie pictures. Which, really, should have been his desire the entire time while producing the show, but apparently everyone has forgotten about that. And yet it’s MATT who ends up addicted to painkillers late in the season. Go Sorkin.

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Filed under NBC, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Television