I recently saw some episodes of Aaron Sorkin’s SPORTSNIGHT for the first time.Â It’s a behind-the-scenes look at a sports tv show, as THE WEST WING is behind-the-scenes at the White House.Â It never got primetime air here in Britain, but I found by accident the other week that it’s being shown sporadically on some tiny cable channel no-one ever watches at some dismal time in the early morning.
SPORTSNIGHT was Sorkin’s first tv show, before THE WEST WING, and only lasted one season.Â It’s not hard to see why.Â For one thing, it has the most bizarre laugh track I’ve ever heard.Â Most of the time it’s silent — just catching one act of an episode, you’d be forgiven for thinking it didn’t have a laugh track at all.Â And that’s fine.Â I hate laugh tracks.Â But every now and then, you hear a weak sprinkle of half-hearted laughter, a chuckle here and there.Â And you realise that the tape’s being shown to an audience, and their reaction is unsweetened.Â That people are reacting to a comedy show and they don’t think it’s funny.Â (Also,Â the cast is grating as all hell.)
Which brings us to STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP, NBC’s great white hope from Sorkin and director/producer Tommy Schlamme, the SPORTSNIGHT/WEST WING team.Â About, strangely enough, a behind-the-scenes look at a comedy show that isn’t funny, and the two guys strongarmed into saving it.
From an ungenerous perspective, the two guys are in fact Aaron Sorkin — the flaky writer, and the drug-challenged showrunner.Â
Sorkin was supposed to be directing a historical film, a year or two back.Â That kind of faded away.Â (Now, apparently, to be a stage play produced by Steven Spielberg.)Â The drug-challenged showrunner is also a director, who had to give up his historical film due to failing a drugs test.Â Sorkin’s liking for the smoke and the crack is well known, the poor bastard.Â The flaky writer is recovering from back surgery, a procedure Sorkin’s had, and can’t hold the best relationship in his life together.Â Thankfully, we don’t know the details of Sorkin’s own divorce.
The apparent two halves of Sorkin are the best two casting decisions — the underrated, unstretched Matthew Perry and the fine Brad Whitford.Â That’s the best of it.
The Perry character’s ex, a lead on said comedy show, is Sarah Paulson.Â As Miss Isringhausen on DEADWOOD, it was okay that she radiated The Crazy.Â On STUDIO 60, she also radiates The Crazy, brittle and loopy.Â There’s supposed to be a bit of an ethical ballet here — her character, Harriet Hayes, does something that the Perry character finds indefensible.Â She can mount what many people will consider a perfectly good defense for it.Â But she radiates The Crazy, so I don’t care if she told him little girls would be clubbed like seals if she didn’t do what she did.Â She’s fucking crazy.
Also, Wikipedia passes on the slightly creepy tag: “Hayes is reportedly based on West Wing alumna Kristin Chenoweth, whom Sorkin once dated.”
Amanda Peet, as new network head Jordan McDeere, is just from fucking Mars.Â All of her acting choices are just downright weird; she seems like she’s coming in from a completely different angle than anyone else, stiff and mannered and wide-eyed and strangely slowed-down and nowhere near the actress she actually is.Â I have no idea what’s going on there, and the writers, producers and directors I know who’ve seen STUDIO 60 all agree she’s a really jarring, odd presence in the show.Â Steven Weber’s turn as Evil Superior is just missing a moustache for him to twirl.Â Â He seems to be enjoying himself immensely, and that’s fine in the few moments he’s jousting with the expansive Perry, but the caricature looks too broad compared to most everyone else on screen.Â He and Peet, particularly, seem to be in two different shows.
There’s a couple of cameos of note.Â Judd Hirsch, of course, blows everyone away as the producer of the show who torches his career making a rant about mediocrity straight to live camera, and Ed Asner turns in one of his enjoyably toadlike performances in his favourite style of small role — he’s spoken of seeing a tradition in “liberal” actors playing evil capitalist bastards, and he’s very good at it.Â
The pilot differs from the scripts I saw only insofar as scenes and bits are chopped out of it.Â Sorkin notoriously overwrites — I’ve spoken before of the stories of WEST WING actors having to speak faster to get all the pages in — but here he’s had to take elbows and knees off the beast to get inside the runtime.Â DL Hughley and the uniquely punchable-looking Nate Corddry get most of their lines left in the editing room, and Evan Handler and Carlos Jacott as the unfireable hack co-producers get reduced to two three-second glimpses.Â Some of the severed lumps were kind of useful to the show, and it’s a shame to see them go.Â But what’s left is sleek liquid machinery.Â It’s just a perfectly weighted piece of writing.
As it ought to be, since the front half is an acknowledged riff on Paddy Chayefsky’s NETWORK, which remains one of the most stunning pieces of writing ever dropped on Hollywood.Â The Judd Hirsch rant that kicks off the show isn’t Peter Finch’s rant — it was the one trapped inside William Holden, who saw his friend turned into a lunatic and his lover turned into a robot by the sheer ruthless fucking mediocrity of American network television.
Not that NETWORK was half as slick a piece of work as this.Â STUDIO 60 has been panel-beaten until it’s all gentle shiny curves, easing you past the NETWORK debt by not only explicitly referencing it a dozen times but cracking off a gag about the multiple references.
To be continued.Â Have to go to dinner.