Okay, so, we know what STUDIO 60’s pilot deals with. But what’s the show about? Someone in the pilot says, in fact, “let’s talk about what we’re talking about.” Good idea.
Sorkin himself calls it “a valentine to television,” and talks about his love for the form: basically, his love for the idea that he can mount a play that several million people will watch (roughly) all at once. Which is of a piece with the late British TV writer Dennis Potter’s notion of television as “common culture.” The idea that television speaks to us all, and becomes part of the ongoing human conversation.
I’m cheating a little there. Potter was talking about the death of television as common culture when I heard him use the term. It came both from a deeply held conviction that art is part of public service broadcasting, and that public service broadcasting allowed writers to speak in art to the masses. His vision of vocation as television writer isn’t a million miles away from Umberto Eco’s view of the intellectual role in Italy: in both cases, it is that the engaged intellectual should be compelled to report to the people. Eco wrote in newspapers, and Potter wrote in television. What Potter was bemoaning — and by Christ that man could moan — was, in those pre-Web days, a common culture fractured by VHS, early timeshift tv, and the beginnings of satellite and cable service. Which was, of course, funded by advertising. And populist programming sells the most advertising. The small-s socialist, Reithian dream of, at the very least, middle-brow broadcasting discussed in offices and shops and schools the next day pretty much went away.
Potter said, in 1993, the year before he died: “Thirty years ago, under the personal pressures of whatever guilt, whatever shame and whatever remaining shard of idealism, I found or I made up what I may unwisely have termed a sense of Vocation. I have it still. It was born, of course, from the already aborted dream of a common culture, which has long since been zapped into glistening fragments by those who are now the real if not always recognised Occupying Powers of our culture.”
And who are those occupying powers? Judd Hirsch’s rant at the top of STUDIO 60 1.01:
“We’re all being lobotomized by the country’s most influential industry which has thrown in the towel on any endeavor that does not include the courting of 12-year-old boys. And not event the smart 12-year-olds, the stupid ones, the idiots, of which there are plenty thanks in no small part to this network.
“…there’s always been a struggle between art and commerce, but now I’m telling you art is getting its ass kicked, and it’s making us mean, and it’s making us bitchy, and it’s making us cheap punks and that’s not who we are. …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…
“…and it’s not even good pornography. They’re just this side of snuff films, and friends, that’s what’s next ’cause 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 you’re watching. This thoroughly unpatriotic– ”
A valentine to television.
(And you can shove patriotism, pro or con, right up your arse there, son.)
Sorkin, being American, doesn’t even have the tarnished beacon of the BBC to look up to. PBS is an organisation to be protected and cherished, but it’s not remotely the same thing. He has to be talking about network TV. Now, I’m not American. Nielsen ratings are just gibberish to me. DOCTOR WHO averages out at something like 8 million viewers when it’s on, and it’s probably the closest thing we have to “common culture” in televisual terms now. I think WEST WING topped out around 16 million viewers, but I could very easily be wrong on that score. LAW AND ORDER got better ratings. And, of course, so did shows about eating worms, fucking your sister, and the like.
And that, I suspect, is what he’s talking about. If there’s a common culture in terms of American television, it’s Troy Aitken singing an Elton John monstrosity and then coming in your mouth. Or, pace Sorkin, the mouth of a dumb 12-year-old. There’s an image for you.
STUDIO 60 therefore becomes in large part the story of two people so gifted they were fired by said whorehouse network four years earlier, coming back to elevate a tired satire show to the point where it becomes common culture. Where it asks questions of many millions of people, and has them discussing those questions in their lives.
It is not my understanding that the American show SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE was always as good as the sketch where Dan Ackroyd’s Nixon and John Belushi’s Kissinger. In fact, my understanding is that over the last five hundred years or so of its run it’s mostly been Chevy Chase falling over and Will Ferrell hitting a fucking cowbell. But, as I say, I’m not American. If it was ever as savagely impassioned as SPITTING IMAGE, well, no-one ever told me.
In fact… correct me if I’m wrong here, but isn’t most American network tv just shit? Or did you want to go out and take a bullet for THE GHOST WHISPERER? The BBC has the license fee to fund questioning work, and it receives the money regardless of whether anyone likes it or not. It doesn’t have to pander to advertisers. American network tv, however, is entirely driven by ads. If a show doesn’t get enough eyeballs in front of enough ads, it’s cancelled. There are many, many good reasons why American network tv is mostly… well, it’s not all WEST WING, is it?
In order to write his valentine, then, and make his case, he has to elevate the American televisual form into something it never was. (Unless you buy American cable, in which case you have access to some of the finest literary television ever made.) If he’s going to imagine an American show that says something worth listening to using social satire and thereby clawing back the high ground of public broadcasting, then we really do have the same themes as WEST WING back in play: a paean to public service that can only be told by idealising the work and workers of government.
Which he wrung some terrific stories out of. Which is all that matters in the end. What interests me is that Sorkin’s working in a country that takes its television a hell of a lot more seriously than it takes its government. He could catch a lot of flak if he really goes after his theme. And plopping in Harriet Hayes, the WEST WING/Ainsley Hayes (hey!) character there to remind us that middle America is full of good honest downhome sensible conservatives and non-insane people of faith (“Invisible Space Daddy says I should hug you, infidel”), as a shield against knee-jerk rightist criticism just isn’t going to soak it all up.
I’ll be watching STUDIO 60 because Sorkin can write very well, even though the eventual produced pilot is a little slicker than I’d like. The thing that’ll keep me watching is whether or not Sorkin strips the thorns off the rose before he proffers it as his Valentine gift to television.
This literally just in from a breaking media news service I subscribe to: “A Universal McCann online survey polling both regular and non-regular viewers of the CBS reality series Survivor shows that despite all the controversy surrounding this season’s format of dividing teams by race, only 17 percent of the show’s regular viewers say they were “personally offended” by the series’ new twist.”