Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: The Friday Night Slaughter
Dave I. Bradey = Very Bad Idea.
I watch TV with the closed captioning on (my mother-in-law is deaf so my wife is used to it and besides, it's helping me learn how to read) so it was fairly easy picking up on the anagram.
What wasn't so easy was figuring out what purpose the Tim Batale plot device actually served...
One of the more... shall we say "aggressive" commentators criticized my last few reviews for not taking into account what the show was trying to achieve. I'm paraphrasing, but he said something to the effect that it's not just my personal bias that should be the foundation of the review, but rather how well the show fulfilled its goals. Also that I was stupid.
Now usually I take a critical comment and just forget about it (after denial, anger, bargaining, and depression) but this one kind of stuck with me. I think he made a good point, so I tried to think about what the goals of the show were tonight and how well it went about fulfilling them. These were my findings:
1. Matt is depressed. Did we feel for Matt? Yes, but I think it has less to do with the writing than it does with Matt Perry's excellent acting. If I were Perry's agent I would have this episode sent to the Emmy nomination people ASAP. (I would also advise Mr. Perry to consider some sort of bag-under-the-eye removal therapy.) He was phenomenal tonight.
I think for the first time since the beginning of the show I actually cared about Matt and Harriet. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't big time cared (like for the Superbowl and, to a lesser extent, my family and friends), but it was a start. Seeing just how busted up he was about the finality of their break-up went a long way for me.
I thought the drug thing was a bit over-the-top, though. I mean, his best friend is a recovering coke-fiend and his solution to get through the week is to pop pills? It seems out of character for Matt. It's something that you see a lot among people who are funny for a living (I'm a comic and I know more than a few people who use chemicals to help get the funny out), but it doesn't fit what we know about Matt.
I will say this, however, if all drug dealers were super-hot singer songwriters in their underwear, I'd probably have succumbed to reefer madness a long time ago. Did anyone else think that the scene with Valerie was... uh... rather oddly directed? I mean, it seems weird that Sorkin would have Jordan McDere call attention to the fact that the show-within-the-show was too boob oriented just a few minutes before the show itself made those boobs the focus of an entire scene. As a man, I'm not complaining. As a reviewer, they didn't fit. As a comic, I want to throw in a cheesy line after "they didn't fit"... literally! There we go.
Verdict: Goal accomplished (barely, mostly due to Perry).
2. The Friday Night Slaughter. For the first time in what feels like nine years, we return to seeing the inner workings of a TV show. In fact, the show opened with the wonderful Timothy Busfield (has my love of TB turned mancrush? Quite possibly) doing one of those fast-paced director in the booth of a live show things. I love that stuff. Honestly, they should have a channel devoted simply to a static camera in the back of a control room. Think about it, what would you rather watch, thirteen hours of boring speeches at the Oscars, or a guy having four heart-attacks backstage trying to film those boring speeches?
Also, we got to see the Friday Night Slaughter itself, with Tom and Dylan desperate to get their stuff on the air. It was good to see Dylan with a little ambition. After he refused Simon's seat on News 60, I thought the boy had no backbone! Actually, it was good just to see Dylan. For my money, he's owned every scene he's been in since day one. Definitely an under-utilized character. (Big Sketch!)
In the flashbacks, we got to see the writer's room as it was under Wes's regime. We're reminded just how many writers it takes to get a show like Studio 60 written and it again begs the question "Why hasn't Matt hired any more writers!?" I realize that there are a few shows out there that are written by pretty much just one guy (Sorkin is a pretty good example of that), but surely NBC can afford just a few extras in sweatshirts milling about the writer's room. This show purports to be a fairly realistic look at just how much effort is necessary to produce an SNL-like show. I just can't believe Matt, Lucy, Darius, and Andy can do it alone.
The politics behind what sketches get on and who writes for whom were pretty interesting as well. Harriet holding out for a more experienced writer and Matt being better off writing for some more established talent is the kind of thing that we don't get to see on the modern-day show because (as mentioned), there are only four writers.
(One quick point about the flashback: Luke's beard was amazing. I couldn't tell if it was glued on or actually grown. If it's glued on, kudos to the make-up people! If it was grown, how long did it take for him to grow it? Did he grow it over Christmas break, then film the flashback scenes, then shave for the modern scenes in the last few episodes? Or is he part Sasquatch?)
I liked the touch about Wes making people wait to audition. Having read Tom Shales' excellent oral history of Saturday Night Live, I immediately thought of Lorne Michaels. He's apparently famous for making people wait like that. Simon sitting out there annoyed was exactly the kind of insidery (but not too insidery) look at SNL I was hoping for when the show was first announced.
Verdict: Goal Accomplished! Haven't seen this much of the show in a while!
3. The Other Stuff. Let's take this one at a time:
Jordan and Danny: They're crazy about each other -- great! Danny talking to Jordan's unborn baby in a way to imply that he will be a stepfather -- creepy! They've only been dating a week and a day, for the love of God! Jordan thinks this is cute?
(Why does Sorkin insist on taking a great character expertly acted by Bradley Whitford and making him into someone I don't like? Why? Why can't he just go back to being the absurdly calm eye in the center of the Studio 60 hurricane? That'd be so nice.)
Hailey and Jordan: Hailey tries to undermine Jordan and Jordan has to use her Psych-like powers of observation to figure it out. It's twice now and I'm already tired of it.
Timothy Busfield: awesome.
Dialog: do we really need to address this? Like sex and pizza, always good, even when it's bad.
Flashback: Hey remember Y2K and Smashmouth? Best just to move on here.
Crazy Christians: if that's the premise of the sketch of the same name that caused all the problems in the first few episodes, I think all the fundamentalist groups were protesting not out of anger over the indignity done to their religion, but rather because God probably hates bad comedy just as much as the rest of us. A radio call-in show? Wow, really bad.
Verdict: More bad than good here, so no, Goal Not Accomplished!
4. Tim Batale. Okay, I saved this for last because I'm really torn here. You'd have to be pretty brain dead (or a fan of M. Night Shyamalan's The Village) not to have figured out that Tim was a figment of Matt's imagination by about half-way through the episode. So it didn't work all that well as a twist.
"But Jay," you say, "don't think of it as a plot twist. Think of it as a symbolic counter-point to what Matt is going through! Also, this review is getting really long and I've got work to get back to, so if you could please, hurry it up."
Fine, I agree that it's a symbolic counter-point, but what does it represent? That Matt is going to lose his job if he keeps doing drugs? That drugs are bad? That he needs to go back to writing while wearing khakis and a blue Oxford? Unless there's something deeper here that I'm missing (which is entirely possible), Tim's existence was a shallow one. If you're going to go so far as to have an imagined character with a weak twist ending, you need to make that character count for something more than "Oh, I'm doing drugs and that's a bad thing."
On the other hand, I was legitimately moved by it. Shallow as it was, it worked emotionally on me. It's like all of those Motown montages in Remember the Titans. They're cheesy and designed to pull my heartstrings, but I find myself smiling every time I watch the movie (and thanks to TNT, that's approximately 4 times a day).
So, I'm torn. Aesthetically, I think the character stunk. Emotionally, I was moved. Did Sorkin accomplish his goal? I'm going to say...
Verdict: Maybe. Kinda. Sorta. Yes? I don't know. Leave me alone!
Based on my four verdicts, I'm going to say that the show accomplished most of its goals, and is therefore a good episode. This isn't a 100% return to form, but it's getting there.