Monday, September 25, 2006

Tone down the meta

I always look forward to the fall.

I excitedly anticipate the start of each new school year, often to the point of insomnia, and I love experiencing the change of seasons as the harsh summer gives way to the more mellow autumn. The fall also means the start of another new season--the television season. This week and the preceding one have seen a deluge of new and returning shows.

I'm most intrigued by the new Aaron Sorkin production, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Sorkin, you may recall, wrote and created The West Wing (before his ouster) and is widely regarded as a doyen of "quality television." I caught a rerun of the Studio 60 premiere last night on Bravo, and I'm looking forward to seeing episode #2 tonight on NBC. The show revolves around a television writer-director team played by Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford, who return to a Saturday Nigh Live-esque show after having been fired several years before by an uptight network executive.

The premiere featured an extended rant by Judd Hirsch, who plays (or played) the longtime producer of the fictitious show-within -the-show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. After having received word from network standards and practices that one of the night's skits wouldn't fly, Hirsch breaks into the broadcast and kvetches about how television programming has gone down the toilet, to the point of "lobotomizing" the television audience--an audience that doesn't seem to care, for example, that a global war's been going on for years. All the TV audience seems to care about anymore, he inveighs, are programs about marrying one's sister.

I was both thrilled and saddened by what I'll henceforth call "the rant." I was thrilled because, though I don't necessarily agree with the arguments about the decline of "quality" television, it's rare that television writers get to indict or critique the medium within which they're working to the extent Sorkin appears to have. The show's "meta" dimension works quite well, as it were, in terms of talking about the possibilities and limitations of our existing televisual system on TV. By the same token, I get the sense that Studio 60 may, in the end, be too "meta." The rant was followed later by fictitious news coverage, which likened the monologue over and over to the famous "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!!!" speech from the 1976 film, Network. That coupled with the fact that Perry and Whitford's characters seem to embody key elements of Sorkin himself seem to me to make the show, at least at this early stage, just another TV program that aspires to little more than announcing itself as "postmodern" or self-aware of itself as TV. And that's just not all that interesting to me.

I'm going to give Studio 60 a shot, though. It's remarkably high production values, clever writing, and potential make it worth watching. Let's just hope that Sorkin can tone down the meta.

P.S. While I'm on the subject of TV, a quick follow-up to my summertime post about Rockstar: Supernova. Despite the fact that Dilana clearly was the better front-person, the band took the easy way out and picked--surprise, surprise--a guy to lead them, Lukas Rossi. The band claimed in the finale that their decision was based on the call-in and online voting. It's depressing to me how people can't seem to get their heads around the fact that women can rock. I might well have purchased Supernova's album had Dilana recorded with them, but now there's not a chance.


Jonathan said...

Every week, Carrie and I would dutifully watch Rock Star. Every week, Lukas would advance despite the fact that he sucked and like 5-6 other people were better. I sort of thought Dilana lost it on the original song front, but as a singer she was clearly the most talented. Instead we get another lame band with a too-throaty post punk guy.

If I'm not mistaken, the network for Studio 60 is the same network as the network in Network.

Ted Striphas said...

I agree that Dilana faltered on the original song part; that was definitely her weakest point, though her performances week to week were consistently outstanding. In the end, what disappointed me the most about Rockstar was the way in which it became little more than a marketing vehicle. Given the band's comments about how they arrived at their selection, it's clear that they treated the voting as advance market research about who would play best with their burgeoning fan base. I knew there was a reason why I didn't like cultural populism....not to mention the fact that Supernova's TV following is likely to differ somewhat from that of their concerts or albums. Ultimately, the voting probably produced pretty unreliable information about who fans were willing to embrace.

Lori said...

There have been some rumblings on the Internet about the second episode; in particular, some Sorkin fans are incensed about his depiction of Gertrude (and, by extension, his fans) as an overweight loser. Some people are perceiving it as Sorkin basically biting the hand that feeds him.

Ted Striphas said...

Hi Lori,

I'm a little embarassed to ask this question, since it means I didn't pay close enough attention to episode #2 of Studio 60. Who's Gertrude?

Lori said...

Oops - seems I read something out of context (since I haven't actually been watching the show, but have been reading some of the reactions): I think this was actually something that one of the characters said in relation to who's watching TV - something to the effect of "Gertrude in her ratty robe."

Hope that makes more sense.

Ted Striphas said...


Aha! You're right. Now I remember the comment. And yes, it seems like the standard kind of demeaning fare we can expect from people who hold, say, reality TV watchers in contempt. Comments like that are also, unfortunately, the breeding ground for charges of liberal elitism. Sigh. "Tone down the meta" indeed!