Friday 27 July 2007

Saint Aaron Returns

I don't tend to be a big fan of games like "What's the greatest..." and "If you could only have one recording of...", but one of the few exceptions is the sure knowledge that I would take The West Wing to my desert island (if the rules allow the taking of a TV series). Of course, I'd only take the first four seasons, despite the awesome acting talent on display it tailed off after that, and it did so for one reason: Aaron Sorkin, the creator and writing genius behind the show, left.

In fairness, there were two reasons, since his friend, director and co-executive producer Thomas Schlamme left as well. But it was the lack of Sorkin's sparkling dialogue that crippled the show. Gone was the delightful snobbishness about good writing; it had to go really, because those who were left did not write at the standard to carry it off. Yet one of the most impressive things about The West Wing in its heyday was that you genuinely believed that the characters who were writers where at the absolute summit of their profession. Not, as is so often the case, did one sit there thinking, 'If he's a prize winning author, I'm the pontiff'.

So why, though it's not like I need an excuse, the gushing eulogy for Sorkin and his finest creation. Well, finally, his new show has made it out to the UK, for some reason following the bizarre recent practice on the terrestrial channels of debuting hot new shows just as everyone is going away on holiday. Surely March would have been a more sensible time. To make matters worse, we already know the outcome: the show was not renewed for a second season. So, does it join the illustrious list of shows cancelled well before their time (Firefly, Futurama, Farscape, Sports Night and, I'm sure, plenty more besides)? Was it simply that, following The West Wing, expectations were impossibly high?

Sorkin's earlier work was not without its success: A Few Good Men and The American President, the latter containing intriguing hints at what would later come. Or, perhaps more accurately, ideas that would later be recycled. His fingerprints are also on the script of the silly action blockbuster, The Rock, and certainly the explanation for why the dialogue is a cut above the norm for the genre. But he is particularly suited to TV. Before The West Wing, came Sports Night. It's a testament to this writer that he made me love a show about an American cable sports show: I'm far from the world's biggest sports fan and certainly not of the American ones. It too contains its fair share of ideas that later crop up in the Bartlet white house.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, to give it its full title, treads familiar ground. Once more, we are behind the scenes, as we were in both Sports Night and The West Wing; and once again there are writers amongst the principle characters. Like Sports Night the behind the scenes in question is a TV show, this time a live comedy spectacular, think Saturday Night Live, but set in Los Angeles rather than New York. But there we part company. At least in this first episode, most of the cast are on the periphery. The central relationship is that of Matt Albie (played by former Friends star Matthew Perry) and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford, Josh from The West Wing). Albie is the writer and Tripp the director. And from the start this feels like Sorkin writing about his relationship with Schlamme. The two previously worked on Studio 60 but left amid less than pleasant circumstances and are now invited back to save the show (I wonder what can possibly have been the inspiration, how sad that the show failed then). True, it is not absolutely literal, Tripp gets the drug problem (whereas in real life it is Sorkin who has battled with this).

Off the top of my head, it's difficult to think of when a relationship quite like this has been put front and centre (of course, this may change in coming episodes), but for now it feels like a breath of fresh air. Rather like when, in Firefly, Joss Whedon decided to have one of the central relationships a passionate love (in an entirely appropriate sense) of a brother for his sister. Certainly it isn't unprecedented for a show to built around a strong friendship (though more often it grows out of an 'odd couple' thrown together in the pilot, as with Due South and most cop shows). This feels different, new and is the outstanding feature of the pilot episode.

That's not to detract from the rest of the cast, all of whom are very fine (and at least one is another West Wing veteran), but this isn't really their episode.

So, an unqualified success then? No. It suffers from pilot syndrome: the way that pilots often feel a little bit clunky and you are left a little surprised it was actually commissioned into a series (until things fall into step a few episodes later). In fairness, it doesn't seriously suffer, but this is not The West Wing pilot, arguably one of the finest ever made. It was effortless, the style virtually unchanged when the show went into production. All the hallmarks were there from the beginning: the witty snippets that introduced the characters, Leo (the late, great John Spencer)'s long walk and talk tour through the set (something else that vanished when Sorkin departed, presumably because remaining writers couldn't sustain them) and President Bartlet's taking the religious right down several pegs. Of course, The West Wing had a huge advantage here: it didn't really need to do the standard pilot thing of explaining what everyone was doing in the show, it was pretty self explanatory (unlike, say, Due South, where it wasn't immediately apparent why a Mountie would be helping a Chicago cop solve crimes). Here Sorkin does need to put all his pieces into place, and so we have that pilot feel, but it's not so bad you're left knowing you'll skip it over when you revisit the show again and again on DVD.

The other problem is the comedy. In The West Wing and Sports Night a geekish repository of facts was always enough to save the day. Here the subject is a comedy sketch show and it needs to be, well, funny. Of course, Sorkin can be very funny indeed and there are innumerable examples in The West Wing: Josh sitting on his removed chair (while Charie says "I work in the same building as the smartest people in the world."), Sam forgetting to change the opening line of a speech from "As I look out on this beautiful vista..." after it has been moved indoors and Charlie rousing the President from his slumbers with "I know you told me not to wake you unless the building was on fire....". Indeed, humour was one of the great strengths of The West Wing. It was very funny. As has often been said, it was an office one wished one was witty enough to work in. In this regard, it always felt more real than many dramas, particularly those made in the UK where humour seems to be largely taboo. The result is often wearing and not especially enjoyable. In all the work places I've experienced, people use humour to cope (generally more so the more stressful the environment). However, is Sorkin funny enough to convince on a sketch show as he convinced that Sam Seaborn and Toby Ziegler were great speech writers? In fairness, in this first episode the show within a show, confusingly also called Studio 60, is in the doldrums so it cannot really be judged. Yet the controversial sketch entitled Crazy Christians, the dropping of which, despite its alleged hilarity, precipitates the crisis at the show, remains a mystery. But, on the limited evidence so far, the verdict must be not proven.

Reservations not withstanding, however, this is still a foot smarter, and more delightfully written, than most of the nonsense on TV. As Albie says, you could put on two men masturbating together and it would still be the least embarrassing thing on the National Broadcast System. Channel 4, take note.

In short, you could do a lot worse than tune into More 4 at 10pm for the next twenty-one Thursdays.

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