13 October 2006

The Worst Show On TV

It is hyperbolic to call Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip the worst show on TV. That makes it exactly the sort of claim one would expect to see on the show. It's not quite clear what prompted NBC to give Aaron Sorkin an hour of prime time programming to taunt everyone who ever did him wrong -- including NBC -- but it doesn't make for Must See TV.

The production values are excellent. The acting is fine. The writing is even good, mostly. The problem is that Sorkin's life simply isn't that interesting, and neither are his flaws. He is a control freak with a drug problem. If he were poor and had booted away all his opportunities, that might make for good television. As all it got him was more prime time opportunities, it makes for boring television. (This problem is nicely recapitulated on the show. Bradley Whitford plays a movie director who blows a drug test and, since he can't direct a movie for two years, is forced to become executive producer of a network tv show. It's just a tragedy, except he doesn't have to wear orange jumpsuits to work every day.)

The show within a show is lame, the characters are not like any real people you've ever met and the brave Christian baiting is so 90s. But the show really came to an end last week, in its third episode. Christine Lahti was introduced as a recurring character, a Maureen Dowd clone who doesn't mind showing some cleavage to get the story. The key to good television is "show, don't tell." A show about the characters being interviewed is all tell, no show.

Serial drama is a new modern art form. All other art, from the beginning of the world until Marconi, occurred within a limited space. It had a beginning, middle and an end that would come after a certain amount of paint, ink, tears, vibrato, etc., had been expended.

Serial dramas are not meant to end. They might go on for years, and at the beginning the author doesn't know which of characters, actors, tropes, sets or fashions with which he begins will make it to the end. In the beginning, Garry Marshall thought Fonzie was a minor character; Sorkin never foresaw 9/11 when he begain The West Wing. Even those shows that reset at the end of every episode, Star Trek, say, or Gilligan's Island, are about the characters.

Really good television, therefore, reveals the inner world of the characters over time through their actions.

Sorkin is short-circuiting that process. Having a journalist stalk around the set asking explicit questions about the characters' inner life and getting answers is a lazy, cheaterpants way of avoiding building consistent yet surprising characterizations over time. It is the difference between Lahti asking (and this is a prediction, not reportage) "Why do so many people in comedy come from unhappy childhoods?" rather than having us notice, a while from now, "Boy, how come so many of these people, so successful in material terms, are so unhappy."

I don't know how many of you are familiar with "Mary Sue." Mary Sue is a creature (mostly) of fan fiction ("fanfic"), which is fiction written by fans of a particular show set in the world of the show. The first fanfic of which anyone is aware came from the original Star Trek. After the show was cancelled, fans kept it alive by publishing their own magazines ("zines") filled with fanfic. (The most infamous fanfic is "slash", which comes from "Kirk/Spock," or homosexual erotica, mostly written by women, starring Kirk and Spock.)

Eventually, the fanfic world noticed that there were a lot of stories out there about a new beautiful young crew member joining the Enterprise, immediately becoming immensely popular with the entire crew and then, using some surprising skill at which she was expert, saving the ship from utter disaster. Spock would admire her logic, Kirk her daring and Chekov her ass. The stories were mostly, though not uniformly, bad. This character, whose only purpose is to fulfill authorial fantasy, was dubbed "Mary Sue." (The Wikipedia entry on Mary Sue is here.)

Lahti's character is a Mary Sue: a representative of the author sent into the story to quiz the characters. In a larger sense, though, the entire show is a Mary Sue; it is the rewriting of history to acknowledge Aaron Sorkin's greatness, his beauty and his special skills. Everyone likes him and Chekov is checking out his ass. It is the worst think on television.


Brit said...

It's unlikely that this show will make it to the UK, but I do know that stories about people with drug problems are only slightly less boring than listening to people talk about their dreams.

For example, the film of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Talk about chinese water torture...

Re: Mary Sue - it's a cliche that men can't write female characters. It's also mostly true. Martin Amis, despite being a progressive sort, is the classic example. Interestingly, Kingsley could write them, even though he is accused of archaic mysogeny.

Dickens's women are notoriously interchangeable. But then so are many of Austen's men.

So perhaps Mary Sues are an inevitable result of the Mars/Venus phenomenon.

Susan's Husband said...


My understanding is that most of the Mary Sue's (particularly in the Star Trek ficton) are written by women.

Also, wasn't Heinlein the modern master of Mary Sue characters? That's why I stopped reading him after "Number of the Beast". I had managed to repress my memory of it but the Mary Sue article brought it all back.

M Ali said...

It'll probably end up here on E4. Downloaded the first episode, but like 30 Rock, it isn't a patch on Entourage.

Hey Skipper said...


I guess I'll have to add this to my all inclusive list of Must Miss TV.

Thanks for all the fanfic info. My isolation from popular culture is such that I had no earthly idea.

I wonder what Harry will make of women writing homoerotic fan fiction.

Duck said...

For a conservative, you are way too immersed in popular culture. I'm with Skipper. I've never heard of fan-fic.

I am pretty oblivious to most of the fare on TV today. I sample it on occasion. The last show that I made it a point to watch every week was Seinfeld. The emergence of reality TV was the signal to me that the networks have reached the stage of total creative bankruptcy.

You make a good point about the serialization of drama. It is true of movie sequels as well as TV. I went to see "The Grudge II" last night, and have concluded that a good horror story cannot be serialized. The original Grudge was as good a horror story as you can expect nowadays, but once the essential mystery behind the horror has been revealed, all the director of the sequel can do is to keep throwing the scary bits at you with increasing frequency. Which makes it routine and predictable.