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Does Aaron Sorkin's "Studio 60" tackle the self-perpetuating mediocrity of the TV industry, or romanticize the self-importance of overpaid jackasses?

Published September 24, 2006 1:00PM (EDT)

Self-importance may be the defining characteristic of the American professional -- which explains why so many American professionals are so deeply, abidingly irritating. Don't play dumb, you know just who I'm talking about: those arrogant people who talk about their jobs in tones that suggest they're curing cancer.

Now, if they were actually curing cancer, that would be one thing. In fact, doctors, high-ranking political figures, community leaders, teachers, cops and pretty much anyone who is, at least in theory, aiming to help the populace and serve the common good gets a free pass to employ as much of a self-important tone as needed in order to pound home their point. Also, most firemen, by dint of being enormous, fit human beings with square jaws and booming voices who rush into burning buildings to save feeble weaklings like myself (at least in my dreams) also have a free pass, as do Bill Clinton, Spike Lee and Bono.

But most people are not curing cancer or rushing into burning buildings and pulling people out with their enormous hands. Most people are doing jobs that don't matter at all, or creating stuff that no one reads or watches or buys, or even if people do read or watch or buy it, they don't enjoy it that much, it doesn't inform them or make them laugh, or they shouldn't have wasted their money. The stuff most people are writing or making or selling should be much, much better than it is.

And why isn't it better? Because it's totally acceptable in American society for groups of professionals to go on and on and on about themselves as if they matter, as if they have the remotest interest in quality, as if they're not doing a mediocre job at their jobs, day in and day out, as if they're not doing the least possible amount of work for the greatest possible amount of money and prestige.

Yet another fantastic aspect of HBO's "The Wire"? It captures the way that people and systems perpetuate the status quo and support the least common denominator and celebrate mediocrity, all the while patting each other on the back for their so-called excellence.

Sorry entertainers
All of which brings us to Aaron Sorkin's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" (10 p.m. Mondays on NBC), a show that, on the one hand, tackles the pathology of the professional circle jerk and its resulting mediocrity head-on, yet on the other hand, indulges the incredible self-importance of the TV writer to an extent heretofore unseen on the small screen.

Again, for the same reasons that it's easier to stomach the self-important banter of idealistic politicians and cops and doctors and other high-minded civil servants, it's also easier to stomach TV shows that focus on these kinds of people. On "Grey's Anatomy" or "ER" or "The Wire" or "The West Wing," we tolerate the melodrama that characters drum up about their jobs, we tolerate their all-knowing tones and their self-righteousness and their indignant attitudes because they do have pretty high-pressure jobs that serve the common good, at least in theory, and it makes sense that they're dogmatic and idealistic and stubborn about what they do and what they should be doing.

But self-important banter among magazine editors, just for example? Not so easy to swallow. Amway salesmen, political bloggers, TV and film critics, advertising executives? We'd prefer that they keep their mouths shut, yet when groups of them get together, their tone of voice would lead you to believe that they were doing the pressing and important work of foreign dignitaries.

This is why Sorkin has his work cut out for him with "Studio 60." Not only does the arrogant banter and self-satisfied swagger of his characters feel slightly out of place when you transplant it from the halls of the West Wing to the dressing rooms of a sketch comedy show, but the high-intensity, high-stakes nature of Sorkin's drama feels a little bit awkward and overblown in this setting. We're supposed to care that Bradley Whitford's character, Danny, a comedy writer, snorted some cocaine and can't work on the movie he planned to with his writing partner? Screw that guy! Let him get a real job.

That's not to say that "Studio 60" isn't entertaining, or that it won't end up being one of the best new shows on TV this fall. Of course it has a shot -- the writing is snappy and smart, the characters are fully imagined and interesting, the cast is great, the story is dynamic, the setting is somewhat fresh and unfamiliar, the power plays are fun to watch. This is Aaron Sorkin we're talking about, the man who took the drudgery and dryness of politics and made it understandable and alive and, most of all, romantic. Like most very smart, very talented people who are easily bored (just guessing), Sorkin knows exactly how to keep our interest. Take this interaction between Jordan (Amanda Peet), an executive at the fictional network NBS, and her boss Jack (Steven Weber), discussing whether to rehire fired writing team Danny and Matt (Matthew Perry) to run the show:

Jack: I hire these guys back, I'll look completely deballed.

Jordan: You don't need all the fingers on one hand to count the number of people who care about your balls right now.

Jack: I got news for you, sister, as long as I'm one of them, so are you.

On a regular old show -- like HBO's empty and repetitive "Entourage" -- this one witty line would be slowed down so that no one in the audience could miss it. On Sorkin's show, we blow past it at a million miles an hour, barely appreciating its humor before we're on to the next snide exchange. Sure, it's a little bit tough to keep up with the jocular banter, but that's better than spreading the humor so thin you can hardly even taste it.

Anyone who was at one time or another addicted to "The West Wing" knows all about Sorkin's charms. The trouble with "Studio 60" doesn't lie in Sorkin's stylized dialogue, or in his relentless walking-and-talking routine, which forces characters to stride down endless hallways while tossing about jaunty asides and cleverness at a breakneck pace. (Of course, some actors are better than others at Sorkin's style. Matthew Perry, with his dry delivery, has been a natural at it since he guest-starred on "The West Wing"; Sarah Paulson, who plays his love interest Harriet, makes every one of Sorkin's lines sound stodgy and absurdly verbose.)

The trouble is that, when Danny and Matt stop to gaze around the set of their new show, and the camera circles them dramatically like it's the last scene of Werner Herzog's classic film "Aguirre: The Wrath of God," at least one or two cells in our bodies can't help but rebel against the pomp and circumstance of the moment. It feels wrong, somehow, to romanticize TV writers this much, however talented and witty they might be. Meet a few TV writers and you'll see what I mean. It's not that they're bad people -- many of them are charming and smart and extremely friendly -- but they're richer than God, yet they always seem to be jealous of someone who's even richer and more successful than they are. Plus, even the ones who write for really crappy shows, shows that they should pay a tax for inflicting on the human populace, talk about their bad shows like they're saving the free world. The money must do that to them -- or maybe it's the proximity to celebrities, or the presence of fans for even the lousiest shows. It's easy enough to admire a Sorkin or a David Milch or a David Simon or a Rob Thomas or an Alan Ball, sure. But the guy responsible for "Two and a Half Men" or "Hope and Faith"? (OK, it's time to decide which sitcoms really are the worst on TV -- send me your suggestions and let's do the painful work of determining the top 10 worst TV comedies. Together, we can serve the public by steering them away from the worst of the worst!)

Plus, ask anyone who lives in Los Angeles or works in the industry: Hollywood culture is pretty distasteful, no matter how you slice it. Even though that's one of the points of Sorkin's show, dramatizing what dicks network executives can be or giving TV producers lines like Judd Hirsch's in the pilot -- "That remote in your hand is a crack pipe!" -- doesn't really change the fact that these are Hollywood wiseasses, not heroes. This isn't a comedy, which can be placed in pretty much any workplace or setting, from a fashion magazine ("Just Shoot Me," "Ugly Betty") to a paper product manufacturer's office ("The Office") to the home of the idle rich ("Arrested Development") and still make perfect sense. Nor does Sorkin manage the absurd or dark tone of "Six Feet Under," or even "Nip/Tuck" or "Huff," that would provide an appropriate way of undercutting the self-importance of the profession in question. When the "Studio 60" show runner Jerry (Hirsch) busts onto the set and announces to the audience that the skit isn't funny, the production staff reacts with the kind of awe and reverence that would suggest Jerry has something to say about the deteriorating situation in Darfur, and not the censorship of a potentially offensive skit by the network. Of course most of us are annoyed by censorship, and Jerry's "Network"- or "Tootsie"-inspired moment of clarity is certainly stirring. But the fervor of his conviction still feels a wee bit overblown and melodramatic. Free speech is important, sure, but this is a sketch comedy show we're talking about, not a march on Washington.

Best of all, Sorkin throws all of the busy and important network executives into a boardroom with a big, circular table that looks like it belongs at the G-8 summit (or in Darth Vader's war room, you know, back when he actually consulted his generals instead of just killing them off one by one). Even in its golden age, the TV industry shouldn't be treated with this much grandiosity and romanticism -- doing so feels a little bit like appointing Barney the Dinosaur the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Plus there's a white noise of privilege that, in Sorkin's not adequately self-conscious hands, can be alienating. When Jordan's assistant tells her that it's a faux pas to thank the caterers, or when the network censor threatens one of the production guys who leaves Jerry's rant on the air by saying, "You've got two kids in private school whose father's five seconds away from never working again," it's a little tough to get all that worked up on their behalf. It's like Danny's drug habit. Um, how about you send your kids to public school, put down the eight ball of high-grade Colombian and join the real world -- you know, where the rest of us live?

Some critics have noted that the show is painfully autobiographical, coming from a guy who's made millions from television, has had plenty of disputes with the networks, and has been busted for drugs more than once. Personally, I don't care where a smart, talented writer gets his material, as long as he can find a way for ordinary people to relate to it. So far, with Danny and Matt scurrying from awards shows to studios in their shiny luxury cars, fretting about drug charges and engaging in macho ego clashes with network heads, relatable stories don't seem to be Sorkin's main concern.

And then there's the long-standing habit he has of making characters way, way too good to be true. Jordan thanks the caterers because she's so damn down-to-earth even though she's a network executive and then she blithely stands up to her boss in a roomful of people, and then she gets the wrongly fired, talented ex-writers rehired and makes it all right, and then she asks them to lead their first show with -- gasp! -- the banned offensive sketch! Plus, the camera keeps lingering on her face, stuck in a smug half-smile, clearly impressed with her own maneuvering. Ballsy, idealistic, unflappable, beautiful -- why not just make the woman a superhero while you're at it?

Oh yeah, because that would mean focusing on helping other people, as opposed to, say, being fabulous and rich and powerful. Again, shows about the fabulous, rich and powerful can work, as comedy ("Arrested Development"), or as kitsch ("Dynasty"). I assume they can even work as dramas, if the show's creator has some interest in putting it all in perspective for us: It's just a TV show, folks, and these are spoiled, upper-middle-class people with lots of time on their hands to kvetch. We knew, for example, on "Six Feet Under," that Nate was hopelessly self-involved and something of an ingrate, given the blessings bestowed on him. And just imagine what network bigwigs and comedy writers might look like if placed in the hands of "The Wire's" creator, David Simon. Clearly there are ways to explore such terrain without indulging the illusion that TV execs and writers are really valiant crusaders for free speech.

Somehow, though, Sorkin isn't as good at offering us hints of his character's flaws -- he'd rather traffic in deeply ethical, admirable types. Why did Danny do coke again? It just happened, he tells Matt. Why is Jordan so successful at such a young age? Because she's smart and she's fearless and most important, she cares. Is this really Hollywood, or some idealistic dreamland?

Regardless of such flaws, "Studio 60" is one of the better new dramas to appear this fall, and it deserves our attention. Sorkin may be self-important, but he's certainly not mediocre. Chances are that vaunted tone will be replaced by something lighter and a little bit less self-aggrandizing as the season progresses. Plus, as we get to know the characters and care more about their welfare, it's likely that their upper-crust trials and tribulations will hold more water with us. Who knows? Maybe Matt will scratch his BMW and Jordan will wear the wrong shoes to a dinner party and it'll feel just as weighty as that time President Bartlet had to decide whether to assassinate the defense minister of Qumar.

Next week: NBC's "Friday Night Lights" does for Texas high school football what "The OC" once did for California rich kids swilling liquor out of silver flasks when Mommy wasn't looking. Plus: Why are "America's Next Top Model," "Dancing With the Stars" and other returning reality fluff-fests suddenly so completely unwatchable?

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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