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On TV: Quaint Is the New Cutting Edge

Or so you might think after the first few episodes of NBC's new backstage drama.

TV review, October 6, 2006

NBC's lavish, much-hyped new drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip has gotten some good reviews but its early ratings have been disappointing, and that's inevitably led to a lot of blog chatter about why. The general consensus, even among reviewers who call it the best new show of the season, is that the subject -- backstage life at a show that looks a lot like Saturday Night Live -- is just too insidery, too "insular" (as one reviewer put it) for ordinary people like you and me to understand.

The show actually is almost impossible to understand. But I don't think that has anything to do with how insular it is.

Consider what happens in the pilot episode. The producer of the show-within-the-show (Judd Hirsch) has a meltdown when the network censors force him to cut a controversial sketch. He goes on the air live and denounces the network for showing garbage and then denounces America for watching garbage. This causes a huge uproar in the media, and then the new head of the network (Amanda Peet) has a brilliant idea: she fires the producer and brings back the show's original creative team (Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford), who were themselves fired years ago for being too hip and edgy. The network head's boss (Steven Weber) goes along with this scheme reluctantly but tells her that if it doesn't succeed, "It's all on you."

Too insidery? Does anybody think this looks even remotely like what really goes on at Saturday Night Live, or at any other show in the history of TV? It's straight out of a World War II movie about a desperate mission behind enemy lines. All the cliches are in place: the heroic renegades who can't fit in with the military establishment, the tough, old-school commanding officer who grudgingly agrees they're the best men for the job, even the perky, brilliant young staff officer who pipes up with the daringly unconventional plan that Just Might Work.

But it can't be a joke -- not given the show's enfeebled concept of humor. Our heroes, those edgy, brilliant writer/producers, need a way to reestablish their cred as quickly as possible. So they, too, come up with a daring idea. They'll open with one of those big, controversial, startling comedy sketches they used to do, the ones that back in the day got everybody in America talking. Here's the sketch: they have a choir sing "We are the very model of a modern network TV show," to the tune of "Modern Major General" from The Pirates of Penzance.

Now there's cutting-edge comedy for you: a Gilbert and Sullivan parody! It'll have the frat boys in the audience in stitches!

I haven't even gotten to the backstage drama. So far it's mostly focused on why one of the writer/producers has broken up with his girlfriend, who is both the star of the SNL-ish show and a Christian singer. He says she's pissed at him because he didn't show up when she sang the "Star Spangled Banner" at a baseball game. But that's just a cover story. The real reason is that he can't forgive her for going on The 700 Club to promote her new CD of Christian music.

Empathize with his dilemma? I can't even follow it. He's pretending to be indifferent to her performance of the national anthem to cover up how he's actually upset because she made a promotional appearance on a talk show he disapproves of. Has anyone in Hollywood -- anyone on planet earth -- ever had a problem so shallow and rarefied at once? It's like a story in Us Weekly rewritten by Henry James.

Let's review: Studio 60's pose of being all backstage and insidery is a preposterous sham, and its characters bear no relationship to actual human beings. Sounds like classic TV to me -- why isn't it a hit?

The first problem is its alleged subject -- which isn't so much insular as irrelevant. Nostalgia for the golden age of Saturday Night Live -- why bother shedding a tear? I miss Michael O'Donoghue and Phil Hartman as much as anybody, but you can get humor just as subversive and snarky on The Colbert Report any weekday. And besides, I'm not even sure that the makers of Studio 60 actually give a damn about SNL.

Their real enthusiasm seems to be elsewhere, in murkier terrain. It was on view in the only scene so far that's had the slightest trace of genuine passion: in the first episode where the producer has the on-air meltdown. Of course this isn't original -- it's from the movie Network, which the show helpfully explains (the dialogue is nothing if not meta). But even if you didn't know it was from an old movie, it would seem like it was from an old movie. It's so cranky it's quaint. A man has a meltdown on live TV -- and everyone is shocked. How last century. Nowadays people are melting down on TV left and right. (After every episode of American Idol, the blogosphere has been rating how close to the edge Paula Abdul got that night.)The producer's rant might stir up a brief flurry as a viral video, but it'd never get as many hits on YouTube as the one where the TV weatherman starts screaming about the cockroach on his leg.

It might seem more plausible if the producer's rant weren't so moldy. But alas, it's the same old elitist party line about how sleazy shows like Fear Factor are creating political apathy and cultural decay. Look, I hate Fear Factor too; in fact for years I avoided NBC just so I wouldn't have to watch the promos. But couldn't the guy have found something fresh about TV to denounce? These days, anybody with a satellite dish and a Netflix account can live on an exclusive diet of high-quality shows, from The Wire to Cowboy Bebop; who can even remember if Fear Factor is still on?

But that's Studio 60's dirty little secret: it's nostalgic for the days when people didn't have any choice. Back in the golden age, when Saturday Night Live was first hitting it big -- which was also when Network came out -- the media landscape was a monolithic police state. In those days, the thrilling idea of somebody actually going on TV and dissing TV fit in with a myth that people still clung to back then: that Americans believed the horrible things they believed only because they were brainwashed by the media, that if only somebody could break the media embargo on the truth, Americans would rise up, reject the foreign policy of their government, drive the loony right back into the boondocks, and maybe even watch foreign movies with subtitles.

Those were the days. Today we live in a completely balkanized cultural scramble; everything comes through, nothing is filtered, and nothing goes away. There's no need for anybody to censor the truth, because we get too much truth: the signals are all so loud and clear they've become indistinguishable from noise. That's the problem with the old-fashioned and sentimental Studio 60: it's misty-eyed about the days when it was still possible to believe that somebody could go on TV and tell the truth and it might make a difference.