Monday, October 29, 2012

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip - "Pilot"

Season 1, Episode 1
Original Airdate: September 18, 2006
Writer: Aaron Sorkin
Director: Thomas Schlamme
Executive Producers: Thomas Schlamme, Aaron Sorkin
Cast: Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, Amanda Peet

The teaser of the first episode of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” feels like a sledgehammer to the chest. It’s one of the most powerful, impactful openings of any series, and possibly the best. Writer Aaron Sorkin and director Thomas Schlamme were obviously inspired by the classic film “Network” (and say as much later in the show), but for my money this sequence transcends the movie. It’s so awesome, in fact, that the good will it builds allows Sorkin to take some major chances with structure and character development throughout the remainder of the episode.

The show focuses on the Los Angeles equivalent of “Saturday Night Live,” a live sketch-comedy show called “Studio 60.” Exposition is set up beautifully in the first few seconds as show cast member Simon Stiles (D.L. Hughley) informs the studio audience (and, by proxy, the viewers) about the history of “Studio 60,” the studio and how live television works. But then we begin to realize that the show is past its heyday, and the thousands of small stresses and sacrifices creator/head writer Wes Mendell (Judd Hirsch) has made finally cause him to have a nervous breakdown. By walking out on set. Live on air. And going into a rant about the slow disintegration and bastardization of the television industry.

That is all great, but what takes the sequence to another level is that we cut between the rant and the show’s director, Cal (Timothy Busfield) making the decision to keep Wes on air as long as possible, despite network executives screaming at him some variation on “you’ll never work in this town again!” Both threads are equally gripping, but the back-and-forth editing perfectly showcases the escalating chaos, climaxing with a smash to the show’s intertitle at the moment Cal finally gives in and cuts away from Wes, leaving the viewer gasping for air. Now that’s how you cut to commercial.

From here on in, Sorkin begins to play with the structure of most television pilots. The two main characters, Matt (Matthew Perry) and Danny (Bradley Whitford) don’t even appear until 20 minutes in. Instead, Sorkin uses the time immediately following “the event” to focus on new network executive Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) as she deals with the fallout on her first day of work (technically she doesn’t even have to start work until the following Monday, but decides “what the hell?”) and butts heads with another executive, wonderfully played by Steven Weber.

Jordan, along with Peet’s interpretation of the character, is one of the most fascinating, refreshing parts of the series. Peet was attacked by many critics for her “romantic-comedy” take on the roll, but I think that criticism is woefully misguided. The easy route would have been for Sorkin and Schlamme to cast an uptight “bitch” type for the role, but instead they did something much more interesting: They cast Peet against type and had her just act like a smart, normal woman doing her best in a bad situation. Instead of dealing with the dozens of lesser executives all looking at the mess on a micro level she sees the macro version of the problem. She doesn’t want to keep plugging the dam, she wants to build an entirely new one, and goes out of her way to accomplish that by being honest and forthright, two values none of the other characters seem to believe or, hell, can even comprehend in the television industry. When she tells Danny she knows he had cocaine in his system, he immediately believes she’s trying to blackmail him when that couldn’t be further from the truth. Whoops. Because she’s so forthcoming and honest, I’m guessing that’s why critics’ gut was that Jordan was underwritten, when it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Sorkin’s writing throughout is sharp, and his script never talks down to the audience. When there might be exposition that goes over our heads, he finds ingenious ways to make it come through without seeming like exposition, like Simon’s aforementioned introduction to the audience. His now-famous Walk-and-Talks conversations remain a thing of beauty, and many of his recurring storytelling tics pop up again here and are used well.

Many of his storytelling techniques bleed freely from one series to another. Turn on any Sorkin show and you’ll be likely to find two soul mates working in the same place who just can’t quite admit to themselves that they love one another (Casey and Dana on “Sports Night,” Will and Mac in “The Newsroom,” Matt and Harriet here). There’s usually an evil boss character who we later learn isn’t all that bad (Weber here, Jane Fonda on “The Newsroom,” William H. Macy on “Sports Night”) and loads of conservative characters (Will on “The Newsroom,” Harriet here) who serve as soapboxes to preach or be preached to. Oh, and he borrowed the opening nervous breakdown from “Studio 60” for the opening of “The Newsroom.” I mention these not as criticisms, but as observations. He goes back to these watering holes because they usually work well and he manages to find fun variations each time he does it.

Another thing Sorkin often gets criticized for is the lack of realism in his shows, which I find ridiculous. Just because his shows use real-life news events and politics as the backdrop for the storytelling does not mean that they must be gritty and real. Look at the pilot to “Studio 60,” where anchors on every cable news channel not only mention that the rant came from “Network,” but name check its writer, Paddy Chayefsky. As a screenwriter, it’s nice to think that might happen, but seriously? In what world? And his characters, despite speaking eloquently about politics, owe much more to the screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s (“Bringing Up Baby,” “His Girl Friday”) than reality. And, no offense to the gritty/shaky-cam/dark/topical/whatever shows, that’s the way I like it. If I’m being preached to, I want some escapism and I want some hope.

Over the course of its 45 minute pilot, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” manages to create an entire world, populate it with a diverse, multi-dimensional cast and then topped it all off with a Queen song for good measure. It remains one of the most literate, engaging hours of television I’ve had the pleasure of watching. Screw what the critics say.

The pilot of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” is available on the Complete Series DVD, Amazon Instant Video and iTunes.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Lucy Show – “Lucy and Viv Put in a Shower”

Season 1, Episode 18
Original Airdate: January 28, 1963
Writers: Bob Carroll Jr., Madelyn Martin, Bob Weiskoph, Bob Schiller
Director: Jack Donohue
Producer: Elliot Lewis
Cast: Lucille Ball, Vivian Vance, Jimmy Garrett, Ralph Hart

“The Lucy Show” had the unfortunate job of being Lucille Ball’s follow-up to her wildly popular, groundbreaking, classic, best-sitcom-of-all-time “I Love Lucy.” Although the show was usually good, sometimes very good, it never reached the creative heights of its predecessor, and as a result its writers and producers retooled the show numerous times over the course of its run, to the point where I’d wager that the final season is almost unrecognizable when compared to the first.

Though Lucy (Lucille Ball) and Viv (Vivian Vance) were ostensibly different characters than “Lucy” and “Ethel,” their relationship was unchanged, as was how they interacted with one another. Lucy is widowed and Viv is divorced, and the show’s writing team (including several from “I Love Lucy”) decided to give the friends constant money troubles as they try to care for their children. The inherent problem with this is that audiences have expectations of Lucy causing expensive mayhem and anarchy (buying a thousand ranch dressing bottles, destroying a Laundromat, getting three hundred eggs crushed while doing the tango), and because of the character’s limited budget things could never get really out of control. During the first season in particular, you could tell the writers were grasping to be different from “I Love Lucy” before finally just giving in and giving audiences the set-pieces they wanted, household budgets be damned. Many of these were directly pulled from “I Love Lucy,” with the bulk of “Lucy and Viv are Volunteer Firemen” taken from “Lucy Goes to the Hospital,” with the women practicing getting ready for a fire alarm and then totally panicking when an actual alarm comes. The first season finale, “Lucy Buys a Boat,” payed homage to (ripped off) Ball’s salad dance in “The Long Long Trailer” by having a boat cut loose in the middle of a storm.

And yet.

“Lucy and Viv Put In a Shower” still stands as a wonderful half-hour of television. Shockingly, the storyline centers on Lucy and Viv deciding to…wait for it…install a shower. While they first try to rope in their gentlemen-in-waiting, Lucy soon tries to finish the job herself, and somehow gets stuck in the flooding shower with Viv, to the point where the water is seven feet deep.

This set-piece is equal to anything Ball did in her career, from “Vitametavegamin” to the grape stomping to setting her nose on fire. Hell, it’s probably equal to any major set-piece from any comedy series. It’s the perfect example of sustaining tension and laughter consistently over the course of ten minutes of screen time. The women are always trapped, and the water is always rising.

But I get ahead of myself. So the girls decide to have a shower installed in their boys’ closet so that they can get some time in the bathroom, and from there the writers slowly-but-surely begin to lay groundwork for the set-piece. The door to the standing shower was installed backwards, so it would hold the water in instead of opening under pressure. Lucy had to be the one to install the faucets, and of course has no idea what a washer is. The plug in the bottom of the shower has yet to be removed. Viv breaks off the water main so the water won’t stop coming. Yes, it seems as if the writers are bending over backward to make the implausible seem plausible, but in this case it works because the payoff is so perfect.

So Lucy (wearing a shirt with a huge “LC” sewed onto it, something that had to inspire Laverne’s wardrobe years later) and Viv begin to get literally waterlogged. Another amazing thing about this sequence is that it, by its very nature, cannot be as perfectly rehearsed as the candy factory or the fashion show. That water is going to spray where it wants and you can’t help but have a few mishaps when trying to swim in what is essentially a very small seven-foot-deep pool of water. Rumors persist that Ball almost drowned during the filming and it made it on screen, but we only see Ball go under once where she didn’t mean to. She immediately resurfaces and says, “I didn’t know it was that deep,” and that’s that. It’s amazing to see Vivian Vance, not Viv, react to water spraying in her face and up her nose by screaming, “Oh, wait a minute!”

It’s also interesting to note that the writers, oddly, give Viv the best jokes and gags (pun intended) here instead of Lucy, instead deciding to let Ball just go for it with the physicality. First we get this one:
Viv: Lucy, did you pay this month’s water bill?Lucy: Sure, I did.Viv: That was a dumb thing to do!

Later, when Lucy tells Viv to try to kick through the glass so they can escape, Viv refused, stating:
“It’s not that I’m afraid of cutting myself, but the blood might draw sharks.”
The rest of the episode is cute fluff, with the girls’ interactions with their suitors before the mess sweet if forgettable. And the idea of teenage girls spending far too much time in the bathroom is something that has been recycled thousands of times since, which makes the gags at the beginning lose their power. But that scene in the shower…wow. The biggest compliment I can give it is that it felt like the very best deleted scene from “I Love Lucy” ever. It’s not that “The Lucy Show” was ever bad; it’s simply that it seemed more like a watered-down (pun intended) imitation of “I Love Lucy” than its own entity.

“Lucy and Viv Put In a Shower” is available on the first season DVD of “The Lucy Show” and on YouTube.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Popular - "Two Weddings and a Funeral"

Season 1, Episode 22
Original Airdate: May 18. 2000
Writer: Ryan Murphy
Director: Lev L. Spiro
Executive Producers: Ryan Murphy, Gina Matthews, Michael M. Robin, Greer Shepard
Cast: Leslie Bibb, Carly Pope, Leslie Grossman, Tammy Lynn Michaels

“Popular” was a teen drama on The WB that quickly morphed into a send-up of teen dramas on The WB. At first it seems to present viewers with all the storylines one would expect from such a show (pregnancy, addiction, losing your virginity etc.), but then twisted the telling while consistently winking and nudging the audience that the creators were in on the joke. By the time the show reached its first season finale, “Two Weddings and a Funeral,” the creators didn’t even try to be subtle about it anymore.

The episode opens with a character musing: “I love the merry month of May, except for those ridiculous sweep cliffhanger stunts they always pull on my favorite teen dramas.” She then lists every possible sweep stunt, including the wildly silly ones:
  • A Wedding
  • Pregnancy
  • Death
  • Natural Disaster
  • Appearance by a Cheesy Boy Band
  • Pretty Boy Nudie Shot
  • When Pets Attack
  • Gratuitous Musical Number

The episode then goes out of its way to include all of the above. The episode’s writer, Ryan Murphy, went out of his way to string together a seriously cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs series of events for his cast to deal with in one episode, not just making the show meta, but then piling meta on top of the meta. For weeks leading up to the finale, The WB was advertising the “Popular Purge,” which was the killing off of a major character on the show. During the finale, viewers could post on the show’s message board and their opinions on who should die and why were blipped across the bottom of the screen. Of course today, with everyone tweeting and twatting their every thought, talk show hosts regularly pretending viewers’ tweets are just as valuable as experts, and networks helpfully putting some variation on “#posthowawesomeweare” at the bottom of their screen at all times, the stunt seems less impressive…but during its initial broadcast I remember giggling (yes, giggling) with delight.

The storyline…well…is a clusterfuck, and by that I mean absolutely brilliant. Let’s see if I can keep it straight. On Sophomore Skip Day, wicked chemistry teacher Bobbi Glass (Diane Delano) sends her class’ photos to every hangout in the city so they will be arrested for truancy if they show up. To get her back, they lace her milkshake with e. coli. She doesn’t drink it, but seconds later becomes paralyzed by her twin sister, Nurse Jessie Glass (Delano again), who wants to kill her after making her suffer through being eaten alive by her cats, then frame the kids. All the while, Brooke (Leslie Bibb) and Sam (Carly Pope) frantically try to keep everything under control while they prepare for the wedding of their parents. Oh, and Mary Cherry’s (Leslie Grossman) mother Cherry Cherry (Delta Burke) will be marrying Erik Estrada (not kidding) at the same ceremony. Oh, and because of eating too much dirt, Mae Tuna (Mandy Freund) needs a heart valve transplant or she’ll die. Oh, and there is a voodoo witch doctor. Oh, and Brooke and Josh (Bryce Johnson) might be getting back together. At one point Sam tells Brooke:
“You guys are hilarious. You’re like the typical TV show couple who breaks up, gets back together, breaks up and gets back together one last time on the last show simply for promotional sweets purposes.”
The amazing thing is, during all this madness, Ryan never loses track of his ensemble. More than that, he uses them quite well. In an age when most network shows are populated by interchangeable babes and hunks saying interchangeable dialogue on interchangeable sets, every main character her has a point-of-view. There are several big sequences that involve the almost the entire ensemble arguing and babbling over one another, and I couldn’t help but grin because, in each scene, each character comes to the situation from his or her own perspective. Nicole Julian (Tammy Lynn Michaels) just wants to get out of the situation, even if it means framing Sam. Sweet Lily (Tamara Mello) immediately feels horrible about the group’s actions and turns the murder plot into a moment to preach about teachers being underappreciated in our society. And lunkhead Josh is just thinking about what to write in Brooke’s yearbook.

And then there’s Mary Cherry. Introduced as a popular Southern belle supporting character, Mary Cherry (she’s never called just Mary) proceeded to take over the “Popular,” with Grossman’s incredible humor and comedic timing something Murphy and his writers seemed to love tapping into. She had webbed hands and feet. She had a surprise twin sister named B. Ho. She carries around a vial of e. coli virus in her purse because, “A girl never knows when she’ll have to lose the odd fifty pounds.”

And then there’s the dialogue. This episode has more one-liners that actually land than any given episode of your traditional sitcom. When Nicole Julian arrives at Brooke’s home carrying Ms. Glass’ stray finger, she says:
“Mary Cherry, put the finger in the fridge. Bring me a Diet Coke.”
When Ms. Glass is threatening her students she boasts that:
“After a nuclear apocalypse, I’ll be the only thing standing other than the cockroaches and Cher.”
Though the second season of the show had many sterling episodes (most notably “The Brain Game” and “Baby, Don’t Do It”) it was obvious that The WB heads didn’t like being poked fun at and put pressure on the writers to normalize with traditional teen soap storylines sans the added twists. Harrison got cancer. Lily and Josh got married and cried way too much. The balance felt…off.

And yet “Popular” was still better than almost every other teen drama on television, and certainly better than most of the sitcoms. It remains a touchtone for me and is one of the reasons I wanted to become a television writer. The balance of humanity, humor and meta-commentary on the television industry found in this episode has never been equaled or surpassed by any show before or since. Plus, did I mention Mary Cherry rocks?

“Two Weddings and a Funeral” is available on the first season DVD of “Popular” and on YouTube.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Dick Van Dyke Show - "The Curious Thing About Women"

Season 1, Episode 16
Original Airdate: January 10, 1962
Writer: David Adler
Director: John Rich
Executive Producers: Ronald Jacobs, Sheldon Leonard, Carl Reiner, Danny Thomas
Cast: Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Rose Marie, Morey Amsterdam

The wonderful thing about “The Dick Van Dyke” show is that it never seems to push its audience. Almost every other sitcom seems to shove into its punchlines and gags, but this show operates at an even pace. The characters say funny things to one another, but there never seems to be an exclamation point at the end of their sentences to lead into audience laughter. The characters have big personalities but never go over the top like every other sitcom from that era, from “I Love Lucy” to “Leave it to Beaver.” It all feels…well…real. Like we are actually watching an American family going through their trials and tribulations, which makes the climax to “The Curious Thing About Women” one of the definitive moments in all of television comedy.

 The episode concerns a quick marital spat between Rob (Dick Van Dyke) and his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) after she keeps opening his mail without his permission. Rob turns the spat into a sketch for “The Alan Brady Show” where a caricature of Laura (who shares her name) receives a box addressed to her husband and can’t stop herself from opening it…only to discover there is an inflatable raft inside. Laura is teased by all her friends about the sketch and yells at Rob, only to discover a suspicious box in the mail the next day addressed to him.

It’s interesting to note that most sitcoms follow the classic two-act structure. Lucy wants to be on television (1) and then she gets drunk while practicing the commercial she has been cast in (2). Mary admonishes people for laughing about Chuckles’ death (1) and then laughs at his funeral (2). Michael is encouraged to set up a “diversity day” at the office (1) and ends up being extremely racist (2). But “The Dick Van Dyke” show is different. In almost every episode, it follows a three-act structure instead. Here, you have Rob writing the sketch as Act One, Laura melting down as Act Two and the mysterious package as Act Three. This structure allows the show to have a faster pace than most sitcoms and, as a result, throw in some twists and turns on the way to the climax…

…which, of course, is Laura verses the box. The episode’s writer, David Adler, is brilliant in the way he sets this moment up because we have already heard a variation on this routine twice. Incredibly, the moment is much funnier because of its long set-up, not watered-down because of its repetition. When we first heard Rob pitching out the story he talks about how the box is almost magnetic to the wife -- a bit we see come to life with Laura when she exits the living room and then we see the swinging door swing fully just once before Laura reenters to stare at the box again. When Laura is actually watching the skit with her neighbors, they mention that the female is using her teeth to desperately pull open the box, and later that’s exactly what Laura does. The familiarity of the details make it so much more funny, especially considering the high horse Laura put herself on only moments before.

Also of note is the fact that Adler has made us wait almost twenty minutes for this moment, circling back to it and, in some ways, pounding us over the head that it’s coming, but only to underline how much we’ll enjoy it when it actually gets here. A lesser writer (and most modern sitcoms) would try to put some kind of twist on Mary opening the box, but Adler was smart to just give us the payoff we were expecting in the way we were expecting it. It makes the laughter more genuine because it doesn’t feel like a cheat.

Aside from the three-act structure, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” was quick and eager to embrace (at the time) daring storytelling techniques. It was quick to use frame stories, or create stories within stories if it served the characters and humor well. This was a much more adult show than most other comedies on television and the writers trusted that the viewers would be able to follow along when they tried something a little different or took the story in a surprising direction. It was also very successful at being both a work sitcom and a family sitcom. Other shows, most notably “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” tried the same juggling act before finally giving in and becoming one or the other. “The Dick Van Dyke” show, on the other hand, always kept the balance and, as a result, some of its best comedy came when the two world collided in twisted, uncomfortable ways. Look at this episode or when Laura accidentally lets it slip that Rob’s boss is actually bald.

Anchoring everything is Van Dyke and Moore, who share an easy, charming chemistry with one another that is never more evident than when they are arguing. Their speaking patterns and delivery allows them to deliver long mouthfuls of sentences from the script, and the fact that they are both tall and lanky results in some create physical comedy throughout the episode, first with Rob pretending to be Laura and later when Laura is fighting with the box. More than that, they never seem like anything less than smart, intelligent people, a trap so many great sitcoms fall into regularly by dumbing down their characters.

Though I only laughed once during “The Curious Thing About Women,” it was a long and fulfilling belly laugh that had been building the entire episode. And the rest of the time I was smiling widely. “The Dick Van Dyke Show” isn’t classic television because of its punchlines, but because it’s smart enough to know that punchlines are only part of what makes a great comedy.

“The Curious Thing About Women” is available on the first season DVD of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” on iTunes, Hulu and Amazon Prime.