In the beginning I tried not to like The West Wing. I mean, it’s a network drama about the white house – not my thing at first glance. And I had a major bias – I stopped watching most regular broadcast television some time in the early 90’s and it took Mr. Brown coercing me to check out the first couple episodes of The Sopranos circa ’97 to even consider there might be something worthwhile on cable. This is largely due to the fact that I grew up without it and was thankful (not at first, but later). Cable seemed even worse than network because you paid for it (and it was worse, largely, until HBO re-invented itself and then forced everyone else to do the same by raising the bar so high. Let’s take a minute to thank HBO…… okay, that’s enough).
Television just always seemed something I had watched a lot of as a kid, when I was in a confused and undefined state, so of course that’s what I equate it with. And as I found out more about myself garish and manipulative devices like laugh tracks and dramatic set pieces didn’t fit into the world of that person. Film, yes, although I removed myself from that as well for a time. But as I’d say back in the day, film was something different altogether; nobler, more intelligent. And it still is, even as the indie cinema savoir faire that came crashing into the movie palaces of the late 90’s (thank you Mr. Tarantino) has edged back a bit to make room for 80’s-revival a la The Expendables (not a judgment, just a statement). But tv, tv has come of age and become something… wonderful. Oh, certainly not all of it, but A LOT of it, and that is a good thing.
No, that has been a great thing.
Any way, a lot of the reason for this transformation is because audiences have become more sophisticated – hell, as hard as it is to believe with crud like the jersey whores out there our entire culture has become more sophisticated. This happened around the time Sopranos began. Which exactly came first, the chicken or the egg I do not know, but looking back you can see how the light bulb came on over HBO’s head and they suddenly understood that Stallone and Norris movies weren’t going to cut it anymore – and neither was shitty programming. Examples of this can be seen when I go back and try to watch something from that era (besides Twin Peaks). A show that I thought was good late 80’s/early 90’s, like say Wiseguy, is a show I invariably find to be disjointed and clumsy. It’s like trying to sit through an episode of the original Masters of the Universe cartoon – you remember it as being awesome, but brother, it’s not awesome. In fact, it sucks. However it was awesome at the time because we didn’t have the level of sophistication and that was partly because there wasn’t anything to prompt us to have it in comparison to watching Prince Adam and Battlecat run back and forth over and over again, or Ken Wahl stumble through something as heart-wrenching as having to choose between his mother’s happiness and feeding her new husband to his partners at the FBI*. Well, television writing has come a loooooonnng way, like I said largely because The Sopranos and HBO’s subsequent series such as Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Carnivale** raised the bar so high. And that level of quality has spun off into a lot of other cable networks as well (in my book AMC holds the title with Breaking Bad) and yes, even the regular networks now as well. The funny thing though is Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing started about the same time as The Sopranos, so that kinda calls bullshit on my entire theory. Or maybe it doesn’t – maybe the fact that The West Wing succeeded where another Sorkin masterpiece, Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip failed was due to The Wings’ conjunction with this sophisticated zeitgeist that swept mainstream audiences at the time The Sopranos hit. Or maybe what’s good can just sometimes, although it often seems rare, stand on its own two legs. Whatever the case, six years ago I never would have thought I’d become such a fan of The West Wing but I am, and now I’m rabidly obsessed with that other show, the one that didn’t make it, Studio 60.
It took me a while to get here – it’s a confluence of events where Netflix began streaming Studio 60 and Social Network put my wife and I back on occasional viewings of favorite West Wing episodes. But now we’re halfway in to the meager, twenty-two episodes and Studio 60 is supplanting Martin and the crew as one of the greatest runs of dialogue EVER.
For those that don’t know Studio 60 is essentially a behind-the-scenes drama about Saturday Night Live, although here they’ve changed SNL to Studio 60 at the Sunset Strip and Lorne Michaels with Danny Tripp, masterfully played by Sorkin favorite Bradley Whitford (Josh Lyman to Wingers). The opening to Studio 60 essentially shows the shows producer Wes Mendell (played by a sorely missed Alex Rieger, I mean Judd Hirsch) have a complete and total meltdown on camera and eventually be replaced by Tripp. The show chronicles the ins and outs of running and weekly live television comedy sketch show and features absolutely amazing performances by Matthew Perry, Amanda Peet, Timothy Busfield as well as an entire host of other great actors and actresses, some you may recognize and others maybe not. And the dialogue… oh that Sorkin dialogue!!!***
Check it out:
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Special thanks to WeickerWanted.
* I may be wrong, but since the first season of Wiseguy is the only one I’ve gone back and attempted to watch I still cling to the hope that the last two seasons were actually good. One day I’ll be able to prove/disprove this.
** I know, I haven’t seen The Wire yet but from what the people whose opinions I respect tell me I’m expecting it to be amazing.
*** And although like West Wing Sorkin left before the end he set the tone and it carries through.