This year at the Oscars, Aaron Sorkin took home a golden statue for his screenplay for The Social Network. Odds are, Aaron Sorkin is not a name with which you are entirely unfamiliar. Even if you had no idea that he wrote The Social Network, you’ve probably either seen or, at the very least heard of, The West Wing. This long-running drama about the behind-the-scenes goings on of the White House and the president’s inner sanctum was as critically acclaimed as it was commercially successful.
Unfortunately, and despite the naked, gold man now staring back at him from his mantle, success is something that often eluded Sorkin early on; especially in the realm of television. In addition to The West Wing, Sorkin produced two shows, Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, that didn’t make it past a second or even an inaugural season respectively. Even if you don’t count yourself an avid fan of Sorkin, these two shows are sterling examples of top-notch television demanding and deserving of your attention.
Sports Night and Studio 60 both revolve around the high-stress world of producing live television shows; something clearly residing comfortably inside Sorkin’s wheelhouse. Sports Night, as its name suggests, takes place in the universe of late-night sportscasting. The lead anchors of this third-place highlight show are Dan Rydell (Josh Charles) and Casey McCall (Peter Krause). Charles is probably best known for his adolescent turn as Knox Overstreet in Dead Poets Society while Krause forced us all to take notice as one of the leads in HBO’s Six Feet Under. The two of them have the amazing back-and-forth chemistry of lifelong friends and they lend a certain unique and honest perspective as to how the on-air camaraderie of sportscasters can be informed by their history together.
What’s interesting about Sports Night is that it features many of the great Sorkin tropes but presented in such a way as to demonstrate how clueless the networks initially were as to how to package his comedies. This was his first show, and his style was clearly at odds with the ABC sitcom blueprint. Despite the breakneck conversational tennis match that comprised almost all of the dialogue and the severity of the drama into which it often chose to delve, Sports Night is the only Sorkin series to feature a laugh track. It could not feel more like a producer’s note and gives certain moments of the series a very inauthentic quality. Despite this misstep, Sports Night is an amazing viewing experience that adroitly juggles heavy drama with cathartic humor. Luckily, the laugh track doesn’t last…unfortunately neither did Sports Night.
After Sorkin’s first run at TV fell flat, he effectively chalked up a win in this column with The West Wing. As if endowed with a renewed confidence in his roots, Sorkin unleashed Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which chronicled the inner workings of a weekly comedy variety show. Much like Sports Night, Studio 60 features an outstanding ensemble cast anchored by two creative characters that are also lifelong friends. In this case, they are two comedy writer/producers played by Bradley Whitford and Matthew Perry. The way these two work off each other is an extension of the relationship between Dan and Casey on Sports Night and arguably an improvement upon it. Studio 60 also benefits from the fact that most of its character roster is made up of people who work in comedy so the laughs are effortless at times, but shockingly and intensely layered at others.
There are two big differences between Sports Night and Studio 60. The first is that by the time Sorkin made Studio 60, he had really hit his stride and the network knew exactly how to present his material for maximum effect…or so they thought. There is no laugh track in Studio 60 and the drama is as warmly embraced as a pratfall or one of Matthew Perry’s signature buffoonish double-takes; one of my favorite things about his style of comedy.
The second difference between the two is inherent in the pilot episodes. In Sports Night, we sort of hit the ground running with an entity (the show within the show) that is already well established and constantly moving so we are introduced in the middle of the story and have to hold on for the ride. Studio 60 on the other hand starts with the colossal collapse of the show within the show and the network’s desperate race to save it from extinction. We are forced to watch something rise from absolute ruin piece by piece. This upheaval accounts for the punch-in-the-gut of what I truly feel is one of the greatest pilots of all time.
So if it’s so good, why was Studio 60 binned after one season? Turns out somebody at NBC had the brilliant idea to launch Studio 60 at exactly the same time as 30 Rock. So audiences were forced to choose between a wacky, broadly drawn show (but still well-written to give credit where credit is due) loosely based on SNL and a cerebral, highbrow deconstruction of SNL. You do the math. While Studio 60 was just removed from Netflix Instant, both seasons of Sports Night were recently added. It would behoove you to shell out a few coins to purchase the first, and only season of Studio 60 and give Sports Night a spin on Netflix. These two shows represent the great potential of television writing, especially in the hands of a mad genius like Aaron Sorkin.
Looney Tunes: Back in Action revisits an age-old Tunes question: Why does the affable Bugs reap all the fame and glory while the egocentric Daffy gets shafted again and again? Our duck friend quite frankly has had it up to his skinny neck playing second fiddle to the carrot muncher. All Daffy wants is a little recognition from the studio but the brothers Warner (actual twin brothers as we come to find out) decide instead to let Daffy out of his contract on the advice of their no-nonsense VP of comedy Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman). Bugs however knows they're making a mistake. Even though Daff bears the brunt of the abuse Looney Tunes would fail without him and Bugs convinces the powers that be they need the nutty mallard. If the plot had only followed this thread--perhaps showing Daffy on the skids--then maybe the film wouldn't have spiraled into Looneyville. Unfortunately Daffy ends up hooking up with the hunky D.J. Drake (Brendan Fraser) a studio security guard who finds out that his famous movie star father Damian Drake (Timothy Dalton) is really a secret agent hunting for a mysterious diamond known as the Blue Monkey a supernatural gem that can turn the planet's population into monkeys. The evil head of the Acme Corporation Mr. Chairman (Steve Martin) wants the diamond for his own diabolical plans and he's kidnapped D.J.'s dad in an effort to get it. Now the gang has to get the diamond save D.J.'s dad and of course save the world.
It might be a little hard to act subtly around cartoon characters but these aren't your ordinary cutesy Mickey Mouse types. Bugs Daffy Porky Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn are pros at comic timing able to spar with the best of them throw out zingers without a second thought and slay you with a droll glance at the camera. It isn't really necessary for the human actors to match their madcap-ness; just reacting would have sufficed. Fraser comes off the best of the human bunch; since he's had practice (Monkeybone) he easily interacts with his animated co-stars and deftly handles the doubletakes and jabs at pop culture. Elfman on the other hand sputters and goes bug-eyed every time she encounters silliness. She looks uncomfortable doing the green screen thing especially when she's trying to look natural when peeling a distraught duck from around her waist. Martin's highly anticipated turn as Mr. Chairman turns out to be the biggest disappointment. The over-the-top character is reminiscent of Martin's hysterically funny Rupert the Monkeyboy in 1988's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels but Martin turns Mr. Chairman--an angry schoolboy with knee socks and matted-down hair who never grew up--into a caricature of ridiculous proportions and unlike Rupert who came in small hilarious doses Mr. Chairman gets very tiresome very quickly.
Back in Action's animation is well done more engaging and ambitious than its 1996 predecessor Space Jam in which the action mostly took place in Looney Tunes land; here animated characters go the Who Framed Roger Rabbit? route and Bugs Daffy and the rest coexist harmoniously with humans in the real world. But despite its aspirations Back in Action leaves out vital elements that made Space Jam appealing. While the earlier film stuck to a simple plot Back in Action guided by director Joe Dante (Small Soldiers The 'Burbs) tries too hard to keep things wild and wacky while incorporating elements of '60s heist pics and action-adventure scenes and in the process loses sight of the most important ingredient in any kids movie: the story. Tykes may have limited attention spans but if the story's good they will watch. Granted some individual bits are laugh-out-loud funny particularly the scene in the Warner Bros. commissary where a stuttering Porky Pig complains about being politically incorrect with Speedy Gonzales while an animated Shaggy and Scooby-Doo berate actor Matthew Lillard for playing Shaggy as such a bonehead in the live-action Scooby-Doo. These scenes prove that if any cartoon characters could pass themselves off as real celebrities in the entertainment industry the gang from Looney Tunes could but moments like these simply can't overcome a contrived plot and juvenile antics.
Gwen Verdon, a four-time Tony Award winner from Broadway's Golden Age, has died at age 75 from natural causes at her daughter's Vermont home. The petite, redheaded performer captivated audiences in musicals such as "Damn Yankees," "Chicago" and "Sweet Charity."
Verdon was married to director-choreographer Bob Fosse, whom she married in 1960, and the couple worked together on "Anna Christie" and "Redhead" along with "Chicago" and "Damn Yankees." Her last Broadway appearance was in "Chicago" in 1975 with Chita Rivera and Jerry Orbach.
Broadway theaters dimmed their lights at 8 p.m. Wednesday in honor of the legend.
ACTRESS JULIE LONDON DIES: Julie London, nurse Dixie McCall of television's "Emergency!", died Wednesday of cardiac arrest in Los Angeles. London, who had been in poor health since suffering a stroke five years ago, was married to "Dragnet" actor Jack Webb, then jazz composer and actor Bobby Troup, who portrayed resident brain surgeon Dr. Joe Early alongside his wife on "Emergency!"
In her youth, London appeared in films with Hollywood legends such as Rock Hudson, Edward G. Robinson and Gary Cooper, and Billboard magazine voted her one of the top female vocalists of 1955, 1956 and 1957.
PRODUCER WALTER SHENSON DIES: Walter Shenson, who produced "Help!" and "A Hard Day's Night" for the Beatles and 12 other films, has died from complications from a stroke in Los Angeles. He was 81.
Shenson worked as a publicist for Paramount Pictures on the films "The Caine Mutiny" and "From Here to Eternity" before turning to producing. Among Shenson's other films: "The Mouse That Roared" with Peter Sellers and "Reuben, Reuben" with Tom Conti.
ACTOR RICK JASON DIES: Rick Jason, who portrayed Lt. Gil Hanley on the 1960s TV series "Combat!", committed suicide at his in Moorpark, Calif., home officials said Tuesday. Jason was 74 and had been depressed over personal matters, officials told Reuters.
Before becoming a household name on "Combat!", Jason starred in the short-lived series "The Case of the Dangerous Robin" and a TV movie, "The Fountain of Youth," directed by Orson Welles. Other TV appearances include "Murder, She Wrote," "Wonder Woman," "Fantasy Island" and "Dallas." Jason also had regular appearances on the soap opera "The Young and the Restless."