Academic Writing

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Television Matters and Studio 60 Tells us Why - 10/30/06

Television Matters

With one line during the second episode, Aaron Sorkin pleaded with audiences to watch Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The president of the fictitious network, NBS, Jordan McDeer, says that she “Does not believe that the people who watch TV shows are any dumber than the people who make television shows.” Television is a reflection of our culture and what goes up on that screen means a lot: it will effect politics and politics will effect it.

NBC’s new behind the scenes dramedy has been getting a lot of criticism by people who say that Sorkin doesn’t realize that TV isn’t all that important to the general public and that he’s elevating what happens behind the scenes of a sketch-comedy show is as important as what goes on in the White House, or more specifically in the West Wing. People disparage it because Saturday Night Live isn’t as important as Studio 60 wants it to be. I say those people are right about SNL, but they are wrong about Studio 60. When NBC said Studio 60 wasn’t about SNL, they meant it. Studio 60 is about making television matter and making those who watch it realize that it matters. In three words, television is important. OK, so the guys writing and acting in it aren’t necessarily the decision-makers who choose when and where to drop the bomb, but don’t think they don’t influence those decision makers. It’s no coincidence that people want to see John Stewart and George Clooney run for office.

Television and movies matter. Pop-culture does not exist in a vacuum. It’s about politics and how that impacts what we watch and what becomes our pop-culture. It’s about the interweaving of all parts of our lives and the affect each one has on another.

If you saw the October 23rd episode of Studio 60, you watched Tom Jeter (Nathan Cordry) walk through the studio reciting the history of Television to his parents and staring dumfoundedly at them when they had never heard of “Who’s on First.” He doesn’t understand how his parents can have no idea what he was talking about. You also felt his pain when, after describing all the history and the design of the studio, his father said, “So, you’re an interior designer?” Anyone watching the show (fan or not) realizes the ignorance of that comment and sympathizes with Tom. Furthermore, when Tom begs his father to realize the importance of his work, his father’s only response is that he cannot think this important when he has a son in Afghanistan. While fighting a war overseas and acting in a late night sketch comedy show are vastly different, there is still a disconnect between the relationship between politics and media.

In that episode you also watched Cal (Timothy Busfield) realize that the man wandering around the studio (in a superb guest appearance from Eli Wallach) isn’t just some senile old kook, but that he is a WWII hero who not only won the war, but helped shape television and the movies as we know it.

Mr. Wallach plays Eli Weinreb, a comedy writer from the 1940s at the “Philco Comedy Hour” who was blacklisted after writing his first sketch. He was also a member of the fleet that stormed the beaches of Normandy. He’s a national hero for winning the war, but also for standing up for what he believed in and putting it on the air. To Sorkin, winning WWII is equivalent to defying censors and standing up for your beliefs. Eli Weinreb talks about Clifford Odets being so adamant about protecting his friends and being a “radical” for a cause. But Odets went before the House on Un-American Activities Committee and he named names, an act which “killed him” emotionally.

Comedy, television, popular culture all come from somewhere in our history. It’s more important that people might think. Why do we, in 2006, feel that censorship is such a horrible thing? Maybe because in our collective consciousness we remember when Joseph McCarthy went on a rampage seeking out and destroying the lives of any and all possible communists. Why is comedy, in any form, so valued? Perhaps it lies in the fact that we as a nation are mired in a war that is killing thousands of our sons and daughters and we need an escape from it. All of these themes are imbedded within Sorkin’s writing.

As Weinreb tells the executive producers, Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) about the writers he worked with, he mentions Eugene Bookman, a writer “who always liked political humor, of course the network wasn’t comfortable with that in those days.” Matt and Danny share a glance at each other. Of course they know that the same thing holds true 50 years later. The first episode of Studio 60 is all about the network censor squashing a sketch called “Crazy Christians.” The government is trying to censor television content now just as they did back there. How did things turn out for the mavericks of the industry back then? Well, they were forced to turn on their friends and colleagues, the government controlled what people saw, thought and consumed, and the general mood of the country disintegrated into overwhelming fear. Elementary school students were told that if they crouch under their desks and hold their binders over their heads then the A-bomb wouldn’t hurt them. Take one look at the popular culture from the 1950s and that fear becomes glaringly apparent.

In the years from 1940s t0 the 1960s the images Americans consumed changed. Gone was the innocence of Uncle Miltie and Abbott and Costello. No more were movies about there being “no place like home,” they were about longshoremen being forced to rat on their friends. In the 1950s James Dean emerged on the silver screen yelling to his parents, “You’re tearing me apart!” On TV, welcomed were the melodramas of US Steel hour and Marty. The world became a lot scarier and a lot less funny.

So, is there a causal relationship between television and politics? Of course. Does television matter? Absolutely. Should the American public be aware of and interested in the points that Studio 60 is making? Well, that’s up to you to decide.

Maybe I'm an idealist, but watching Studio 60 last night inspired me. To me it wasn’t one show trying to be a mere “behind the scenes” look at another. It was about showing the nation that what we watch and what we consume has an impact. And if I may say so, I think Mr. Sorkin was warning us that we better start paying attention to which values we hold dear, what we watch and what we want to see on our cultural landscape because if we don’t, we might in for a bought of history repeating itself.

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