Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Cultural Wasteland? Part 2

As I wrote about smart television last week I left out a few of my favorites in consideration of time and space. Technically I can make these blog posts as long as I want, but try to set things at a reasonable length to avoid boring the hell out of you people. Any more than I already do, that is. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is the perfect example of smart television, and watching it makes me wish I had jumped on the West Wing bandwagon while it was still on the air. As it is now I still haven't watched an episode of that earlier, reportedly superior series.

Studio 60 follows a group of actors, writers, executives and technicians so witty, intelligent, good looking, and passionate about their jobs that they could only exist together in an Aaron Sorkin fantasy, and my only real problem with the show is that it knows how smart it is, and it really wants YOU to know it, too. Bonus points go to the show-runners for putting in a 2-part episode(starring the underused John Goodman) that dealt with the tendency for Hollywood to underestimate the intelligence of middle-America, but penalties for patting themselves on the shoulder so much for being 'understanding'. Much of the episode had the feel of a well-produced PSA trying to hammer into your head how worthwhile middle-America is, with plenty of 'way to go, us, for pointing this out'. Aside from that problem-which they are addressing, if these last few episodes are anything to go by- the show is pretty spotless. The cast is all around excellent, making me admire Matthew Perry for the first time, but also featuring some mighty fine supporting performances. The writing is both funny and thought provoking, with dialog that rushes by in a rat-a-tat manner(you may want to tape this show so you can rewind and catch missed lines). Oddly enough, however, this witty writing doesn't extend to the small glimpses we get of the show within a show, a Saturday-Night-Live0but-better weekend sketch comedy show. It could be that the producers are purposely writing mediocre and unfunny bits to mirror the way SNL has gone of late, but that doesn't really jibe with the oft-stated goal of the show. Studio 60 is a big hour long block of liberal wish fulfilment, how all of us stalwart SNL supporters, waiting out these mediocre seasons because we know it can't last, want to imagine that hallowed institution. But more than that it shows us a Hollywood we wish existed, populated by people who actually care about quality entertainment that betters the world.

Because somehow the radical, religious right has inserted itself into the mainstream. If you were to ask the average person on the street(man or woman) whether or not it bothered them that Janet Jackson's nipple was visible for a fraction of a second during a football game, the answer would probably be no. Or just a shrug. Most people don't care about this, and yet CBS was fined millions of dollars, and that event has changed the way everybody watches TV by forcing networks to put time-delays on live broadcasts and second guess just about everything they put into a show. How was this done? How did so few gain so much power? Well, aside from whatever you want to say about our current presidential administration, the simple fact is, they got active. People not offended by the nipple incident didn't really feel the need to call the FCC and express their apathy, whereas anyone offended by this emailed everyone they knew, told everyone in their church, or anyone stuck next to them on a bus, that this was a travesty unlike anything since, well, ever. And they emailed the FCC expressing this displeasure. The FCC technically has no one monitoring the airwaves, and they react only to complaints received. I am without the actual statistics in front of me, but the FCC went from receiving a few hundred complaints a year to suddenly receiving literally hundreds of thousands a month. Suddenly they were inundated with millions of emails, apparently leading them to believe that everyone in America saw, and was traumatized by, Ms. Jackson's nipple. That would certainly explain the proliferation of downloads of said nipple pictures. Right?

In the big picture, this whole affair with the FCC isn't stopping any artists from getting their messages out, it's merely making them think around some very stupid obstructions(which, as we've all seen, can lead to some truly sublime work). This is part of an overall trend in which the religious right has hijacked this country by convincing people that they are the norm, the majority, when in actuality they aren't. In reality, the normal people enjoy things like birth control, pre-marital sex, and the occasional f-bomb.

For anyone else annoyed by the hijacking of our popular culture, Studio 60 offers a pretty good weekly hour of escapism, with an entertaining plot line unfolding right now about the very things I've been so upset about. Any of my complaints about the show(the preachiness, the 'aren't we smart' attitude) are all outweighed by the overall production, and it really does put a big, liberal smile on my face.

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