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‘Studio 60’ – Smarter than your average show

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Aaron Sorkin’s new NBC show ‘Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’ is hitting its stride, and showing there’s mercifully some room for intelligent primetime TV.

Amid the smart-talking and wisecracks, there are some heavyweight references. In recent weeks the show’s namechecked Pericles and Strindberg, and this week there was a sensitively-handled storyline involving the Hollywood blacklistings of the 1950s.

The return of pedeconferencing

An ensemble cast of clever characters walking down corridors having sharp conversations (“pedeconferencing”) was Sorkin’s stock in trade in ‘The West Wing’, but now his TV show is about a TV show (it’s set in a thinly-disguised “SNL”), he can explore the perils and opportunities facing his own medium now.

It’s a return to familiar ground for him – his first TV show was the lauded but overlooked ‘Sports Night’, set in the studio of an almost-ESPN.

Just as The West Wing’s Martin Sheen was the president many of us wished we could vote for, so Amanda Peet plays the head of a network we wish we could watch. She refuses to buy a reality TV show that subjects the competitors to media intrusion until they crack, and supports ‘Studio 60’ as it runs a sketch guaranteed to upset the Christian rIght.

In reality of course, no-one ever went bankrupt underestimating the public’s appetite for down-market TV, and the challenge facing both the show itself and the show-within-the-show is to prove that a smarter approach can also be a success.

Clever but flawed

One way to do this is to wear your learning lightly, and ‘Studio 60’ is careful not to take itself very seriously while making serious points.

The characters are clever, but they’re also endearingly flawed. Matthew Perry plays a version of Chandler (or is that Sorkin?), this time reborn as a neurotically talented head writer.  Bradley Whitford again gets to be a wry and loyal lieutenant. We’re in safe and crucially likeable hands here – and there’s good support from Nate Corddry and D L Hughley (who must be delighted finally to get a script worthy of his stand-up talents),

So, the characters feel real, and the plotting is tight and interwoven. But it’s the script itself that sparkles, without a word out of place. You know you’re watching something out of the ordinary, when the show finishes and you still hear the rhythms of the dialogue in your head.

A real imagined world

With The West Wing, Sorkin’s was an alternative reality that he could never make real. ‘With Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’, he’s imagining an alternate world of good TV, and creating a little bit of it for real at the same time.

Posted by David in • Arts reviewsLife

Arts reviews Blog Santa Fe and New Mexico

Jamie Cullum in Santa Fe

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

(started this ages ago, and just found it in the blog’s back-end, which has a better memory than me, being open-source and not sleep-deprived).

Like many new parents, we don’t get out much (but the fortnightly babysitter-enabled date nights are definitely promising), but when we saw that ridiculously talented floppy-haired young English jazz man Jamie Cullum was coming to Santa Fe, we snaffled up a couple of tickets.

Jamie’s huge in England, but fortunately not so well known here, so he was playing in the small and funky open-air theatre, the Paolo Soleri. The evening came round, and with Memorial Day weekend and all, no one could be found to watch Finn. So she came too – Santa Fe is supremely kid friendly, and no-one batted an eye as we walked in with her in the Baby Bjorn.

It was a great show – Jamie has a great voice, some hot piano chops and a likeable way about him, and soon we were all very happy (and Finn was asleep). Depending on how you look at it, he’s either an MOR crooner and sell-out who pretends to be a jazz musician but is actually after the suburban audience, or he’s the very model of a modern relevant jazz dude, throwing in Doves and Radiohead covers with the standards.

I tend more towards the latter view, and he certainly gave us a good night – it was his last show before heading off on holiday, and the band had an end-of-term feel about them.

The sun set over the Indian School, Jamie said his goodbyes, and I was left wondering what the hell a guy from London made of the whole thing. He was complimentary about the weather and the location, and he certainly liked it more than Phoenix the night before (which wouldn’t be hard), but as he headed off for Hawaii, it just brought home to me how far from home I am here in my new home.

Another couple of audience members have posted their reviews of the show on Jamie’s site (complete with the set list – nice idea, by the way, for any musician’s site)

Arts reviews Blog

Banville’s ‘The Sea’

Monday, February 27, 2006

I’ve just finished John Banville’s The Sea, and I’m mad.

As a writer I don’t think I’ve got an inflated opinion of my own ability, but on a good day I think I can string the words together with clarity, precision and a certain style.

And then I read Banville and realise that I’m just an old hack. His prose shines. You know those creative writing MFA programs that tell you to leave out all the adjectives? Banville’s clearly never been to one, and his choice of perfect and unexpected adjectives help to fix his images in your mind.

The plotting and slow revelation of his characters is artfully done, and the book deals with grown-up subjects like grief, regret and the beastliness of adolescents.

But it’s the prose itself that lingers. And makes me think I should either become a plumber or work harder at the writing.

Posted by David in • Arts reviews

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Blubbering fool

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Since Finn’s been born (and also before, truth to tell), I’ve been very easily moved to tears.

Sometimes a news item will see me crying, especially if kids are involved somehow. But most of my tears are shed over movies.

This week, the great documentary Mad Hot Ballroom did it for me. 

It traces the progress of three sets of 11-year-olds from different New York public schools as they learn ballroom dancing and then compete in a city-wide dance off.

It’s thought-provoking, funny and ridiculously cute, and there are enough ‘aaahhhh’ moments to see me crying.

Worth a look (and you probably won’t cry).

Posted by David in • Arts reviews

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‘Arrested Development’ arrested

Monday, November 14, 2005

Say it isn’t so. Fox have cancelled what I have no hesitation in saying is the funniest TV comedy I’ve ever seen – ‘Arrested Development’.

I came late to the party – the show is starting its third season (one that it won’t finish), and we started watching part of the way through the second – but it’s innovative and flat out hilarious.

It’s been honored with Emmys, and lauded by the critics, but it seems the viewing figures at the beginning of this season were poor. I partly blame baseball. Having moved the show from Sundays to Mondays, Fox then broadcast most of the playoff and World Series games, essentially wrecking the schedule for a month.

When things returned to normal last week with 2 back-to-back episodes, the viewing figures were down (unsurprisingly, as no-one knew where to find the show any more).

So to avoid losing viewers for ‘Prison Break’, which follows, they canned Arrested Development.

The only bright spot is that there are 40-odd episodes so I’d recommend doing what we’re doing: working through them at your own pace, and savouring the fantastic scripts and great acting.

Get ‘em while they’re hot (and if you’re in the UK or Ireland, just hope Channel 4 or someone still buys the episodes that did get made):

Posted by David in • Arts reviews

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Friday, October 07, 2005

imageNow I’ve not much time to check out all the new bands the kids are listening to, any new music that I come across is pretty random.

But I’ve been congratulating myself on getting the album from English act Aqualung (that’s pretty much Matt Hales on his own). In the US, the available album, Strange and Beautiful, is a combination of his first two UK releases).

Atmospheric and crisp, with a bit of Jeff Buckely, Portishead and Coldplay thrown in, I’ve been working away to it for a week or two.

Imagine my surprise last night when the opening bars of the title track ‘Strange and Beautiful’ wafted across to me while watching CSI. The coroner was peeling back the skin from the skull of an exhumed woman at the time, and Aqualung was being used as mood music.

Now when I hear the song again, I’ll think of cadavers. Charming.

Posted by David in • Arts reviews

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The British are Coming

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Something very strange is happening to American TV – it’s come over all English.

We’re used to the sporadic attempts to remake British sit-coms for the US market – from Sanford and Son (Steptoe and Son in the UK), via an ill-advised attempt at Fawlty Towers, through to Coupling and the Office.

Most of the time these don’t work, with the standard explanations given that American audiences don’t like the cruel streak of English humour (the US versions of Absolutely Fabulous and Men Behaving Badly were so bland as to be unwatchable), and that the team approach of US sit-coms (needed because each season is so long) doesn’t sit well with the lone creator style preferred in the UK.

But if comedies don’t often work, it’s a different story with reality TV. Most Americans don’t know that Pop Idol started in England, along with Wife Swap, Nanny 911, What Not to Wear and Trading Places (the US Changing Rooms, because here changing rooms are called locker rooms so the pun doesn’t work).

There are also US versions of Airport, How Clean is Your House, Property Ladder, Antiques Roadshow, Brat Camp, Celebrity Come Dancing, Hit Me Baby One More Time and Life Laundry. Basically, any mildy watchable piece of cheap reality TV you’ve ever seen in Britain has reached our colonial cousins.

So the formats translate pretty well (I’d even argue that What Not to Wear is better here), but recently the personnel have also made it over here, with some weird results.

I’m not sure what the Amercian audiences make of Vernon Kaye’s flat vowels as the host of Hit Me Baby . . . , but everybody loves Gordon Ramsey.

Continuing the theme of British villains (Anne Robinson hosting The Weakest Link, Simon Cowell making hopefuls cry in Idol), it seems the folks here can’t get enough of Ramsey’s rants. The US version of Hell’s Kitchen involved real people rather than celebrities, competing to win a restaurant. It was riveting stuff.

And I switched on ABC the other night to see Johnny Vaughan presenting a frantic game show that looked a little like Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, but with a bigger budget.

Throw in the fey northerner Cash Peters on the Travel Channel’s Stranded, and you’ll see there are plenty of my countrymen on TV over here.

And that’s without watching BBC America, where I can currently get my fill of Little Britain, Teachers and the rest.

How long before Des Lynam’s introducing baseball games, and Paxo’s replacing the sadly departed Peter Jennings as the host of ABC’s flagship news programme?

Posted by David in • Arts reviews

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Email from the past

Thursday, May 05, 2005

faith brothers :: eventideSometimes the Internet can be scary. I woke up with a song in my head, from the British late 80s band The Faith Brothers.

These days, not many people might know much about The Faith Brothers’ album, ‘Eventide’ (except my schoolfriends Shomit and Dale), but for a while it was on heavy rotation in our rooms, and I loved the songs, and the delivery of lead singer Billy Franks. He burned with an earnestness that was so much better than most of the synth-pop nonsense of the time, and tracks like ‘Whistling in the Dark’ and ‘Daydreamer’s Philosophy’ really left an impression. 

As you can tell, since nearly 20 years later I wake up in Santa Fe singing them. At the office, a ridiculously easy piece of internet detective work reveals that Billy’s still going strong, doing some film work and offering some of his latest songs for download.

And here’s where it gets weird. ‘Eventide’ has long since been deleted, so I email Billy to ask him if he knows how I could get hold of a copy. And he replies within a couple of hours.

Now I’m a grown up, and have published a book and all, so I shouldn’t be surprised that there’s actually a real person behind the art. But this is the guy from the Faith Brothers, and the passage of time and my ignorance of what he’s done since then makes it particularly striking that he’s now sending me email.

The good news is that he can get me the CD I’m looking for (my old tape version is in rag order).

And the better news is that his new stuff is good too.

But Billy’s email is like getting a phone call from your favourite footballer when you were growing up.

Posted by David in • Arts reviewsLife