Thangs

Day 34. Internet connection still crappy. PlusNet finally agree to move us back to the BT network at no charge to us – which will take at least 7 days since they basically have to ask Tiscali for the MAC code to move us. This is no different to the situation if we were moving ISPs. How crazy is it that they would put us on a product that’s essentially with a different supplier, which makes it significantly more problematic to troubleshoot problems or indeed to leave?

Still, they’re actually moving us back, which means that either the connection returns to the lovely stable 2MB one we used to have – win – or we can now up-sticks and move to any other ISP as normal – win! Here in the customer trade we call that… well, we call it a month of hellishly poor service followed by an achingly slow resolution with the prospect of further disruption to come. But we’d probably try to work the word “win” in there at least once.

Changing tacks and slipping gracefully below the spoiler space we’ve now seen episode 2 of Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

I liked the pilot a fair bit, although parts of it felt like an awkward first date and at times the characters were less loveable than the writing seemed to imply. Oddly the preponderance of familiar faces in the show cuts both ways; as reassuring as it is to see Josh from The West Wing and Chandler from Friends as our two leads, it’s hard to see past the baggage they bring to the people with whom we’re supposed to be connecting. There’s also an obvious problem in writing a funny show about people trying to write a funny show. Whereas in the White House the humour is un-self-conscious because it’s never (well, rarely) the central thrust of the story, here it’s the very meat and potatoes of the series. Instead of basking in unexpected wit the audience is left analysing every humorous moment, particularly those in which the characters are writing comedy material, trying to judge whether it’s as funny as we’re being led to believe. They may as well hang a sign on the jokes marked “Was I funny enough?” Plus it’s written by Aaron Sorkin, who’s competing against the distilled memory of his own best work. And last but not least the programme is more meta even than Sports Night, requiring us to accept that the production of light entertainment is a heavyweight artistic enterprise and not merely a production line run by b-list hacks with fragile egos.

The second episode is a big improvement. Last week was all about the set-up, with very little in the way of pay-off. We didn’t even get to see what material our apparently uber-talented lead characters were capable of producing. As a result it was hard to get a feel for how the show might play on a week-by-week basis. This episode essentially re-establishes the characters and the classic underdog premise and wraps it up in a tightly structured story centring on their first week at work, the ticking clock even visible on the wall. The script feels like it’s trying much less hard to win us over, with the result that it’s generally much more likeable, and crucially we actually get to see some of the fictional Studio 60 material, and it’s pretty decent. Decent enough, anyway.

Thankfully Sorkin has gone out of his way to defuse most of the obvious pitfalls. The show is witty, but it’s not intended to be an out-and-out comedy – in many ways it’s less humorous than The West Wing – which alleviates much of the performance anxiety. The characters are screw-ups facing an impossibly high bar and terrified that they won’t be funny, so we’re willing them to be funny instead of judging them. The script also feely acknowledges all our reservations about the lack of substance in show-business by having the main characters express just those sentiments on a regular basis: all TV is lowest common denominator pap produced by barely-talented cowards with one eye on the balance sheet – except this show, and except these people. It’s the same trick that Sorkin pulled with politics, and it works well. We don’t mind that the characters want to succeed and take their job seriously, because we’re given permission to focus on the specifics of their situation and forget about the generalities of the industry.

My only remaining reservations are really that a great deal of the set-up is potentially quite soapy in ways that make Sports Night look positively issue-led. Brad Whitford and Matthew Perry still have some way to go to convince me that they’re not Josh and Chandler, particularly the former, and so I’m still sizing the characters up to an extent. Even the supporting characters, of whom there are many, are only just beginning to differentiate themselves from the extras. But ultimately the writing is sharp, the acting is solid, and the show is basically very likeable. There’s lots of potential here and – by the end -a warm glow that’s definitely enough to carry me on to next week’s episode.

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