Keywords: John Doyle; Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip; fictional characters; television; Men in Trees; Northern Exposure; Ugly Betty; Boston Legal; empathy; incest.
Today for the second time the Globe’s TV reviewer John Doyle predicted that Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip will be cancelled. It hasn’t been announced yet, but I am already beginning to mourn as I prepare myself for the loss of the only new show I’m enjoying this fall. In his column, Doyle tells us not to feel sad about it, since there are so many other excellent TV shows this season. No, there aren’t.
I always mourn the loss of fictional characters whom I have come to love. This is rare because I don’t often love a television character. When I do, then I’ll usually feel as sad as if a real loved one had died. I can’t explain that but, oddly, I think it’s normal.
I cannot agree with Doyle’s cheerleading for this fall’s TV shows. One by one, I’ve been instructing my PVR machine to stop recording them every week. I’ve stopped all the new ones except Studio 60 (see photo) and Men in Trees. The latter, a knock-off of Northern Exposure, doesn’t make me feel bad, which is good enough for it to pass. I had deleted its recording command a while back but I’m giving it another chance.
I have deleted Ugly Betty from my weekly recordings – not because I dislike Betty or her charming male boss, but because of the two exaggerated, unreal villains. The wicked female resembles Cruella in the kids’ film 101 Dalmatians, and her male assistant flounces around in a grotesque parody of gayness. If I cannot bear to empathize with a show’s characters, I zap the PVR and move on in quest of something better.
Last week I also zapped Boston Legal, with regret. It had been worth watching last year because of the intelligent legal cases fought out in its courtroom. Most of its characters are shallow, spending much of each episode dallying sexually with virtual strangers — often in public places. We are expected to laugh at their promiscuity, but I find it depressing.
Still, I used to watch Boston Legal because I enjoyed the debates about political and social problems. For example, the one about mad cow disease convinced me that there are grounds for worry. (Apparently, very few cows are inspected, and the inspectors have ties to the meat-packing industry. There can be conflicts of interest about recognizing such a costly disease. Furthermore, it takes 20 or 30 years for the prions to make a person sick. Possibly millions of people will come down with mad cow disease many years from now, and we cannot anticipate how many.)
Other episodes of Boston Legal dealt with such matters as the unconscionable rate of interest on credit cards, and the invasion of privacy that becomes possible because companies exchange personal information about their customers. (In one courtroom scene, for example, the lawyer Alan Shore congratulated the judge on her successful hemorrhoid operation and the ampleness of her current bank balance: data he had easily obtained over the phone.)
But this year, those intelligent Boston courtroom battles are gone. Instead, there has been a court case involving an asthenic young man accused of murdering his mistress, a much older woman. He had also been having sex with his own mother, who turns out to have been the actual murderer. After his acquittal, we see mother and son passionately kissing. Sorry, that was enough for me. Zap.
(So what’s up with TV writers and incest nowadays? Last night on House there was a plot about a husband and wife who turned out, unknowingly, to be siblings. No, this isn’t altogether new — I recently went to Die Walküre, which is also about sibling lovers, and I haven’t forgotten Oedipus — but these epic dramas were tragedies. The current spate of TV plots are only meant to shock, and I’ve become choosy about the kind of shocks I’ll willingly undergo. Zap.)
Having checked out most of the shows that Doyle praises, my list is dwindling fast. But I’ve still kept looking forward to each new episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip — though its cancellation is supposedly in the offing. Doyle tells me not to mourn, since (and he’s right) the show takes itself too seriously. It’s about two guys who produce Saturday Night Live. One character says that she believes pop culture is important, which is an interesting opinion, albeit one that needs elaboration, unless I am just dense.
Still, there’s a captivating aliveness about Aaron Sorkin’s new show, which could pass for an unscripted documentary about complex, intelligent characters. I love the ambivalent romance between Matt, the sardonic writer, and Harriet, the devout Christian actress. I’ve probably witnessed a dozen lovemaking scenes during the past month (e.g. in Boston Legal) and they all were erotic duds. Yet I held my breath last week during one intense encounter between this restrained, hung-up, longing pair, who didn’t even kiss.
There were other touching scenes too. One involved an old man, apparently demented, who wandered into the historic studio and swiped a photo. It turned out that he had been a writer for the Philco Radio Hour and could identify all the other writers in the picture, who had been blacklisted during the years of McCarthyism.
And I loved another vignette as well about the black comic who manages to give a break to another black stand-up comedian from the LA ghetto where he grew up. He says he can see that part of the city every day from his swimming pool.
So I have found five characters on Studio 60 whom I can love. I don’t quite love them yet but I would if I had a few more months with them. And I am already mourning them. Nobody will fill their place. No one can ever take the place of another beloved person – even a fictional one.