Sunday, December 21, 2008

happy holidays!

The greatest Chistmas laughter ever? A few years ago, my brother johnny and i were visiting bob and jan in the Poconos. They were singing in the Christmas Eve choir at church, so we went to hear them. We sat in the front row of the balcony. Well into the heart of the service, a group-sung hymn came up. We held our hymnal, and as the song was progressing, realized that the lyrics had a very bizarre grammatical structure. Every line of the chorus started with the verb. I casually leaned over to john, and on the next chorus whispered in a yoda voice, "Praise him, we do...worship him, we will."
It is only a mild exaggeration to say that two heathens nearly fell out of the balcony with suppressed laughter.
Happy holidays to all.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"Soap"

1977-1981
In the discussion of the greatest TV shows of all time, one gem gets overlooked more than any other. SOAP gets neglected because it doesn't fit into the established categories. Hysterical and half an hour, but not a sitcom, SOAP spoofed the ridiculous banality of soap operas. And obviously it's had a lasting effect on the genre, as modern soap operas are bastions of credible situations and believable characters.
Or not.
Created by Susan Harris, SOAP was as barrier-breaking as it was funny. It had one of TV's first openly gay major characters. It showed us a high school teenager having an affair with his female teacher (i admit, i thought "oh those silly, over-imaginative writers" when i first watched it). And happily, it was the first show to use the word "boffed".
Richard Mulligan's Burt is one of the most towering physical comedy performances ever. Catherine Helmond and Cathryn Damon were the emotional center of the lunacy. Robert Gillaume took all kinds of flak for signing on to play a black servant, but in Benson he created an iconic character of dignity and humor. Billy Crystal gave a stereotype a heart. Arthur Peterson's portrayal of the Major is purely priceless. Jay Johnson as Chuck and Bob made us believe a doll was as real as any human. Robert Urich was there (which of course is pretty much a given if you're discussing american TV from the 70s to 90s). Ted Wass and Lynne Moody played a loving interracial couple, something i'd never seen. Harold Gould's monologue to the suicidal Jodie is one of the most heart-rending moments in TV history.
Part of the fun of watching Soap today is the parade of actors and bit actors who went on to greater fame. We've got Boss Hogg, Col. Flagg, Johnny Fever and Arthur Carlson, Norm, Mona, Miracle Max, K.I.T.T., Marie Barone, Red, the new Galactica doc...plus Robert Englund, Jack Gilford, and Joe Montegna. A "greatest episodes" list is pretty pointless, because the level of silly wonderfulness never dropped off. Here's to one of TV's landmark shows, and one of the greatest comedic ensembles ever.

Friday, December 5, 2008

"Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip"

2006-2007
Ah, here we are, reveling in the joy that is season three of STUDIO 60! It's December, so we may be treated to yet another amazing Christmas episo-

Oh yeah. I forgot.

STUDIO 60 was cancelled after one season.
You know, that 30 ROCK FROM THE SUN may be brilliant. Any show that taps into Alec Baldwin's comic side is on the right track. I wouldn't know anything about it though, as i've never seen 30 ROCK, and have no plans to do so. I realize that's a tiny bit unfair, but at some point in these shows' concurrent initial seasons, someone decided that two programs about the backstage goings-on of an SNL-style show were one too many. When the dust cleared, STUDIO 60 was gone.
It was going to be one of the best ever, maybe as good as its Aaron Sorkin predecessor THE WEST WING.
Oh, to be sure, they were still finding their first-season feet a bit...but actually less so than WEST WING and any number of other legendary shows. You know how i know? Because i wouldn't have watched the complete series five times in a row on my home dvd player if the show had been only about potential. Five times in a row, plus when it aired the year before. I'd never done anything like that before.
The writing was intelligent, funny, and socially relevant, and the number of shows in TV history which have been all three of those can be counted on one hand, i'm sure. The directing was laser-precise, and the production values were silly good...few casts have ever had so amazing a set. The acting was across-the-board unimpeachable. Bradley Whitford was a rock. Matthew Perry was up to the task of changing the minds of Friends-haters everywhere. Amanda Peet was all over the place and thoroughly believable. Steven Weber brought great sympathy and humor to his oft-antagonistic role. Sarah Paulson is an absolute treasure. Timothy Busfield was beautiful, and never got to the story lines which would have involved him more in following seasons. D.L. Hughley didn't miss a step. If Nate Corddry isn't getting more work, somebody's not paying attention. Merritt Wever was going to be the next Janel Moloney. Ed Asner, Ayda Field, Lucy Kenwright, and Mark McKinney played their roles so well you hoped that they would appear each episode.
HIGHLIGHTS AND LOWLIGHTS
Episode 1: Sharp, airtight, and made luminous by the Emmy-winning (i may be making that up) performance of Judd Hirsch as Wes Mendell, the patriarch who loses his job for telling the truth on-air. The exquisite Donna Murphy also appears, but never again.
Episode 2: The "Model of a Modern Network TV Show" number is probably several times funnier than most production numbers on any real sketch comedy show.
Episode 3: Rob Reiner's Schlomo appearance is classic. Science schmience.
Episode 5: Achingly beautiful music by Sting.
Episode 6: Another guest actor Emmy, for Eli Wallach (although they dropped the ball in trying to have us believe that Cal wouldn't have known the Hollywood Ten).
Episode 7-8: Yet another Emmy, for the irrepressible John Goodman as Judge Bebe. Also notable for getting the Zhang Tao storyline rolling, which featured the saucy Julia Ling, and the not-so-saucy Raymond Ma.
Episode 11: "The Christmas Show", the best of the series, with the most moving musical moment i've ever witnessed on serial TV.
Episode 15: "The Friday Night Slaughter", the worst of the series, a clankety-clunker.
Episode 17: Busfield's biggest episode, made more sweet by the appearance of Allison Janney, the two of whom created WEST WING's most memorable couple. Such fast-paced fun that i watched it five times without realizing that the show's two biggest stars aren't even in the episode.
Episode 19-22: Despite shining guest performances by James Lesure and J.D. Walsh, the final four-episode arc struggles. But to say that they were too heavy is too easy an out. If WEST WING showed us anything, it's that the heavy episodes were very often the best. Perhaps it was too much sustained heaviness, but i prefer to think of these as grandly ambitious stories which nearly came together.