Friday, September 29, 2006

Dear Aaron Sorkin: One Tiny Studio 60 Response

Welcome back to television, Aaron Sorkin--we've missed you! It's been a lonely three years without you, watching The West Wing teeter and topple (and then right itself, a little, towards the end). I've got quite a few things to say about your new show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip--most of them, just to be clear, quite complementary. But I'm going to hold off on any serious discussion for a while, let the show find its voice before I start taking it apart to see what makes it tick. Right now, however, I have one teeny-tiny complaint.

We all laughed, some of us less comfortably than others, at the LemonLyman.com subplot on The West Wing a few years back. Sure, you were sticking it to your fans for being so uppity as to have an opinion about your work, but you had the presence of mind to latch on to the caricature of the bossy, tyrannical forum moderator--a stereotype rooted in an all-too painful reality, which most internet users had probably encountered and lampooned themselves long before you thought to do so. Plus, only a cold, black heart could fail to find humor in the sight of C.J. Cregg threatening to shove a motherboard "so far up [Josh Lyman's] ass!" So you got a pass from internet fandom for that one.

Which might have inspired you to go back to that well in "The Cold Open," Studio 60's second and most recent episode, in a scene in which comedians Simon and Tom belittle a blogger for criticizing their show (or, more precisely, for having nothing better to do than blog critically about their show). And I'm sorry, but this time around the joke isn't quite so funny.

For future reference, here's how the world works:

You can make the premise of your show the argument that television should be taken seriously as an artform by the people who make and distribute it, or you can deride the people who do take it seriously enough to criticize it. You can't do both.

You can extol the value of professionalism, as exemplified in this instance by the credential system, or you can make the week's villain an evangelical magazine with a high circulation and then boggle at the notion that said magazine might get a credential to a major network press conference. You can't do both.

You can harangue television in a five-minute speech that has had the internet abuzz since June, calling for a commitment to quality and integrity, or you can have a blogger express the same thoughts only to be called a loser. You can't do both.

But most importantly, you can call bloggers and internet fans hacks and ridicule the notion that they have anything of meaning to contribute to the conversation, or you can have your characters decide that their cutting-edge, high-concept, razzle-dazzle-knock-'em-on-their ass cold open is going to be a Gilbert & Sullivan filk.

You can't do both.

19 comments:

chance said...

Well said.

Telepresence said...

The show is bugging the hell out of me so far, despite my regard for previous Sorkin/Schlamme work and the several people in the cast of whom I'm fond.

I intend to give it a lot of chances to win me over, but so far...meh.

amber said...

As I've heard the story, there was more to the LemonLyman.com subplot than just "sticking it to fans." Sorkin allegedly was posting in the 'Television Without Pity' West Wing Forum defending his storylines and insulting fans who were criticizing the show. The moderator of said forum threatened to ban him if he didn't follow the posting rules. Sorkin was angry to be treated this way and created the "tyrannical forum moderator" to mock/insult the TWOP moderator. There was discussion about this in the TWOP "Ask Tubey" forum a while back, and there are some references to it in the actual recaps surrounding the LemonLymon.com plot.

I love Sorkin's work, but I don't think he's someone I'd like to know personally. While I enjoyed Sports Night and his years on West Wing, I'm still not sure about Studio 60. The characters have certainly spent a lot of time telling us how they're going to save us from mind-numbing television. Now I think it's time for them to stop talking about it, and prove it.

Anonymous said...

Most of your points are not actually mutually exclusive, so you CAN in fact have both, but the main thing to get out of that is that the point was that internet critics ARE worth listening to. One character criticised them, another defended them - the last word was left with the defense, making it quite clear which way the show is feeling on that.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Thanks for the background info re: LemonLymon, Amber, although I can't say that it makes Sorkin look any better.

Anonymous:

the main thing to get out of that is that the point was that internet critics ARE worth listening to. One character criticised them, another defended them - the last word was left with the defense, making it quite clear which way the show is feeling on that.

I'm not sure where you see this so-called defense. Tom's response to Simon is (this is my best attempt at transcribing some pretty fast and slightly garbled dialogue, but apart from a few prepositions I think this is about right):

"The New York Times is going to quote Bernadette so that the people can be heard and the Times can demonstrate they're not the media elite. I preferred it when they were elite; I'm a fan of credentials. It's like we've all spent the last five years living in a Roger Corman film called Revenge of the Hack. I have to care about the internet, Sim, you know why? Because everybody else does."

I mean, sure, it's better than being called obese, pyjama-clad, multi-feline-owning freaks, but the operative word is still 'hack'.

Niall said...

I actually saw some comment saying that this was the episode that showed that Aaron Sorkin finally Got The Internet, based on the fact that Rapture Magazine putting a notice up on their website was like "flashing the batsignal"; me, I think that's rather missing the point that those who read Rapture Magazine are probably crazy people. I'm not sure that Sorkin is ever going to get it, at this point -- he's clearly had some bad experiences, and taken them as representative, and they're bleeding through into his writing. But "The Cold Open" is still a step forward -- "I have to care about the internet" is the key message from that scene, I think, because he does, despite the fact that he doesn't want to.

But I'm afraid I have to side with anonymous, in that I think most of your either/ors aren't that either/or. In the case of this particular scene, he wasn't criticising people who take tv seriously, he was criticising hacks; we can argue all day about whether or not he's right to perceive the online world as primarily the domain of hacks, but that's a different argument than the one you're having with him.

And Sorkin wasn't boggling at the fact that Rapture Magazine has enough readers to warrant press credentials, he had his characters do it -- which is fair enough. More to the point, having a large circulation has nothing to do with "credentials" in the sense that Tom was using them in the speech you quote.

Similarly I don't see a contradiction between using Gilbert & Sullivan and saying that bloggers are hacks. Most filk sucks; Sorkin's didn't. The song worked on a literal level (it did all the things Matt said it needed to, in terms of being self-deprecating etc), it worked on a meta level (in terms of saying "hey, this is an Aaron Sorkin show!"), and it worked on the level of actually being funny.

If I were going to pick nits with the show at the moment, it would be with the characterisation. I don't think Sorkin has got Danny Tripp pegged yet, and Jordan is still too damn perfect. I also think Iain made a very good point when he said that it's hard to write about writing funny things without drawing attention to the funny bits of you're own writing. But it's early days yet.

Telepresence said...

"and it worked on the level of actually being funny."

I thought the G&S skit was pretty flat.

"If I were going to pick nits with the show at the moment, it would be with the characterisation."


I find the show shockingly unfunny, given that most of the characters are supposedly in the business of being funny. I realize it's a drama, not a comedy, and that the show within the show is supposed to be in a creative slump, but I'm still pretty surprised how bland the on-air talent (Hughley, Corddry, and Paulson's characters) are.

I'm also having some difficulty with how autobiographical it feels.

Sorkin's protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, it feels awfully much like Sorkin and Schlamme managed to get an entire show made built on the premise that Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme are awesome. Flawed, but still awesome, and the saviors of TV. The Mary Sue-ishness of it has pulled me out of both episodes so far.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Niall:

In the case of this particular scene, he wasn't criticising people who take tv seriously, he was criticising hacks

No, he was calling people who take TV seriously hacks - his example of a hack was a person who made the same points as Wes did in the pilot, and in language that was in no way inflammatory or disrespectful (and note the way he casually slips in a rather bizarre and unlikely typo - 'coughin' instead of 'coffin' - as yet another way of belittling the blogger). I can only conclude that anyone who criticizes an Aaron Sorkin show online automatically falls into the hack category simply for not being an industry insider.

Professionalism is really what "The Cold Open" is all about - the importance of taking what you do seriously, even if what you're creating is inherently un-serious. The problem is that Sorkin's definition of professional is a moving target - he starts out clearly delineating credentialled journalists from underdressed slobs (and this ties in to Danny's rant about proper workplace atire) and ends with Jordan calling a highly organized media group amateurs. The impression I draw from this is that Sorkin has placed himself in the role of ultimate arbiter of professionalism, and my complaint was that he keeps altering his yardstick for that determination - is a person an amateur for making a reasoned argument while wearing a pyjama and writing from their home in Missoula or Little Rock or Tel Aviv (and in heat of excoriating professionals who don't take their work seriously, does it ever occur to Sorkin that there are people out there who take their work seriously but aren't professionals?), or are they an amateur for being religious fanatics and not knowing how to change the channel? I can't escape the impression that, for Sorkin, 'amateur' has become synonymous with 'someone who disagrees with me.'

Similarly I don't see a contradiction between using Gilbert & Sullivan and saying that bloggers are hacks. Most filk sucks; Sorkin's didn't.

I agree with Telepresence on this point. The reason I latched on to the G&S filk is that "I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General" is one of the most filked songs in the history of filks (out goes originality, and one might even say that riffing the song creates the exact opposite of the fresh and daring impression Danny and Matt were trying to create), but also because you don't have to go very far to find versions of the song that are funnier and a great deal more clever than what Sorkin came up with - see my four examples for a tiny taste.

Telepresence:

I find the show shockingly unfunny, given that most of the characters are supposedly in the business of being funny.

That's been a concern of mine as well. There's a problem whenever art talks about art - the temptation is to aggrandize the final product, and more often than not what we're left with are promises that can't be delivered on. Sorkin is going down that path in a big way by making his characters the best writer, the greatest producer, the funniest and cleverest comedienne, in the business.

On the one hand you're right to say that Sorkin's Studio 60 isn't meant to be a comedy - as a corollary to the theme of professionalism, the second point that "The Cold Open" seems to be making is that comedy is a serious business. My problem with this approach - discussing only the creative process and not its result - is that we end up with an inherently dishonest creation. We're either forced to accept that a lukewarm product is in fact a masterpiece (see the Major General filk) or we veer very close to the dangerous claim that so long as artists put their heart and soul into their work it doesn't really matter what the end result looks like (otherwise known as the J. Michael Straczynski school of television writing, and now that I think about it if there's one person in television today who can rival Straczynski's ego it is clearly Aaron Sorkin).

And the thing is, I'm pretty certain Sorkin can't deliver on his promises. If there's one word that perfectly describes his tone, it's 'earnest' - on his best days, shading into 'inspirational' or 'stirring'; on his worst, moving towards 'hectoring,' 'preachy,' and even 'shrill.' I don't think Sorkin can do satire - thus far, his attempts at it, like LemonLyman.com, have been rather mean.

Niall said...

No, he was calling people who take TV seriously hacks - his example of a hack was a person who made the same points as Wes did in the pilot

No, he wasn't, because no, it wasn't. Bernadette was saying that Studio 60 had *never* been any good -- "rarely rose to the level of Saturday Night Live at its best", or words to that effect -- and she was further pre-judging the new production team -- "the hiring of Matt Alby and Danny Trip is a sideshow". Wes, on the other hand, created Studio 60, so presumably didn't think he was wasting his time, and I bet he'd be waiting to see what Matt and Danny came up with, too. There's actually precious little indication that Bernadette *does* think seriously about tv in the quote we're given, to be honest. It's certainly not a "reasoned argument", because there's nothing backing any of it up -- it's just her opinion.

The problem is that Sorkin's definition of professional is a moving target

I don't think it is. In fact, you said it -- it's about taking what you do seriously. So Jordan can call a media group amateur because she doesn't think they're taking what they do seriously, for instance. And Matt's rant about clothes wasn't entirely literal, given (a) he later says "I couldn't believe the words were coming out of my mouth, but apparently I felt pretty strongly about it", and (b) he's later wearing clothes not too dissimilar to the rest of the staff -- it was an expression of the stress he was under, not to mention a setup for Harriet's storming entrance.

you don't have to go very far to find versions of the song that are funnier and a great deal more clever than what Sorkin came up with

Cleverer? Eh, maybe, in places. Funnier? Not so much, because they depend on being part of an insider audience. The Harry Potter and Xena ones, like most things to do with Harry Potter and Xena, seem to me to be a waste of space -- which is not to say that they are, necessarily, but to point out that the reason Sorkin's G&S parody is impressive is because it is accessible to anyone tuning in to that episode of S60 while still having layers. Matt and Danny were very specific about which orchestras they wanted, because that was part of the message, for instance, and part of the reason I found it funny. Context is important, too -- the fact that there are a thousand-and-one Major General parodies online is really neither here nor there, because they couldn't have worked as the cold open, and because most of S60's audience will never have seen any of them, because most of them are people who tune in to see acts like The White Stripes.

The question of whether or not S60 can be honest about its subject is more serious, I think. I keep coming back to the lines Sorkin uses in "The US Poet Laureate" -- "You think that I think that an artist's job is to speak the truth. An artist's job is to captivate you for however long as we've asked for your attention. If we stumble into truth, we got lucky, and I don't get to decide what truth is." Those lines have always seemed to me to be a far more worrying criticism of those who would take tv seriously than any of the LemonLyman business, or Bernadette in this episode, simply because they're such a complete abdication of responsibility.

Iain Clark said...

I don't necessarily disagree with your criticisms so much as with the intensity of them. In particular with regard to the bloggers I think you're drawing a surprising amount of offence (and inferring great contempt) from a very minor part of the episode. It's a minor slight at best. Sorkin may or may not be contemptuous of the internet and egotistical, but frankly it went straight by me in the episode. And if anyone in TV has a right to be egotistical it's Aaron Sorkin (which doesn't excuse self-indulgence but does entitle him to a certain amount of leeway, at least in my book.)

I don't think this show is clicking just yet, but equally I don't find it offensive and I'm certainly not willing Sorkin to fall flat on his face. My biggest problem so far is in seeing past the baggage that all concerned - writers, directors, actors - bring to the table, leaving me unusure whether I'm judging the show that's being produced or the show I expected to be produced.

I do agree that the series has a major problem in attempting to portray creative genius in action - either we see the end result and suffer that awful feeling of being told something is brilliant when it isn't, or we don't see the end result and just have to take it on trust; perhaps the safer option, but also the more frustrating. This episode took a mixed approach which I expect will be typical - show us small segments and allow us to imagine the rest. I didn't mind the Gilbert & Sullivan skit, because we were invited to judge it as much on whether it met its intended goals (which, as Niall says, it did) as on whether it was hilariously funny or original. In fact it was somewhat better than poor, but somewhat short of innovative comedy genius.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Niall:

There's actually precious little indication that Bernadette *does* think seriously about tv in the quote we're given, to be honest. It's certainly not a "reasoned argument", because there's nothing backing any of it up -- it's just her opinion.

Well, we could start by asking why Bernadette is represented only by a strongly felt opinion and not a reasoned argument when we know that such an argument exists (and yeah, Wes felt more charitably towards the show than Bernadette ever did, but their final conclusions were the same - time to change the channel) but I think a more important point is that while Bernadette may not think seriously about television, she does take it seriously - seriously enough to criticize it when it fails to meet her standards. I'm not sure how that justifies Sorkin's ridicule. For that matter, why should just expressing an opinion make someone a hack? You and I have certainly done our share of it, and so, for that matter, do Matt and Danny.

Jordan can call a media group amateur because she doesn't think they're taking what they do seriously

But clearly they do - judging by this standard, she's completely unjustified in referring to them as amateurs.

We'll have to agree to disagree about the Major General filk - I found Sorkin's version pleasant but unexciting and I think the Xena filk in particular is hilarious even though I've never been a fan of that show (also, this morning my mother reminded me that Mad About You did a Major General filk about ten years back that was a hell of a lot funnier than Studio 60's without resorting to fandom buzzwords).

But I was probably wrong to focus on the quality of the filk in my response to your comment, because my original point didn't really have much to do with whether it was any good. If we step away from the show-within-a-show, we get Sorkin talking at us about the difference between amateurs and professionals, and as an example of professionalism he chooses one of the most common amateur activities out there and the most common subject for that activity. I see what you mean about the filk doing what Matt and Danny need it to do, but on the meta-level (which is where most of the show is happening, at least thus far) I don't see how the juxtaposition works.

I don't remember having a very strong reaction to that line in "The U.S. Poet Laureate," but after Amber clarified the history of LemonLyman.com I went over to TWoP and found quite a few irate reactions along the lines of what you express here. I see what you're saying and I do agree that there's a certain danger in an artist committing themselves entirely to entertainment, but I've come across the opposite problem - artists so committed to telling the truth that they forget to create art - in too much of my recent reading to completely reject Sorkin's approach. There has to be a balance between truth and beauty.

Iain:

You're right that I'm probably taking a bit more offense than is strictly warranted, but apart from any personal feelings of ill will I think the dig at the blogger is indicative of a level of intellectual dishonesty that crops up very often in Sorkin's writing. Especially in a show as personal as Studio 60 obviously is, and which is thus far operating at least in part as Sorkin's manifesto, that dishonesty rankles (plus, Sorkin hasn't earned nearly the amount of leeway from me that he seems to have done from you).

However, as I say in the original post, most of what I have to say about the show thus far is positive - this is only one small complaint.

Ilana said...

I'd heard this show was great, but after reading your comments I may just take a pass on this one. I could appreciate the first season of "West Wing" (the only season of the show that I watched) for its clever dialogue, but I disliked the way it was so very much The World According to Aaron Sorkin, where all republicans are wrong, all democrats are right, and every moral issue is helpfully clarified for the viewers just in case we aren't sure what to think. Without dialectic, art is simply narcissism in my view, rather than an exploration as it is supposed to be (again in my view). I guess I'll be the only one I know not watching this.

Anonymous said...

>>> I guess I'll be the only one I know not watching this.

I shan't be watching either. I found the West Wing to be eight different shades of awful and those six or so minutes of Sports Night I watched on Youtube made my brain cry so I suppose there isn't much point carrying on with the man.

>>> Without dialectic, art is simply narcissism in my view, rather than an exploration as it is supposed to be

>>> I keep coming back to the lines Sorkin uses in "The US Poet Laureate" -- "You think that I think that an artist's job is to speak the truth. An artist's job is to captivate you for however long as we've asked for your attention. If we stumble into truth, we got lucky, and I don't get to decide what truth is." Those lines have always seemed to me to be a far more worrying criticism of those who would take tv seriously than any of the LemonLyman business, or Bernadette in this episode, simply because they're such a complete abdication of responsibility.

From my experience, (my viewing of the West Wing was pretty limited 'cause, er, I didn't like it) both of these points are symptoms of the malady at the heart of Sorkin's writing: he's unwilling to fumble toward the truth. He knows what he knows and if that means ignoring the large chunks of reality that challenge what he knows then so be it. That's what contains him, that's what prevents him from doing anything of real artistic merit. He litters his writing with signifiers of cultural prestige but for all his quoting of dead Irish writers or whoever, he's failed to assimilate their artistic visions, to understand what they were doing on the most basic level and see that’s where their worth lies.

'The U.S. Poet Laureate' was one of the episodes I saw and when I heard those lines fall from Laura Dern's mouth, I knew this Sorkin dude was an intellectual dead-end. Yeah, Dante wrote 'The Divine Comedy' 'cause a tour of hell and stuff, that's a funky and fresh idea. And T.S. Eliot packed The Waste Land with literary allusions, not because he was constructing an anthropological and philosophical vision, but because, who doesn't like a good scavenger hunt. And to put those word's in the U.S. Poet Laureate's mouth, a figure of enormous intellectual cachet, was pretty darn obnoxious. Maybe all those episodes I saw were the West Wing's 'The Zeppo's or 'Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space''s, but I doubt it.

Apropos to this not really, I recently watched the first season of ‘The Wire’ and, Abigail, if it's a balance of truth and beauty you're after, than the DVD set awaits. The story coheres better than Veronica Mars Season 1 and the ponderous asides that gives HBO shows their depth are worked into the plot so out of Deadwood and Six Feet Under and all those fellas, it's the most entertaining. And the breadth of the social picture it creates is unchallenged in television. If I have gauged your tastes correctly, I think you’ll go gaga over it. (I though of mentioning this because the Baltimore of ‘The Wire’ doesn’t exist in the America of ‘The West Wing’; it exists in reality)

S

Anonymous said...

>>> Abigail, if it's a balance of truth and beauty you're after, than the DVD set awits.

Huh. If you do watch 'The Wire', you'll probably find a recommendation with that typo funny.

S

Anonymous said...

I'm a little confused. Sorkin's written a fictional show, right? One in which there are characters, not him sitting there reading an essay on camera?

If this is the case--and having seen all three episodes so far, I believe it to be true--aren't you making the same old mistake of confusing the characters for the writer?

In short, why do you keep having to find lessons and strict one-dimensional meaning in things? The world exists in three-dimensions.

No, Sorkin doesn't have to do any of the things you suggest. He doesn't have to do either/or anything.

He also doesn't need to be lectured by you--I mean, your lead-in is, frankly, the classic fan-atic's attempt at baseless personal familiarity.

JeffV

Abigail Nussbaum said...

It's not entirely clear to me from your comment, Jeff, whether you've watched Studio 60 in general or the episode I'm referring to.

Regardless, surely you'll agree that it is possible to recognize score-settling and speechifying even without the writer resorting to reading a speech on screen?

Nine other people have commented on this post, and while some of them feel that I've taken Sorkin to task unnecessarily or that my interpretation of what he's trying to say about online fan writers is inaccurate, none of them seem to feel that I'm wrong to characterize the scene as Sorkin talking at his audience.

Andrew Stevens said...

I greatly admire Aaron Sorkin. It's a pity he's wasted so much of his talent on drugs and I dearly hope he's gotten past that and can continue to do what he does best. Having said all of that, Aaron Sorkin is a one-trick pony. The only thing he can do is write snappy dialogue. He's fantastic at it, probably the best I've ever seen, but if you want wisdom or depth, Aaron Sorkin is not your man and never has been. Of all his shows, Sports Night was the best, primarily because he didn't stop off to speechify at his audience about topics he could barely comprehend. Sorkin is a genius at linguistic cleverness and this can often confuse people into believing his opinions are worth taking seriously. They aren't. His analysis is shallow, his reasoning quite unsound, and his capacity for rationalization is all but unbounded. (He also doesn't know what the word "arcane" means and apparently thinks it means "archaic.") I admire Aaron Sorkin for the talent he does have. It's fairly pointless to get angry at him for the talents he doesn't, one of those being self-awareness of his own limitations. This is why he gets so angry when people call him on it. Deep down, he is painfully aware that he is an intellectual fraud, covering it up with his snappy eloquence and Cliff Notes literature references. (Don't get me wrong. I have no doubt that Sorkin actually does know his literature. Why literature people think this is an adequate substitute for philosophy has always confounded me.) This is why, in the Television Without Pity debate, he withdrew from his factual errors by claiming that his "little show" was just telling stories and shouldn't be taken seriously as a political statement. He's right about that, of course, but he doesn't really mean it.

I assume someone may now object to my comments as well. After all, how do I know Aaron Sorkin isn't an intellectual juggernaut deep down and just never reveals it in his scripts? Obviously, the West Wing is the clincher. The whole premise of the show is that the Ivy League can save us all and presumably Sorkin gave his brightest characters his best arguments. (If he didn't, then Sorkin isn't even as smart as I think he is.) I was unimpressed. I've seen better arguments at college bull sessions. I've certainly seen better arguments (on either side) on blogs.

Unlike Aaron Sorkin, I think the fact that he's not nearly as smart as he thinks he is happens to be no big deal. I don't judge people by my estimate of their intelligence, but by their character and moral worth. In my view, intellect is primarily something you happen to be born with and no particular moral credit attaches to the possessor any more than it does for beauty or athletic skill. Sorkin does judge people by their intelligence so I'm sure he would view this as a personal attack. It isn't. I wish Sorkin nothing but success and happiness and I hope he continues to entertain people until he dies at a ripe old age.

Niall said...

Jeff -- the thing is, we know Aaron Sorkin used The West Wing as a pulpit, to speak directly to his audience, on at least two occasions: the LemonLyman skit was an admitted reference to his personal misadventures at Television Without Pity, and the Poet Laureate's words were an admitted expression of his own philosophy about writing. I wouldn't say he's completely forfeited the right to the benefit of the doubt as to whether he believes what his characters say, but he's certainly and knowingly blurred the line. (And given the use of autobiographical elements in Studio 60, he continues to blur it.)

Dan Hemmens said...

Six years out of date as ever, I've just got around to watching this show and ... oh dear oh dear oh dear.

I think what I find most infuriating about it is that not only is the show-within-the-show kind of awful (I could almost forgive this as a realistic portrayal of the hit-and-miss nature of topical sketch comedy if it wasn't so clear we were supposed to think that Chandler-from-Friends is a genius) but that the rest of the plot is the worst kind of mawkish, soap-opera drivel.

Sorkin really seems to believe that because characters in his show *talk about* the need for television to be more challenging and cerebral that this necessarily *makes* the show challenging and cerebral which it, well, doesn't.

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