Friday, July 06, 2007

Let's Put On a Show: A Comparison

Now that it is over, let us take a moment to praise a show that did not, in life, receive nearly its fair share of accolades. A show about show-making, which starts with the realization, by a respected creator and long-time veteran of the battle between commercial and artistic considerations, that he has stagnated, and allowed the venue for which he has been responsible for decades to stagnate with him. His violent abdication can be remedied only by the return of his former protégé, a brilliant man who parted with his mentor after a brutal humiliation. He, in turn, must find a way to balance his artistic integrity with the financial considerations of his employers, who have little understanding of art and even less interest in learning about it, while battling his attraction to his leading lady, an aggravating but furiously talented woman.

I'm speaking, of course, of the Canadian series Slings & Arrows, which wrapped up its three season run (making for a grand total of eighteen episodes) last year, and which is, in almost every respect, the anti-Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Set in the fictional town of New Burbage, and revolving around its renowned Shakespeare festival, the series's first season opens on the opening night of A Midsummer Night's Dream. For the festival's artistic director, Oliver Welles, this is the play's fifth production, and he sleepwalks through the preparations for a show that, as an unctuous critic puts it, "[doesn't] make demands of the audience," more concerned with ensuring that the audience can hear the bleating of his prop sheep ("Without the bleats, there’s no irony, Maria. Any fool knows that.") than with their ability to see Titania's face during a crucial speech. After the show, a drunken and despondent Oliver reaches out to the person he blames for his artistic malaise, Geoffrey Tennant (a magnetic Paul Gross), a former rising star who crashed and burned after giving only a few performances as Hamlet under Oliver's direction, and who, following this debacle, and a psychiatric commitment, faded into obscurity for seven years. Geoffrey has established his own theatre, situated in a dilapidated warehouse where the phones have been cut off, the toilet overflows, the electricity is dubious at best and the rent is three months overdue, but in which he can be his own master, not a slave to corporate sponsors and a panderer to the degraded taste of an audience that seeks to be comforted rather than challenged.

Nevertheless, when Oliver suddenly dies, Geoffrey reluctantly agrees to take over as the festival's interim artistic director, ultimately taking over the production of the very play that once drove him mad. Standing in Geoffrey's way are: the festival's financial director, Richard Smith-Jones (Mark McKinney, who is also credited as a writer and co-creator, and who, in yet another parallel between Slings & Arrows and Studio 60, appeared in the latter show as the dour sketch writer Andy and co-wrote some of the series's less obnoxious episodes), an occasionally lovable, frequently unbearable buffoon whose real love is for musical theatre; his prima donna, former Ophelia, love of his life and the real reason for his breakdown, the neurotic, narcissistic Ellen Fanshaw; and, oh yes, the ghost of Oliver Welles, who appears periodically to revisit old fights, open old wounds, and criticize Geoffrey's vision of the play.

The most glaring difference between Slings & Arrows and Studio 60--one that at times seems to render a comparison between the two shows almost unfair--is that Slings & Arrows is remarkably well-made. The writing is clever, nimbly combining the obligatory, yet never trite, Shakespearean references with the behind-the-scenes antics of a raucous, ill-disciplined acting company. The pace is never slack, with every minute of screentime being used to its fullest, as opposed to the padded and repetitive Studio 60, which made a mockery out of Sorkin's signature dialogue by using repetition not as an emphasizing device but as padding (does anyone have an accurate count of the number of times the 'there's a company called Trask...' speech is repeated during the show's final plot arc?). The characters are appealing when they're meant to be, and infuriating when they're not. Best of all, the show is genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny. Everything, in other words, that Studio 60 should have but never was.

This is not to say that Slings & Arrows is without fault. Although it never reaches the level of shrill hysteria which characterized most of Studio 60's treatment of the struggle between art and commerce, it is not particularly concerned with presenting a balanced and thoughtful position on the issue. The main antagonist in Slings & Arrows's first season is the American harpy Holly Day, a representative of the festival's biggest corporate sponsor who Lady Macbeths Richard into making a play for total control of the festival, as part of her plan to transform New Burbage into a theatrical Disneyland, with mega-venues for blockbuster productions of the Mamma Mia variety, copious shopping opportunities, and a tiny annex set aside for 'traditional' productions like Hamlet. Also, the show's treatment of the behind-the-scenes process often borders on the simplistic, imbuing Geoffrey with almost magical powers of suggestion, and the ability to draw a worthy performance out of almost any person willing to listen--the corporate drone on a management workshop who is inspired to give a stirring reading of 'Now is the winter of our discontent...' , or, beggaring belief even further, the action-flick star out of whom Geoffrey has to fashion a Hamlet. This character, Jack, is portrayed as intelligent, thoughtful, and talented, but he's never appeared on a stage before, and the notion that Geoffrey can not only get him to create a credible Hamlet but to sustain that performance for more than three hours, when by his own admission Jack has never "had to keep it up for more than three-eighths of a page," is nothing short of absurd. (It is here that Gross's charisma comes to the writers' rescue. He has such commanding presence, such an expressive voice and face, that it is almost possible to believe that he is the magician the writers make him out to be.)

In Slings & Arrows's second, and less successful, season, Geoffrey is persuaded to follow up Hamlet with Macbeth, which he initially stages according to detailed notes left by Oliver. Unlike the first season, which proceeded according to the standard let's-put-on-a-show template--beleaguered company triumphs over financial and artistic adversity--the second season starts with Geoffrey in a position of power and ends with him there still, having predictably delivered a stellar production, and the story is therefore rendered slack. There is too distinct a separation between Geoffrey's storyline and Richard's (a prolonged, and at times cringe-inducing, plotline in which Richard, in his attempts to re-brand the festival and draw in new subscribers, falls under the spell of a charismatic PR executive), and an unfortunate repetition of a first season plotline about two ingenues falling in love (in the first season, these were Jack and his Ophelia, a pre-Mean Girls Rachel McAdams; in the second season, Romeo and Juliet become lovers offstage as well as on).

Most problematic is the absence of a parallel between Geoffrey's story and that of the play. In the first season, Geoffrey is Hamlet, who runs away from his obligations and is finally forced to meet them through the urgings of an importunate ghost and his own conscience. At the beginning of the second season, there is an indication that Geoffrey's increasing obsession with Oliver's vision for the play mirrors Macbeth's with Duncan, and that Geoffrey will be forced to symbolically kill his king before he can make the play his own. If the parallel was ever intended, its execution is muddled, with Geoffrey's animosity soon transferred from Oliver to his star, Henry, whose personal vision of the character, and unwillingness to risk humiliation by trying something new, threaten to calcify the entire performance. Unfortunately, through a flaw in either the acting or the way the character is written, we never get the sense that Henry has a great Macbeth in him. He comes across as hammy and broad, and the ultimate triumph of his collaboration with Geoffrey feels unearned.

The second season is, however, noteworthy for two sequences that touch on a difference between theatre and pre-filmed television, one that viewers exclusively grounded in the latter don't tend to think about--the ephemeral quality of a performance, and the input that a live audience has into it. Fed up with Henry's insubordination, Geoffrey fires him and puts his unprepared, unsuited understudy Jerry on stage instead. The performance Jerry produces--halting, uncertain, and missing those chunks of the text he never managed to learn or forgot out of nervousness--is fueled by adrenalin and fear. It's a one-time feat, as Ellen later tells Geoffrey, an unsustainable high note. Later, Geoffrey forces Henry to perform the play as he was directed to by setting the rest of the company against him, even going so far as to have Ellen strip Henry naked on stage, and once again producing a performance rooted primarily in the actor's emotions.

In spite of the fact that it also revolves around a live performance, and that many of the show-within-a-show's castmembers cut their teeth before live audiences, there is rarely a corresponding acknowledgment in Studio 60 of the effect that an audience has on a performer and a performance. The audience in the studio is no more or less important, and makes no more of a contribution to the creative process, than the folks watching at home, and deviations from the script are invariably depicted as errors and mishaps (most notably in the fundamentally unapologetic apology episode "The Disaster Show", which also gave me a metafictional headache by casting Allison Janney as herself opposite her former West Wing alumni, who are playing fictional characters)--we never see the actors ad-libbing, for example.

"There's nothing more boring than perfection. Imprecision. Fear. This is what gets them to their feet." Geoffrey tells a terrified Jack before sending him onstage. He's speaking about the words of a man who epitomizes the Western canon, and he doesn't care, because although he loves and respects those words, his reverences is reserved for their performance, no two of which are alike, and no one of which has ever been perfect, or indeed what their writer envisioned. Studio 60 can't find it in itself to treat the script of a sketch comedy show with anything short of awe, or to consider that there is a component of the performance that doesn't come from the script (even the actors are given short shrift in this respect: Harriet is frequently referred to as a conduit, albeit an ideal one, for Matt's words, but I can't remember a single instance in which her performance adds the missing ingredient that sets those words on fire), because the show's emotional center rests with the writer. It's perfectly valid to tell a story about a writer, but setting that story in an ensemble piece about an intensely collaborative effort creates a dissonance that plagued Studio 60 throughout its existence.

Slings & Arrows regains its footing in its third and final season, which eschews the straightforward defeat-to-glory plot progression of the first season, and the shapelessness of the second. Geoffrey's Macbeth has had a triumphant season, culminating in a run on Broadway. When our hero announces his intention to complete the tragic triptych by staging King Lear, he is deluged by calls from every television and film actor over sixty (William Shatner is said to be particularly interested). Iconoclastic to the last, Geoffrey chooses a respected stage actor, Charles, for his Lear. At which point his life comes crashing down on his head. Charles turns out to be a tyrant, who ceases from berating and bullying his fellow actors only during those periods in which he's high on heroin. It finally emerges that Charles is dying, a fact which he begs Geoffrey to keep secret just long enough for Charles to perform in the play. Geoffrey reluctantly assents, and then has to act as nursemaid to a cantankerous and increasingly ill man whose performance veers erratically between transcendent and incoherent.

Meanwhile, Richard has finally realized his dream of producing a musical, a peppy Rent clone about hookers, pimps and drug addiction titled East Hastings. The musical's stratospheric success coincides with the collapse of the preparations for Lear, and Geoffrey finds himself first shunted off to a smaller theatre, and later, once his and Charles's deception is discovered, shut down entirely and fired. Geoffrey, however, is not the protagonist in this tragedy. He is Kent (a role which he also assumes onstage, returning for the first time in years to the scene of his breakdown), the man who watches, and ineffectually attempts to prevent, the death of something he loves--both Charles and the festival--but who survives that death, hopefully to flourish again elsewhere.

A lot of complaints against Studio 60 had to do with the show's built-in snobbery. It would have been hard for a show as intimately concerned with the culture wars to avoid offending anyone, but Studio 60 seemed to go out of its way to offend everyone, usually through straw man arguments and lazy stereotypes. The show's condescension was applied indiscriminately: from the FCC to the people who make and watch reality TV to Christians to rural Americans to bloggers to black people who aren't black in just the right way, but it was almost invariably expressed through the revelation that the group being condescended to this week didn't like Studio 60, or liked some other form of entertainment better. Given the tone this essay has been taking towards the two shows, this is obviously my cue to point out that Slings & Arrows respects alternative forms of media, and the various uses to which one can put a stage. In actuality, Slings & Arrows is snobbish to a degree that puts Studio 60 to shame, and nowhere is this more apparent than during the show's third season.

Throughout the series's run, it poured scorn on directors who eschewed Geoffrey's stripped-down yet emotionally resonant style: Oliver's lavish but soulless productions ("fry the life out of [the play] and smother it in sauce" is how Geoffrey describes the festival's attitude under Oliver's direction); the experimental antics of Geoffrey's nemesis, Darren Nicholls (a hilarious Don McKellar), who, when brought in to direct Hamlet, announces that he plans to take 'something's rotten' literally, and strew the stage with offal, and who later insists that Romeo and Juliet recite their speeches in blank monotones without looking at one another; a modern playwright so obsessed with capturing something 'real' that he cannibalizes his girlfriend's real-life experiences for material.

The gloves truly come off, however, in the third season, when Shakespeare is pitted against musical theatre, and if the inane plot and lyrics of East Hastings weren't enough to let us know who to root for, the season's ingenues-in-love plot involves a lovelorn Cordelia (Sarah Polley, whose delightfully bitchy performance keeps this plotline from being a complete waste of time) pining for Edgar, who, after initially disparaging the musical company, in a scene that presages several Jets vs. Sharks-type confrontations between the two troupes, falls in love with the musical's beautiful star only to discover that she's an airhead and rush back into Cordelia's arms. When it can spare a moment from disparaging the wrong kinds of theatre, Slings & Arrows gets busy laying into television, as Ellen is offered the lead in a series described as Prime Suspect in space. "There's never time to talk about anything: not a scene, not even a line of dialogue. If you ask a question they just say 'oh, shoot the alien!'", Ellen complains to Geoffrey when he comes to beg her to be in one last performance of Lear, and it is a testament to how thoroughly the show has got us on its side by this point that the monumental hypocrisy of this statement takes a while to register with the viewers.

It is precisely because Slings & Arrows is better at getting the audience on its side that it avoids being denounced for its snobbery as Studio 60 frequently was. Like Studio 60, Slings & Arrows caricatures the cultural artifacts it wishes to disparage. A good caricature, however, is an exaggeration of existing traits, and whereas Slings & Arrows delivers precisely this, Studio 60's caricatures are so far removed from reality as to be meaningless: Midwesterners so divorced from their culture that they have no idea what "Who's on First?" is; an FCC so rigidly devoted to its narrow definition of decency that it fines a network for airing an obscenity uttered in a live interview with a soldier as a bomb nearly lands on his head. Whereas Slings & Arrows is trying to entertain its audience, Studio 60 is trying to convert them (or, possibly, trying to make the already-converted feel smugly superior), and not doing a very good job of it.

Entertaining or not, Slings & Arrows's condescension should be off-putting, and the fact that it is so palatable can be directly attributed to Geoffrey's almost complete indifference to his productions' reception. At the end of the Hamlet premiere in the first season, Geoffrey and an awestruck Richard have the following exchange (like most of the quotes in this essay, this one comes from this transcript site):
GEOFFREY: The critics are gonna slaughter us.
RICHARD: What? How can they?
GEOFFREY: Because Jack is an American movie actor—that's all they're gonna write about, right?
RICHARD: They can't ignore what happened on this stage tonight.
GEOFFREY: What did happen, exactly?
RICHARD: I—are you—I don't know! This is all new to me!
GEOFFREY: Well, please, join us again! We do eight shows a week, matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays!
Geoffrey is entirely calm, even cheerful, during this conversation, because he knows that he's created something worthy. At the end of the third season, Geoffrey stages King Lear, with Charles in the lead, in a church assembly hall, for a single performance with maybe fifty people in attendance. None of it matters, so long as Geoffrey can bring the performance he wants into existence.

There are, obviously, some extremely lazy, perhaps even magical, assumptions at the root of Geoffrey's--and the show's--indifference towards the reaction to his productions. The show assumes that there is such a thing as an objective yardstick for quality in art, and that artists--good ones, at any rate--know when they have achieved it. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Slings & Arrows acknowledges the truth from which Studio 60 spent a whole season running--that the more sophisticated and challenging your creation is, the less people are going to care for it, and that if you let this truth stop you from making the kind of art you want to make, then you are no artist at all. Throughout its single season, Studio 60 kept pretending that by bombarding the public with high-quality art (let's leave aside for the moment the question of whether any of the writing in the show-within-a-show deserves the moniker) they can be made to crave it. Sorkin's characters can then have the best of both worlds, refusing to compromise their artistic vision without surrendering the audience's adulation.

Studio 60 clings to this fantasy not only because it is a comforting one, but because at the end of the day, the show isn't really about the creative process. Studio 60 was always about politics, just as the real culture wars are--first obliquely, through discussions of the kinds of humor and drama that do or don't play in Peoria (when Jordan tries to convince a writer to sell her his highfalutin script about intrigue in the United Nations rather than taking it to HBO, she makes a political argument--selling the show to HBO widens the gap between rich liberals and poor conservatives), and later directly, in a melodramatic plot arc that might have been unintentionally funny if it weren't so absurdly drawn out, and in which we learned that Aaron Sorkin's kindergarten teacher neglected to tell him that when you say something hurtful without meaning to, you should too apologize. It's important that Matt's words make it onto the screen unsullied, and that they be recognized as genius by everyone who hears them, because within the Studio 60 universe, liking Matt's writing is the same thing as agreeing with his politics, and getting people to do the latter is the primary motivation for achieving the former.

It might seem that this last paragraph invalidates my comparison between Slings & Arrows and Studio 60. Although the two shows have almost the same premise, the goals they try to achieve through that premise are nothing alike. Another way of putting it, however, is that Slings & Arrows actually does what it says on the tin, whereas Studio 60 was in constant search for the right kind of meat-loaf--behind the scenes intrigue, romantic comedy, melodrama--beneath which to conceal its political vegetables. More precisely, Slings & Arrows succeeds because it is trying to tell a story--not a 'little story', to use the phrase with which Aaron Sorkin once tried to weasel out of criticism, but a story, as grand and true as the people telling it can make it--whereas Studio 60 fails because it sublimates story to an agenda, both personal and political. That one can achieve such violently opposed results by developing the same hoary old premise is, I think, a valuable lesson. Perhaps we should all chip in and send Aaron Sorkin the DVDs, if only for the sake of the following scene:
GEOFFREY: What are we doing here, you and I?
OLIVER: Putting on a play.
GEOFFREY: Putting on a play. This isn't about us, is it?
OLIVER: No. Never was.

6 comments:

KindKit said...

I loved Slings and Arrows in many ways, but I think you're quite right in diagnosing its snobbery. I found that snobbery particularly odd because Geoffrey's productions are, in fact, utterly bland and conventional in the way they approach Shakespeare. The show's ideal of art seems to be all emotions, no thought. And the Darren Nichols figure caricatures directors (and, I suspect, literary critics) who look for ideas in the text beyond, say, "Macbeth feels guilty." (I was, I have to confess, amused when, in season 2, Geoffrey decided to have Macbeth talk to an empty chair, believing Banquo's ghost is sitting there. This was presented as though it were a new insight and not a well-established bit of stage business.)

I also wanted to mention the plot point that, for me at least, took season two's "Romeo and Juliet fall in love" plotline from dull to highly offensive--the actor playing Romeo was gay until converted, apparently, by the power of Shakespearean verse. I could just about have tolerated it if Romeo and Juliet's night together had been a one-night stand, a moment of confusion between a role and real life. That would even have been interesting in connection with other things happening on the show. But instead, we were told it was true love. That narrative of cured queerness, plus the show's failure to acknowledge, ever, the strong homoerotic aspects of some of Shakespeare's texts, made me quite angry indeed.

I kept hoping, in season three, that a straight actor playing a gay character would fall in love with his male co-star, but it didn't happen. *sigh*

Mike Taylor said...

You know what I hate about your blog? Every time you post a long, thoughtful review that makes me really, really want to watch the show in question, and I go to Amazon.co.uk to rent the DVD, I find it's only available in Region 1 NTSC. Every time. Every. Single. Time.

(I know this is not an original observation, but: DVD "regions" must be the single most stupid concept in the universe.)

Brian from Dublin said...

Great post. I only caught Slings and Arrows recently, and am watching the final episodes of Studio 60 on Irish TV at the moment.

Your post serves two important functions:
(1) Spreads the word about how great S&A is.
(2) Diagnoses why a show that should have been great, Studio 60, wasn't.

I think most people would agree that season 2, with the exception of the first episode, was not up to the standard of the other seasons. But I'll forgive lapses when they are paired with brilliance. Give me 10 great episodes, and 10 awful episodes over 20 average ones any day.

Keep asking those wrong questions.
B

crankygrrl said...

Wonderful review and comparison, even though I thought you were a bit hard on Series Two of Slings&Arrows. One thing your critique of S&A misses but can hardly be expected to catch, I suppose, is S&A's resonant and unapologetic Canadian and particularly Ontario and Toronto-centric character. Part of Slings&Arrows brilliance comes from its 'roman a clef' take on Canada's Stratford Festival (http://www.stratford-festival.on.ca/)- the New Burbage Festival of Shakespearian Theatre's real-life counterparts. Virtually the entire cast, including Gross, are Stratford vets and habituees of the Toronto theatre and television scene. And S&A's shots at commercialism in theatre and TV are as much sallies against the encroaching American cultural imperialism constantly threatening Canadian arts as snobbish commentary on the 'purity' of theatre. S&A's quality is evident in the fact that you don't actually need to be able to recognize the real-life players and places being sent up in S&A to enjoy the series but it remains that the series was made by and for those of us who grew up on the shores of North America's Great Lakes and can remember the high school English class field trip to Stratford where we saw Shakespeare performed for the first time.

charlene said...

Wow. Halfway through reading this I put Slings and Arrows in my Netflix queue. So... I think your post succeeded :)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Kindkit:

I don't like watching Shakespeare in translation, so I don't have a lot of experience seeing him performed on stage, but I'm not surprised by your observations about Geoffrey's directing style. It seems to me to be the kind of style that would most appeal to television viewers - emotionally naturalistic, if not visually so.

You're absolutely right about the Romeo and Juliet plotline in the second season. I was hanging on the the hope the Patrick might be bisexual, but I've just remembered a scene in which he tells Sarah that she's the first woman he's been with, which, yes, adds a disturbing undertone to the entire plotline.

Mike:

I'm a tease, I know.

If this is a frequent problem, it might be worthwhile to look into getting your DVD player altered to play all zones. The store where we bought our player threw in the service as a matter of course, and you might be able to find a technician who can do the job for you. New players, as I understand it, play all regions automatically, but you might not feel like trading yours in.

crankygrrl:

I knew that New Burbage was a fictionalized version of the Stratford festival (my aunt used to live in Rochester, NY, and going to the festival was a much-anticipated annual treat for her which she always reported on in great detail, which of course made me very jealous), but I hadn't known that the S&A castmembers were veterans. You're right that the show takes a lot of potshots at Americans - in the first season in particular.

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