I had almost gotten comfortable with the state of television as it is. Using merely on-par shows as a sign of greatness, and allowing those that are lacking infest my mind and give the illusion of greatness. (Prepare yourself for a detailed analogy.)
There are shows like Bones and Justice, who swim in the shallow end of the pool. They maintain a safe status. The Office and House can be found splashing near the buoys that separate the deep end from the shallow. They try to swim on their own, but often touch the ground for balance and always come back to the shallows in the end. Then again, something like Scrubs is over in the kiddie pool (or possibly the shallow end, but with floaties on its arms). It wouldn't necessarily stack up to the big boys if the floatation devices were removed.
Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives rarely bring intellect in, using the theory that "sex sells" and they reside on the nude beach, miles away from the family-friendly public pool. The drama is tasty, and illicit, but strip all that away...and what's actually left? (Grey's especially really phoned it in last Thursday. The plague? Seriously?)
There's CSI, who rests atop an floating lounge raft of the deep end...staying on the surface, but trying to use all the intelligent resources it can. It dangles a foot in the water often, but if it ever fell in...well, at least the raft would be near by to save it.
Then there's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, who comes jumping into the deep end, cannonball, no less, and swims circles around everyone there.
Now, I don't mean to insult any shows that you might love. In fact, I'm quite addicted to all of these shows.
But lately I've been watching a lot of new shows, and a lot of continuing shows, and coming to the conclusion that I'm getting bored. Worse, I've become accustomed to the boredom so that I don't even notice it anymore. It's seeming like everything has been done.
And then comes along a show that causes a reevaluation of everything you'd come to take as fact.
Not to say that Studio 60 is without it's faults, but when I compare it to any character-heavy new show like 6 Degrees, Brothers & Sisters, Men in Trees...it glides past them with an ease of an Olympic swimmer challenging a five-year old.
The characterization especially is effortless and flawless. It presents in 20 seconds of dialog what those other shows take 20 minutes to portray. And it's not to say that Brothers & Sisters couldn't have been more concise and less repetitive, because oh, it could. The problem is that if Brothers & Sisters stripped down the show and condensed any unnecessary sequence, they would end up with 30 minutes of dead air. [I'm thinking specifically of the conflict between mother and daughter. Okay, we get it. Again and again. There are numerous phone calls, more than one awkward exchange, and discussion about the conflict for the entire episode, minus the 10 minutes that other characters got their own storylines. Let me just say...there are conflict in my family, and not once have we spent that much time knit-picking ANYTHING the way they do. Move on. Awkwardness is meant to be felt, not discussed.]
So what makes Studio 60 different? It has the substance to fill in the dead space that other shows (theoretically) create. You understand the conflicts without 20 minutes of discussion, and you see how it affects the characters without them talking about it to excess. In fact, characters (like real, human people) can feel emotions on the inside, while doing action on the outside. I know, I know! It's crazy! But in fact, subtext is ALIVE AND WELL. And living at Studio 60.
Harriet and the brunette (Jenna?) are at odds the entire show. It's introduced in the beginning, and resolved at the end. Everyone is aware of it, and some people discuss it. But the number of actual lines of dialog centered around this one conflict cannot number more than 18. And Aaron Sorkin shows are dialog heavy, so that is nothing. It's subtle, it's underground, it's not being beat over your head. The DL Hugley/Danny conflict (also beginning at the start and being resolved at the end) happens in three separate exchanges, possibly less than 1 minute each...but the amount of information you learn about the character could take 15 minutes to discuss/break down/explain to someone. Here's a note to our friendly television staff writers: You don't need to give the audience everything. Let them think/analyze/discover/reach an understanding for themselves.
Studio 60 is a show about characters. But the show doesn't force you to watch painfully dull interactions with characters talking about themselves and talking about other characters. You see them interacting and doing and working and living and being real fucking people. There is plot, there is a setting, there is conflict and drama...but it's all SO well balanced. The audience can choose to take as much or as little as it wants. I assume it's entertaining for those willing to leave it at the credits, but for those of us who take it farther...who bother to use our brains and think...we get a fulfillment unequal, or even unavailable, from any other television show in production today. I guarantee that.
Having said all that, I don't think I really gave Studio 60 justice. I spoke merely of characterization and subtext, ignoring almost entirely the brilliant writing, interesting storylines, the way it talks about pushing boundaries and makes you feel that it had, the realism, the insanity of what realism actually is, the acting, the sets, the details.
The way it strikes a chord or five every episode.
The way I've stayed up well over an hour after it finished and am still deciphering and processing...