How Not to Talk About Studio 60 Over the Holidays

One of the bad things about living in Los Angeles, and working in television, is leaving Los Angeles, and meeting people who don't work in television. Specifically, this Christmas, what's bad is meeting people who want to talk to you about Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

Now, my feelings for Studio 60 are pretty simple. I'm glad I don't like it, because if I did I'd watch it, and I can't stand that crap. But when you tell your in-laws something like that, it tends to raise more questions that it answers, and your wife tends to look at you like, "Why didn't I marry someone nicer, with better posture and more hair?"

I can't really discuss Studio 60 anyway, because I haven't watched a whole one since the pilot. So I usually try to change the subject to the only show I do watch, Battlestar Galactica, but that doesn't work either. No one has ever seen it, and when you speak rapturously about it people think you're the kind of person who keeps his comic books in clear plastic bags.

It's not that Studio 60 isn't funny -- it's thuddingly unfunny; and it's not that it's not realistic -- it resembles life on a TV show like Green Acres resembles life on a farm -- that's not the problem. My problem with Studio 60 is its unspeakably awful dialogue.

In particular, its relentless overuse of a trope that will eventually kill all drama on television: The Middlebrow Slightly Wrong Reference, Corrected.

This is when two characters (often walking briskly from place to place) converse, and one of them is clever but the other is even cleverer. We get this by the way they never spill their take-out coffee and by exchanges like this: "You're saying I deliberately botched Brock's brain transplant because he dumped me."

"I'm just saying hell hath no fury like a woman scorned."

"Shakespeare's not consulting on this case."

"Actually, it's Congreve, but my point still stands."

See how smart these people - and by extension, you - are? One of them said something from Bartlett's but screwed it up and the other one fixed it. Result: Banter.

In ordinary dramas, the slightly wrong fact (corrected) is commonly used to lower one character's status while making information sound more like talk. "You're never performing another brain transplant in this O.R.! I don't care if you majored in brain transplanting at Yale!"

"Actually, it was Harvard, and I taught it. And frankly, doctor, it's not your call."

On quality dramas, fact/correction is used less often for plot and more often to show that the writer knows a few things.

"I can't do a brain transplant without lights! I feel like I'm operating in a Rembrandt!"

"Actually, what Rembrandt painted was an anatomy lesson and... dammit, we're losing him! Suction!"

Is this an exchange two humans would ever have? If a person knew enough to make a reference to The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Nicolaes Tulp shouldn't he also know it depicted an anatomy lesson? And what will happen to poor Brock? Don't ask. The point is, you're watching some pretty classy television. May we interest you in a Lexus?

References make people feel less guilty about watching television. You're not some loser with a Lean Cuisine and a 20-inch Toshiba. You're a culturally literate, EW-reading, television aficionado. That's why all the doctors, lawyers and cops on TV now split their time between operating on their ex-lovers, investigating crimes and prosecuting the offenders, and one-upping each other about whether music hath charms to soothe the savage beast or the savage breast.

But if every show does it, why single out Studio 60? Because at least TV cops, doctors and lawyers work while they talk. The interchangeable pedants on Studio 60 never do anything but make slightly wrong references to Sheridan.

Which they should get right, since they're supposed to be writers. Brilliant writers. The most brilliant that ever lived. As they keep telling each other.

And yes, actually, "music hath charms to soothe the savage breast" isn't Sheridan; it's Congreve again. But my point still stands.

Call it.