Beliefnet
Idol Chatter

After three weeks, here’s my spin on “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip:” It’s about redemption. And it’s awesome.

Aaron Sorkin has long been successful in creating compelling and entertaining investigations into the humanity of characters who inhabit noble roles. “A Few Good Men,” “The American President,” and “The West Wing” all took us to the core of those whose titles we recognize but whose honest quests are new to us. He’s long been a student–and revealer–of the human qualities essential to an authentic spiritual awareness. “Studio 60” offers more of the same.

The heroes are human, and humble. Matthew Perry’s Matt Albie is a former writer at “Studio 60,” a fictional “SNL”-like comedy show, who got fired. Bradley Whitford’s Danny Tripp is a recovering cocaine addict who can’t get bonded to produce the movie he’s been offered, so he and Matt take the reigns of “Studio 60,” from which they were fired four years earlier. Amanda Peet’s Jordan McDeere is the rookie network president whose very hiring caused the company stock to drop and whose naïve but idealistic ideas may lead to a short tenure. Steven Weber’s Jack Randolph is the network chairman charged with the success of not just the show, but the whole network.

Sarah Paulson’s Harriet Hayes, one of the actors on the show-within-the-show, speaks for evangelical Christians but is clearly not the cheesy-cleany bore that tends to be the stereotype. She’s also going through a breakup with Matt Albie and will now be working for him. Harriet is the first contemporarily saavy Christian character on a network show in a long time, made believable and human through the lame questions people ask about her faith and the fact she’s going through a break-up with all the pain that brings to anyone.

By the time we get to Episode 3, which aired last night, redemption has established itself as a main theme of the show. Jordan’s job is in jeopardy because a prior drunk-driving arrest and divorce make headlines. Matt bets $10,000 to give an actress confidence after she flat-lined in a focus group. Danny goes to blows with Matt as a means of convincing him that their firing from the show four years earlier won’t happen again. Hard-head Jack is the first to congratulate Jordan for her success. The characters often say “don’t worry about it,” but they step over each other to worry for each other.

And, in her first “sermon,” Harriet effectively pleads with Matt (her ex) to cut a funny skit that she questions for moral reasons. “It’s a funny joke, but not a good joke,” she says of the bit, which mocks a small-town high school. “The average income there is $18,000 a year, roughly what I’ll be paid to perform this show tonight. Why are we making fun of them? ‘Crazy Christians,’ ‘Science Schmience,’ ‘Bush and the Republicans’ [skits the show aired that mock conservative and Christian values] are all fair game; it’s hypocrisy and power. These guys are just trying to raise their kids.”

In last week’s episode, we saw Harriet and some of the other actors engage in a pre-show prayer, in which they invoked Jesus and asked for success. This week, we see Matt, Danny, and some others offering hugs and a huddle, which looks a lot like a pre-game prayer but leaves room for it to be, well, just a group hug. For artists, there’s nothing quite as redeeming as applause, or a good focus group, or compliments, or just one compliment from someone we trust or love. Sometimes, approbation from just anyone with breath and a pulse will do. This time, though, the show ends with all of the above: applause and laughter, hugs and high fives, and a 109% retention rate.

As in “The West Wing,” Sorkin often sends his clearest message through an episode’s closing song. In this case it’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” which gets right to the core of conditional love that is our media culture. For Matt, Danny, Jordan, and their team, they’re all loved and safe… until next week’s show.

Neil Labute is not a writer of tragedy in the classic sense, because tragedy requires a genuine hero, and Labute’s characters inspire only disdain. But his films and plays are undeniably tragic–“In the Company of Men,” “Your Friends and Neighbors,” “Bash,” and others feature misogynists, rapists, adulterers, and bigots, and most of them don’t feel a smidge of guilt about their depraved ways. That’s what’s tragic about the world of Labute–his characters aren’t just without morals; they’re without remorse.

With “Wrecks,” a play that opened last month in New York City with Ed Harris in the lead–and only–role, Labute has combined classic tragedy with, well, Labutian tragedy. The entire production is set in a funeral parlor, where Edward Carr is mourning the death of his wife, Jo-Jo. She sits behind him in a closed casket; he paces back and forth in front of her, monologuing to the audience about his lost love. As he does, “Wrecks” opens upon several puns: Carr and his wife ran a classic car rental business; though they were involved a major auto wreck one time, Jo-Jo’s life is eventualy wrecked by cancer.

And then there’s the titular pun. Some reviewers have called “Wrecks” a play with a dramatic twist, but a twist only works if you don’t see it coming. Given that (1) the play is called “Wrecks” and (2) we learn soon after the play opens that Carr’s wife was 15 years his senior, it’s hard to believe Labute hoped to shock us with the real nature of this couple’s relationship. (If you’re not familiar with “Oedipus Rex” and plan to see “Wrecks” and want to be surprised, stop reading now.) When, after more than an hour of rapturous recollections of his affection for Jo-Jo, Carr reveals at the play’s end that Jo-Jo was his mother, it’s not a revelation; it’s a confirmation of something Labute has been saying for years: In a broken world, true love–the kind that puts another before self–is nearly impossible to imagine.

Labute, a graduate of Brigham Young University, was until recently a professing Mormon. (His play “Bash,” which features a series of Mormons doing some very, er, un-Mormon things, led to his disfellowship from the church.) If he’s left the faith, he hasn’t left behind its commitment to the idea that people are inherently broken.

But “Wrecks” is not just another Labutian expression of human fallenness; it’s also a poignant comment about our current religious and political moment in America. Until we “learn” about Carr’s willful incestry, he comes off as (1) a hopeless romantic and (2) a typical moralist. He’s constantly making observations of the “When I was a kid” and “In my days…” kind. But his moralism is just sentiment for the past and nothing more. He feels as strongly about old-timey mores as he does about old-timey automobiles. And as his incestuous marriage proves, his moralism is not connected to anything substantial–it doesn’t instruct Carr’s life; it just gives him a way of sentimentalizing the past.

Carr is a metaphor for American moralists today–those who see the 1950s as the pinnacle of Christian living, or the Founding Fathers as trumpeters of the Christian evangel. Too often, such moralists aren’t connected to anything substantial; they fancy bygone days, but their rhetorical praise of the past isn’t informing their lives in the present. No naming names here, but how many mighty moralists–especially in the religio-politics of our culture war–have we seen fallen? It doesn’t take a playwright to see epic tragedies unfolding on small scales all around us.


What does it mean when some of the best religion stories these days appear in New York magazine? It means the Apocalypse is near. Last week New York had a concise but interesting Q&A with Jay Bakker, son of Jim and Tammy Faye, who has moved to Brooklyn to found a hipster church. This week, columnist and Zeitgeist tour guide Kurt Andersen announces his heebie-jeebies at the ubiquity of apocalyptic thoughts in the culture just now, from Daniel Pinchbeck, author of the foreboding “The Return of Quetzalcoatl,” to Mel Gibson and his new “Apocalypto.” (Both focus on the Mayan civilization’s demise.)

What bothers Andersen, in part, is that the apocalypse is no longer counted as a necessarily bad thing. “The nuttiest Islamists and Christians agree that the present hell in the Middle East is a hopeful sign of the end-times,” he writes. He also notes that the apocalypse as a cause celebre belongs to neither the right nor the left. “Apocalypticism is one of those realms where the ideological spectrum bends into a circle and the extremes meet.”

Mel better hope so. After offending Jews last month with his anti-Semitic tirade, his mouth has now gotten him into more trouble, this time with conservative fans, according to The New York Times, this time for comparing the American troop deployment in Iraq to the kind of human sacrifice depicted in his film.

The rest of the Times article debates whether Mel’s conservative success in “The Passion,” combined with the “Are you a Jew?” rant, will sink his movie’s fortunes come Oscar time. Early reviews, like this one from a film-fest viewing with Mel in attendance, suggest the flick’s so good the Academy won’t be able to ignore it.

At any rate, Mel, as usual, is right on the trend. Says “One member of the audience asked Mel if he was saying that the decay of the Mayan empire was solely from within. Mel responded that he has always felt that the seeds for different civilizations demise always start from within.” And guess what? ” He does see the film as a metaphor for where we are today.”

Perhaps, like me, when you saw the teasers for ABC’s new show “Ugly Betty,” you thought you’d be getting “Less Than Perfect” at a magazine rather than a television station: a cute sitcom wherein the ugly duckling teaches those around her the value of loving oneself while spewing zippy one-liners.

But “Betty” is much more than that, and that’s both good and bad. Starring America Ferrara, Hollywood’s go-to gal for the empowered Latina, anti-waif–see her tremendous breakthrough performance in 2002’s “Real Women Have Curves”–the show is an almost mind-boggling blend of genres: Think “Sex and the City” meets “The Devil Wears Prada” meets “Cinderella” meets “American Family,” all wrapped up in a possible murder mystery/conspiracy.

Betty Suarez, a smart but homely gal from Queens, is first rejected for a job at a magazine publishing company based on her looks, but then is hired by the Rupert Murdoch-esque owner of the company to act as his son’s assistant. (It could be argued that Betty is “ugly’ only by Hollywood’s standards–i.e., glasses and braces make a girl absolutely abhorent.)

The son, Daniel, was recently elevated to editor-in-chief after the death (possibly, murder) of an Anna Wintouresque EIC. He has a penchant for sleeping with any good-looking female that comes within 10 feet. Long story short, Betty is finally humilated by Daniel enough that she quits, but he asks her back, since she’s got an idea could win him the cosmetics ad campaign the magazine so desperately needs. At the end, Daniel has gained new found respect for Betty and the magazine gets the ad.

Although the show seems to be an amalgam of other shows and themes–rich vs. poor, beauty vs. beast–it is decidely different than anything else on TV. On the surface, the production feels more like a movie than a television show, the sets and location shots are fantastic, and some of the material is racy enough to be on the big screen (oral sex at the office anyone?). And while the pilot episode introduces far too many distracting storylines for an hour-long show–Betty’s family dynamics, her ex-boyfreind dumping her, her friendship with the sassy British gal, her relationship with Daniel, the evil botoxed Vanessa Williams who may be in cahoots with the not-so-dead ex-EIC and the fact that our magazine mogul may have paid to have had her offed in the first place–I still was pulling for Betty and her determination to land her dream job and be the person she knew herself to be. Thanks to Ferrara’s humanizing, never degrading portrayal, Betty never comes across as a victim.

Still, I’m not quite set on adding “Betty” to my regular viewing schedule just yet; but I will be giving it another try. One way that ABC could ensure that I stay tuned is to avoid having Betty whip off the glasses, lose the braces, and pluck her eyebrows; don’t let the ugly duckling turn into a swan. For network TV, that would be as original and as brave as Betty herself.