Secrets and Lies

The Fall Sitcom To Watch Is the One You're Supposed To Hate

Yet both shows top CBS's inanely jubilant Maggie Winters, with Faith Ford's busted marriage shipping her home just in time for her 15th high-school reunion. Uh-huh, 15th—the one everybody goes to; bet anything the script said 20th, the star held out for 10th, and the conflict of perks vs. credibility (check your driver's license, Ms. Ford—unless it's fibbing, too) spawned a compromise. Didn't know your old Murphy Brown pal Corky was a star, did you? Me neither, but like many sitcoms, this one's really about TV, with Maggie's divorce standing in for the end of Murphy's run and her welcoming hometown equaling CBS. And what's TV-land like? Nasty when not fawning, from what I can tell: the debut gave Winters/Ford opportunities to both score off a less attractive classmate (Ellen's gifted Clea Lewis, who indeed is less well known) and make a maudlin victory speech about her happiness at being back where she belongs. You know, where munchkins will suck up to her.

Sports Night, this fall's official classy sitcom, is literally set in TV-land—behind the scenes of a jock talkfest modeled on ESPN's Sports Center and anchored by best buds Dan (Josh Charles) and Casey (Peter Krause), with Robert Guillaume as their (crusty? How did you know?) producer. Don't blame the actors for the show's vainglorious subtext, though; in the premiere, creator Aaron Sorkin, recently anointed by Tad Friend in The New Yorker as an artist crucified by network philistines, includes not one but two speeches in which his heroes denounce the "suits" (oh how the biz's alleged creative types love that preening bit of slang). Now, Sports Night is a pretty decent sitcom; Charles, in particular, is an interesting actor with a weirdly understated bluntness, and his dialogue's nicely tailored to make good use of his manner. But only the fake Robert Altman shtick of director Thomas Schlamme's hyperbolic camera conceals how very conventional the whole business is. Sorkin thinks he's invented the wheel by adding poignant interludes—telling Friend that "while in any other art form mixing comedy and drama is three thousand years old, in the half-hour TV show it's unheard of."

Since The New Yorker recently printed Toni Morrison's explanation that Bill Clinton is really black (that's what got Monica hot: the whole Mandingo thing), maybe David Remnick is soliciting unconventional views. Even so, I have to ask: has Sorkin watched television since, oh, 1971? Those touchy-feely bits—which hardened TV writers call the "Moment of Shit"—are the bane of sitcoms, not their salvation. And Friend should know better, but if he wants to pretend he's rewriting Lillian Ross's Picture for readers as eager to believe the worst of Jamie Tarses's ABC the way Ross's were of Dore Schary's MGM, I won't argue. Except to say that one thing Ross's account of the mangling of John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage left out was that Huston was a schmuck to begin with. The movie probably wouldn't have been all that good anyway.

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