Saturday, December 21, 2013


Q: How come in France they eat only one egg for breakfast?
A: Because in France one egg is un oeuf. 

Taking delight in bad puns (the above found here) is one of life's simple pleasures, a joy to be reaped and then to be recycled for friends and family alike, their moans and grimaces music to the ears of the teller, for it means the message has found its target. 

This particular one has more meaning for me, since my mom was a French teacher and I have a tin ear when it comes to foreign languages, particularly in regard to correct pronunciation.  As tomorrow marks one year since her passing, this story behind the story seems an apt way to commemorate the occasion.

In Junior High School while my classmates and I took instruction in French from M. Bauer in 7th grade (he well known for each week giving us a quiz-i-poo, fortunately not orally) and from Mme. Glassman in 8th grade (she sat us in the second half of the school year by our grade in the first half to pair the best student with the worst student, the next best with the next worst, etc.) I also got tutoring from my mom in French, where on the positive side I did learn to conjugate verbs. Speaking the language was an entirely different matter. 

Somehow I got it in my head to pronounce the plural form, les oeufs, by taking the "oy" from oy vey, and the "oaf" from loaf and finding a non-word that I mistakenly thought was the true pronunciation, located somewhere in between.  This amused my mother to no end, much to my chagrin.  She would repeat my faux pas on many occasions, after having tried to get me to say it correctly, but to know avail.  You see, I was egged on by my parents from an early age.

Now, looking not at just the puns, but at the mediocre rhymes and word play too, it's as if I'm at a never closing breakfast bar, and the omelets just keep on coming.  Parents of adult children speak to them from beyond the grave.  Where as a teen I found listening painful so often didn't, now I am.  It is a major source of my self-expression.  One I find sustaining.

My title refers to a different spigot, one that I did want to shut off if I could --- the desire to watch TV shows written by Aaron Sorkin.  I've found a way.  But before I get to that approach, here is a little aside from economic theory.  It is meant to deter my less earnest readers.  I'm taking their welfare to heart.  Let me assure them; it's all downhill from here, so get out while you still can.  And it's meant to challenge the more earnest readers in the group as well.  Can they find the connection between the economics and the rest of the post?

* * * * *

Every first year doctoral student in economics learns the two fundamental welfare theorems.  The first, in abbreviated form, reads:

A C.E. is P.O. if LNS.

Let's unpack this a bit.  C.E. stands for competitive equilibrium, which is both a system of prices, and an allocation for each consumer and each firm such that for each firm the allocation maximizes profits given the price system, for each consumer the allocation maximizes the consumer's preferences given their budget constraint (determined by the their share of the profits in each firm and the value of their endowment at the given prices), and supply equals demand in every market.  P.O. stand for Pareto Optimal.  It is a concept of social efficiency. At a Pareto Optimal allocation no consumer can be made better off without making some other consumer worse off.  LNS is a technical assumption about preferences and stands for local nonsatiation.  It means that whatever allocation a consumer currently has, there is another allocation nearby that the consumer prefers.  The assumption rules out something called a "bliss point," which if it existed would mean the consumer is fully satisfied and then doesn't want more (or less) of any good. 

Outside of economics we are taught, on occasion that there can be too much of a thing.  So we have the expression, ignorance is bliss.  And there is the well known Dylan song, Too Much Of Nothing.  Economics does not concern itself with such practical wisdom.  The fundamental economics issue is scarcity.  In a land of plenty there is no economics.  The LNS assumption is there to rule that out.  Economists know which side of the bread is buttered.

Mostly there is no problem with thinking of LNS as a description of practical reality.  An issue arises, however, in thinking of potentially addictive behavior, where done in moderation the same behavior is perfectly fine.  One can only know the line has been crossed in retrospect.  Most of us lack the willpower at that point to go cold turkey.  A different approach is needed to restore balance.

* * * * *

Sometime after The Newsroom concluded I was feeling withdrawal symptoms, this in spite of the fact that there was much negativity in that show.  It often made you feel angry and only rarely was it uplifting.  These clues notwithstanding, I still wanted more Sorkin-written TV shows.  I liked the pacing and the smartness of the dialog.  For a while I fed the beast with my old standby.  Even though our West Wing DVDs had become non-functional from over use, I could watch individual episodes streamed online.  Some years ago there was a NY Times Magazine piece, Watching TV Makes You Smarter.  At the time I bought into that argument.  Eventually, I came to realize there are diminishing returns.  It occurred to me that I needed something else to get my fix.

Necessity being the mother of invention, I became aware not just that there were other Sorkin TV shows out there, but that one of them, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, is available at zero marginal cost to Amazon Prime customers (non-economists would say it is free to Amazon Price customers).  Sports Night is also available this way.  If at sometime in the indefinite future I have a relapse, that's a good card to keep in my pocket.  At the moment, it provides no temptation. 

Studio 60 proved to be my Sorkin-phile cure.  I've got one and half episodes left to finish in the first (and only) season.  It's been a slog much of this semester getting through the earlier episodes.  Sometimes I'd only watch part of a show and that was enough for me that evening.  Watching this show has been a cure in the spirit of the aversion therapy seen in A Clockwork Orange.  I will watch that last bit to earn the merit badge, but then I'm done.

The first episode, which features Judd Hirsch, draws you in and is unlike the rest of the series.   Hirsch leaves the show after that.  His character is in some ways like the Howard Beale character in Network, mainly in being madder than hell.  But unlike the Howard Beale character, the person Judd Hirsch plays is perfectly sane.  He is quite aware that he will be fired as soon as he gets off the air.  This leaves the show without a producer and sets the stage for what comes next.  There is drama in that first episode.  But for the most part it is not sustained during the remaining episodes.

Studio 60 depicts a TV show a la Saturday Night Live, but filmed in LA rather than NYC.  It is from the perspective of the writers and producer, first and foremost, but also includes several of the actors as co-stars.  So while theme-wise it isn't all that different from the old Dick Van Dyke show, it has more characters to enable the show to have many parallel threads running concurrently, as it the manner in all Sorkin stories.

Many of the faces are familiar from The West Wing.  Bradley Whitford plays the co-producer Danny Tripp and is one of the co-leads of the show.  Timothy Busfield, sans whiskers, plays Cal Shanley, the main tech guy in the control room. Allison Janney makes a guest appearance, playing herself, as that week's host of the show.  There are many people one would recognize from the West Wing.  That is not a knock, but it's also not a plus.

What gets to you is to see plot ploys or story lines recycled from the West Wing and forced into this other container.  Sorkin starts to seem far less creative as a writer but rather is somebody with a bunch of tricks up his sleeve that he re-uses from time to time.  In the West Wing, for example, Josh Lyman, really the protagonist of the show, is Jewish, but it is a faux Judaism, especially when compared to the Toby Ziegler character.  In Studio 60, the protagonist is Matt Albie, played by Matthew Perry.  Matt Albie is also Jewish, again in a low-keyed kind of way.  Why is that a part of the story at all?  There is another character, Harriet Hayes, one of the lead actors on the show, who is fundamentalist Christian.  Religion is important for her character as the question comes up for the presumably liberal audience who will view the show whether such a person can also show flexibility and have a sense of humor.  But hers is the only character where religion matters.  You get the impression that the Josh Lyman and Matt Albie characters are Sorkin's way of inserting an avatar of himself into the story and that he does it not because it makes sense for the storyline but rather because he's gotten away with it in the past.  (At least in the Newsroom, the Jeff Daniels character was not Jewish, but he was Republican.  Sorkin seems to need these labels as a way to set his stage.)

You also start to see the tension in Studio 60 episodes as trying to raise social consciousness (particularly in animosity to a predatory press but also with regard to lampooning the behavior of the corporate types who run the show and the take-the-money-and-run attitude of many of the other characters) where it would seem an awkward setting for putting forth political satire.  Colbert and the Daily Show didn't yet exist when Studio 60 was aired.  There had been the David Frost vehicle, That Was The Week That Was.    If Studio 60 was more like that, that political satire part might have worked better.  As it is, however, much of the political satire seems out of place.

And there is too little of what one would expect in this setting - writers improving sketches that are too risque to put on the air and having writer's block for making stuff that is socially bland but nonetheless comical.  The Sorkin characters tend to one of two types - white knights or Darth Vaders.  If you think of Mel Brooks or Neil Simon, neither of those images come to mind.  With Brooks, silliness is what comes to mind.  But on Studio 60, all these comedy writers who should be silly look absolutely solemn.  What gives?

So I'm just about done.  The Illini game is later this afternoon.  I need to get pumped for that.  (One, two, screw Mizzou.)  I expect to watch the last episode of Studio 60 tomorrow.  Then it's goodbye Sorkin. 

Maybe it should be goodbye TV shows for a while and onto other things.  I've yet to read a full book on the Kindle app for my ultrabook.  It's time to give that a try. 

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