Wednesday, September 20, 2006

 

You can tell that it’s an Aaron Sorkin production just by the way the camera weaves & slides throughout the entire studio, before it settles on a single speaking figure, the old signature “walk-and-talk” take that Sorkin patented during his years as the creator of West Wing, only this time without the talk or focus on a single moving individual, until you realize that what you are hearing is a comic warming up the audience of a television show – an absolute clone of Saturday Night Live, tho we learn soon enough that it’s on Fridays – that is about to go on. Quickly enough we learn the premise behind the first show of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: the show is entering its 20th season & its creative juices have been sapped – there is only skit ready for that night that anyone is enthusiastic about at all, save for the representative of the network’s “broadcast standards” department who is insisting that this is the one skit that absolutely has to be cut. When director Judd Hirsch agrees to the cut as the night’s opening bit – a parody of Bush & Rove in the Oval office – begins, he feels like crap & so “pulls a Network,” a reference to Sidney Lumet’s 1976 Oscar-winning film about newsman Howard Beale’s famed freakout – “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it any more” – although, in what may have been the most telling detail from the opening episode of Studio 60, tho Network is referenced several times, it’s credited always to its writer, Paddy Chayevsky, and never once its director. Hirsch breaks into the opening skit & tells the audience to change the channel, to turn off the TV, that this show will be terrible – “it’s not even good pornography” – and is allowed by the show’s line director Timothy Busfield to stay on air ranting for 53 seconds.

All of this occurs simultaneous to the celebratory welcoming dinner of Jordan McDeere (Amand Peet), who has just been hired as the president of the Entertainment Division of mythical network NBS by its president Jack Rudolph (played by Steven Weber), who in turn reports to a corporate overlord played in the opening episode by Ed Asner. McDeere isn’t supposed to begin until the following Monday, but instead she’s plunged into an immediate crisis as Rudolph rushes to the studio & fires Hirsch on the spot. Her solution: bring back the creative team that Rudolph had fired several years back and who have gone on to become famous for their collaborations as writer & director (not unlike, say, writer Sorkin and his favorite collaborator Tommy Schlamme). McDeere knows one critical secret: the director, Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford, Josh on West Wing), just failed the physical for his “completion bond” on his next picture due to a positive test for cocaine. The film he and Matt Albie (Matthew [Friends] Perry) are planning to make can’t get done for at least two years as a result. There are only multiple problems: Weber hates these guys, Matt has just separated from his wife, an actress on Studio 60 who is an evangelical Christian, and Danny hasn’t told anybody, even best buddy Matt about his coke test. You can actually watch the entire episode online on its NBC site (click the link above), if you want, but you know that by the end credits, Matt & Danny are strolling onstage to ensure the cast that they are there to “rescue” them.

It’s got all the hallmarks of a Sorkin job: it’s smart, fast, layered, has a premise that enables it to employ celebs as themselves – Felicity Huffman & Three 6 Mafia on the first episode – and in cameo roles (Asner & Hirsch) – and is brilliantly written. Even in a producer’s medium like television, it all comes down to the writing – that’s always been the source of the great unevenness, say, in The Sopranos, where creator David Chase writes only a couple of episodes per season, and West Wing was doomed the minute Sorkin left after a conflict with network execs. The only difference between Studio 60 and The West Wing, which the London Guardian not long ago called “the best television series ever,” which is not as much an overstatement as it might seem, is that this is about a sketch comedy show, so, hey, lots of drama, but who cares? It’s not like they have Matthew Perry & Brad Whitford portraying UN peacekeepers in Darfur or running a black site detention center in an unnamed country in central Asia. Studio 60 may do a little to demystify the most over-exposed medium in today’s media-glut culture – they could have been running a dot com start-up after all, not so different from the ad agency that Timothy Busfield had on Thirty Something – but this seems unlikely and ultimately unnecessary. Didn’t Sorkin do this for ESPN with Sports Night?

This of course is the ultimate gotcha of network television – an absolute inability to focus on anything more substantive than Seinfeld’s puffy shirt. The disease & health care crisis that loom behind ER and Gray’s Anatomy, or the legal/social issues that get brought up in Law & Order, CSI and even Crossing Jordan are there really just as framing devices. Studio 60 is offering us a serial “dramedy” that will hinge on the ad rates for Victoria’s Secret or Budweiser. If you don’t have much time for television – and I have precious little – this feels considerably more hollow than the reality series Project Runway, even as its production costs & marshalling of creative resources is a hundred times greater. And since Sorkin is just one of seven writers actually listed for this show, you can rest assured that it won’t always live up to the flash-bang repartee that characterized Monday night’s opening episode. So unless you get into the narrative of how a young woman can function as a corporate exec – Amanda Peet in some variation of Allison Janney’s C.J. Craig role in West Wing, just younger, sexier & more comfortable with power – Studio 60 is going to feel like one hell of a lot of frosting on a very small cake.

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