"Studio 60" on the Sorkin Strip

Tonight will be the second episode of the highly anticipated new Aaron Sorkin-created TV series "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." If last week's pilot episode is any guide, the show is fast becoming as exhilirating as a ride down the title strip itself.

The new ensemble drama/comedy/show-within-a-show stars (above, from left to right) D.L. Hughley, Nathan Corddry, Sarah Paulson, Timothy Busfield, Bradley Whitford, Matthew Perry, Amanda Peet, and Steven Weber. Like Sorkin's previous television programs (the recently-departed "The West Wing," the now-nearly-forgotten "Sports Night"), "Studio 60" rests on the talents and dynamics of its ensemble and the strength of its characters. Again, if the pilot is any guide, the show shines with promise and glitters with potential.

In brief, "Studio 60" is a behind the scenes drama of a "Saturday Night Live"-like late night variety program similar to how Sorkin's "The West Wing" was a behind the scenes drama of the presidency. The pilot sets up the central narrative dynamic which is that a pair of former writers for the show--Matt (Matthew Perry) and Danny (Bradley Whitford)--are convinced (blackmailed, really) to rejoin the show as the producers after the current producer (Judd Hirsch, in a brilliant cameo in the pilot) goes on a tirade on the air about how horrible the show has become. In addition to this narrative dynamic, the pilot sets up a series of very interesting character relationship dynamics.

Chief among these is the relationship between Matt and Danny, who have been creative partners for years (in the pilot they are shown at a Writer's Guild awards dinner, where Matt wins an award). Perry and Whitford make the relationship entirely believable, exchanging repartee and even finishing each others' jokes, as if the two actors really had been together for years. More remarkable, the two actors almost immediately make you forget they ever portrayed the other iconic characters (Chandler Bing on "Friends" for Perry; Josh Lyman on "The West Wing" for Whitford) that they each did for so many years. By midway through the "Studio 60" pilot I was thinking "Chandler Bing and Josh Lyman who?"

This accomplishment on the part of the two men is not to be underestimated. Personally, I thought that the two leads would evoke in my mind their former fictional counterparts way more than they did, which is hardly at all. With Perry, it's been a couple of years since the end of "Friends" but Whitford's "West Wing" ended only this past spring. The fact that they were able to so quickly and effectively draw the contours of their new characters not only bodes well for "Studio 60," it's a mark of how talented these two actors--often not fully respected because of the wisecracking nature of their old characters--really are. At the same time, their "Studio" roles build on the wisecrackery they performed so deftly on their former shows.

Perry and Whitford are hardly the whole show, though. The ensemble they are part of includes Amanda Peet as the charming but charmingly vulnerable new president of "Studio 60"'s TV network (NBS, in a thinly veiled alteration of NBC); a shark-like Steven Weber as her boss, the NBS chairman; Timothy Busfield (newspaper reporter Danny Concannon in "West Wing") as the "Studio 60" director; Sarah Paulson as Harriet Hayes, the prayerful Christian star of "Studio 60"; and D.L. Hughley as her co-star. Three stellar cameos light up the pilot as well: Felicity Huffman (a Sorkin regular from "Sports Night" and guest spots on "West Wing") as herself, the guest host of the "Studio 60" episode in which Hirsch wigs out; Ed Asner, in a very short appearance, as Weber's boss, the head of the media conglomerate that owns NBS; and Judd Hirsch, who is historically memorable as the "Studio" producer who decides to salvage his integrity at the expense of his job.

The interplay amongst this group of characters shows great promise. Peet's and Weber's characters have a combative relationship; she represents the young turk at the network eager to shake things up and with nothing to lose, while he is a more conservative, more entrenched, less idealistic, and more cutthroat player. Busfield shares a key scene with the network censor during Hirsch's tirade that firmly establishes his character's professionalism as well as his compassion. Paulson as Harriet, the Christian late night comic, is a little strained, but the idea is fascinating and will probably feel a little more natural as the character is fleshed out in coming episodes. Her interaction with the other characters, both as the leader of the fictional show's cast and as the odd woman out in terms of personal sensibility, is interesting. All the more so because of the fact that she is Perry's newly minted ex-girlfriend, which adds yet another interpersonal dynamic. In addition to Harriet's faith, the revelation of Danny's battle with drug addiction and the representation of Peet's character's ambition should prove to be fruitful sources of character and story intrigue.

Just like for the title setting in "The West Wing," "Studio 60" contains a vibrant setting that has a feel all its own. The interior and exterior of the "Studio 60" studio, its Sunset Strip locale, and the offices of NBS are all imbued with a distinctive character that helps provide the context for the character relationships I have outlined above. Although much has been said about this show's and the other new NBC program "30 Rock"'s derivation from "Saturday Night Live," "Studio 60" (the show within the show) maintains a distinctive identity apart from being an "SNL" ripoff. The (fictional) show is celebrating its 20th anniversary season in the pilot, thus establishing a longevity (as well as, through the other plot machinations, a rising and falling fortune) similar to its inspiration.

"Studio 60" has all the classic Sorkin touches we have come to expect: bantering dialogue, sharply drawn characters, remarkable ensemble work, and a distinctive milieu. This series comes with the added value of promotional possibilities that the producers and NBC are sure to exploit: a weekly guest host celebrity and musical group for the show within the show, snippets of the "actual" comedy sketches being prepared or performed for the fictional "Studio 60" program, and the kind of high-profile cameos and appearances by Sorkin regulars found in the pilot. If allowed the time and space it needs and deserves to develop properly, and if NBC doesn't get skittish at ratings numbers that may not immediately be top ranked, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" will hopefully be entertaining audiences for years.

"Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" Links
Official website for "Studio 60" at NBC.com
Mock website for the fictional "Studio 60"
IMDb entry for "Studio 60"
"Studio 60" page on Epguides.com (episode guide)
Links to reviews of "Studio 60" on Metacritic.com

(Photo source: TV.com)

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