Tuned In: Attempt to soar doesn't take 'Wing'
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Art Streiber, NBC
"Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" stars Timothy Busfield, left, Nathan Corddry, Sarah Paulson, D.L. Hughley, Steven Weber, Matthew Perry, Amanda Peet and Bradley Whitford.
In "The West Wing," creator/writer Aaron Sorkin made working in the White House noble. Can he perform a similar water-into-wine miracle when it comes to the TV industry on NBC's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" (10 tonight)?
Don't hold your breath.
When: 10 tonight on NBC.
Starring: Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, Amanda Peet, Sarah Paulson.
Sorkin has, perhaps inadvertently, made it his professional cause to rehabilitate the image of industries Americans have grown cynical about, whether it's governance or Hollywood. But the White House had a storied romantic history of solid leadership; there's no such sentiment accorded the American entertainment industry, which is viewed, both at home and abroad, as frivolous at best and a cesspool destroying the culture at worst. Just as Sorkin's first television foray, ABC's "Sports Night," failed to sustain an audience beyond two seasons, I fear "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" will face a similarly rocky path. (In Pittsburgh, everyone will be watching the Steelers tonight, so Sorkin fans are advised to set their VCRs/DVRs.)
Although tonight's pilot, set behind-the-scenes of a fictional sketch comedy show called "Studio 60," offers much promise, next week's episode is a letdown.
Sorkin makes it easy to sympathize with "Studio 60" executive producers (a k a "show runners") Matt Albie (Matthew Perry, "Friends") and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford, "The West Wing"), who are brought back to the show after its current boss (guest star Judd Hirsch) delivers a Howard Beale-style rant on live TV. Matt and Danny are driven, dedicated professionals whose desire to succeed is only outpaced by their desire to deliver a smart weekly TV show.
It's the supporting characters, barely there in the pilot but more prominent next week, who are unlikely to register with many viewers. Unlike the supporting "West Wing" characters, who shared the same goals as their bosses, the actors in "Studio 60" behave like, well, actors, throwing fits and in need of much coddling and care. It's entirely realistic, but that doesn't make it enjoyable to watch.
The presence of what is so far a mustache-twirling villain -- Steven Weber as a top executive at fictional TV network NBS -- doesn't help matters, even when Sorkin tries to balance him against principled (almost heroically so) NBS Entertainment president Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet).
"I believe the people who watch television shows are not dumber than the people who make television shows," McDeere says at a press conference announcing the hiring of Matt and Danny. "I believe quality is not anathema to profit."
In July, Sorkin said his latest show is, at its heart, about the same things as "West Wing" and "Sports Night."
"It's about a group of people committed to professionalism, committed to each other, committed to what they're doing, and hopefully we enjoy watching them every week," Sorkin said.
The TV graveyard is littered with the corpses of failed shows set backstage in Hollywood ("Action" on Fox in 1999, "Wednesday 9:30 (8:30 Central)" on ABC in 2002), but before "West Wing," no one thought a political drama set in the White House would work either. Whitford said he's not concerned despite the track record for the Hollywood insider theme.
"I just think, isn't 'CSI' a little inside the coroner's office?" he said at an NBC press conference in July. "I think it's an advantage because you're taking an audience to a place that is different, and you're humanizing the people who are dealing with that place."
If nothing else, viewers will likely sympathize with the rant in tonight's premiere.
"This show used to be cutting-edge political and social satire, but it's gotten lobotomized by a candy-assed broadcast network hellbent on doing nothing that might challenge their audience," says Hirsch's Wes, before he's fired. "We're all being lobotomized by this country's most influential industry. It's just thrown in the towel on any endeavor to do anything that doesn't include the courting of 12-year-old boys, not even the smart 12-year-olds, the idiots!"
Sorkin said he's not intending to lambaste "Saturday Night Live" with that rant, which also contains jabs at "The Apprentice" and "Fear Factor," all three NBC shows.
"It's not about 'TV is bad and TV is killing us,'" he said. "It's mostly about these people, but when it gets into issues of the network and art versus commerce and dumbing things down, we do have a full-throated discussion about it."
The second episode lives up to another Sorkin promise that the characters, aware of the great promise of television, try their best to live up to the responsibility of creating quality entertainment. That idealism worked on "West Wing," but in "Studio 60," it feels a little phony.
Like his previous series, "Studio 60" features intelligent, quickly spoken dialogue, smart arguments and terrific performances (Perry and Whitford have instant chemistry as longtime co-workers), and it's not a bad show by any means, but it doesn't soar to the heights "West Wing" did, even in its earliest episodes.
It's not necessary to know the autobiographical nature of some of the characters in NBC's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" (10 tonight) to enjoy the show, but it can make it that much more fun. Here's a who's (inspired by) who:
Matt Albie (Matthew Perry): "Studio 60's" senior writer shares some traits with series creator Aaron Sorkin and also director Thomas Schlamme.
Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford): Perhaps the closer Sorkin stand-in, as both Tripp and Sorkin are recovering drug addicts, although Tripp is a producer/director, not a writer.
"I'm writing more personally than I have before," Sorkin acknowledged in July, adding that the characters are inspired by real people but "by page four it becomes fiction."
Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet): The Entertainment president at a fictional TV network, McDeere was inspired by Jamie Tarses, ABC's Entertainment president in the late 1990s, when Sorkin's "Sports Night" aired on ABC. Though Tarses was the recipient of scads of bad press -- for incidents like making out with one of the stars of "Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place" at a network press party -- Sorkin evidently liked her. McDeere is one of the heroines of "Studio 60," and Tarses is a consultant on the series.
Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson): The star of the sketch series that's the show featured within "Studio 60," Hayes is a conservative Christian in a largely Godless industry. Her character was inspired by actress/singer Kristin Chenoweth, a devout Christian and one of the stars of Sorkin's "The West Wing" in its latter years. She and Sorkin also dated.
In an upcoming episode, Harriet says, "You're just going to have to believe me that in other parts of the country that aren't New York or Los Angeles, the fact that I believe in God isn't noteworthy."
"I had seen [Kristin] in so many unusual situations in Hollywood that make her not only a minority, but a bit of a pariah," Sorkin said. "I want [Harriet] to be a heroine on this show, and I want her to be loved by a guy who is the opposite of all that and let that be the test case to see if we can all get along."
First Published September 18, 2006 12:00 am