Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Swan Tunes In: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Saddled with tons of advance buzz and the most ungainly title in prime time — was there a reason, Aaron Sorkin, why the show couldn't have simply been dubbed Studio 60? — Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip suffers in comparison with both its predebut reputation and its storied predecessor, Sorkin's political drama The West Wing.

Which is why I say watch it now, because it may not last for long. Even with Sorkin's considerable juice behind it.

Studio 60 is a behind-the-scenes look at a live network sketch comedy series (titled, not surprisingly, Studio 60) that couldn't be a more obvious reference to Saturday Night Live if it tried. (Oddly, NBC has two shows this fall with this exact premise. Tina Fey's 30 Rock plays more like a sitcom, while Studio 60 is a drama with ample comedic overtones and 100% less Alec Baldwin.)

Here's the show in a nutshell. Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford play, respectively, Matt Albie and Danny Tripp, a writer-producer duo who quit Studio 60 four years ago, and have just been rehired by the network's new entertainment honcho (Jordan McDeere, played by Amanda Peet) to save the faltering show after the previous producer (a first-episode cameo by Judd Hirsch) goes all Howard Beale on the air one Friday night. Matt and Danny have to resurrect Studio 60 in the face of (a) a network chairman who hates them (a role played to oily perfection by Steven Weber), (b) a trio of opinionated and ego-driven stars (played by Sarah Paulson, D.L. Hughley, and Nathan Corddry), (c) the pair of "talentless hacks" who head the writing staff (Evan Handler and Carlos Jacott), and (d) angry sponsors and affiliates who despise the show's often politically incorrect irreverence.

If you were a regular West Wing viewer, you'll recognize Sorkin's signature style all over Studio 60: the huge cast, the machine-gun dialogue, the wry political commentary. Unlike The West Wing, which at least in its early seasons crackled with urgency and narrative force, Studio 60 feels peculiarly flat.

The problem isn't with the cast. I didn't realize, not having been a Friends fan, that Matthew Perry was this talented an actor — he commands the screen every second he's on camera. Everyone else — Whitford and Weber especially — is at least decent, though Peet (whom I've enjoyed in other venues) seems miscast as a high-powered executive, and Sorkin hasn't yet found much for some of the other standout performers (i.e., Hughley and Timothy Busfield, who plays the fictional Studio 60's director) to do.

No, the problem with Studio 60 is also its greatest strength: Aaron Sorkin. So far, the show's creator is writing every episode himself, and it feels as though he's distracted. This is especially true during the brief on-air flashes we're shown of the fictional Studio 60 — it's painfully unfunny. (I suspect that's the real reason the show's in trouble.)

I like Sorkin's work, and I like Studio 60's cast and concept. Given all of the hype NBC has poured into the series, I suspect they'll give it a relatively long leash. But unless the show finds its footing fast, the ratings may completely tank before Sorkin and company figure out exactly what it is they're trying to do.

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