Tom Shales, Style Columnist

Not Live! Not From New York! It's 'Studio 60' . . .

Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford as once-fired producers rehired for a sketch-comedy show on
Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford as once-fired producers rehired for a sketch-comedy show on "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." (By Scott Garfield -- Nbc)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 18, 2006

Less than some of its parts, and a little long on shortcomings, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" nevertheless arrives with so much credible fanfare and such a hefty cadre of talent that even skeptics can reasonably expect future episodes to improve on tonight's more ho-hum than ho-ho premiere, which airs at 10 on Channel 4.

NBC executives obviously think a series about backstage life at a sketch-comedy show like its own "Saturday Night Live" -- one of the all-time great television institutions -- is a good idea, such a good idea that they have two of them on the fall bill. The other, Tina Fey's "30 Rock," a half-hour comedy, will arrive later. That means "West Wing" producer Aaron Sorkin's hour-long comedy-drama gets the jump on it, though Sorkin hasn't exactly seized the reins and run wild.

Sorkin is "about to do to TV what he did to the White House," promises the NBC Web site. And what is that, exactly? "The West Wing" remained essentially respectful of its setting, and so does "Studio 60," even though it begins with the producer and founder of the show within the show, Judd Hirsch in a guest-star bit, taking to the airwaves to tell viewers that the program has been "lobotomized" by a "candy-ass broadcast network hellbent on doing nothing that might challenge their audience."

But that's not all the brain surgery going on: "We're all being lobotomized by this country's most influential industry" because it is caught in a "struggle between art and commerce," he rants. Sorry, but the whole speech comes off as if Hirsch were speaking on Sorkin's behalf and wreaking some kind of revenge on muck-a-mucks and higher-ups who wronged him during his career -- or maybe he's chastising the audience for drifting away from "The West Wing" when the show grew tiresome.

The notion that TV turns us all into numb, lumbering zombies is almost as old as the medium itself.

Lest the audience find Hirsch's speech a tad too similar to the kind made by Peter Finch as Howard Beale in Paddy Chayefsky's bicentennial prank "Network" 30 years ago, Sorkin includes a reference to "Network" in his show, though the 1976 film is called a 1977 one. And in a disingenuous attempt to say, "This isn't really about 'Saturday Night Live' the way '30 Rock' is," the title and various bits of exposition inform us that the faux show emanates from Los Angeles, not New York, and airs not on Saturday nights but -- hold onto your cats -- on Fridays, which of course is completely different, night-wise.

The cast is formidable and seems to be using the premiere mainly as a warm-up, waiting for the really good scripts to come in. Matthew Perry of "Friends" and Bradley Whitford of "The West Wing" play Matt and Danny, two friends and writing partners who formerly produced the show, were fired four years ago and now are entreated to return after Hirsch's meltdown. Amanda Peet plays Jordan, the new network entertainment boss who does the entreating, which leads to this already widely quoted exchange:

Danny: "I have no reason to trust you and every reason not to."

Jordan: "Why?"

Danny: "You work in television."

The various complications and relationships (one producer just broke up with one of the cast members, for instance) are plausible enough if insufficiently scintillating. Sorkin, again teamed with fellow executive producer Thomas Schlamme, doesn't seem to have decided yet how mean he wants to be to television -- how deeply he wants to bite the hand that feeds him. Wouldn't it be funny if in the real backstage behind the fake backstage, NBC executives were urging Sorkin to be meaner? The fictional "Studio 60," by the way, doesn't air on NBC but on NBS, the "National Broadcasting System."

Though it may not yet have achieved the level of devastating lampoonery, there is something electric in the air just because a network television show is taking both a sardonic and serious look at television as a medium and how it affects the people who work in it and, to a lesser degree, the millions of faithful who man their couches and clickers hoping for something that will stimulate them, one way or another.

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