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

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.

Maybe "Studio 60" deserves a break partly because one is inclined to root for underdogs -- in this case, low-rated NBC. CBS has become the Cocky Broadcasting System with its marching robotic army of slick crime shows; ABC became the Arrogant Broadcasting Co. when it aired the recent and deplorable docudrama about the 9/11 tragedy, seen in some circles as a favor to George W. Bush.

Sorkin aspires to "importance," which can sometimes curdle into pretentiousness. The setting and characters of "Studio 60" promise to work against that because, after all, they aren't deciding the fate of the world. Unless things have taken a truly absurdist turn, they aren't capable of launching nuclear missiles or invading countries, either.

For now, the show isn't "must-see TV" but more like "might-see TV." Can "Studio 60" coexist on the same network with "30 Rock"? Why, good heavens, they're as different as night and -- uhh -- evening.

'The Class'

"The Class" has very little. Considerably worse than being classless, however, is being laughless, at least if you happen to be a sitcom, and "The Class" does, albeit one that's about as rib-tickling as a migraine.

Of course, the show might ring true and strike all kinds of responsive chords with some viewers -- but only those who feel that their lives peaked in the third grade and it's been all downhill from there. The third grade? Some folks long for carefree college capers, some may still be sentimentally stuck at their high school's senior prom, but how many people sit around mooning over prepubescent days of dodge ball, jump-rope and simple addition?

A very simple addition to the CBS Monday night comedy schedule, "Class" premieres tonight at 8 on Channel 9 with a pilot episode that struggles clumsily to establish the premise. Ethan Haas, played by Jason Ritter -- John's son-- wants to give his girlfriend an extra special wonderful splendid surprise party to announce their engagement. He comes up with a ridiculous scheme: reassemble their third-grade class at Woodman Elementary School near Philadelphia and let the fur fly where it may.

Some of these people haven't seen one another since 1986, and you have to wonder how many would really hop on a plane, train or even a crosstown bus to renew acquaintances that old. Basically the colorful quirky characters march in and announce their various neuroses and idiosyncrasies, and then the show's writers try to find reasons to pair them off and keep them together for 22 weeks, should the series last that long.

"Class" will answer one question that may have been perplexing some of the folks out here in television land: Whatever became of Sam Harris? Harris was a big winner on "Star Search," the "American Idol" of its day -- a syndicated talent hunt hosted by Ed McMahon. Harris had an especially melodramatic, over-the-top style of singing that people either loved or loathed. He was very big in the '80s. Then he went away. Now he's come back as Perry Pearl, one of the third-graders who hated to grow up.

Andrea Anders co-stars with Ritter as Nicole Allen, a young woman who seems not all that thrilled to have married a brain-damaged former pro football star named Yonk Allen. Yonk is played by David Keith, perhaps best remembered as the guy who hanged himself in the shower in "An Officer and a Gentlemen." One assumes there'll be no hangings in the shower in "The Class," although, wait just a minute, one member of the group, in a future episode, does try to commit suicide by taking too many sleeping pills.

He calls 911, but puts 911 on hold when he sees another call coming in. Funny, or just dumb? Some of the dialogue is laugh-worthy, or at least chortle-worthy, as when one of the female classmates notes, "I'm married to a man I love -- a good percentage of the time." But only for a small percentage of its time is "The Class" comically compelling.

Herewith a tiny confession: After watching the pilot for "The Class," I was certain I'd seen an hour-long show. Imagine my surprise to find out it was only half that length. It's definitely not a good sign, and "The Class" seems an awfully wobbly cornerstone on which to rest the CBS Monday night comedy lineup.

Apparently CBS executives are hoping the show will seem reminiscent enough of "Friends" to keep viewers -- at least those in the 18-to-34 demographic -- quietly appeased. Only the most appeasable people in the universe, however, are likely to fall for that one.

'Mr. Conservative'

A beautiful and illuminating job of setting the record straight -- though without ever claiming to be anything but subjective -- "Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater" recounts the life and times of a politician who died not knowing how influential or revered he would eventually become.

The 90-minute HBO documentary, premiering tonight at 9, was co-produced, and is narrated, by CC Goldwater, granddaughter of the film's subject, Barry M. Goldwater, who served 30 years in the Senate and made a run for the presidency in 1964 that he may have regretted for all the unseemly vilification he endured. We see some of it: posters that said "Bury Goldwater" and vicious caricatures of him brandishing a Hitler mustache or a swastika. It was no way to treat a patriot.

Goldwater, who died in 1998, was the man who defined conservatism for more than one generation and who essentially split with the conservative movement when it became allied with pseudo-religious extremists. To Goldwater, the essence of conservatism was that government should stay out of people's lives as much as possible, and he was "appalled," his granddaughter says, by the "social agenda" of the far-right-wingers who seek to control the Republican Party now.

He was a feminist without labeling himself one, declaring that "abortion is not a conservative issue" and that what a woman did with her body was her own business. When he learned that a grandson, Ty, was gay -- "I was never in the closet," Ty says -- he raised no alarm or objection: "He was just concerned that I be myself."

Fiercely and bravely independent, Goldwater parted company with fellow Republican Richard Nixon when it became clear Nixon was guilty as hell of the Watergate coverup. John Dean recalls discussing Nixon with Goldwater prior to Dean's testimony before Congress and remembers Goldwater saying, "That s.o.b. was always a liar. Go nail him."

The film's title is somewhat unfortunate. For one thing, it implies this is a purely political portrait, when actually it's at its most affecting when it describes Goldwater the man -- a man of the land, a photographer who favored nature and native Americans as his subjects, an adventurer who shot the Colorado rapids in 1940 and had the expedition filmed in color (later carrying prints of the film around to theaters in Arizona, where it drew boffo crowds), and for most of his life a pilot who loved buzzing around Arizona in a small plane or getting behind the controls of the latest state-of-the-art jet that the Air Force had acquired.

Also, this isn't Goldwater talking about himself but an impressive parade of Goldwater's friends, associates and admirers who attest colorfully to his character, integrity and rugged charm (no one compares him to Teddy Roosevelt, but there seem to be notable similarities).

Among those commenting on-camera: Justice Sandra Day O'Connor ("He was amazing"); Sen. John Warner, who worked as an aide to Goldwater during Goldwater's early Senate days ("I loved being in his presence"); columnist George F. Will, who speaks for true conservatism today as Goldwater did in his prime; Sally Quinn, who got to know Goldwater when he "moved in" with her parents; and Quinn's husband, Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of The Washington Post, who says Goldwater was a help to the paper during its historic Watergate reporting.

Maybe the first Goldwater in the "Goldwater on Goldwater" is meant to be filmmaker CC, for whom the documentary was obviously the definitive labor of love. She doesn't claim Goldwater was perfect, however, and Goldwater offspring and relatives speak with sadness about his inability to express his love for them.

Goldwater also erred, clearly, when he opposed Lyndon Johnson's Voting Rights Act, which earned Goldwater the enmity of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Even so, Roy Wilkins says Goldwater was "not a racist" but that he felt states, even Southern states, would solve their civil rights problems themselves. In retrospect, this seems incredibly naive.

The producers are obliged, of course, to cover classic and iconic Goldwater moments, landmarks in his career, as when he said "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice" at a Republican convention or wrote "The Conscience of a Conservative." Also replayed is the most famous and infamous political commercial ever made, the "daisy" spot run -- only once, then withdrawn -- by the Johnson campaign in 1964. The commercial clearly implied Goldwater was too dangerous and trigger-happy to have access to the nuclear button during the Cold War.

I wish that, just once, producers who make reference to the daisy commercial (a little girl picks petals off a daisy, followed by a countdown and the explosion of an atomic bomb) would mention the advertising wizard who created it: Tony Schwartz, author of an influential book called "The Responsive Chord."

Many responsive chords are struck by "Goldwater on Goldwater." It whets one's appetite to learn more about this unfairly maligned man, this giant figure from a time of giants, and it seems bound to have a significant salutary effect on his reputation.

Not that Goldwater himself would be likely to give a damn one way or the other.

Studio 60 on Sunset Strip (one hour) airs at 10 p.m. on Channel 4.

The Class (30 minutes) airs at 8 p.m. on Channel 9.

Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater (90 minutes) premieres at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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