REMEMBER THOSE “Bartlet for President” bumper stickers from “The West Wing’s” heyday? Well, don’t be surprised to see “McDeere for President” placards cropping up around New York’s Rockefeller Center or Burbank’s Bob Hope Drive.
Attempts to explain “West Wing’s” success often hinged on its wish-fulfillment qualities — the alluring ideal of a government populated by committed, well-intentioned people under principled commander-in-chief Jed Bartlet. Yet who could have anticipated that Aaron Sorkin’s latest would center on a network chief who embodies a narrower, more Hollywood-centric fantasy?
Nothing has been more surprising in “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” — the new Sorkin hour that predictably, if disappointingly, appears hard-pressed to generate the mass appeal necessary to save itself, much less NBC — than the character of Jordan McDeere, the just-arrived entertainment president played by Amanda Peet. Although she initially seemed like an inside joke inspired by Jamie Tarses, the one-time ABC Entertainment prez formerly known as McDermott, her integrity has become the show’s defining element — so much so that rank-and-file Peacock employees are to be forgiven if they lament that she isn’t real and yearn to work for the show’s fictional NBS, not budget-slashing NBC.
TAKING INVENTORY of McDeere’s accomplishments, she stood up to pressure from vocal critics on the religious right, urging producers to prominently feature a sketch likely to antagonize them; passed on a Mark Burnett-like reality TV kingpin’s pitch — a likely hit — because it’s “crap,” nobly defying her bosses at the risk of her job; and bought an otherwise-HBO-bound dramatic concept because it screamed quality. And that’s just in her first few weeks.
Given this dizzying resume, no wonder one of “Studio 60’s” producers, played by Bradley Whitford, admiringly told her, “You look like one of them, but you talk like one of us.”
Entertainment Weekly cluelessly perceived this exchange as hinting at a budding relationship, missing that the real romance here stems from a feeling more professional (and rare) than personal — namely, a network “suit” that doesn’t act like one.
It’s hard to quantify just how surprising this is based on past depictions of Hollywood’s corporate suites. Even in NBC’s nostalgic “Behind the Camera” movies network execs are generally reduced to cliches — either morons or amoral — as they are in virtually every depiction of corporate suites, from “Quiz Show” to “The Player,” “Network” to “Champagne for Caesar.”
As for NBC staffers pining for a McDeere administration, it would be hard to blame them lately, inasmuch as their leaders gave the world a pretty good demonstration of stereotypical suit behavior last week.
IMPLEMENTING LAYOFFS is never fun, but NBC officials took corporate spin-speak to absurd heights by seeking to cast efforts to improve their balance sheet as a grand scheme for the future. The unveiling included a pithy name (NBC 2.0), misguided statements about shunning scripted programming in the 8 o’clock hour and an indictment of TV news as a no-growth zone as an excuse to consolidate operations.
Never mind that news is ostensibly the one public service (or trust) that broadcasters ostensibly owe us in exchange for free use of the airwaves. The whole “Cheapskate at 8” philosophy reflects the kind of sweeping pronouncement — even with NBC’s subsequent clarification efforts — that betrays willful ignorance of TV history.
The irony is good ol’ NBC 1.0 has played a pivotal role in exposing the shortsightedness of such decrees, from “The Cosby Show” exploding “Comedy is dead” in 1984 to “ER” raising the bar on ensemble drama to unimaginable rating peaks a decade later.
In other words, the 8 p.m. strategy sounds great if the goal was to impress bean-counters at General Electric HQ in Fairfield, but it can and should evaporate once somebody walks in with a potentially game-changing 8 o’clock sitcom or drama — assuming, that is, the announced policy hasn’t chased such suppliers away already.
Surviving in TV’s upper echelons today ultimately requires a Captain Marvel-like mix of attributes — a futurist’s vision, an MBA’s vocabulary, a marathoner’s endurance and a gambler’s nerves of steel. NBC’s savviest suits can still prove themselves equal to the task, but based on recent evidence, this sure looks like a job for Jordan McDeere.