Despite conventional wisdom that augurs against the success of a TV show about TV, it’s hard not to root for “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” a series that weds Aaron Sorkin’s crackling dialogue and willingness to tackle big ideas with a beyond-stellar cast. Sorkin’s ear for the media’s rules and excesses was a staple of both “The West Wing” and “Sports Night,” and his exploration of an aging latenight franchise is so bracingly smart it’s sure to hook discriminating viewers. That said, NBC had better hope the big-name actors entice some less-discriminating viewers, too.
In essence, Sorkin and collaborator Thomas Schlamme have devised a modern-day “Network,” and they don’t shy away from the analogy but rather hit it straight on, as the legendary producer of “Studio 60” — a “Saturday Night Live”-type sketch show — implodes on air with a breathless tirade. Played by Judd Hirsch, he makes like Howard Beale, urging viewers to change channels and saying that in the timeless struggle between art and commerce, “Art is getting its ass kicked.”
The network launches into full-scale damage control in a sharp nine-minute opening sequence. Under the stewardship of new network exec Jamie McDermott (oops, that’s Jordan McDeere, played by Amanda Peet), fictional NBS decides to recruit two of the show’s former creative gurus who have moved on to movies, writer Matt (Matthew Perry) and director Danny (Bradley Whitford).
At first reluctant, they’re gradually worn down, despite the misgivings of Jordan’s boss (Steven Weber) and Matt’s doubts about professionally reuniting with a former lover, Harriet (Sarah Paulson), a key member of the cast.
Perry and Whitford worked together when Perry guest-starred on “West Wing,” and they exhibit an instant rapport that establishes the convincing feel of a longstanding creative team — the wild genius and sobering (if not always sober) “big shoulders” who grounds him. Sorkin is entitled to some ego, so there’s scant doubt upon whom this duo is partly based.
Not surprisingly, “Studio 60” incorporates some attention-getting rants, most directed at TV’s cowardice in dealing with pressure groups and its degradation with bug-eating reality shows. Yet if that risks being too precious by half — exhibiting one’s cool, as David Letterman historically has, by mocking the boss — this is commentary with a purpose, speaking to aspects of a powerful medium that rarely engages in such self-reflection.
As with “West Wing,” Sorkin cloaks his sermons with an attractive and talented congregation, as well as the dynamics of a high-stress workplace where walking the halls is an ideal time for thoughtful conversation. That pace continues in the second hour when Danny and Matt oversee their first show, which includes Matt amusingly dressing down the writing staff for dressing down.
Even with his eccentricities, Sorkin infuses his stories with aspirational fervor (network execs exhibiting backbone? Go figure), his characters with brains and his rat-a-tat patter with an electricity that puts most primetime drama to shame. And if the show’s sense of reality suffers amid those stagy, too-articulate exchanges, it’s nevertheless an invigorating contrast when so much TV entails pacing around a chalk outline.
NBC wisely juggled its lineup to provide “Studio 60” a fighting chance in this still-formidable Monday timeslot, and it probably would have been advisable to delay the similarly themed sitcom “30 Rock” until midseason to avoid confusion. Then again, in TV, you can’t have everything.
In the interim, it will be fascinating to see if Sorkin’s latest rage against the machine can achieve a balance that doomed anchorman Beale couldn’t — staying just mad enough to keep the audience watching without becoming so crazy as to warrant termination.