TV Land

‘STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP'

It’s a good thing television producers don’t run the government: Politics would be much less entertaining. Or so one might be inclined to think after watching the first few episodes of the new NBC drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

An ideologically charged peek behind the scenes at an imaginary network’s troubled sketch-comedy show, Studio 60 arrives on the fall lineup fresh from the pen of entertainment whiz Aaron Sorkin, creator of the late, lamented valentine to policy-wonkdom, The West Wing.

Like West Wing, Sorkin’s new show revels in the atmospherics of a tense organization with an enormous payroll and labyrinthine headquarters. The camera of Studio 60 careens in an almost gloating fashion through the hallways, offices, and tech booths of the fictional network-the archly named National Broadcasting System (NBS)-taking in the racks of costumes, the monitors, the dressing rooms, the staffers clambering busily up and down the stairs.

This feverish environment houses the squabbles and panicked brainstorming sessions of Sorkin’s characters: comedy-sketch writers, comedy-sketch actors, and network bigwigs. They’re all clinging precariously to different rungs on the corporate ladder-just how precariously was made clear in the pilot episode, in which an executive producer named Wes Mendell (Judd Hirsch) exploded into an anticommercialist rant live on air, earning himself immediate dismissal. To salvage the situation, NBS president Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet, looking as absurdly gorgeous as a model in a shampoo commercial) hired a brilliant but insubordinate writing/directing team named Matt (played by Matthew Perry, of Friends) and Danny (West Wing alumnus Bradley Whitford), both former network employees.

In the aftermath of this flare-up, the characters’ old feuds and love affairs create gossipy subplots to a tale of PR, the Nielsen ratings, and the cultural marketplace. All in all, Studio 60 boasts as much angst and adrenaline as any inside-the-Beltway crisis from The West Wing. The problem is that The West Wing was about the White House, and Studio 60 is about, well, the boob tube. And on some level, you can’t help resenting the solipsism of a television show that wallows in the glamour and passion of a television show.

Moreover, the national and international scope of West Wing storylines gave its bantering dialogue the charm of graveyard humor-when the characters slung quips, they did so because World War III was threatening to break out at any moment. That’s not the case in this new series, where the narrative stakes aren’t as high.

Of course, Sorkin has ratcheted up the gravitas somewhat by emphasizing the battle between art and commerce. “This show used to be cutting-edge political and social satire, but it’s been lobotomized,” Wes fumed on air in the pilot episode, launching a colossal “J’Accuse!” at NBS’s sell-out mentality. He made some dismissive comments about cheesy reality programming (“We’re eating worms for money!”) and concluded that “We’re all being lobotomized by this society’s most influential industry”-that industry, of course, being television.

With a speech like that kicking off episode 1, Studio 60 can hardly lay claim to thematic subtlety. Somewhat more interesting is the portion of the script dealing with Christianity. The corporate decision that sent Wes off the deep end was the cancellation of a sketch called “Crazy Christians”-evidently a move by the network to avoid offending Evangelicals. Since Studio 60 champions unfettered creativity and daring humor, the development cast the fundamental religious lobby in a bad light-an implication underscored in the following episode, which found the characters confronting a threateningly opinionated fundamentalist magazine called Rapture, that has four times the circulation of Vanity Fair.

On the other hand, one of the show’s principal personalities is the beautiful blonde comic actress Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson), a devout Christian who comes across as a very positive figure: she has a sense of humor, but stands up for what she believes; she defuses confrontations with gentle but pointed witticisms; and she resolutely refuses to be offended by the secular entertainment industry, even when it is making fun of religion. One week’s program, for example, found Harriet cheerfully participating in a comedy sketch titled “Science Schmience”-a skewering of religious folk who disbelieve evolution and the like.

Sexual tension simmers between Harriet and the perpetually harried Matt, who had dated until the actress opted to appear on Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club. That decision appalled Matt’s liberal sensibilities: “Throw in the Halloween costumes and you’ve got a Klan rally!” was his disgusted description of the Christian Broadcasting Network program. The estranged Harriet and Matt are still in love, though, judging by the shell-shocked gazes they trade now and then.

Their alienation is one more symptom of America’s ever-more-polarized electorate-a civic reality that Studio 60 tries periodically, and none too delicately, to reflect. For instance, Danny complains at one point that a right-wing viewer considers the NBS comedy-sketch writing team to be “Barbara Streisand-loving, Michael Moore-worshiping jackasses.” Evidently, Sorkin and his colleagues are trying to give this new series a certain amount of political scope. Too bad it’s not set in Washington-it might be more diverting.

Published in the 2006-10-20 issue: 
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Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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