[06/05/06 - 12:00 AM]
The Futon's First Look: "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" (NBC)
By Brian Ford Sullivan (TFC)

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With the official start of the 2006-07 season less than three months away, the drumbeats have begun by the networks to tout their new comedies and dramas. What should you keep your eye out for? What should you avoid at all costs? While it's still a little early for full reviews (some recasting and reshooting will be done on a good chunk of them), we thought we'd spend the next month or so previewing what's in store for the upcoming season. Each day we'll look at one of the 39 new series set to premiere this season and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot.

There's no particular order here, just whatever's next on the stack of tapes. So without further ado, here's today's entry:

(Mondays at 10:00/9:00c this fall)

The network's description: "Emmy Award-winning executive producer-writer Aaron Sorkin ("The West Wing") and Emmy Award-winning executive producer-director Thomas Schlamme ("The West Wing") return to television with this crackling take on the drama behind the humor of producing a popular, late-night comedy sketch show, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." Sorkin lays bare the backstage politics, romances and delicate balance between creative talent, on-air personalities and network executives in an instant text-messaging world. Prominent are Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet, "Syriana"), a savvy new network entertainment chief who inherits a massive public relations disaster on the series -- even before she starts her first day -- and Matt Albie (Matthew Perry, "Friends") and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford, "The West Wing"), a brilliant creative team that she wants to resurrect the program. Also playing crucial roles are the sketch comedy series stars Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson, "Down with Love"), Simon Stiles (D.L. Hughley, "The Hughleys") and Tom Jeter (Nathan Corddry, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart"), their normally cool-headed director, Cal Shanley (Timothy Busfield, "thirtysomething") as well as supreme network honcho Jack Rudolph (Steven Weber, "Wings"). Evan Handler ("Sex and the City") and Carlos Jacott ("Being John Malkovich") also star."

What did they leave out: As if Perry, Whitford, Peet and co. weren't enough, look for guest appearances by Judd Hirsch, Edward Asner, Donna Murphy and (as themselves) Felicity Huffman and recent Oscar-winners 36 Mafia.

The plot in a nutshell: It's a typical taping night for the legendary sketch comedy series "Studio 60" (think "SNL" in L.A.) - cast member Simon Stiles (D.L. Hughley) is warming up the crowd, wardrobes are being finalized and last-minute script changes are being put onto the cue cards. Brewing further behind the scenes however is an argument between the show's executive producer Wes Mendell (Hirsch) and the network censor Jerry (Michael Stuhlbarg). At issue: one of the planned sketches. Jerry contends it will offend religious people while Wes argues it killed at rehearsal, adding "and funny is in short supply around here lately." Long out of the juice he once had to get away with moving forward, a frustrated Wes opts to go with one of their regular bits ("Peripheral Vision Man"), much to the cast and crew's dismay. And so the "show" goes on, but not before Wes snaps and of all things - walks onto the live taping, asks his cast to clear the stage and launches into a tirade about the state of his show, his network (UBS) and television in general (in short: "there's always been a struggle between art and commerce, but now I'm telling you art is getting its ass kicked"). As one would expect this sends up flares everywhere, most notably a dinner party for the network's newest president Jordan McDeere (a radiant Amanda Peet) thrown by her boss Jack Rudolph (the always great Steven Weber in full smarmy mode) and Wilson White (Asner), the chairman of UBS's parent company. From there Jordan and Jack head to their offices where they brainstorm ways how to deal with the fallout. Jordan's idea: bring back "Studio 60's" two golden boy writer/producers Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford), who were unceremoniously dumped from the show two years ago after butting heads with Jack (and have since moved on to becoming well-liked filmmakers). It's a call that Jordan essentially hangs her job on and she sets off to sign the pair before the news cycle kicks off on Monday. It'd be almost criminal to spoil any more than this, but you can obviously guess Matt and Danny come on board, but not without their own issues to deal with on and off the show.

What works: While reading the above might feel like a giant info dump, on the screen it's not. Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme know how to keep a half-dozen plates spinning and it's a genuine pleasure to watch things unfold. But the real draw here is the awesomeness that is Perry and Whitford. While they don't appear until nearly halfway in, the show really comes alive once they're introduced. Written as essentially the second coming of "Sports Night's" Casey McCall and Dan Rydell (except slight more troubled), their friendship feels more real than anything I've seen on TV in a while. (Matt: "Now we're back in the NFL and only one of us can screw up at a time and I think we both know that most of the time it's gonna be me. You're the big shoulders." Danny: "I hear you." Matt: "Good, 'cause I'm pretty stoned and I can't really remember what I said.") Plain and simple: if you were a fan of "Sports Night" and/or "The West Wing" - this show is for you. It's filled to the brim with all of Sorkin's trademarks: characters "banter" instead of talk, emotional gut punches appear out of nowhere and most all, how special a thing friendship is and how honorable working toward something greater can be.

What doesn't: I almost hate to bring this up since it will undoubtedly send up red flags to people who have fears the show will be "too inside." Nevertheless, a key plot point hinges on the concept that directors are bonded by insurance companies, that is to say that should (for instance) a movie shoot be delayed because something happens to the director (i.e. he/she falls ill, can't work, etc.), the insurance company will cover the money lost waiting for he/she to recover. In other words, if a director isn't bonded, they rarely are hired. Anyway, I bring this up because more than a few people who've seen the pilot (and aren't a TV/movie nerd like myself) were confused by the concept. It doesn't necessarily take away from the enjoyment of the show - hell, I don't need to have a medial degree to understand what's happening on "House" or a legal degree to follow the proceedings on "Law & Order" - but it's worth pointing out. The other burr in my saddle is Wes's "Network"-esque speech (i.e. "I'm mad as hell..."). While his/Sorkin's comments about the FCC and network television's general fear of conservative/religious groups and potential calls for boycotts are dead on, some of it - more specifically his attack on reality shows - feels a little dated. Sure there's still a few eye-rolling concepts out there but in general the days of "Who Wants to Marry My Dad?" and their like seems to have past. It's hard to say art is getting beaten up when stuff like "The Office," "My Name Is Earl," "Lost," "Grey's Anatomy," etc. airs every week. The other implication is that "Saturday Night Live" (or any other TV for the matter) is bad because there's limited freedom on broadcast television. Is that really true? I mean I love FX and HBO as much as the next critic, but are those shows necessarily "great" because they can drop an a-bomb or show a bare breast? Or conversely are "The Office" and "Grey's Anatomy" "bad" because they can't? I certainly get that there's a general fear of such things on broadcast television, but it's a hard argument to support when "art" is kicking ass quite a bit on broadcast TV nowadays.

The challenges ahead: Obviously "Studio" has to overcome the "too inside" label that has already been branded upon on it, not to mention a somewhat tricky time slot (albeit obviously an improvement over being thrown under the bus on Thursdays at 9:00/8:00c against "C.S.I." and "Grey's Anatomy"). That being said, if people are willing to give it a shot - I think they'll be surprised how genuinely entertaining the show is.

  [june 2006]  


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