Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Termite Television: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

The first best show of the 2006-07 season is Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. In a nutshell, the show is Sorkin's The West Wing set backstage of a Saturday Night Live-ish comedy series, though since I've seen maybe half of one of The West Wings 156 episodes, that's sort of an educated guess. Both were created and written by Sorkin, both directed by Thomas Schlamme, both co-starred Bradley Whitford, both involve people walking a lot while frequently talking.

Several websites referred to how autobiographical the show is — do a Google news search, you'll find them. Frankly, I don't know and couldn't care less about that. Wherever the material is coming from, it's good: crisp, smart, and funny. The opening sequence of the pilot is an all-timer: Wes Mendell (Judd Hirsch), the fatherly producer of the show-within-a-show has an edgy sketch cut by the network censor just before broadcast. When the show goes live, Mendell jumps in front of the cameras and starts a Network-esque meltdown (acknowledged as knowingly Network-esque in a very funny sequence several minutes later). Mendell, sick of the way network pressure has watered down his beloved show, wants to get fired. So he does what no one on television does: he speaks honestly. Here's some highlights from the speech:

This show used to be cutting edge political and social satire, but it’s gotten lobotomized by a candy ass broadcast network hell-bent on doing nothing that might challenge their audience...We’re all being lobotomized by this country’s most influential industry. It’s just throwing in the towel on any endeavor to do anything that doesn’t include the courting of 12 year old boys. Not even the smart 12 year olds, the stupid ones, the idiots. Which there are plenty, thanks in no small measure to this network. So why don’t you just, change the channel, turn off the TV. Do it right now, go ahead...There is a struggle between art and commerce. Well there has always been a struggle between art and commerce. Now, I’m telling you, art is getting its ass kicked. And it’s making us mean. And it’s making us bitchy. It’s making us cheap punks, that’s not who we are! People are having contests to see how much they can be like Donald Trump. [Inaudible] We’re eating worms for money. Who wants to screw my sister! Guys are getting killed in a war that’s got theme music and a logo. That remote in your hand is a crack pipe...

I don't care if Sorkin is doing this with a bit of a wink, or if the show distracts from Mendell's speech to some degree by intercutting with the network censor's attempts to pull the plug on the live broadcast. Putting this on HBO, no matter the context, is edgy. Putting this on broadcast television, but particularly NBC — the network that airs Saturday Night Live AND The Apprentice — is ludicrous. NBC must be as deseperate for a hit show as the "NBS" channel that broadcasts Mendell's Studio 60.

The rest of the episode wasn't quite as riveting as the opening, but it establishes one of the best cast ensembles in television, including Steven Webber as the jerkstore head of NBS and Amanda Peet as his newly hired and somewhat enigmatic V.P. Whitford and nominal lead Matthew Perry play a writing team that Peet wants to get to replace Hirsch's character, and both already pop with a nice friends-for-life chemistry.

Another feather in Studio 60's cap: not afraid to be melodramatic. Sure, having Perry's character be the ex-lover of Studio 60's most popular female star is contrived but you know what: it creates the perfect soapy tension that these sort of hour-long dramas thrive on. I'm not ashamed to say I look forward to many will-they-won't-they moments for months or hopefully years to come.

If you missed the pilot episode, it's playing on Bravo this week. Get in on the ground floor.



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