Thursday, September 21, 2006

NOT STUDIO 54

One of the shows from the new television season that I've been especially looking forward to has been "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," and its premiere did not disappoint.

The series comes from Aaron Sorkin, the creator of "The West Wing" and "Sports Night," two critically respected shows that I enjoyed immensely. "Studio 60" offers a backstage peek of a television show that essentially is a fictional version of "Saturday Night Live." The two leads--Bradford Whitford (who was a regular on "West Wing") and Matthew Perry (who actually had several cameos on "West Wing") play a producing/writing team that is hired to revitalize the show four years after having been fired from it--and after their predecessor (played by Judd Hirsch) has a meltdown during a live feed reminiscent of a scene from the film "Network."

The show has the same crackling wit and energy as Sorkin's other shows. He has a knack for portraying too-cool-for-school professionals, who are both passionate and cynical, as well as extraordinarily competent and committed, and who ultimately care deeply about their work and making a difference in the world. Sure, it's an idealized view of the modern-day work place, but it sure makes for good drama.

Ultimately, of course, all that matters is whether the show is entertaining--and it is. Sorkin is proof that any subject or setting can be compelling if the writing is topnotch--with "West Wing," for instance, Sorkin made policy wonkiness exciting and sexy.

Sorkin also has the luxury of having a topnotch cast. In addition to Whitford and Perry (who have a great onscreen rapport), the cast includes Amanda Peet as the new network president and Stephen Weber as her caustic higher up. (Ed Asner and Felecity Huffman playing herself both made cameos in the premiere along with Hirsch.)

Some reviewers have criticized Sorkin for taking the same fast-paced, high-stakes approach to dramatize the backstage goings on of a television show in the same way he portrayed the kind of life-and-death issues faced by the White House in "The West Wing." However, I think such criticism is misplaced, because it overlooks the fact that television--and by extension media and entertainment--are today huge business enterprises, usually run by "Masters of the Universe" types, that wield immense power and influence in culture and society. (Cases in point: Rupert Fox and Sumner Redstone). People don't seem to understand that the same kind of political maneuverings and provincialism that characterizes the power corridors of Washington, DC are just as prevalent (if not moreso) in the entertainment industry. In this age of information overload and celebrity obsession, people don't seem to realize the extent to which the media increasingly permeates and shapes the world. Let's face it, success in the competitive world of television and entertainment requires the same kind of ego and drive that characterize many people in politics and government.

Yes, the characters take television and comedy a bit seriously, but it's nice to have Sorkin back on television. The series looks great, and it's clear this is an attempt to extend the Sorkin brand--the show has a lot of similarities with "The West Wing," down to the scene titles and the fonts used in the credits.

It remains to be seen, however, whether audiences will have any interest in seeing what goes on behind the scenes of a television show or be willing to identify with TV performers and executives as much as they were with the kind of professionals who were portrayed on the "West Wing." Regardless, I hope Sorkin has another hit with "Studio 60" and I look forward to seeing how the series and characters develop.

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