Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Smart TV - Part Two

I bought the hype, took the bait, and last night at 10:00 E.S.T., tuned in to the new Aaron Sorkin show, "Saturday Night West Wing." I know, I know, it's called "Studio 60 Live on the Sunset Strip," but that title is so cumbersome. For those who haven't been tracking the new fall TV season like the arrival of the Mackinaw peaches, "S60LotSS" (it doesn't even acronym well) is one of two shows on NBC this fall that offer a behind-the-scenes look at a fictional show that bears a strong resemblance to "Saturday Night Live."

I have always liked Sorkin's movies (A Few Good Men, The American President, Malice) and his TV shows (Sports Night, West Wing). If he gets a little preachy, that's okay with me because I often share his political perspective. He's generally willing to take on serious topics with intelligent characters and dialogue, even if he tends to pat himself on the back at times. The West Wing Christmas episode where the homeless veteran is given an honor guard funeral at Arlington Cemetery remains one of my favorite hours of television.

"Studio 60" is replete with familiar Sorkin touches. The credits appear in the same typeface as the West Wing, and we often hear conversation snippets or background noise before the camera lets us in on the visual action. The dialogue is snappy, with actors saying lots of things most of us would only think of hours or days after the initial conversation.

I found a lot to like in the pilot. Sorkin's topic is going to be modern broadcast television and he secured the services of some well-known TV heavyweights to open big. Judd Hirsch is the show's producer, who delivers a Howard Bealesque on-air diatribe that sets the tone and gets him fired. Ed Asner appears briefly as the CEO of the network's corporate parent. And Timothy Busfield plays the control room director who allows Hirsch's tirade to stay on the air for nearly a minute, against the hysterical protestations of the network's "Standards and Protocols" suit. Okay, if you're keeping score, that's representation from "Taxi," "Mary Tyler Moore," and "Thirtysomething" in the first ten minutes of a show about the quality of broadcast television. Well played, Mr. Sorkin, well played.

The bulk of the acting load was carried by Amanda Peet as the new network President, Stephen Weber as her boss, and Bradley Whitford and Matthew Perry as the writing and directing duo Peet decides to bring back to the show to replace Hirsch. To my surprise, Perry gave the best performance of these four. He had a few Chandler Bing moments, but not so many to overwhelm his character. Whitford, on the other hand, still seemed to be hitting all his Josh Lyman marks; I half-expected him to scream out, "Donna!" every time he entered a room. (Note to Wardrobe: Try putting Whitford in something other than a dark suit if you want us to forget he played a high-powered Washington political operative just last season). Weber's character was too one-dimensional to offer much, and Peet could be in trouble if she ever has to do any but smile pretty between clever lines.

Except for the Hirsch meltdown, we saw none of the show itself in the pilot. Instead, Sorkin used the hour to introduce the characters and establish some of the history, including a failed relationship between Perry and one of the show's stars, played by Sarah Paulson. The Perry and Whitford friendship came off well, and, not suprisingly, Sorkin's writing for Whitford's character's confession of a cocaine relapse rang quite true.

Lots of nice details fill out the shape of show, including the cloud of marijuana smoke in the Three 6 Mafia dressing room and the caste system of star power within the show's cast. And the deconstruction of the demise of Perry and Paulson's couplehood shows that even in Hollywood, you still have "to be there" for your significant other, even if "there" is a red carpet at a premiere or a CD release publicity junket.

While Paulson does a nice job with her character whether she's putting a minor cast member in his place or immediately reengaging Perry in a bitter rehash of their breakup, I'm not quite sold on her character also being a Christian spiritual music recording artist. Maybe it's not such a big deal but we are made to believe it is important in the plot of the pilot episode. The sordid personality traits of the various characters are plausible, but isn't it ironic that her wholesome side is the hard pill to swallow? Then again, Sorkin put a religious Democrat in the White House and a non-churchgoing Republican presidential candidate on the campaign trail, so I guess anything is possible.

So, while I don't think we'll see Sinead O'Connor tearing up any pictures of the pope or even Father Guido Sarducci promoting "Popes in the Pizza," I do think this one is worth at least a second look.

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