Wednesday, September 20, 2006

TV: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Ah, that's better. After watching several mediocre-to-truly awful new shows, I've finally gotten to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which, despite a few flaws, is my favorite new offering of the Fall season thus far, and a great addition to the TV landscape.

Aaron Sorkin has put together another fantastic cast of sharp, funny actors, this time to take on the world of late-night sketch comedy. Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford are especially great as Matt and Danny, two writers exiled from SNL-analogue Studio 60, now offered their old jobs to bail it out in a time of crisis. Whitford's Danny is a cocaine addict, recently fallen off the wagon after 11 years clean; a failed drug test means he's forbidden from directing Matt's next screenplay as planned. Matthew, as Matt (big stretch), is whacked out from Vicodin for the entire episode (another big stretch), but also manages to pull it together long enough to realize what a great opportunity they're being offered, and talk Danny into accepting.

Other major players: Judd Hirsch makes a cameo as Studio 60 showrunner Wes, whose unplanned on-air diatribe against the show, the network, and television in general constitutes the crisis mentioned above. Steven Weber is Jack, the network chairman and the man who was repsonsible for originally ousting Matt and Danny. And Amanda Peet is Jordan, the new network president whose first day on the job is spoiled by Wes's meltdown.

The writing in this pilot episode is as sharp and funny as Sorkin's best; I laughed out loud more than at any new sitcom this Fall (probably more than all of them combined), and I was riveted, as usual, by the rapid-fire Sorkin dialogue tossed back and forth between smart and opinionated people. And the acting is superb. Most of the great moments are taken by Perry, Whitford, and Hirsch, but I expect we'll see more and better from Timothy Busfield as director Cal, and Sarah Paulson, D.L. Hughley, and Nathan Corddry as "the Big Three," the three main stars of the fictional Studio 60 -- especially Paulson as Harriet, the outspoken Christian singer who also recently broke up with Matt. (Not to mention upcoming appearances from the always awesome Carlos Jacott and Even Handler -- recently emancipated from the awful and rightly cancelled Hot Properties -- as Ricky and Ron, the writing team alluded to but not seen in the pilot.)

But. There are a couple of buts. In regards to the writing: there are several scenes of grave dramatic import peppered throughout, like Wes's speech, and the meeting of executives deciding what to do afterward. Unlike The West Wing, though, the stakes are much, much smaller, which can make the drama come off as overwrought and frankly silly. At the meeting of executives, the camera ominously circles a giant table full of concerned, important people, and dour aides give reports to their grim superiors, and you begin to think it's a matter of national security. Instead of a glitch on a sketch comedy show, you'd think the Syrian embassy had just been bombed.

And as for the acting: the real weak link here, I'm sad to say, is Amanda Peet. I just love her. You know I do. Check 6/20/06. I think she's absolutely gorgeous, and I think she's a very sharp actress. But she appears to be in over her head here. She never gives her character any real weight, despite the show's relentless insistence that she's the prettiest, wisest, bestest, most competent person in the entertainment industry. And pretty, did I mention pretty? Well, she nails the pretty part. (Despite the fact that for much of the show, she wears a goofy, vacant half-grin on her face -- even when her job is being threatened by Weber, her boss -- which exposes her front teeth, making it look like she needs corrective dental surgery.) She fails at the gravitas. I think she's got it in her, as an actress, to be tougher, stronger, more believable; I personally more than half-suspect that Sorkin has instructed her to act this way, to act light and unconcerned, because darn it, that's just how good she is at her job. She can do it all and not wrinkle her brow.

Despite the imperfections, this is still an incredibly entertaining program, and the first one of the Fall to join my can't-miss list. And hey, if you happened to miss the first episode, you can watch it online.

Rating: 9 out of 10

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