Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: Scott Garfield
Gary Susman
September 19, 2006 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The ”Studio 60” premiere: TV attacks itself

”There’s always been a struggle between art and commerce, but now, I’m telling you, art is getting its ass kicked.” So says Wes Mendell (Judd Hirsch) in the already-famous meltdown monologue that kicks off the first episode of the eagerly awaited Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Now, here to kick back a little on behalf of art, comes Aaron Sorkin, and he’s wearing steel-toed boots.

Wes, of course, gets fired for his act of on-air insurrection at Studio 60, the sketch-comedy series he produces, but Sorkin, in a nice coup, has apparently been hired to have characters voice such opinions on the air in prime time on NBC. The line between Sorkin and his characters is a thin one, as is apparent throughout this first episode, and as I’m sure we’ll see over the course of the series. Here’s some of what we should be watching for:

Sorkiniana You probably don’t have to know all the inside baseball of Sorkin’s own career and personal history to appreciate Studio 60, but if you do know the details, it’s fun to spot similar ones in the characters of Matt (Matthew Perry) and Danny (Bradley Whitford). After all, when you hear a character say of Matt’s history with Studio 60, ”It took four years, but the show collapsed without him,” it’s hard not to think of what happened to The West Wing after NBC fired Sorkin for missing deadlines. Similarly, you won’t have to be familiar with Sorkin’s own well-publicized drug history to appreciate Danny’s losing a directing job over a positive test for cocaine (more on that below), and you don’t have to know that Sorkin dated The West Wing‘s Kristin Chenoweth to appreciate Matt’s ruptured romance with Harriet (Sarah Paulson), a blond, devoutly Christian cast member (more on that below, too). But it’s all there for gossip hounds to find without digging too deep.

Addiction and recovery Drugs are everywhere in this first episode — in the dressing room of Studio 60‘s musical guests, Three 6 Mafia, at the boozy after party, and in Matt’s bloodstream (he’s hopped up on painkillers after back surgery). By the way, I’m enjoying Perry’s woozy, wounded characterization. I spotted him playing Chandler only once this episode, when he catches himself blathering on and tells himself out loud to stop talking.

There’s even Wes’ reference to the TV remote as a crack pipe. See, it’s not just Sorkin; we’re all addicted to something.

Mostly, of course, drugs are an issue for Danny; even his last name is Tripp. I’m not sure why a single failed drug test would make Danny uninsurable as a film director but wouldn’t keep him from landing a two-year, multimillion-dollar contract producing 40 episodes of a major network’s flagship comedy franchise. But it’ll be interesting to see whether cocaine or sobriety proves to be a bigger stumbling block in his new job. Besides, if Three 6 Mafia can be unabashed potheads (at least as depicted here) and still win an Oscar, there’s hope for Danny.

Red-state baiting The sketch for which Wes was willing to throw away his career was something called ”Crazy Christians.” Written years ago by Matt, it’s supposedly brilliant (Harriet’s only objection to the piece is that she isn’t in it), but given the title, it sounds pretty hacky. Sorkin is entitled to take on the sorts of viewers whose easily offended sensibilities, as channeled through mass e-mails to the FCC, have helped make TV more timid and bland, but so far, his critique lacks any real cleverness, insight, or understanding of the other side’s point of view.

Who knows, seeming oxymoron Harriet could turn out to be the most fascinating character on the show. I have a lot of optimism about Paulson, who was a delightfully funny and charming scene-stealer in the underrated Down With Love, but given Matt’s unbending antipathy toward Harriet’s faith and her coreligionists, it’s a wonder that the two ever dated. Calling Pat Robertson a ”bigot” and likening his 700 Club to a ”Klan rally” is as shrill and knee-jerk as the other side’s intolerance. I’d be more interested in seeing a satirical take on religion from the inside — the kind Harriet might offer, if Sorkin lets her grow and breathe.

The battle for the soul of television If Wes’ rant is a blatant reference to Peter Finch’s ”I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore” moment in Network, then Amanda Peet and Steven Weber must be Faye Dunaway and Robert Duvall. I’m actually liking Peet’s Jordan McDeere, who treats every crisis as an opportunity and greets every setback with a bemused, beatific smile. It’s still not clear whether Jordan is bringing Matt and Danny back to run Studio 60 because she’s an idealist who believes in quality or because, like Dunaway’s Network character, she’s merely interested in creating sensationalism and controversy in order to drive ratings. I’m not too confident about the first possibility (after all, in the last great late-night-comedy war, Jordan sided with Jay against Dave), but she might turn out to be an honorable person, judging by her discreet handling of Danny’s drug secret. As Danny wonders, ”What if she’s for real?”

Similarly, I’m hoping that by casting Wings‘ likable Steven Weber as Jack Rudolph, Jordan’s boss, Sorkin won’t make the character a cardboard corporate villain. After all, Jack doesn’t appear to be dishonest, stupid, or insincere, just expedient. And he is giving Jordan’s experiment with Studio 60 a chance, however provisional. It’s not like he has any better ideas — and that’s usually the worst thing one can say about someone on a Sorkin show, that he’s not creative or idealistic or capable of engaging in witty banter as he walks down the hall.

In any case, it’s fun to watch Sorkin biting the hand that feeds him. ”This show used to be cutting-edge political and social satire, but it’s gotten lobotomized by a candy-assed broadcast network hell-bent on doing nothing that might challenge their audience,” says Wes, who goes on to insult not only Saturday Night Live but several other NBC shows as well. NBC, in turn, gets to inoculate itself from such criticism by being daring enough to air Sorkin’s polemic. When the wee Suzanne, a Tiny Tim-like production assistant, meekly asks Matt, ”Are you coming to save us?” it seems she’s not just asking about the sketch-comedy show but the whole NBS network (read: ratings-challenged NBC) and maybe even all of television itself. That’s a tall order for Matt/Sorkin to fill, but it’s a load he’s placed on his own shoulders. I look forward to seeing how far he can carry it.

What do you think, readers? Can this show save television, NBC, and Sorkin and Perry’s careers, or is it enough that it offers some brainy entertainment on a Monday night? Where would you like to see Sorkin take these characters? And when do we get to see this episode’s underutilized performers, sketch players D.L. Hughley and Nate Corddry, do something funny?

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