Nate Corddry: Mitch Haaseth
Gary Susman
November 07, 2006 AT 05:00 AM EST

”Studio 60”: Trapped in a red state

One of the knocks against Studio 60 has been that it’s harder to care about the drama here than on The West Wing because the stakes seem so low. Ha, says Aaron Sorkin, who’s created a cliff-hanger in which the freedom from incarceration of a couple of cast members is at stake, as well as the Friday-night broadcast and a multibillion-dollar deal that could make or break the NBS network. Is that enough on the line for ya, haters?

Well, maybe not. Give Sorkin credit for getting the cast out of the claustrophobic auditorium setting, and for creating the cleverly escalating shaggy-dog plot of this episode, entitled ”Nevada Day: Part I.” There was comedy high and low, and plenty of glissandos of verbal wit of the sort that come only from Sorkin’s pen. Yet I’m still having trouble caring about the fates of these self-absorbed Hollywood folk, no matter how many dollars — or bragging points in the culture war — lie in the balance.

Yep, Sorkin’s real game here, as it so often happens, was scoring more points for secular, blue-state America. The whole mess can be blamed on Harriet, who told a gossip columnist that the Bible calls homosexuality a sin but it also says, ”Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Unfortunately, only the first half of Harriet’s remark ran, and when several gay men confronted her angrily on the street, Tom stepped in to defend her, there was some shoving, and soon, Tom was arrested for assault. Oh, did I mention that Tom was taken into custody while costumed as Jesus? He had been rehearsing a sketch tweaking the network censors for their refusal to allow sketches that take Jesus’ name in vain. (If the real NBC has such a taboo, Sorkin got away with violating it via the sleight-of-hand of having his characters rehearse a sketch about it.) During Tom’s booking, an outstanding Nevada warrant on a speeding ticket turned up, and Tom found himself extradited to the funny-sounding town of Pahrump just hours before showtime on Friday.

Fortunately for Tom, he has a big fan in a 17-year-old viola player, a Chinese girl named Kim whose zillionaire dad is close to signing an enormous deal with the parent company of NBS. (Good to see Edward Asner again as the scary, backslapping CEO.) Soon, the NBS jet was taking her and her dad — along with Jack, Danny, Simon, and a corporate lawyer — to Pahrump. (Did I mention that Tom was also wearing Simon’s jacket, which had a partially smoked joint in the pocket?)

The situation unleashed Sorkin at his most aphoristic. Here’s Matt, who’s Jewish, wondering why his scripts have to abide by the religious codes of others (in the taking-Jesus’-name-in-vain department), even though no one’s scripts have to abide by his: ”You don’t see me insisting that the cast of CSI: Miami wear yarmulkes.” Here’s Jack, debunking the perceived liberalism of Hollywood decision makers: ”Hollywood isn’t run by liberals. It’s run by companies. And you can look for a pretty long time before finding a liberal on the board of directors of any of those companies.” Here’s Matt again, pithily distilling the culture war for Harriet: ”Your side hates my side because you think we think you’re stupid, and my side hates your side because we think you’re stupid.” Ah, but the joke’s on Matt because Tom’s fate (and the fate of the show, and the network, and the kajillion-dollar deal) is in the hands of a grouchy Nevada judge who is firmly on the religious, red-state side and who hates Studio 60 because ”it’s condescending and smart-ass” and makes fun of people like the judge and his family. (Well, yeah, but the judge is played by John Goodman, and boy, is he fat! So there.)

That’s the other charge often levied against Sorkin: that his characters all speak with his voice. Maybe he’s not creating characters you can care about because they’re recognizable, idiosyncratic individuals with real-life problems that people outside the TV industry can identify with, but he sure gets off some good lines.

What do you think? Will Tom and Simon avoid jail time, return to California in time for the show, and help NBS land the deal with Kim’s dad? Will Matt be forced to let the other writers do their jobs and help him write an alternative show? Will we find out what the mitigating circumstances were behind Tom’s speeding arrest in the first place? (Maybe he was in a hurry to see his brother before he got shipped off to AFGHANISTAN!) Will Jack go against his better judgment and force Danny to air the Jesus sketch just to spite Jordan? And will any of the red-staters represented by Goodman’s judge care enough to tune in next week to see ”Nevada Day: Part II”?

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