There's no business like show-within-a-show business
Live from NBC's quest
for redemption, it's the self-righteous and potentially brilliant Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip!
NBC is not fucking around. Fourth place hurts. It’s going back to basics. Back to hit-makers. Back to quality, even. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is NBC’s wet dream.
And with good reason. Writer, producer, creator, genius and scandal-inclined (drugs, prostitutes, “creative differences”) Aaron Sorkin gave NBC The West Wing, a show that, in its heyday, was a major hit, a critical darling, and a symbol of the power and potential of dense, richly rewarding TV.
Now NBC’s most popular show is Deal or No Deal. So in the opening sequence of Studio 60, when the producer of a Saturday Night Live–style show has a Network-style meltdown and bemoans art’s losing fight with commerce and says, “That remote in your hand is a crack pipe,” it’s tough not to wonder to whom Sorkin is talking. Just TV audiences? Or his bosses, too? When (on the show) a new network exec describes her show-saving plan as “a tacit admission of guilt and a silent act of contrition,” well, that might as well be NBC’s slogan for the series. NBC must be really, really sorry: From the sound bite about not trusting people in TV, to the moronic and revolting network executives, to the kowtowing to the FCC and right-wing interest groups, the entire first episode is an epic indictment of broadcast television.
Beyond its social commentary, it’s also a hell of a show. By packaging a comedy show within a drama series, Sorkin plays right to his strengths. Sports Night, his excellent half-hour dramedy that barely lasted two seasons, was never funny enough to be a conventional comedy, and The West Wing was consistently hilarious when it wasn’t busy being all important and fancy. But that style of humor isn’t a sketch-comedy sensibility, and for Studio 60 to make any sense at all, we have to believe that sketches are funny, that the fictional show is improving and that it’s relevant.
But the behind-the-scenes aspect presents a serious challenge for Studio 60: Fun as it is to have celebrities play themselves, or to feel like we’re really getting The Inside View of SNL, we still have to accept that, within the barely fictional universe of the series, sketch-comedy shows can matter not just because of scandal but also because of content. A big shake-up at SNL? Why, we’re in the real-life midst of one now, and good luck finding someone who cares.
But Studio 60 has plenty going for it, and we’re not worried about the setup so much as we’re eager to see it play out, particularly in the capable hands of a mostly fantastic cast. Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford both nimbly step out of their iconic (and beloved) previous roles to head the sprawling cast as Matt and Danny, respectively, best friends and an in-demand writer-director duo. In the wake of the producer’s screed, new network president (Amanda Peet) employs her lethal combo of charm and chops to convince Matt and Danny to come run Studio 60, a show they left, under duress, four years earlier. Their friendship and devotion to one another fits perfectly in the Sorkin tradition: Think Dan and Casey on Sports Night, Jed and Leo or Sam and Josh on West Wing.
While Perry and Whitford are both terrific—surprisingly, Perry is especially good—Peet falters. She’s Jordan McDeere, the first-day-on-the-job network president and apparently the savior of television. She’s the voice of reason, the advocate for art, and we’re all supposed to be just crazy about her. But Peet’s wide-eyed performance lacks the spark and mischief implied in the character. The lack of gravitas is most apparent in her scenes opposite Steven Weber, who’s deliciously douchebaggy as Jordan’s boss, the network chairman. So clear your Monday schedule, or at least fire up a season pass. The pilot is heavy on the exposition, light on the good times, but the show has more promise than any other new series. We can’t wait for it to hit its stride, to bust at the seams with fast talking, insider lingo, allusions galore, and to dazzle us with wit and character we’ll never see outside the Sorkin-verse. If Studio 60 is NBC’s way of saying sorry, apology accepted.
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip debuts Monday 18 at 9pm on NBC.