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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

"Studio 60": A Work in Progress

When I opened my mailbox Monday, I could barely contain my enthusiasm as my year and a half as a Netflix customer finally paid off. In my hands was the premiere of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”

First of all, let me applaud NBC for using Netflix as a way to gain interest in their programming. It’s obvious that NBC is thinking a little more outside the box this year and I appreciate that—not to mention that I appreciate being able to see the show more than a month before it will actually air.

It’s not an over-exaggeration to say that much of NBC’s future rests with “Studio 60.” In fact, when ABC announced it was moving “Grey’s Anatomy” to Thursdays at 9 (NBC’s already announced slot for the show), NBC moved “Studio 60” to Mondays at 10. NBC needs a big hit and they believe this is it.

I believe it as well, but there’s still some work to do.

“Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” created by Aaron Sorkin, is about a “Saturday Night Live”-type comedy sketch show on the National Broadcasting Service. In the opening scene, Wes, the show’s executive producer (a memorable Judd Hirsch), is ordered to cut a controversial sketch by the network censors. However, he doesn’t take the decision lying down and actually cuts into the show’s opening sketch to give a scathing speech about the state of television and the show in particular, enraging network chairman Jack Rudolph (Steven Webber), who immediately fires him. Newly hired Network President Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) decides to bring in Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) to save the show. Matt and Danny were the number two guys at the show four years ago, before they were fired (though Jack says they quit). Now the duo has become successful, with Matt receiving a Writers Guild Award for his screenplay that Danny directed, and they are preparing to shoot another movie together. However, circumstances make the duo available and they, of course, take the job—much to the chagrin of Jack and Harriet (the charming Sarah Paulson), the cast member who recently broke up with Matt.

Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford are so good together, you’d swear they were brothers. Perry is as endearing as ever, switching effortlessly between comedy and drama. And Whitford is the perfect straight man (I still believe that it was Whitford and not Martin Sheen who deserved to be nominated for an Emmy for “The West Wing.”). Steven Webber is much better as a network sleaze than I would’ve expected and it’s great to see Timothy Busfield in front of the camera again as Cal, the show’s director. And Felicity Huffman pays back Aaron Sorkin for giving her her big break (“Sports Night”) by doing a funny cameo as the unfortunate guest host of the show. Plus, Sorkin’s trademark biting wit is in full effect as he takes on both TV and the religious right in the same hour.

However, the show does have its problems. Amanda Peet is seriously miscast as Jordan which makes it hard to decide what kind of character she is. And unfortunately, Aaron Sorkin has not dropped his tendency to insert his own political views in totally meaningless scenes. Matthew Perry (the victim in this episode) handles it well, but it just doesn’t work, especially in the context of the scene (I won’t give it away because it’s an important plot point that Sorkin is sure to bang over our heads later.).

But probably what disappointed me the most was the lack of Sorkin-Schlamme zip. Tommy Schlamme created the famous “West Wing” walk-and-talk and I expected more of that frenetic pace here.

Don’t get me wrong. “Studio 60” is a good show. I guess I was just expecting knock-you-over-the-head great and I didn’t get it. That’s not to say it won’t come later--because I believe it will--it’s just not in the pilot.

“Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” will air Mondays at 10 p.m. beginning in September on NBC. You can catch a preview at www.nbc.com, but since it gives away most of the episode’s best stuff, I’d stay away.