Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip had critics and fans in a lather before its premiere last week, some obviously anticipating the Second Coming. When clearly it’s the Third, after Sports Night and The West Wing.

But seriously, what show could live up to that expectation? The most frequent criticism is that by focusing on behind the scenes of a sketch comedy show, the stakes are far too low to sustain the series.  

I’m not sure how or why people expected Sorkin to raise or even match the stakes of The West Wing. It seems to me the options would be limited. Perhaps a drama about idealists in the United Nations? Or he could have gone galactic, exploring contemporary issues in a futuristic setting. Maybe on a ship of some kind, like a battlestar.

The pilot sets up the premise, that Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) are brought in to save a Saturday Night Live-like show after the producer has an onair meltdown, railing against the state of television because a sketch called “Crazy Christians” has been cut by Standards and Practices.

Though there are more quality shows on TV now than in The West Wing’s prime, did anyone wonder what shows Judd Hirsch’s character could possibly have been talking about when he referred to eating worms or screwing sisters? Did anyone futilely cast their minds over the TV landscape to find examples of the meanness and bitchiness he spoke of?

The comedy show Albie and Tripp take over isn’t about to change the face of the world or even the face of television, but with the support of new network president Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet), it is making a stand. It’s a stand that’s still relevant even in a golden age for television, considering an FCC that fines stations for showing Janet Jackson’s nipple but not a slashed throat, with watchdog groups that claim to be offended by shows they haven’t watched, with parents groups who complain about adult programming aimed at adults instead of bothering to learn about parental controls, like the V-chip, or taking the TV out of their kids bedrooms.

The anti-television rant in Studio 60, then, seems to be more about the power of television being a power we give it, not a power it has over us. I’m not sure how many freedom of speech and artistic responsibility arguments the show can slip in, but so far it feels more character driven than issues driven. And you don’t have to be writing about world politics to have something to say about human issues.

The two central characters are obviously based on Sorkin and his collaborator Thomas Schlamme, who brings his distinctively swooping directorial style to Studio 60. The lush, overlapping dialogue crackles with personality and wit, and the heart of this show is bound to be the friendship between Albie and Tripp.

Chandler Bing miraculously casts no shadow on Matthew Perry’s performance, and while it’s an adjustment to see the former Friend (and West Wing guest star) alongside Bradley Whitford as someone other than Josh Lymon, they seamlessly fit into their roles as long-time partners with a deep bond, and instantly made themselves welcome again in my living room.

Sorkin’s greatest strength is to create idealistic characters who genuinely care about each other, and it’s a warm counterpoint to the cynicism and body count of those shows we thought of during Hirsch’s top-of-show speech.

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