Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Aaron Sorkin’s new NBC show ‘Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’ is hitting its stride, and showing there’s mercifully some room for intelligent primetime TV.
Amid the smart-talking and wisecracks, there are some heavyweight references. In recent weeks the show’s namechecked Pericles and Strindberg, and this week there was a sensitively-handled storyline involving the Hollywood blacklistings of the 1950s.
The return of pedeconferencing
An ensemble cast of clever characters walking down corridors having sharp conversations (“pedeconferencing”) was Sorkin’s stock in trade in ‘The West Wing’, but now his TV show is about a TV show (it’s set in a thinly-disguised “SNL”), he can explore the perils and opportunities facing his own medium now.
It’s a return to familiar ground for him – his first TV show was the lauded but overlooked ‘Sports Night’, set in the studio of an almost-ESPN.
Just as The West Wing’s Martin Sheen was the president many of us wished we could vote for, so Amanda Peet plays the head of a network we wish we could watch. She refuses to buy a reality TV show that subjects the competitors to media intrusion until they crack, and supports ‘Studio 60’ as it runs a sketch guaranteed to upset the Christian rIght.
In reality of course, no-one ever went bankrupt underestimating the public’s appetite for down-market TV, and the challenge facing both the show itself and the show-within-the-show is to prove that a smarter approach can also be a success.
Clever but flawed
One way to do this is to wear your learning lightly, and ‘Studio 60’ is careful not to take itself very seriously while making serious points.
The characters are clever, but they’re also endearingly flawed. Matthew Perry plays a version of Chandler (or is that Sorkin?), this time reborn as a neurotically talented head writer. Bradley Whitford again gets to be a wry and loyal lieutenant. We’re in safe and crucially likeable hands here – and there’s good support from Nate Corddry and D L Hughley (who must be delighted finally to get a script worthy of his stand-up talents),
So, the characters feel real, and the plotting is tight and interwoven. But it’s the script itself that sparkles, without a word out of place. You know you’re watching something out of the ordinary, when the show finishes and you still hear the rhythms of the dialogue in your head.
A real imagined world
With The West Wing, Sorkin’s was an alternative reality that he could never make real. ‘With Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’, he’s imagining an alternate world of good TV, and creating a little bit of it for real at the same time.