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Studio 60′ surmounts initial shortcomings

Chris Hine | Monday, January 22, 2007

NBC’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” debuted this season as one of the most anticipated new programs. With the pen of Aaron Sorkin and the artistic vision of director Thomas Schlamme – the creative duo behind the classic shows “Sports Night” and “The West Wing” – “Studio” was expected to be both an engaging and quality program. It was also designed to bring in ad revenue for the struggling NBC. The end result is a show that has struggled in the ratings and is still trying to find its feet halfway through the season.

“Studio 60” follows the friendship of Matt Albie (Matthew Perry, “Friends”) and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford, “The West Wing”). The pair is a famous writer/director team – not unlike Sorkin/Schlamme – that is forced by NBS president Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) to take control of the struggling sketch comedy show “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” which is something akin to “Saturday Night Live.” McDeere is a woman in a man’s world à la Mary Richards in the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Interestingly, the legendary five-time Emmy winner Ed Asner, who played Mary’s curmudgeon boss Lou Grant on “Moore,” also plays McDeere’s boss.

McDeere reveals to Tripp that she has information concerning his positive cocaine test three months earlier – information that can halt the pair’s burgeoning film career. Reluctantly, Matt and Danny take the job as executive producers of “Studio 60,” much to the chagrin of Jack Rudolph (Steven Weber, “Wings”), who fired Matt and Danny from their jobs as writers on the show years earlier. Complicating matters is Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson), the star of “Studio 60,” a devout evangelical Christian who also happens to be Matt’s ex-girlfriend. The two must learn to co-exist despite their rocky past.

Rounding out the cast of “Studio 60” are Tom Jeter (Nate Corrdry, “The Daily Show”), whose father is disappointed he did not join the military like his younger brother, Simon Stiles (D.L. Hughley), who feels the show could explore the plight of African-Americans a little more creatively and stage director/resident lunatic Cal Shanley (Timothy Busfield, “The West Wing”).

“Studio 60” started on the right foot. The pilot featured a blistering tirade by the show’s outgoing producer, Wes (Judd Hirsch), decrying the state of television today. The speech occurred live on the sketch show and led to Wes’s firing and, subsequently, Matt and Danny’s hiring. Contained in the pilot was the vintage fast-paced, wit-filled dialogue Sorkin trademarked with “Sports Night” and perfected on “The West Wing.” More importantly, Perry and Whitford played off each other perfectly, and Peet managed to remain funny and endearing despite her character’s exploitative means of coercing Matt and Danny into taking the job. The only weak aspect of the episode was the interaction between Paulson and Perry. They lacked the humor of Allison Janney and Busfield from “The West Wing,” or the torturous psychological warfare Felicity Huffman and Peter Krause waged with each other on “Sports Night.”

Disappointingly, the main storyline has followed the relationship between Matt and Harriet, as opposed to Matt and Danny. The lack of compelling interaction from Perry and Paulson is mostly the fault of Sorkin, who feels the need to relentlessly attack the evangelical right in his writing – a habit he grew into on “The West Wing.” So far, the only reason Sorkin has given as to why Harriet and Matt broke up is because she appeared on Pat Robertson’s “700 Club” to promote her Christian CD. While the audience could forgive Sorkin’s political rants on “The West Wing” because of its White House setting, his evangelical bashing and political views ring hollow and become annoying when they come from backstage at a television show. Such dialogue distracts from the flow of the show and trivializes the relationship between Matt and Harriet.

This is not the only problem with Studio 60. The sketches on the show are rarely funny and undermine the premise that Matt is a gifted writer, and the back-stories Sorkin gives to Tom and Simon are trite and contrived. A show like “Friday Night Lights” does a much better job than “Studio 60” at portraying how conflict can cause rift in a family.

The show’s viewership declined steadily following its stunning premiere because Sorkin pushed Danny aside and sadly diminished Bradley Whitford’s role from the pilot episode. He missed an opportunity to provide us some touching drama by giving us the story behind Danny’s drug addiction and insights into his friendship with Matt. There has been no mention of his drug habit since the pilot episode, and Whitford and Perry have been on screen together only sparingly. Whitford has shown the ability to handle drama of this gravity on “The West Wing.” His work in season two of that show (when his character, Joshua Lyman, coped with post-traumatic stress disorder) earned him an Emmy and was arguably the best storyline Sorkin devised for “The West Wing.” It is a waste of talent to leave Whitford on the side like this.

Thankfully, recent episodes have shown Sorkin is getting the message.

He has taken screen time away from the interplay between Perry and Paulson and from the rest of the show’s cast, instead devoting it to the blossoming relationship between Jordan and Danny. That relationship is more humorous, more subtle, and grounded in the world of love and romance – not believer versus atheist. Of late, Sorkin has backed off the Christian bashing, and when he does, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” is one of the most entertaining shows on TV. In those moments, Perry and Paulson have their moments of brilliance. Their relationship is filled with the perfect amount of nostalgic longing and uncertainty about the future.

All hope is not lost for “Studio 60” to keep its place in NBC’s primetime lineup. It is one of the highest rated shows among people who make more than $100,000 a year, a key demographic for advertisers. It picks up more than a million extra viewers each week via DVR recordings, and its episodes frequent the iTunes top 10.

Hopefully, NBC will allow the show to continue, because “Studio 60” is finally on the right track.