Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

“We’re all being lobotomized by the country’s most influential industry, which has thrown in the towel on any endeavor that does not include the courting of 12-year-old boys. And not even the smart 12-year-olds, the stupid ones, the idiots, of which there are plenty, thanks in no small part to this network. So change the channel, turn off the TV. Do it right now.”

I’d like to think that a television show that starts with such an impassioned call-to-arms, in this case by a TV writer/producer named Wes Mendell (Judd Hirsch), would deliver exactly that. Instead, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip plays a lot like a lip-glossed The West Wing. Not a bad thing necessarily, but not a radical rethinking of primetime TV either.

The series concerns the weekly production of a Saturday Night Live-like sketch comedy show on the fictional NBS network. Creator Aaron Sorkin delivers all the goods we’ve come to expect from him: roving camerawork, quality casting, and even the same sort of “behind-the-scenes” premise. While all this recalls The West Wing, the new show focuses its politics through TV, indicting the industry by way of metafictional techniques to remind us that, at every step, the show is absolutely aware of itself and its audience.

When, in the pilot episode, Mendell interrupts a live broadcast to deliver his anti-TV rant, a frantic network rep bursts in, demanding the producers cut from Mendell to the show’s opening credits: “He’s telling the audience to turn off the TV!” cries the rep. A small debate unfolds, showing us who is behind Mendell’s appeal for change and who has sold out. When the camera is finally, forcibly turned off, leaving Mendell in mid-sentence, the screen goes black and NBC’s real Studio 60 opening credits roll. It’s a clever trick. But I have to wonder whether I am being told to really turn off the TV.

The question doesn’t linger long. The next scene introduces Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet). NBS’ new president, she’s supposed to turn things around for the network, as she has done for others. Introducing her to the staff, senior studio executive Wilson White (Ed Asner) rattles off a list of her impressive accomplishments. Her lithe frame accentuated by a tasteful party dress Audrey Hepburn might have worn, she radiates complete composure and adorableness, a visible contrast to the matronly women surrounding her, reminding the audience that, while some things about TV have changed, women in the business still have to be indisputably beautiful.

Asner’s cameo is another sign of the industry’s lack of “progress”: like Mary Richards before her, Jordan a young woman in a cold city with a big job ahead of her. But we’ve become cynical since the 1970s, and Jordan is so charismatic and capable, we’re suspicious immediately. So are her employees, indicated when one wonders, “What if she’s for real?”

When she learns of Mendell’s on-air freak-out, she’s forced to make some quick decisions , to show that she “for real.” Her solution is to hire Matt Albe (Matthew Perry) and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) to replace Mendell on Studio 60. They bring backstory, having run Studio 60 in its heyday, but fired by Jack (Steven Weber), who’s still an exec at NBS, due to a personality clash. Since they left, their careers have taken off (we first see Matt as he’s winning a Writer’s Guild Award). Matt and Danny are set up like an Affleck and Damon sort of duo, with a lot of talent and inside jokes between them, things Studio 60 clearly needs, especially the jokes.

The show’s resident star is cast member Harriet (Sarah Paulson), Matt’s recent ex. Their relationship looks poised to go either way over the course of the series (Matt to Harriet: “We’re going to be working together now, so we’re going to have to postpone this fight for a couple of years”), but it also faces a deal-breaker: her Christianity. Matt cannot forgive Harriet for her appearance on The 700 Club to promote her spiritual music CD. When he complains about her “singing for that bigot,” her response sounds even more judgmental: faith is the only thing some of “those people” have, she says, and “That moves me.”

Harriet’s faith is plainly set up as a point of contention, opening up questions about censorship and condescension. She embodies tensions too: when asked if she’s offended by a skit (cut from the show) that disparaged Christians, she replies, “I was offended I wasn’t in it.” While that sounds like a hip answer, it doesn’t fit with her insistent praying for those who “need it.” Harriet has a lot at stake in how the network depicts and handles faith — her music’s fans, not to mention her personal beliefs — so why is she so eager to make fun of it?

The show’s hyper-self-awareness makes it hard to read her apparent hypocrisy. And this is where Mendell’s argument comes full circle. Like Matt and Danny, he wants to protect the original vision of Studio 60, contending, “In a world where free speech is allowed, you’re going to offend people.” But even as he’s frustrated by the commodified, inoffensive mutant his show has become, the show we’re watching is exactly that.

While such meta references seem smart, they are also recontained in those moments when potentially rich characters are relegated to more familiar and so, predictable, roles. As Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip‘s pilot ends with Queen’s “Under Pressure” on the soundtrack, we sympathize with that feeling, watching Matt and Danny assemble their show’s cast and crew to announce their takeover. They have only the entirety of network TV to revive and reclaim. Good luck, boys.

RATING 5 / 10