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ISBS TV Review: Studio 60

By Brian | September 19, 2006 | Share on Facebook

Studio 60, the latest Aaron Sorkin drama, debuted last night on NBC. The premise is a backstage look at the people who produce a live sketch comedy show (read: Saturday Night Live) on the NBS (read: NBC) network. There’s even an announcer with a distinctive voice (read: Don Pardo) and a snappy combo band (read: G.E. Smith and the Saturday Night Live Band). The show’s executive producer (read: Lorne Michaels) gets fed up with the Standards & Practices board during the taping of a live episode, and goes out on stage and rips the network to shreds. He’s immediately fired and replaced by two former Studio 60 writers, one of whom just ended a romantic relationship with one of the show’s stars, and the other of whom has just lost a movie deal over a failed drug test. Not only that, but the woman who hired them has just assumed the role of Network President, and her brand new boss (the Network Chairman) fired them some time earlier over creative differences.

My expectations were high, given how much I’ve enjoyed Sorkin’s work on The West Wing and given the presence of a few West Wing Alumni – Bradley Whitford, Timothy Busfield and Matthew Perry, as well as Tommy Schlamme and Chris Misiano (directors). Suffice to say, the pilot exceeded all of those high expectations.

The writing is sharp, brisk, and contains that under-current of wit that made The West Wing so good. Sorkin doesn’t just throw in a joke here and there, he adds funny lines in the middle of serious drama (example: Jordan McDeere, brand new network president, who says to her boss in a tense meeting, “Let’s talk about this in my office!”, stomps out into the hall, and then confesses to him that she doesn’t know where her office is). He also creates some genuinely funny sitcom-like scenes, without overshadowing the dramatic tone of the show (example: Perry’s character wins a writing award while he’s talking about his break-up with the Studio 60 star. Whitford hugs him (for winning the award), and Perry thanks him for being such a good friend at this, his time of need). That kind of “mis-understanding gag” is straight out of Three’s Company, but it’s subtle enough that it works in the drama.

And there’s plenty of drama. All of this subtle humor serves as highlights to some deliciously complex ironies that are weaved into ongoing story lines. For example, see if you can follow this: Perry’s character is hired because the previous producer lost a fight with the standards board, but we find out that he broke up with the show’s star because she offended his morality while promoting her album of religious Christian music, given that she’s a religious Christian and he’s not, and that he wrote the sketch the standards board found offensive, and that she sided with Perry on the sketch and has defended it to the press, even though it was called “Those Crazy Christians.” Insiders may also relish in the fact that the religious Christian who records Christian music is loosely based on another West Wing alumna, Kristin Chenowith, who Adam Sorkin dated at one time.

This kind of backstory gives the writers a great deal of meat to chew on as the show progresses. It also makes the characters very interesting very quickly. I found myself caring about these characters within minutes of meeting them, which is the bottom line when it comes to a good TV drama.

And this is a very, very good TV drama.

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