Aaron Sorkin kept mainstream decency and leftist hopes for a better America alive, thanks to The West Wing, which he created, produced and sometimes wrote. Now he's back with Studio 60, a series about a Saturday Night Live-style live sketch comedy show.
Expectations ran high for Studio 60, given all the Emmys West Wing won and the intelligent, high-quality drama it represented. And in the first episodes, the new show didn't quite catch fire.
At the same time, on the same network (NBC), another series set backstage at a live sketch comedy show, the similarly-named 30 Rock, started out at a trot and quickly hit a delightful stride. Created by SNL writer and performer Tina Fey, who also stars, its most notable feature is a sublimely humorous Alec Baldwin -- who knew? -- as a meddling network head. For a while, it looked like 30 Rock was outdoing the weighty potential of its thematic cousin with its breezy wackiness.
But then Studio 60 found its footing -- and, admittedly, its characters were all fully established by that time -- and began to show the makings of a West Wing-style winner, rich with human drama and warmth and also addressing important and sometimes provocative issues. And like its predecessor, it has become a weekly source of warmth, mirth and even inspiration.
Bradley Whitford links Studio 60 with West Wing. He plays Danny Tripp, a roman a clef character obviously standing in for Sorkin, given their shared past substance abuse problems. Tripp, a Studio 60 vet, is brought back in to revitalize the flagging show along with former Studio 60 writer Matt Albie, played by Matthew Perry of Friends fame.
Perry is the show's revelation. Who would have thought he could bring the gravitas, depth, smarts and irascible lovability he amply displays as Albie? Seeing an actor come into his own as Perry does on Studio 60 was the show's most immediate pleasure and continues to offer one of a growing list of reasons to follow the show.
Despite a sluggish start, by episode 11, Studio 60 had caught its wave. It confronted the schism between conservative (so-called) Christians and gay rights activism using a very human face: Harriet Hayes (played by Sarah Paulson), a star of the show within the show and a committed Christian. The fight for freedom of speech cropped up by early December in a cunning fashion -- a US soldier in Afghanistan blurts out an expletive in a live news broadcast when a rocket-propelled grenade explodes nearby, and the FCC piles on the indecency fines -- as well as such issues as the gutter press, single woman pregnancy, race and more.
The show also took a brief trip from the Republic of Hollywood into the heartland, or at least the Nevada desert, reminiscent of when some West Wing staffers were stranded on the campaign trail in the Midwest. In the process it also skirted up against the Iraq war and flirted with a deliciously surreal tone.
And it scored a homer when, in the middle of the Christmas show, Tripp hires displaced New Orleans musicians to play a tribute to their city. Introduced as merely, "Ladies and gentleman, the City of New Orleans," the lovely brass band jazz and clips of the Crescent City projected behind the players served as a potent reminder of one (of a number of) damaged American place(s) still neglected by the government. It was a signal touching moment that capped the series finding its stride.
Studio 60 is about many things -- TV itself, comedy, Hollywood, our current culture, and as any good drama should, love -- but ultimately, just like The West Wing, it's about esprit de corps. Both shows examine the inner workings and interweaving of a noble if sometimes compromised and conflicted pursuit. I doubt the family values crowd would agree, but Studio 60 and West Wing have the families we form in shared pursuits at their core. And the icing on that cake is the desire to do better -- in West Wing it was better and smarter politics to create a better nation; Studio 60 is about better and smarter comedy for better entertainment -- is the value that binds that family.
Studio 60 has grown into its own as fun, often sharp, sometimes provocative and occasionally heartwarming entertainment. It may not be enough to assuage, in West Wing fashion, the burgeoning mess created by the bumbling Bush gang. But it's worth an hour a week to check out from reality with the tube and check into something that feels real and right.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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