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Studio 60 in Rainbow-Colored Gumdrop Land

There's an easy way to spot the masters of any given creative art. They're the ones who can totally phone it in, skating by for the sake of a paycheck, and still turn out something better than a good 95 percent of their peers. Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing (or as I like to think of it, Magical President Jed Bartlett and His Fightin' Liberal Awesomeness Brigade), is one of those guys. He could write damn good television blindfolded, with one hand behind his back, while fast asleep. Which is pretty much what he's done with his new NBC drama, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

Don't get me wrong -- Studio 60 has that signature zing that makes Sorkin's TV work so marvelously watchable. There are several lines in the Studio 60 pilot (helpfully obtained from Netflix) that made me laugh out loud, including one that absolutely kills. And Sorkin knows how to pace and structure a scene, how to enter and exit it at precisely the right moments, how to introduce characters in memorable and delightful ways, like no one else in the business. Sorkin's longtime pal and director Thomas Schlamme is also in fine form, getting lively performances from the cast and roving his camera through the show's cleverly designed and detailed sets with restless energy. Studio 60 has just one problem: There's nothing here, not one blip, that we haven't seen from Sorkin before.

Good guys and bad guys so clearly delineated that they can be seen from space with the naked eye? Studio 60's got 'em. Steven Weber's loathsome, corpselike automaton of a network suit -- and I intend that description as a sincere compliment to his performance -- and his slimy standards-and-practices lackey both might as well have big flashing "EVIL!" signs over their heads. Manly camaraderie between smart guys in rumpled formalwear? Present and accounted for. Long stretches of dialogue where characterization is blatantly hijacked so that Sorkin can make points of varying accuracy and importance about things that bother him? Twice. (Once about the increasing awfulness of television, and once about, uh, why filming in Vancouver is dumb. One of these things is not like the other, Mr. Sorkin.)

Heck, there's even another president whose awesomeness verges on science fiction, albeit in the decidedly non-Martin-Sheenish person of Amanda Peet. As Jordan McDeere, Peet is the prettiest, most bestest TV network president ever, brimming with guts and integrity and gee-golly Frank Capra grins. Also, we are told flat-out that everyone in Hollywood wants to sleep with her, which is admittedly not beyond the realm of possibility. At one point, she tells two of the other characters, "You don't know it, but I'm gonna be your dream come true." Gee, you think? There's nothing wrong with Peet's performance, but Sorkin's lazy writing undercuts her by never letting the viewer feel like Jordan is facing a challenge or taking a real risk, no matter how supposedly brave and radical her actions. Sorkin's made her too awesome and pretty and good to ever lose.

Matthew Perry, finding it safe to return to TV now that Joey is dead, and Bradley Whitford, fresh from seven years of peerless jackassitude and Donna abuse on The West Wing, are the pilot's greatest strengths. They play Matt and Danny, former writers tapped to return to the show from whence they were exiled after their Lorne Michaels-ish mentor nukes his career with an on-air jeremiad against the evils of modern TV. You can effortlessly believe that these are smart guys and loyal friends, and when it turns out that Danny's recently fallen off the wagon after 11 cocaine-free years, Whitford conveys his humiliation -- and haunted temptation -- with conviction. It doesn't hurt that their characters are likely the closest to Sorkin's actual experience, nor that Perry, in what was doubtlessly a huge stretch for his acting abilities, gets to play his character loaded to the gills with painkillers for the entire pilot.

We can only hope that the rest of the cast gets rounded out as well as Matt and Danny in future episodes. In the pilot, we're given glimpses of Timothy Busfield's nice-guy director, as well as the "Big Three" stars of the sketch comedy show-within-a show, but Sorkin's too busy with Matt, Danny, and Jordan McDeere, Wonder Executive, to give us much of a feel for any of the rest of them. Sarah Paulsen, as star comedienne Harriet Hayes, comes closest, and it's nice to see her get more of the spotlight after small but terrific turns in films like Down With Love and Serenity. But even Harriet's a rose-colored Sorkinism -- a devout Christian for all the right reasons, possessed of an open mind and a sense of humor despite the depth of her faith. I guess her character's meant to be a radical departure from the way mainstream TV usually portrays religious types, but again, Sorkin gives us nothing challenging about her.

(As for the other two members of the supposed Big Three, D.L. Hughley so far seems to be standing very, very still, and hoping no one will recognize that he used to be on a terrible sitcom. Nathan Corddry of The Daily Show rounds out the trio as its Jimmy Fallon-ish youngster, and while I've got nothing against him, there's already one Jimmy Fallon too many on TV, thank you.)

There's one more huge, glaring flaw -- the only one dangerous enough to risk sinking the series. On The West Wing, Sorkin could get away with an amped-up sense of dramatic, because he was dealing with The Big Issues: civics, patriotism, world events. But Studio 60 trades the White House for, well, TV sketch comedy. (Admittedly, that may not be much of a leap these days.) Studio 60's subject matter lacks The West Wing's innate gravitas, and when Sorkin tries to use his new show as a soapbox for free speech or whatever he's all fired up about, it threatens to get downright silly.

Am I gonna watch Studio 60? Of course. Even on autopilot, Aaron Sorkin makes fun, compelling TV, and Studio 60 is no exception. I just wish he'd wake up, take off the blindfold, untie that one hand and do something mind-blowingly awesome with his considerable talent, instead of something that's merely good. As it is, his attacks against complacent, gutless TV start to ring hollow when it turns out that Sorkin himself is cranking out a calculated, risk-free pastiche of his own greatest hits.


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