Given the quintessential rapid camera shifts during frenzied scenes and the all-too-rehearsed rata-tat-tat repartee, it’s no surprise that we’re in Aaron Sorkin territory. The writer-producer who brought us the breezy walk n’ talk of The West Wing returns with the now-famous and slightly overused ploy in his latest television drama Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. In the place of a too-busy-to-talk-now president and his staff, we have creative duo Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) and Danny Tripp (Bradford Whitford), who take over a late-night Los Angeles variety show (also named Studio 60) based at fictional television station NBS—at least they didn’t name the show Friday Night Live. The takeover comes after the show’s executive producer Wes Mendell (Judd Hirsh) pulls a Network-style tirade on live TV and is fired immediately afterward. Newly appointed NBS president Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet) then decides to offer Mendell’s job to the variety show’s former head writer and director, Albie and Tripp, respectively.
Throw in the fact that Albie’s former flame still works at Studio 60 and word has leaked to the press about Tripp’s recent cocaine abuse, and the plot grows more lusciously tangled. The variety show’s cast is supported by the uberly underrated D.L. Hugley as Simon Stiles, Nathan Corddry as Tom Jeter and Sarah Paulson as the aforementioned flame Harriet Hayes. Though Hayes is meant to be one of the main comedy stars on the fictional late-night TV show, and while she’s a terrific fit as the Christian beauty queen (and does a mean Holly Hunter impression), she’s sadly underwhelming as a believable comedienne as her delivery often falls flat in many sketch scenes—whereas comedy veterans like Hugley and Corddry pull their dual comedic/dramatic roles off more effortlessly.
While the actual comedy being prepared for the variety show isn’t often a success (the funniest instant so far has been during a montage in the third episode involving impressions of Nicholas Cage and Tom Cruise), the drama behind the scenes is clearly what’s worth watching. McDeere is seen routinely holding her own against NBS chairman Jack Rudolph (a surprisingly well cast Steven Weber) and Hayes is often seen at the receiving end of the variety show’s apparent love for mocking Christianity. Likely another spillover from The West Wing, Sorkin’s continuous attacks on a single religion seem heavy handed and just too easy to make here. One hopes he might aim his wits more widely in the coming episodes, if only to display an equal disdain for organized religions in general or that he uses these specific attacks on Hayes’s religion of choice as the foundation for a more interesting subplot in the future. Given the ever-present backstage tensions and sardonic quips and commentaries on the television industry as a whole, there’s enough working here to make watching a TV show about TV all the more enticing. Now if Sorkin only agreed to let some comedy writers in to write those sketch comedy scenes, we’d have twice the reasons to stay tuned.