Fall TV Review: 'Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip'

The new NBC drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip offers a look behind the scenes of a fictional late-night comedy program. Show creator Aaron Sorkin gained fame by offering a behind-the-scenes look at the White House on The West Wing. TV critic Andrew Wallenstein has a review.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY. The West Wing may no longer be on TV, but the series creator, Aaron Sorkin, is back this fall, and instead of Washington's back rooms, he delves into Hollywood's.

The new show on NBC is called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Here is DAY TO DAY TV critic Andrew Wallenstein.

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN: You know why I love television? It's actually not the reason 99 percent of the population does. What I find more compelling than what's on screen is the business behind the scenes. No doubt Aaron Sorkin would agree.

His new TV show, Studio 60, is a fantastic recreation of what goes on from the control room to the boardroom. But that brings me back to that 99 percent figure. I may be as obsessed with Sorkin with the subject matter. I'm just not sure anyone else is.

Studio 60 is the name of a fictional sketch comedy show transparently modeled on Saturday Night Live. When its executive producer has an on-air melt down, the network's new president tries to solve the public relations fiasco by installing two new producers, played by Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford.

In this scene they discuss the challenge ahead.

(Soundbite of TV show "Studio 60")

Mr. BRADLEY WHITFORD (Actor): (As Danny Tripp) But it's going to be our show now and only one of us can screw up at a time, and I think we both know that most of the time it's going to be me. You're the big shoulders.

Mr. MATTHEW PERRY (Actor): (As Matt Albie) I hear you.

Mr. WHITFORD: (Albie) Good. Because I don't remember what I just said.

WALENSTEIN: If you're expecting the jokester from Friends, Perry is in a different mode here, depicting a dour comedy writer who for balance relies on the jaded, gruff character played by Whitford, a West Wing veteran. Some back story you need to know here: Sorkin dramatizes his own real life struggle with drug abuse through Whitford's character.

But the real standout performance on Studio 60 is by Steven Weber, who plays the chairman of the network. Weber is incredible here, oozing slime at just that level of viscosity you'd expect from a corporate overlord.

In this scene, he utters a stern warning to the new network president, played by Amanda Peet.

(Soundbite of TV show "Studio 60")

Mr. STEVEN WEBER (Actor): (As Jack Rudolph) You saw how fast I fired Wes Mandel. Screw this up, I'll fire you faster. See, I'm not like every other heterosexual male in show business, Jordan, I don't find you charming. And you've earned the loyalty of absolutely no one. So you go ahead, you take your first steps towards making us all classy again. We've been waiting for you.

WALENSTEIN: I have no doubt NBC will need a wheelbarrow to haul the Emmys that will come Sorkin's way next year. But at the same time, I wouldn't be surprised if Studio 60 didn't live to see another season. It's smart and sophisticated to the point where it's just too hip for the average living room.

I despair that exploring the cultural and economic ramifications of the TV business won't translate in Peoria the way the politics of the West Wing did. Maybe what's most irresistible about Studio 60 is the naked narcissism of the whole endeavor. Sorkin holds up an unsparing mirror to himself and the TV industry at large. Now it's time to see whether anyone but them, and me, will fall in love with their own reflection.

BRAND: You've got to love naked narcissism. Andrew Wallenstein is an editor for the Hollywood Reporter.

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