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The Premieres of Monday
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Let's get the routine stuff over quickly so we can go into depth about "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," which debuted last night with one of the most fully realized pilots I've ever seen. If it maintains its current level of intensity Aaron Sorkin will not survive the season.

I laughed a lot at the second-season "How I Met Your Mother" premiere. I anticipated the breakup of the Lily (Alyson Hannigan) and Marshall (Jason Segel) characters leading to interesting new romantic opportunities for both actors, but I did not foresse Lily's becoming involved in a sordid fantasy three-way with George Clinton and a ferret. Ted and Robin's fledgling relationship seems to be serving mostly as rationale for Cobie Smulders to appear in her underwear or less. Which is OK, I guess. Neil Patrick Harris continues to be the engine that drives the series out of the doldrums of averageness. Best Barney line: "When I get sad I stop being sad and be awesome instead. True story." And to think, we owe his entire career renaissance to Harold and Kumar.

Anyone who was a fan of "Freaks and Geeks" or "Undeclared" knows that Jason Segel has some acting chops. His performance as Eric, the strangely endearing yet utterly psycho townie boyfriend on "Undeclared" is some kind of minor landmark. "Mother"'s biggest problem is that it persistently gives Hannigan and Segel, the best actors in the cast, the least to do. As such, an entire episode built around the theme "Lily absent/Marshall mopes" doesn't really deliver the goods in the way a season premiere should. Hannigan's characters only appeared in flashbacks and dream sequences up until the very end, when she merely peered through a window at the rest of the cast. One of the things that was annoying about "How I Met Your Mother" in its first season was a rather ridiculous over-reliance on gimmicky cliffhanger endings, like the one where Barney was assimilated by the Borg. It's a half-hour sitcom; it should resolve a storyline every now and then. Although to all appearances Aly looks smokin' hot as a brunette.

"Mother" is preceded on CBS's Monday night lineup, for the moment at least, by "The Class," a pallid wannabe sitcom that made me long for the comparative laugh riot of "'Til Death." Even the premise sounds dreary: an overcompensating boyfriend reunites his third-grade class as a show of affection to his lady love whom he met that year. She dumps him, and an overly large cast of generic central casting types bond to magically form a sitcom cast. It's never a good sign for a new show when every regular can be described with a minimum of effort. There's the slacker, the gay, the bitch, the trophy wife, the hippie-ish girl who's either a free spirit or retarded (could go either way), and the suicidal guy. Yes, a sitcom with a suicidal character! This is not your parents' CBS! I'm not so terribly offended by the idea of a guy with a death wish in a sitcom, but it is alarming that Jesse Tyler Ferguson's Richie has the only two funny lines of the entire pilot.

For some reason, the creative forces behind "The Class" have found it necessary to give every single series regular a hideous haircut. This seems like a peculiar choice. Jason Ritter ("Joan of Arcadia") is a good-looking guy, but he can't carry off a bowl cut. Lizzy Caplan (who played Jason Segel's disco-loving girlfriend on "Freaks and Geeks," small world) is lovely but her 'do looks like Joan Jett's worst nightmare. Perhaps the collective bad hair the cast sports in the pilot is meant to symbolize how these lost souls have come adrift since their innocent school days. If that's the case, tough luck for them. The complete lack of laughs in the first episode strongly implies that the cast will not stay together long enough to find better stylists. Their old teacher drinks! The football star's wife can't keep her hands off the musician who lives with his mother! The suicide guy finally meets a nice girl and then he runs her over with his car! Stop me if things are sounding remotely funny.

Almost forgot, there are actually two bitches in the cast of "The Class," one upmarket and one downmarket. I am sorry for the confusion.

It's not surprising that my memories of "The Class" are imperfect, since later in the evening an infinitely more promising and thoughtful series got off the ground. "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" is a breed apart from the first minute. It manages to be edge-of-your-seat exciting using nothing but breathless dialogue, something at which there are few better in the television industry than Aaron Sorkin. Indeed, the industry itself is Sorkin's target. If it's even possible, "Sunset Strip" sets itself up as even more of a bully pulpit for Sorkin's philosophies than "The West Wing" was while he was still in charge. However, the vapidity of modern network TV is a broader and less polarizing target than current American politics. The pilot goes out of its way to establish the network exec played by Amanda Peet as sympathetically as Sorkin's more obvious proxies, showrunners Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford, solid as ever) and Matt Albie (Matthew Perry, who is going to win bushels of awards if this thing catches on).

Making a fictionalized "show behind the show" based on "Saturday Night Live" might seem like an idea whose time has passed given that "SNL" hasn't been funny since before I had a driver's license, but it works for "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." Since everyone in America has a pretty good idea of how "Saturday Night Live" works, or at least thinks they do, the show is free to concentrate on the high-stakes politics of network TV. Peet's Jordan McDeere notes in passing that the day she was appointed as president of the network, the NASDAQ index dropped in response. Sorkin gets off on the wrong foot by presenting a stagey "Network"-derived scene with guest star Judd Hirsch for his cold open; having every character in the show thereafter mention "Network" by name does not make up for this. Hirsch's meltdown is just the MacGuffin, however, the excuse to begin manuevering Sorkin's cast of characters into position. Perry has a knockout introduction scene that could well have been prefaced with a "Farewell to Chandler Bing" title card. His Matt is seething, sarcastic, and self-loathing, he's wired on painkillers from back surgery (the fate that seems to befall all obsessive television writers) and yet he's the one supporting Whitford's more outwardly genteel character rather than vice versa. It's rare to see TV handle non-romantic relationships with delicacy. The nuances in Whitford and Perry's interplay hints at so much good material to come. It's also clear that Sorkin made the right decision in refusing to film the series until he had cajoled a relucant Matthew Perry into taking this role.

The pilot focuses primarily on Jordan, Matt, and Danny, and with good reason, but the seeds are there for the rest of the cast to fill out. With D.L. Hughley, Timothy Busfield, and Evan Handler, "Studio 60" has a vastly better cast than the actual "Saturday Night Live." It's yet to be seen whether Sarah Paulson ("Deadwood"'s Miss Isringhausen and, randomly, an exposition-spouting hologram in Serenity) can be believable as a comedienne, but the pilot gives her character a twist -- she's religious -- that few shows would be gutsy enough to include. The only wrong notes in the ensemble are sounded by Steven Weber as the generic Slimy Network Guy. His character is so stock they should have just hung a lantern on it and gotten the network exec-bots from "Futurama" instead. I mean, what gives, was William Atherton unavailable?

At times it grows a little too obvious that Sorkin's characters are merely the vessels through which he rams his message home, but "Studio 60" on first impression seems less didactic than "West Wing" by a wide margin. Its expanded budget gives it a very different feel than the earlier "Sports Night." The scenes on the TV set are downright suspenseful. Are they going to get everyone in makeup by the time the cameras roll? You find yourself holding your breath despite yourself. Felicity Huffman has a cameo in the pilot as a talisman from "Sports Night," a great show that never really found its level. "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" has the bigger-name cast and it doesn't have the word "sports" in the title (not that "Sports Night" had anything to do with sports) so with any luck it won't suffer the same fate.

All the pieces are in place, as they say. The success of "Studio 60" from here on out will have more to do with whether Aaron Sorkin can successfully delegate and stay healthy than any internal flaw with the cast or premise. I don't know what to think about this. He seems to be deeply invested in the material -- at times during the Hirsch monologue, the fictional creator stepping in front of the cameras of his show to speak the truth, I half-expected Sorkin himself to cut in front of the real cameras filming the fake cameras and start speaking in tongues. I hope for the sake of all us entertained viewers that it doesn't come to that.

2006-09-20 12:08:43
1.   Jon Weisman
I didn't read your review of Studio 60 before I wrote mine, so I'm just getting to it now.

"Was William Atherton unavailable?" - great line.

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