Writer-producer Aaron Sorkin ("The West Wing") may have shifted his focus from Washington, D.C., to Hollywood, but he's still got politics on his mind in "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip."
The highly anticipated NBC dramedy, which premieres Monday, Sept. 18, goes behind the scenes of a troubled late-night comedy sketch show, where tensions reach critical mass during one taping. Ordered by an officious network lackey to cut a controversial sketch, the show's executive producer, Wes Mendell (guest star Judd Hirsch), erupts into an on-camera rant in which he angrily denounces corporate network suits for helping to "dumb down" the American public.
This huge public relations nightmare is inherited by Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet), the incoming network entertainment chief who proposes a risky solution to the problem: hiring the creative team of writer Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) and director Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) to take over the show.
Jordan's boss, network honcho Jack Rudolph (Steven Weber), has two big issues with that proposal, though: Jack is the guy who fired Matt and Danny from an earlier stint on "Studio 60," and, in any case, Danny is freshly back in recovery for a cocaine problem.
Matt's a little gun-shy, too: His old flame, singer-actress Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson), is a current member of the "Studio 60" cast.
A lot of characters and relationships are thrown at us during the series opener, but this new setting clearly is fertile ground for Sorkin and his fellow executive producer Thomas Schlamme, both of whom won Emmys for their collaborative work on "The West Wing."
"At its heart, 'Studio 60' is the same thing that 'The West Wing' was at its heart," Sorkin says. "It's about a group of people committed to professionalism, committed to each other, to what they're doing, and hopefully we enjoy watching them every week.
"But as political issues came up on 'The West Wing,' I think that 'Studio 60' is tooled up to deal with issues of the culture wars in an interesting way, because certainly television in general and a sketch comedy show like this in particular would have a front-row seat for that kind of thing."
Peet's character spends a lot of time in the crossfire between the creative team she has hired and the male-dominated corporate brass to whom she reports, but the actress says she understands why Jordan seems so unflappable.
"I think probably Jordan is pretty used to being the smartest person in the room and, at the same time, the most-doubted person in the room," Peet says. "She's also a little bit of a maverick, I think. She's very ready for her detractors, as most successful corporate women probably are. Aaron is fascinated with that, which makes me love him even more, for being such a feminist."
Sorkin acknowledges that Jordan is based very loosely on former ABC entertainment chief Jamie Tarses, now a consultant on "Studio 60," and it's hard not to see Matt and Danny as surrogates for Sorkin and Schlamme. There's also a strong resemblance between Harriet -- a devout but nonjudgmental Christian who has a CD of inspirational songs in release and is also a crackerjack comedy actress -- and former "West Wing" cast member Kristin Chenoweth, who has been linked romantically with Sorkin.
Sorkin insists he is not closely basing any of the "Studio 60" characters on real-life counterparts, but Whitford says he understands why the question keeps coming up.
"Look, I don't think there's any question that there is an autobiographical jumping-off point," Whitford says, "but Aaron really does not want to be imprisoned by reality. He wants to be free to do whatever he wants. Certainly what he is writing now is nothing about what he and Tommy would do, but it certainly is a starting point.
"Yes, we are talking about a writer and a producer-director who work very intimately together, and obviously that reflects Aaron's relationship with Tommy. Of course, it is pretty amusing that Aaron gave 'the Tommy character' the drug problem," Whitford adds with a laugh, alluding to Sorkin's own drug issues back in 2001.
Like his two previous shows, "Studio 60" crackles with Sorkin's witty, whip-smart dialogue, which Peet, a Sorkin novice, admits she finds an occasional challenge.
"It definitely flows, because everything is right there in the words," she says. "It's not always easy to memorize, though. Aaron always jokes to me that he's going to give me a really long speech with a lot of numbers and cities and affiliate groups, and he's done that. Over time, I will look for a way to punish him for that, but I don't know how to do that without cutting off my nose."
"Aaron's writing has a tempo and a specificity that you just have to trust, so the challenge for me is to get beyond just executing it technically," says Whitford, a Sorkin friend and colleague since the writer's first big Broadway hit, "A Few Good Men."
"I'm at my best when I have it absolutely beyond down cold, so intuitively memorized that I can execute it without thinking of executing it. There's certainly a heightened verbal aspect to this, but it's not up to us to play that. We have to play it as truthfully as possible.
"I've been doing those walk-and-talk things for eight years now, and they're still terrifying. I have real sympathy for anyone trying to do it for the first time."