THE show-within-the-show on Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” is a topical sketch comedy series 24 hours ahead of “Saturday Night Live” and light-years beyond it as a taste-maker in the culture. Nobody here aspires to “A Night at the Roxbury” fame nor is choking on “Larry Sanders Show” bile; for the members of “Studio 60,” the making of late-night comedy is, ultimately, a calling to serve.
Sound familiar? Sorkin, creator of “The West Wing,” brings his intoxicating brio to the backstage world of a late-night TV series and conjures the place as the same roiling ground zero of social and moral debate that he projected onto the White House.
“It’s like we’ve all spent the last five years living a Roger Corman film called ‘Revenge of the Hack,’ ” says cast member Tom Jeter (Nathan Corddry) to fellow cast member Simon Stiles (D.L. Hughley).
They’re backstage, talking about the influence of blogs on pop culture, as comedy actors are wont to do. “I have to care about the Internet, Simon, you know why?” Tom continues. “Because everybody else does.”
I guess, but the show’s kind of annoying this way. The policy-policy-philosophy-joke conceit worked better when Sorkin’s cheekily self-important characters were compensating for the tension of Far Eastern weapons dealers and special-interest groups rattling President Bartlet’s cage.
Here it feels as if Sorkin has chosen an outdated media milieu for his secular humanist dramaturgy. His first TV series, “Sports Night,” was ahead of the times, but “Studio 60" is behind them.
Would the country be a more enlightened place if only we had a late-night show to guide the way? I didn’t realize this was still on the table, because I can’t recall the last honest culture war stirred up by late night. This is undeniably sad but also true, and Sorkin is pretending the playing field is otherwise to make his big-tent points. The controversy that sends the pilot headlong into a series is, itself, a homage to controversy, a piece of nostalgia right out of Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network.” Only this time Howard Beale is so Jewish he’s actually Judd Hirsch.
Hirsch plays Wes Mendell, “Studio 60’s” longtime executive producer, an old-guard lefty from the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” era, and when we meet him he’s in midbreakdown, conveying weary serenity before one last explosion.
The explosion comes when, shortly before air, the standards guy tells Mendell he has to cut the “Crazy Christians” sketch and replace it with the banal “Peripheral Vision Man” (this is perhaps the most obvious swipe at “SNL”). Minutes later, sitting in his director’s chair as the show goes through the paces of another lame Bush sketch cold open, Mendell loses it, walking onto live TV and telling the camera: “This is not going to be a very good show tonight. I think you should change the channel.”
The audience titters while Mendell works himself into a rant. The speech he proceeds to deliver is uncomfortable to sit through -- not so much for the drama but for the dogma. We’ve become a nation “lobotomized by this country’s most influential industry,” he cries, where “art is getting its ass kicked” by commerce, with TV show contestants “eating worms for money” while “guys are getting killed in a war that’s got theme music and a logo.”
Hasn’t he seen, like, Dateline’s “To Catch a Predator?” If the most damning end-of-days reference a late-night producer can come up with is “Fear Factor,” he probably shouldn’t be running a cutting-edge show in the first place.
And almost instantly he isn’t. The standards guy goes ballistic, the show goes dark and on screen flashes one word: “Jordan.” Cool, I thought, this is going to be just like “Syriana.” But no, we’re on the Westside, at a fine dinner spread, and Jordan is Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet), the new head of NBS (it’s like NBC, but with an S).
It’s undeniably fun to watch what happens next, because much of it involves seeing Peet connive her way through a scandal like Lady Macbeth, all while wearing a trench coat that teasingly appears to have little underneath it. In Jordan we trust. Soon she’s making all the right counterintuitive moves, using the scandal as an opportunity to make the show not safer but even more dangerous, giving the reins of “Studio 60" to the show’s controversial former wunderkind writing-producing team, Matt Albie and Danny Trip (Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford).
“Studio 60,” I suspect, will be very much Perry and Whitford’s show, both within and without. They’re as good together in the two episodes NBC sent out as Martin Sheen and the late John Spencer were on “West Wing,” and their relationship is similar, the Kennedy-esque sense of hope here grafted onto the re-education of late-night TV.
You have to accept the “aha” moment in which Matt, having become a success in features, impetuously agrees to return to a show he’d left bitterly four years earlier. Sorkin doesn’t earn the moment, though it helps that Matt’s flying on various back-pain medication and Danny’s tested positive for cocaine and can’t get insured for the movie the two were planning to make.
On “The West Wing,” Whitford was Sorkin’s most reliable go-to wit, handling dialogue that tended to make Rob Lowe look as if he’d memorized the state capitals in song. It’s Whitford who gets to utter “Studio 60’s” movie-trailer zinger, after Jordan promises not to tell Matt about the failed drug test before he does.
“I have no reason to trust you and every reason not to,” Danny says.
“You work in television.”
Whitford delivers it just right, but the camera holds on Jordan’s face for a number of beats, like this is stunning stuff. What, that TV executives are untrustworthy?
Sorkin’s TV shows are always a kind of haute cuisine -- briskly structured, the perpetual writerly brain motion enacted by Sorkin’s directing partner Thomas Schlamme, the great ensemble cast giving his dialogue 110%. At its best, it’s TV with flair and purpose, at its worst a sell job meant to flatter your intelligence. The “what ifs?” of “Studio 60" include Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson), who’s both the star of “Studio 60" and a Christian recording artist with a pop album; she and Matt have a will-they-or-won’t-they-get-back-together story going, and God is very much watching.
I went with that but could never get past the rest of the rarefied world in which Sorkin had plopped me. Much has been made of the real-life influences in the show. (Is his NBS network NBC? Is Jordan based on former ABC Entertainment President Jamie Tarses? Is Harriet based on Sorkin’s ex-girlfriend Kristin Chenoweth?)
But Sorkin’s bigger inspiration seem to be recent media moments: Bill Maher getting fired from ABC’s “Politically Incorrect” after intemperate post-9/11 comments; Jon Stewart’s appearance on CNN’s “Crossfire” during the 2004 presidential election, when Stewart broke the fourth wall of punditry with his “stop hurting America” plea to Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson.
It was a refreshing moment, but that’s all anyone took it to be, including the Cheshire-grinning Stewart, who’s smart enough to play down his subversive influence on public discourse for fear of appearing too smug. Maher, meanwhile, has resurfaced at HBO, where his show is better than the one it was on ABC.
But Sorkin means to do a passion play, so he doesn’t have time to reflect these variances in comedy and free speech. The whole wide world is practically waiting for “Studio 60’s” comeback show, it seems. Even Kimmel’s talking about it.
‘Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’
When: 10 to 11 tonight.
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)