Tuesday, September 19, 2006

One hour, and I'm in

Of all the new shows premiering this fall, the one I was probably most excited about was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip on NBC. When the pilot was released on DVD, I added it to my Netflix queue, though never actually received it, due to procrastination and sloth-like viewing habits. But I was that eager for the return of Aaron Sorkin to television.

I've never been more interested in politics than when I watched The West Wing. I'm a little bit embarrassed to admit that a TV show is what ignited that interest, but the energy of the show, the passion and intelligence of its characters, along with the intriguing domestic and international issues underlying most episodes, was infectious to me. Politics in real life surely isn't as compelling, and probably a whole lot more frustrating, but even if it was a fictional portrayal, it was fascinating to get that inside view.

Sports Night obviously didn't have as wide a scope, as it focused on the inner workings of a sports television network, rather than on a presidential administration. But the same energy was there. The characters were just as passionate, even if their world view was ultimately more internal and narcissistic. But the politics and behind-the-scenes machinations were curiously similar, and just about as intriguing to watch. Sometimes I wonder if the show would've been more popular had it taken place at a news network, instead. Regardless, I certainly think it was ahead of its time.

The West Wing was never quite the same after Sorkin left (though it certainly got interesting in its last season-and-a-half). The episodes just didn't "crackle" with the same intensity. Even the actors seemed to have less spring in their step for those famous "walk-and-talk" scenes.

From most accounts, however, Sorkin was on the fast track to burnout, writing almost all of the episodes himself and giving the actors his scripts at the last possible second. It was a grind no show would've been able to endure, so something had to give. (That "something" could've been Sorkin himself, as a drug problem of his became publicized.) Either way, quality was likely to suffer.

Despite my love for his work, I was a bit skeptical about this new thing. Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford seem so closely identified with the characters they played on previous shows that I couldn't imagine they'd be believable as anyone else. And how important is a sketch comedy show these days? Would a show taking place behind the scenes of such a program really be that interesting?

But you can distinguish an Aaron Sorkin show from anything else on TV right away, and "Studio 60" distinctly bears his mark. Machine-gun exchanges of dialogue between people as they're walking from one room to another. Characters who are extremely good at what they do, and constantly push others to measure up to the same standards. (And if these people somehow aren't using their talents, a part of them is dead inside.) Many of them see something wrong with the world they work and live in, and speak out against that (in ways all of us wish we could). But they're hardly perfect; they have flaws, vices, and demons to deal with.

And actors are never better than when they're playing one of Sorkin's creations. Though I think Amanda Peet could be miscast, and for no good reason, I can't stand Sarah Paulson - yet she finds herself in a lot of movies and TV shows I watch. Go figure.

But after watching only one episode, I know I'm already hooked.