Live, from New York...
I never thought that of the two “Saturday Night Live”-inspired TV shows on the air this fall, that I would prefer Aaron Sorkin’s drama “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” to Tina Fey’s comedy “30 Rock.” I’m going to give “30 Rock” one more chance, but the pilot episode was rather flat, and Fey, the show’s star, doesn’t seem to be much of a comic actress. Two other SNL alums, Rachel Dratch and Tracy Morgan, also appear on the show. Dratch was largely wasted in the premiere, and Morgan’s performance was funny at times but often exhausting to watch. I like Morgan, but it always seemed like the writers on SNL didn’t quite know how to use his talents; perhaps it’s no surprise that he should encounter the same problem on “30 Rock”, given that Fey is the former SNL head writer. (I should add that I greatly enjoyed her on SNL, but sketch comedy is not the same as situation comedy.)
The bright spot in the first episode was Alec Baldwin, who honed his comedic skills during numerous stints as the host of SNL. Baldwin seems mercifully free of vanity in his middle years (Burt Reynolds, I’m looking at you) and few actors outside of William Shatner seem to enjoy self-effacement as much as Baldwin. Baldwin plays a clueless NBC executive whose claim to fame was inventing an oven for General Electric, the network’s corporate parent. One problem: David Letterman exhausted this line of humor about 20 years ago.
“Studio 60” also is set behind the scenes of a sketch comedy show, this time on a fictional network. It suffers from the same flaws that drove me from “The West Wing”—namely, moral vanity and condescension. The show goes out of its way to demonstrate its characters rectitude, nobility and worst of all, brains—the show is peppered with so many arcane references that Dennis Miller should sue for patent infringement. Another huge distraction—and critics have noted this—is that SNL exists in the “Studio 60” universe. This is problematic for several reasons. For one, we’re led to believe that “Studio 60” was groundbreaking in its day, yet it obviously has a format identical to SNL, from the host’s monologue to the fake newscast to the musical guest. It even airs at 11:30 p.m. and lasts 90 minutes—only on Friday night instead of Saturday. Plus, the characters on “Studio 60” are constantly referring to classic SNL bits and cast members. As my wife observed, why would they never refer to their own stuff?
The show is, however, well-paced and well-written, and most significantly, well-acted. Bradley Whitford and Matthew Perry have great chemistry as the producer and head writer, respectively, of the fictional “Studio 60.” Perry demonstrates depth well beyond his glib “Friends” role. Amanda Peet is surprisingly good as the network president, and Steven Weber of “Wings” fame steals every scene he is in as the slick, jaded network chairman. The supporting characters like Weber’s Jack Rudolph and Evan Handler’s Ricky Tahoe are the most interesting, perhaps because we are not always sure that they are going to do the right thing.
I’ll give Sorkin credit—overall, the characters on “Studio 60” seem a bit more tarnished, and thus more human, than the do-gooders who roamed the White House on “The West Wing.” You might have voted for such people, but you wouldn’t have wanted to spend any length of time with them.