Sure, we’re happy to see Matthew Perry return to television, especially alongside those enjoyable “West Wing” folks like Bradley Whitford and Timothy Busfield. But the biggest reason many of us will be tuning in tonight to the premiere of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”–NBC’s new behind-the-scenes look at a fictional late-night sketch show–will be the man who puts the words in their mouths: writer/producer Aaron Sorkin. And I am happy to say that tonight’s premiere of “Studio 60″ provides Sorkin aficionados with great acting, lush sets, and the joyous return of “walk and talks”–witty banter matched with long tracking shots that are typical of the storytelling style Sorkin and his directing partner Tommy Schlamme have perfected.
Tonight’s pilot episode (10.00 p.m., NBC) finds the “Saturday Night Live”-style comedy sketch show “Studio 60″ in more than a bit of trouble this particular Friday night. The fictional NBS network’s standards and practices rep is pulling the plug on the intended opening sketch, intriguingly titled “Crazy Christians.” This leads to an on-air “Network“-inspired tirade by the show’s producer, which, of course, gets him fired and leads to major national news coverage. In an effort at damage control, the new network president, Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet), tracks down the famous writing/producing duo of Matt Albie and Dannie Tripp (Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford) to offer them a chance to return to “Studio 60″ after being fired from the show a few years before.
But just as Sorkin’s “Sports Night” was not simply about a sports broadcasting team, and “The West Wing” was not only about people working in the White House, “Studio 60″ is about much more than the cast of a floundering comedy show. Whether it’s references to Pat Robertson as a bigot or psycho-religious cults who thrive on boycotts, Sorkin is clearly taking some thought-provoking shots at the cultural and spiritual divide in America. But he’s doing it with the help of a Christian.
That’s right: Imagine my surprise when I found out that “Studio 60″ has, at the center of its cast, a character who is clever, funny–and just happens to be a devout Christian without being completely annoying, as so many TV Christians are. Harriet, a longtime cast member and ex-girlfriend of Matt Albie, is a thinly-veiled homage of some kind to Sorkin’ s ex-girlfriend, Kristin Chenoweth, a Christian who became a Broadway star and was also a “West Wing” regular in its last season. But that doesn’t dampen my excitement over the possibility of a primetime show portraying a Christian without resorting to stereotypes. A perfect example of this is when Harriet defends the “Crazy Christian” sketch, while the less-tolerant Albie confesses that he let Harriet’s appearance on Robertson’s “The 700 Club” become justification for ending their tumultuous relationship.
All indications point to Harriet’s faith continuing to play a significant part in future episodes of the show. And while I am not convinced that Harriet will continue to serve as an accurate mouthpiece for us moderate evangelical types, I am looking forward to the spirited–and spiritual–discussions “Studio 60″ is going to generate around watercoolers everywhere this season.