Falling for Fall: What's Cool and Coming Your Way

When we say that Aaron Sorkin's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" is this season's big newTV show, that's not "Fall Preview" hype. We mean that literally. Did you see that title? Or the cast? Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, Amanda Peet, D. L. Hughley, Sarah Paulson, Steven Weber, Timothy Busfield, Nathan Corddry --combined, they've got to cost almost as much as Perry made for "Friends." "Studio 60" takes place behind the scenes at a show like "Saturday Night Live," only glitzier. The set looks like an art deco palace, with marbleized walls and Erté-like nudes--some joker put a red G-string on the big one in the foyer--surrounding a 150-seat studio. It's twice the size of the "West Wing" White House, and real enough to fool the pros. Corddry once went up to a production assistant who was wearing a headset and a studio 60 sweatshirt and asked where lunch was. "How should I know?" the man answered. "I'm an extra."

In Corddry's defense, there's a major through-the-looking-glass vibe to "Studio 60." Perry and Whitford play an acclaimed but prickly writer-director team, one of whom has a cocaine problem. They were fired from their last show and are just returning to TV. In real life, Sorkin and his faithful director, Tommy Schlamme, left "The West Wing" after Sorkin's own battles with drugs and network suits. Writers often draw from their own lives. But it's hard to think of a TV show where the creator so willingly--you might say bravely--dredges his past and serves it for weekly consumption. Although Sorkin does pull off one sleight of hand: in "Studio 60," it's the character based on Schlamme (Danny Tripp) who is the cocaine addict. "One of the first things I said to Aaron when I read the script was, 'Oh, so you gave Tommy the drug problem'," says Whitford.

Sorkin himself downplays the personal allusions. "I think that looking at the show like it's the cover of 'Sgt. Pepper' and trying to figure out who's who will actually distract from your enjoyment," he says. He's probably right. "Studio 60" is--here comes the preview hype--by far the smartest show of the season. On one level, "Studio 60" is a classic backstage drama. Matt and Danny are hired by the new network president (Peet) after the executive producer (Judd Hirsch) is fired for interrupting a live broadcast to fulminate about how TV has become hostage to shows about "worm eating" and "who wants to screw my sister." Those are direct digs at NBC's "Fear Factor" and "Who Wants to Marry My Dad?" They're also Sorkin's declaration of war against TV's bottom feeders and the networks that support them, including his own.

That said, this isn't "The West Wing," where everyone sounds alike--i.e., like Sorkin. One of the most interesting characters is Harriet (Paulson), a "Studio 60" player who happens to be Matt's ex-girlfriend--and a devout Christian, like Sorkin's own ex, actress Kristin Chenoweth. "That makes her the biggest minority in Hollywood, and that was interesting to me," says Sorkin. "I didn't want anyone to be wearing just white hats or black hats."

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After his unhappy ending with "The West Wing," you might have expected Sorkin to turn his back on TV. He never even considered it. "I love putting a show on every week," he says. "In a movie, a joke I write today, I'll hear the laugh two years from now." But this time is a little different. His friends say he's mellower and more in control--he's 45 now, and has a 5-year-old daughter. Sorkin had already written seven episodes before production even began last month. "He's not totally the Dalai Lama," says Busfield, "but he's certainly embracing each step without the jarring effect of being the wunderkind." One change: on the executive-producer credits, Sorkin insisted that Schlamme come first. "He has been, on 'Sports Night' and 'West Wing,' the only indispensable part of the show," Sorkin says. "I'm not saying that to blow smoke. I'm saying it because, when the backlash starts this time, can you aim some of it at Tommy, please?"

Sorkin isn't the only one on "Studio 60" making a TV comeback. So is Perry. "I was in New York in the business center of a hotel reading the script on a computer at 2 in the morning," Perry says. "I got to page 40 and I said, 'This is fantastic. I can't believe there's no part for me.' And then on page 41, this wonderful part comes on named Matthew." Even more life imitating art: in the pilot, Perry's character has a little trouble with Vicodin. "That did sort of leap off the page," says Perry, who once struggled with that addiction himself. The actor welcomed the break from "Friends." "I thought it would be interesting if I came back to television to play somebody somewhat dark," he says. "What's bizarre is that we're shooting seven feet from the 'Friends' stage. I know how long it takes to get here from my house." If "Studio 60" stays on track, Perry will be making that drive for years.

Falling for Fall: What's Cool and Coming Your Way | News