I've been intrigued by two upcoming NBC series, the Aaron Sorkin drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Tina Fey's sitcom 30 Rock, both of which start with an identical premise: the backstage shenanigans at a Saturday Night Live–like show. So I managed to get my mitts on screeners of the pilots and proceeded to spend some quality time in front of the tube.
Let's get one thing out of the way: Tina Fey is one of the most overrated people in television. During her reign as head writer on SNL, she brought the show right back to the dark days of the 1980s. She's not half as sharp as she thinks she is, as illustrated by the half-baked Mean Girls (Heathers is vastly superior on all counts). Now it looks as if 30 Rock (which starts in October) will bring the day of reckoning. Granted, what I saw is not what's going to air, since it was reshot with Jane Krakowski replacing Rachel Dratch as the star of The Girlie Show, the show within 30 Rock.You can howl til you're blue in the face about how the network traded idiosyncratic indie-type Dratch for a more beautiful woman, but Dratch was woefully out of her depth and Krakowski actually is a versatile comedienne. Fey is another matter: She gave herself a prominent role in the series, in addition to writing it, and her limitations are already showing. It's highly unlikely she has what it takes to write a satire of the kind of show she herself used to do, so 30 Rock is probably going to turn into a benign workplace comedy similar to Newsradio. We're two months away from Thanksgiving but the turkey's already landed.
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip also suffers from dead weight at the middle, namely the wooden Matthew Perry and the wet blanket known as Amanda Peet. The latter is meant to play a wunderkind network prez but alas she emits all the steely charisma of frozen haddock, and in some weirdly lit scenes her prominent, blindingly white central incisors kept reminding me of Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog's Nosferatu.
That said, the episode I saw is well written and oddly gripping, especially Judd Hirsch's impassioned hijacking of a live broadcast—followed by reviews calling it a Network-like incident, a comparison you should expect to see in every actual write-up of the show as Sorkin cleverly feeds critics the image of himself as a modern-day Paddy Chayefsky. Sarah Paulson, aka Mrs Cherry Jones, is promiding in the part—apparently inspired by Kristin Chenoweth—of a Christian with decent social views. I don't have any pre-conceived opinion about Sorkin, having successfully managed to never see more than two minutes of The West Wing, but Studio 60 (starting mid-September) shows a bit of promise, especially if it explores base compromises in network television and the inanity of live sketch comedy. But considering that abortion still isn't an option on American television, I doubt Studio 60 will have genuine fangs (unlike Amanda Peet), limiting itself to the usual biteless bark about the media blah blah blah.