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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Two fall TV pilots: a first look

NBC has taken the somewhat unusual step of releasing two of its fall pilots a month ahead on a new DVD (apparently for rental only). Both are well worth seeing and, we can hope, could get even better as the season progresses.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip has a few problems, starting with the title – not exactly as catchy, succinct, easy to remember as ER or The West Wing, eh? It marks Aaron Sorkin’s return to weekly TV after his forced exit from The West Wing a few seasons ago. Comparisons to his previous series, which was certainly one of the best things ever on weekly commercial television, are inevitable. There is good news and bad news here. Sorkin's characteristic fast-paced dialogue and wit are present, to be sure, and the show is entertaining. The plots in The West Wing were almost always McGuffins – the missile crisis or the scandalous Congressional hearing or the Supreme Court nomination were just frameworks for the snappy repartee and dazzling performances. But this is a TV show about a TV show, and it is in danger of becoming a glib portrait of glibness.

The setting is a Saturday Night Live-style weekly series that goes into crisis when a producer has a shocking reaction to a censor’s request to cut a sketch about religion. The previous writer and director of the show (played by Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford) are called back in to save it – even though, not unlike Aaron Sorkin, they had been asked to leave the same series a few years before.

Whitford is not bad, but surprisingly a bit bland compared to his memorable work on The West Wing. Perry is good, and surprisingly sharp. Amanda Peet is wonderful as a new executive who masterminds bringing the pair back on board. And Steven Weber makes a bracingly good asshole as her boss at the network (no friend, shall we say, of our two heroes).

The show is well done, but the question remains whether and how the backstage occurrences will provide strong enough material to keep us watching. The political and social issues occasionally brought grandiosity and pretentiousness to The West Wing, but only rarely, and the seriousness of the underlying premise was often a satisfying contrast to the fast, funny talk front and center. Studio 60 will have to work harder to find that kind of dynamic. Still, I’ll be tuning in to see how Sorkin and company do.

I started to skip Kidnapped, the second pilot on the disc…but I’m glad I didn’t. It’s a crackerjack thriller about the abduction of the teenage son of a wealthy Manhattan family. It’s definitely a show of the post-24 era, lightning-paced and often close to being over-the-top. But the superb acting, writing and direction keep it from veering into the campy silliness that some fans (myself included) of 24 have come to relish. Kidnapped may turn out to be a little too solemn and grim in the long run, but this first episode is smashing.

Delroy Lindo is marvelous as an FBI agent, about to retire but pulled back in by this case. It’s also good to see Jeremy Sisto as something other than a creepy psycho (as in Six Feet Under and Broadway’s recent Festen). Playing a private detective who specializes in rescuing kidnap victims, he is merely a brooding loner this time out, and quite good at it. The home of the victim’s family is a chilly one indeed, with Dana Delany and Timothy Hutton excellent as the snobby, neurotic parents, who apparently have a secret or two of their own. (Film fans may be taken aback that Hutton’s character is named Conrad, as he was in Ordinary People, his breakthrough movie; coincidence, in-joke or homage?)

I don’t know whether the plan is to follow this one storyline through the entire season. This would seem a bit daring and difficult to carry off…but I’ll be watching to find out.

Update:
Studio 60 is off the schedule as of February...not sure if there are other episodes still to be aired, but it seems unlikely to return for a second season. This is too bad, but it's true that it never really caught fire.

Kidnapped met a much more unkind fate: it was yanked after only half a dozen airings, and the remaining episodes were relegated to NBC's web site, where their visual excellence was completely trashed. Audiences have rejected many new dramatic serials this season, but this was the most unfairly treated of them all. Maybe the producers should aim for HBO or Showtime next...Kidnapped might have done well there.

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