Last night, thanks to a special deal through Netflix, I watched the pilot episode of the upcoming NBC series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

It’s another strong, foundation-laying Sorkin prologue. It’s not as suspenseful as The West Wing, but then again, this is a show about a sketch-comedy program, not about national security.

It’s a bit bumpy, partly because there’s so much going on. Sorkin is clearly scrambling to set up an elaborate network (no pun intended) of relationships and conflicts that I’m sure we’ll explore in detail later.

It’s also a dizzying 45 minutes of visual dazzlement. This episode reveals that Sorkin is working on the most astonishing sets, with the most artful cinematography he’s ever had. The show looks fantastic. And EXPENSIVE, beginning to end. In fact, it’s so showy and elaborate that I’m worried this could get in the way of the story.

But, having said that, I’m already hooked.

The cast is very strong. Amanda Peet nails it. She owns this show. All of the promise she’s shown in more dramatic roles, as in Changing Lanes and Syriana, will be fulfilled in this series, I have no doubt. Matthew Perry is perfectly cast as a comedy writer, and he and Bradley Whitford make a good team. Judd Hirsch leads us into the show, although I can’t tell if he’s going to be a regular or not. Ed Asner shows up. Stephen Weber and Timothy Busfield give typically strong performances.

Felicity Huffman shows up, to the delight of SportsNight fans, in what looks like a blatant middle-finger to the networks that failed to give SportsNight a fighting chance. She was so great in that show, playing a much better character, with much stronger dialogue than she gets on Desperate Housewives. It’s like Sorkin is saying, “Remember? I TOLD you she was a star, and you dumped us anyway.”

In fact… and I haven’t decided if this is a good thing or a bad thing… the show really betrays a lot of Sorkin’s anger over the way he’s been treated by the industry. He takes so many shots at the “lobotomizing” effect of prime-time television, at the refusal of networks to care about quality, that it almost feels like every character lives to serve his rants. His script mercilessly guns at SNL, mainstream news media, and more. Since this is the pilot episode, I can only assume he’s playing it a little safe… and that’s scary, because its strikes me as his most personal, autobiographical material yet.

Most Christian media writers are going to hate it, because it also opens fire on evanglicals. No, wait, let me revise that: One character opens fire on evangelicals. Another provides a more reasonable, fair assessment. But that character probably won’t register with those who are primed to become offended.

To help balance out the critiques, Sorkin also critiques himself, including not one but two drug-addict characters who will, I’m sure, go on to portray the torment of fighting addiction and the trouble with trying to stay clean in Hollywood. Thus, there’s not only anger, but sadness and regret running through this show. Anybody who knows anything about Sorkin’s career and personal struggles will realize that writing this show is going to be like therapy for him.

All in all, it’s feverish, impassioned, fantastic television, and I highly recommend you all show up for the season premiere.

The question that will preoccupy the newspapers — How will it fare in comparison with the OTHER “behind the scenes at SNL” show, the one with Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin? — doesn’t really interest me. No matter what that other show is like, this is clearly one of the most innovative and exciting premieres to come along in ages, and I hope it gives Sorkin the chance to fulfill the potential he showed with SportsNight. Maybe it will even bring more attention to that series (avaialble on DVD).

Am I allowed to dream that they might someday bring that series back? Man, I miss SportsNight. Perhaps it was just too far ahead of its time. (The network insisted on adding laugh tracks, and they almost spoiled the first few episodes, until they finally agreed to dropt them. Now, The Office plays without laugh tracks–thank God–and no one flinches.) Perhaps Studio 60 will enjoy the success SportsNight should have had. There are a lot of similarities between the two series, clearly.

But something tells me that TV audiences are still going to back slowly away, too bewildered by television this smart. Most people turn on the TV so they can turn their brains OFF, not ON. Sorkin refuses to waste our time. I wish him, and his show, the best.

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