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'Studio' Musician

September 14, 2006 By:
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Aaron Sorkin is no "Kookie" Burns.

But then "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" is in a different neighborhood than "77 Sunset Strip," the hip seminal series of the late '50s/early '60s, in which Edd Burns' "Kookie," comb ever at the quick, was as slick a private dick as any detective show ever offered.

Yet in a way, both "60" and "77" number similarities that may make Sorkin, the speed-talking savvy savant behind "The West Wing" and now wing man on NBC's most anticipated new series, the savior for a network that could use a comb-over right now to cover up last season.

Get the chupah ready: Sorkin's "Sunset Strip" may just be the sunrise the network needs as the series, exec produced by Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme, premieres Monday, Sept. 18, at 10 p.m.

While "77" was a mystery series, "60" is, too, parting the curtain to reveal what goes on behind the makings and mishugas of a weekly "Saturday Night Live"-type series.

With his machine-gun mantra of quick cuts, quicker cutting remarks and as brainy a badinage as has ever graced a TV script, Sorkin sweeps a series more than makes one. And in this one, a viewer is swept off his feet by a cast that reels in royalty, with Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford as friends/phenoms who take a staggering show-within-a-show and show it the way it should be run, after its creator -- in a conniption of a cameo by Judd Hirsch -- goes "Network" on everyone.

(Don't worry about Hirsch's character being fired in the pilot; he can always cry on the shoulder of Alan Eppes, whose "Numb3rs" is on another network.)

There are more than a few good men and women behind this saga of backstage backstabbing and upfront meetings that has created its own kind of live drama; Tina Fey's own "30 Rock," a rock comedy of an insider's input into putting on an "SNL"-style show, shares network space with "60," causing the Peacock to keep them at plume's length.

The ultimate arbiter of their relations will most likely be Nielsen, whose numbers for "60" and "30" could determine whether either or both can claim that most important prime-time prime spot of No. 1.

No. 1 on Sorkin's schedule is to get "60" up to speed; and, judging by its pilot, he's hit the road scorching.

Not that he's ever been on autopilot; Sorkin's work, whether on Broadway ("A Few Good Men"), film ("The American President," "A Few Good Men"), or TV (also, "Sports Night") has always had a landing strip all its own.

And now, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" has him squaring the old Oval Office wit with the roundabout rambunctiousness of TV, making for some intriguing insider trading of anything-but-stock network schtick.

But this is no ordinary "Studio" musician blowing his own horn. Yet ... he's channeling chutzpah: "My intention," kids and quips the quintessential native New Yorker of "30 Rock," "is to take Tina's ideas, use twice as many words, and turn them into our show."

Showman at his best. While Sorkin avows he's not familiar with her series, she's familiar with at least one of his shows; Fey reportedly was in charge of the prop table for a pre-Broadway tryout of "A Few Good Men" at the University of Virginia when she was a student there.

Sorkin himself has always been a student of psychological satire and its give-and-take, taking the emotional and thrusting it inside out, playing his writer's role as a network wizard of id.

White House ... the house of cards that can be the TV game ... "At its heart," says its heartfelt exec producer/creator, " 'Studio 60' is the same thing that 'The West Wing' was at its heart and the same thing 'Sports Night' before that was at its heart. It's about a group of people committed to professionalism, committed to each other, committed to what they're doing, and, hopefully, we enjoy watching them every week."

But this latest is politics as unusual on the network front, with "60" "tooled to deal with issues of the culture wars."

Sorkin's seen those skirmishes from the frontlines, making headlines in the past for drugs dragging down his career and upstaging his accomplishments, with blow almost blowing his life's work.

Which makes his much-reported comment about reality TV -- "I think it's bad crack in the school yard" -- a crack he's had to live down.

But livening up network viewing is a safe bet with the since sober Sorkin, the multi-Emmy-winning wonk who's worked wonders for what TV could be.

And what would a prodigious prodigy be without a good back story? Way back before Sorkin's days at Syracuse University and his initial attempt at playwriting ("Removing All Doubt"), there were those who never had a doubt in the young actor/writer's playbook.

Enter, stage left ... Jewish parents. Attention must be paid their youngster -- even at age 12, when he was playing Willy Loman on stage.

"After all those years dragging themselves to see me in school plays, to the community centers, with smiles pasted on their faces -- I mean, a 12-year-old doing 'Death of a Salesman'; how good could it have been?"

Good enough that one day he would share the same stage spotlights and profession as an Arthur Miller. But even as successful as the theater would be as a stage for his talents, there was one story arc Sorkin couldn't script. "I didn't have any real religious training. So when I turned 13, I was going to be given a big party," not a Bar Mitzvah.

And while he has expressed regrets about that, there is no doubt that he has since become the man for must-see TV -- even as the fountain pen has given way to the computer.

But Jewish rites and rituals have proved the write stuff for many of his scripted encounters on "West Wing" and, possibly, "Studio 60," where Whitford and Perry's characters are obviously boychicks who were born with golden blintzes in their mouths.

If Sorkin is the mouthpiece for literate TV, he hasn't abandoned theater; his latest play, "The Farnsworth Invention," is scheduled for a West Coast premiere early next year.

And, it would seem, at least a few good movie scripts remain in the inventive writer's heart and soul; Sorkin's latest, "Charlie Wilson's War," directed by Mike Nichols with a cast headed by Oscar winners Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julia Roberts, starts production this month.

As for those comparisons with the old Edd Byrnes show, this "Sunset Strip" outstrips it in at least one major way.

No one will ever listen to a wittily word-packed Aaron Sorkin script and hear ... Crickets.


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