Self-Absorbed on the Sunset Strip

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This is Associated Press TV writer Frazier Moore watching television for KCRW amid rejoicing in TV Land: Aaron Sorkin is back.

Sorkin, of course, masterminded The West Wing, with its towering issues and huge heart. He created the comedy SportsNight, whose make-believe sportscast offered a window into the human condition.

Sorkin is a wickedly gifted showman celebrated for the brainy, urbane gloss he puts on everything he writes. Why wouldn't we be thrilled that he's returning with a brand-new series?

The trouble is, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which premieres tonight at 10pm on NBC, feels like a not-so-new knock-off of Sorkin's past successes.

Lavish yet lightweight, this drama just recycles Sorkin's old ideas. Except now he seems chronically self-absorbed. His writing career, his struggles with drug abuse, his long partnership with co-executive producer Tommy Schlamme -- all this is now part of Sorkin's TV vanity.

His show-about-a-show stars Bradley Whitford and Matthew Perry as Sorkin-and-Schlamme doppelgangers hired at a critical moment to take over Studio 60, a fictitious late-night sketch comedy series modeled on Saturday Night Live. Amanda Peet plays the preposterously principled network boss who will champion their efforts to rescue Studio 60 from its precipitous slide.

The action starts with what's meant to be a jaw-dropping media scandal. The executive producer who moments later will be fired has simply had enough of TV's mediocrity. He barges onto the set to let viewers know, live, across the nation. "It's not going to be a very good show tonight," he warns, "and I think you should change the channel." He raves that Studio 60, which once represented "cutting-edge political and social satire," has "gotten lobotomized by a candy-ass broadcast network." From there his rant ratchets up to indict all of television, until he's abruptly cut off the air.

As either drama or commentary, his outburst is strictly old hat... a warmed-over Howard Beale, thirty years later and without the on-camera execution.

And yet, this spectacle rocks the network to its core, jolting executives into crisis mode.

I have to marvel how this pales beside the real-life jam ABC put itself in last week with its factually disputed miniseries The Path to 9/11. Witlessly waving a red flag in front of every hopped-up liberal and conservative in the land, ABC was truly faced with a monumental public relations mess.

By contrast, some unhinged producer mouthing off on late-night TV -- most viewers would dismiss that as refreshing diversion.

Which means from its first scene, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip exposes itself as being forced and phony.

And besides, just how compelling are people who put on a TV show, tangle with the network over artistic integrity, and wrestle with their personal demons?

When one of our heroes stews, "I need a 'cold open' -- that's the problem!" who among us viewers thinks that's really a problem? TV isn't a life-or-death affair.

I'm reminded of a shrewd comeback I once hard for the old saying, "The show must go on." Nonsense, goes the retort: The show is one thing that doesn't have to go on. And Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is a show unlikely to convince you otherwise.

Watching television for KCRW, this is Associated Press TV writer Frazier Moore.