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TELEVISION REVIEW

In brainy 'Studio 60,' Aaron Sorkin reviles and reveres TV

Perhaps the sly idea behind the clunky title ``Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" is that viewers will come to think of the new NBC series as simply ``The Aaron Sorkin Show."

And indeed, it is Aaron Sorkin's show from top to bottom, from the self-absorbed but brilliant characters to the Big Themes of censorship and the dumbing-down of America. This drama, which premieres tonight at 10 on Channel 7, could not be the child of anyone but the brainy guy who gave us ``The West Wing" and ``Sports Night," just as a Woody Allen movie couldn't be the product of any other director. ``Studio 60" bears all the markings of Sorkin's inimitable brand -- spitfire dialogue, ideological head butts, co - workers who are a hyper-functional family, and sentimental excesses.

And intelligence. More intelligence and verbal wit per scene than many network series display during entire seasons. ``Studio 60" is one of the best new dramas of the season, assuming you aren't Sorkin-phobic, and with some tweaking it could be the very best.

The show is about the backstage politics at a weekly sketch comedy that looks unmistakably like ``Saturday Night Live." The stakes aren't as high as they were on ``The West Wing," of course; no terrorist bombing, no wars in This-or-that-istan. But the stakes are high enough to merit Sorkin's dramatic intensity and his portentous atmosphere, unless you think TV doesn't play a significant role in governing America's psyche. Those advance viewers who've predicted ``Studio 60" would only appeal to insiders fail to realize just how relevant the multibillion-dollar entertainment industry is to all of us.

Simultaneously dumping on and revering TV is not new turf for Sorkin. ``Sports Night" was his first series go at TV's bottom-liners while honoring its committed troops. This time, though, he doesn't rely on cute sitcom humor to soften his righteousness. One of the pleasures of ``Studio 60" is watching Sorkin and his producing-directing partner Thomas Schlamme wage a think-attack on TV while on TV. They're taking the hand that's feeding them and wrapping it finger by finger around a hand mirror.

Tonight's premiere opens with a stellar sequence, an on-set eruption on the show within the show (also called ``Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip") that recalls the movie ``Network." Judd Hirsch plays ``Studio 60" producer Wes Mendell, who, minutes before showtime, is forced to kill a skit due to its religious themes. In a fit of rage against the network, called NBS, Wes interrupts the live opening sketch about George Bush to embark on a tirade against ``lobotomized" TV, urging viewers to ``change the channel, turn off the TV."

The audience laughs, thinking it's all part of the script -- until they realize they're watching the breakdown of a man who is too uncompromising for the world of TV. After much backstage control-room hysteria, Wes is cut off, and quickly fired by the chairman of the network (Steven Weber). A pop cultural moment ensues, as it would if Lorne Michaels exploded on ``Saturday Night Live," and Sorkin gives us TV news shows mimicking one another's observation that Wes Mendell's breakdown was right out of Paddy Chayefsky 's playbook .

To solve the emergency, the new president of NBS (Amanda Peet ) decides to rehire a pair of writer-producers who once made the show great, before they left four years ago. That writing-producing team is Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) , and they are the heart of Sorkin's vision for this series. These guys are like brothers, as they nurse each other through drug problems and relationship woes, and when they're sparking skit ideas together they can almost read each other's minds (President Bartlet's staff had that same magical ability). Perry and Whitford are naturals together (both worked with Sorkin on ``The West Wing"), and they make the best of Sorkin's too-regular forays into buddy-buddy schmaltz.

Matt and Danny have a history with some of the ``Studio 60" cast members, which leads to a few of Sorkin's trademark conflict scenes. And no one on TV writes a fight with the ferocity and sting of Sorkin. When Matt returns to the show, he's at the tail end of a love affair with one of the show's stars, Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson) , who is a devout Christian. They battle over the remnants of their love, and, this being Sorkin, religion winds up in the crucible alongside their other issues.

There are a few obvious problems with ``Studio 60," one of which is Paulson. She's playing one of the show's big three (the other two are played by D.L. Hughley and Nathan Corddry) , but she just doesn't have any funny about her. She seems too wholesome to be at the center of an irreverent comedy series. And that series -- the show within the show -- is another weakness. In the second episode, we see part of Matt and Danny's opening ``Studio 60" skit, and it looks unintentionally awful, more like something out of the movie ``Funny Girl."

Strangely, ``Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" is on NBC, which also airs ``Saturday Night Live." Like NBC's forthcoming ``30 Rock," which will also go behind the scenes of a sketch show, it reveals ``SNL" as the near-dead omnibus it has become. But of course cross-promotion is the goal, and Sorkin references ``SNL" and Lorne Michaels by episode 2. And who doesn't think ``SNL" will repay him with a parody of his very own.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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