Can two TV shows set backstage at a faltering live sketch comedy series co-exist on the same network without driving each other crazy? Maybe, yeah. Having watched both "30 Rock" and "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," I could see both working -- assuming either can overcome the public's usual apathy to behind-the-scenes in Hollywood shows. (People in the entertainment industry always think the public is much more fascinated with the inner workings of the entertainment industry than we actually are.)
The usual caveat: these are not reviews. Many, many things about these shows will change, from music to casting to deleted and added scenes. These are just early impressions, keeping in mind that I've seen many shows get better or worse between now and when the final version debuts in the fall. More after the jump...
Who's In It: Tina Fey, Tracy Morgan, Alec Baldwin, Rachel Dratch
What It's About: Tina Fey plays the Tina Fey-esque head writer of a "Saturday Night Live"-esque live sketch comedy show, where she has to deal with the neuroses of leading lady Dratch, the craziness of new castmember Morgan and the unhelpful suggestions from new boss Baldwin.
Pluses: When you get Fey away from the institutionalized weekly grind of the real "SNL," she can be a very sharp writer (see also "Mean Girls"), and she has intimate knowledge of the world she's satirizing. I get to have Baldwin being funny on my TV every week. Morgan does a pretty good impression of Kit Ramsey from "Bowfinger."
Minuses: The comedy is hit-and-miss, though the hits (Morgan takes Fey to a Bronx strip club) are worth sitting through the misses. Fey hasn't quite figured out how best to exploit Baldwin's gift for being impossibly handsome and weird at the same time, though there are hints she's on her way. With the show and Fey so closely tied to "SNL" (I think Fey's even staying as Weekend Update anchor), will she wind up pulling her punches to avoid offending Lorne or anyone else?
"Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip"
Who's In It: Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, Amanda Peet, Sarah Paulson, D.L. Hughley, Tim Busfield, Steven Weber, Evan Handler and a cast of thousands
What It's About: When a thinly-disguised version of Lorne Michaels has an on-air meltdown during the live telecast of a thinly-disguised "SNL," thinly-disguised versions of Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme are brought in to save the show.
Pluses: It's Sorkin and Schlamme, so you know it's going to look and sound great. The meltdown sequence is riveting, even if it's cribbed from "Network" (which the script almost gleefully cops to). As the new head of the network who has to fix this mess, Amanda Peet finally gets to display the star quality everyone's claimed she had for years. (Either that, or she just looks amazing in an Audrey Hepburn-esque get-up for the entire episode.)
Minuses: This is one of those cases where it's hard for me to separate my knowledge of the people involved from the work itself. Perry and Whitford are so clearly playing mix-and-match aspects of Aaron and Tommy, just as Peet is Jamie Tarses, Paulson is Kristin Chenoweth, etc., that the Mary Sue-ishness of it makes me uncomfortable. (On the plus side, the Maureen Dowd character from the pilot has had virtually all her lines cut, and for all I know, she's no longer a national newspaper columnist who used to date Aaron, but just some woman out on a date with the Whitford character.) When Judd Hirsch (as "Lorne") delivers his rant about the evils of television, Marian turned to me and said, "Boy, Aaron really had a lot to say after his time away, huh?" For a show about a classic sketch comedy series, there aren't a lot of laughs. There's also a smugness to it; I think Aaron believes the "I have no reason to trust you and every reason not to." "Why?" "You work in television" exchange that's in all the promos is a lot funnier than it actually is.
The verdict: At the moment, I plan to watch 'em both.
Yes, there are problems with the "Studio 60" pilot, but there were also problems with the original version of the "West Wing" pilot (the scene where Leo meets with Al Caldwell and we learn that not all the Christians in the meeting with Josh and Toby are fire-breathing cartoons was added much later). And Aaron and Tommy are so talented that I'll put up with a lot of trash (most of "West Wing" seasons three and four) to get to the treasure ("Bartlet for America," "Red Haven's On Fire").
And "30 Rock," frankly, made me laugh, and that quality is in precious short supply in primetime these days.