I’m Aaron Sorkin and You’re Not

The knowing charms of Studio 60.

The cast of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Even before the pilot of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (NBC, Mondays at 10 p.m. ET) aired two weeks ago, its bravura first scene—its writing and direction a triumph of elliptical exposition, its marketing a masterpiece of hype—had assumed a certain glow. The meat of the scene was a monologue delivered by Judd Hirsch, who played Wes Mendell, the producer of a Saturday Night Live-like comedy show. Wes was so blazingly disgruntled with the meddling of his superiors that he performed a self-immolating on-air tirade, interrupting a toothless opening sketch about the dimness of George W. Bush. He warmed to his subject by honking, “This show used to be cutting-edge political and social satire, but it’s gotten lobotomized by a candy-assed broadcast network hell-bent on doing nothing that might challenge their audience. We’re about to do a sketch that you’ve seen already about 500 times.” The network’s idiocy, Wes says, is “turning us into cheap punks.” It was only after a fourth or fifth look at this scene that I realized that Timothy Busfield’s Cal Shanley—the director of the show-within-the-show—did not cut away from Mendell upon his calling the network “thoroughly unpatriotic” but because his next epithet began with the prefix “mother.”

Which is to say that Studio 60 is uncommonly fleet and dense. Half the point of watching a show like it is to feel smart while talking about it—to reach around and pat oneself on the back for being in on its in-jokes, knowledgeable about its knowingness, and alert to its Preston Sturges-quality banter. It feels faintly embarrassing to note that the show is the creation of Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme, of Sports Night and The West Wing: Every hip person is aware of that, and Sorkin and Schlamme are aware that we’re aware, and the all-over self-awareness informs the whole spectacle. We pride ourselves on being a sharp crowd, the Studio 60 club. Which is what leads me to ask: Why do otherwise intelligent people insist on saying dumb things about Amanda Peet?

On Studio 60, Peet plays Jordan McDeere, the new president of the National Broadcasting System; it was her airwaves on which Wes melted down. We first saw Jordan around a dinner table as Ed Asner, playing the head of a media conglomerate, ran through her resume at a party celebrating her new gig. He sang her praises; she twinkled modestly. When all hell broke loose, Jordan and Steven Weber’s Jack Rudolph, the ball-busting chairman of NBS, headed from the dinner to the studio. He wasn’t making any decisions until he saw tape of Wes’ tantrum; she floated off in her Audrey Hepburn party dress to find Wes and, having found him, twinkled sympathetically. After an emergency meeting of network executives, Jordan decided that Studio 60 could best save itself by welcoming Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford)—the creative team that Jack had shown the door years ago—back into the fold. She was passionate about this idea. “You got a thing for one of these guys?” Jack asked her. “Or both of these guys?” She took a step toward him. “I don’t know either one of them personally,” she responded. “Is that a question you were asked when you hired me?” By now the twinkle had begun to look like the glint of moonlight on brushed steel.

Peet tends to play the role with a poker face animated only by appraising eyes. Look at her looking people up and down—it’s calculation disguised as flirting. A pretty girl in a boys club, Jordan keeps her cards close, her enemies closer, and her dame’s intuition on high alert. The twinkle comes in four or five degrees of sincerity, and the performance is of the kind usually classed as “nicely understated,” but for Peet’s every admirer in newsprint and around the water cooler, there seems to be a skeptic capable of finding decorous ways to call her a bimbo. One supposes that women like Jordan are thus underestimated on a daily basis. One also remembers that Jordan is reportedly described in the pilot script as “someone who every man’s wife can find an irrational reason to hate.”

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Saturday Night Livelimped out for its 32nd season on Saturday night with a toothless opening sketch about the dimness of George W. Bush. You’ve already seen it about 500 times.