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Last Updated: Sunday, 27 August 2006, 11:01 GMT 12:01 UK
Sorkin turns his attention to TV
By Kevin Young
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Aaron Sorkin
Sorkin also wrote the Tom Cruise film A Few Good Men
Aaron Sorkin introduced his latest offering, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, at the Edinburgh TV Festival, giving a sneak preview of his follow-up to The West Wing and answering questions on his hopes for the series.

US drama The West Wing, which finished this year after seven series and more than 50 Emmy nominations, was held in high regard by television critics.

But despite praise from columnists and commentators, its complicated political storylines and snappy dialogue between brilliant yet flawed characters did not translate into huge ratings.

Creator Aaron Sorkin left the show after four seasons, dogged by revelations about his private life, including time in a drug rehabilitation clinic.

Now he is returning with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a comic drama set behind the scenes of a late-night entertainment show similar to Saturday Night Live.

The first episode contains some classic Sorkin moments.

Tribute to TV

There are plenty of witty lines and a promising ensemble cast led by Bradley Whitford, who was Josh in The West Wing, and Matthew Perry, best known as Chandler from Friends.

They play scriptwriters who made their name on Studio 60 and are called back, four years later, to salvage the failing programme.

"It begins with a rant against contemporary television but really ends with a tribute to the legacy of television," Sorkin explained in a satellite link-up from Los Angeles as part of the Edinburgh TV Festival.

"Matthew Perry's character says: 'This is a great studio with a wonderful history, and I feel privileged to be there.'

The West Wing
The West Wing carried on after Sorkin's departure

"They're committed to each other, they're committed to this show, and we get to examine them and their lives."

Perry's character has the best lines in the opener, constantly making fun of the fact he is heavily drugged on painkillers following back surgery.

He is desperately trying to avoid his ex-girlfriend, who works on the show, and inadvertently reveals to the entire backroom staff that Whitford's character is a drug user.

Sorkin says there are "autobiographical elements" in some of the storylines - Perry has previously been treated for addiction to alcohol and prescription drugs, for instance.

But although it begins with "characters that are based on actual people", he says, "by page four, it's spun off into fiction".

Sorkin's reputation means NBC, which is screening Studio 60 in the US, is counting on him to deliver ratings success.

'Beautifully made'

But Thomas Schlamme, who is another executive producer on Studio 60 and also worked with Sorkin on The West Wing, says the pressure is "unfortunate".

"There needs to be a little more patience with American television, a little bit of allowing the thing to grow.

"Some of the greatest shows on American television, from Seinfeld to Cheers, were shows that were slightly rating deficient at the very beginning and it took a year or more.

"You hope that the new regimes of a lot of these networks will realise that's sort of the way, and the best shows can rise to the top."

So will Studio 60 have wide appeal in the UK? Sadly for Sorkin, critics already have their doubts.

Edinburgh TV Festival
Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme were interviewed via satellite
Boyd Hilton, TV editor of Heat magazine, loves what he has seen of the show.

"I was just amazed at the daring of it, that it starts with this guy ranting about how awful American TV is and how terrible reality TV is," he told the BBC News website.

"It's beautifully made, it looks fantastic, it's got great dialogue, incredible characters and acting. It just seems on a whole other level to most other shows."

But cultural commentator Mark Lawson is not so optimistic.

"The West Wing never got more than a million viewers in Britain and by the end was down to a few hundred thousand, or perhaps even a few hundred.

"The subjects [Sorkin] chose - politics and television - play to small audiences in Britain, and I suspect this will too."

He added: "I think it's a remarkable piece of writing and production but I'd be amazed if it found a big audience in Britain."

NBC will discover the audience reaction shortly, as it premieres the show on 18 September.

However, viewers in the UK must wait until "the new year", according to Channel 4, which will screen Studio 60 on its main network and digital offshoot More4.


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