What's love got to do with NBC's 'Studio 60'?


It's typical in television for a show to come down with a case of acute cutesiness at Christmastime. But for NBC's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," that might amount to a terminal condition.

The Dec. 4 episode -- its lowest-rated yet -- seemed to take a pronounced shift away from its usual deep dive into the industry intricacies of the titular fictional TV show toward the kind of romance-centric storytelling you'd find on "Grey's Anatomy." I would chalk it up to a seasonal outbreak of the warm 'n' fuzzies, but what transpired could linger long after the eggnog sours.

Here's the "Studio" update: Everyone is suddenly in love with everyone. The gruff producer played by Bradley Whitford abruptly declared his affection for the network president, played by Amanda Peet. Nathan Corddry, who depicts one of the "Studio" comics, has begun eyeing one of the writers, played by Lucy Davis. The "Studio" head writer, played by Matthew Perry, mired in an annoyingly stop-and-go dalliance with another comic played by Sarah Paulson, is suddenly go-go-go when they share an urgent kiss.

From the beginning of the episode, I sensed something was awry when Perry's neurotic sourpuss of a character came out extolling the joys of Christmas as if his dosage of Paxil had just kicked in. There was so much love in the air that I was convinced some character would remove the errant mistletoe wedged in the ventilation system and the show would return to its predominantly platonic ways.

For the record, NBC, Warner Bros. and executive producers Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme all insist that despite the series' ratings woes, "Studio" has not been subjected to any creative tinkering since the pilot, with the exception of writing Peet's pregnancy into the story line of her character, NBS network chief Jordan McDeere.

Whether ratcheting up the relationships like an Uzi-wielding Cupid is indeed an organic plot development, it certainly would make "Studio" more relatable. I watch every week less out of genuine appreciation than morbid fascination with the fact that the series feels like one big in-joke for TV-industry junkies like myself. I laugh less at Sorkin's witty banter than I do at the thought that viewers in Peoria are futilely looking up jargon in the dictionary such as "upfront" and "demo" in an attempt to understand the dialogue.

Yet for all its authenticity as a slice of Hollywood life, "Studio" occasionally appears tone deaf to showbiz realities. Take the never-ending story line, for instance, that would have us believe that when McDeere's ex-husband begins publicizing details of their sex life, she becomes a media obsession to rival Paris Hilton. As if anyone who reads Us Weekly could even name a network president.

"Studio" also didn't score points for realism last week with my favorite characters, the deliciously nasty NBS chairman, played by Steven Weber, and the Murdoch-esque chairman of the network's parent company, played by Ed Asner. My inner TV wonk was all set to jones on a new story line about a potential FCC fine for the network. But the story line instantly fizzled when Weber's character absurdly offered to resign over the fine only to have Asner's character barely bat an eyelash. This wild swerve away from an obvious boardroom clash made me wonder: Is Sorkin setting up Weber and Asner to fall in love with each other, too?

Maybe "Studio" just had to get its Yuletide ya-yas out for an episode. Or maybe the series is awkwardly remaking itself in the mold of the 13 other shows on the air about workplace romances, lowering the volume on the industry chatter that rendered it incomprehensible to anyone who has never made a reservation at the Ivy.

Maybe a little love will help "Studio" find its feet -- now that would be a Christmas miracle.