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Serious laughs?

Studio 60 makes an attempt to dramatize comedy

While critics love Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (NBC, Mondays, 10:00 ET), television viewers aren't so certain. Starring Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford as television gurus who take over creative control of a Saturday Night Live-style comedy show, Studio 60's setting confuses many people. Since the program captures life on the set of a humor show, did the creators intend Studio 60 to be a comedy? It's not.

Rather, producer Aaron Sorkin designed Studio 60 to look and feel like a drama in the mold of his previous smash success, The West Wing. But whereas The West Wing profiles life in a White House and deals with issues of international importance, the most important crisis on Studio 60 is who will be the last-minute replacement for the White Stripes as the show's musical act. You can poke fun at a drama, but can you really dramatize and sober up a comedy?

Like The West Wing, Studio 60 tackles hot-button issues. In the second episode, a reporter from the fictional Rapture Magazine asks Studio 60 producers if the show plans to air a skit titled "Crazy Christians." Obviously the skit will offend Christians and when local affiliates complain, the network president, played by Amanda Peet, must decide between bowing to affiliate desires or letting the producers have total creative control. She chooses not to intervene. The protest, which she describes as "total nut bar," can muster only small markets like Terre Haute, Ind., and Little Rock-Pine Bluff (poor red-state hicks) to join in.

Television critics who care deeply about the ethical decision-making of network bosses might find these quandaries interesting. Studio 60's audience might not, though. While the show's pilot episode notched an impressive 13.4 million viewers, over 18 percent of viewers changed the channel or turned off the television. Early ratings from Studio 60's second episode suggest the show started with 12 percent fewer viewers the second time around.