Every network wants to produce 2006-07's water-cooler series. Aaron Sorkin, whose "West Wing" filled that slot in 1999, tries again with "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" (Monday, 9 p.m., NBC), a behind-the-scenes look at a late-night comedy show à la "Saturday Night Live." The pilot begins in mid-meltdown, as the producer of "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" (Judd Hirsch) argues with a network censor during a live broadcast. The censor wants to pull a sketch making fun of Christians, and the producer finally snaps. He marches in front of the camera and treats the viewing audience to a tirade against the media, the Christian right and even his own show, which has been hobbled by network interference.
The producer is fired, setting off shock waves that affect everyone in the large cast of characters. The network's brand-new executive in charge of programming (Amanda Peet) must deal with the crisis. She angers her arrogant boss (Steven Weber) by proposing to rehire a bad-boy writer-director team (Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford) whom he'd fired two years earlier. He finally acquiesces, but threatens to fire her if the stratagem fails. And fail it might, given the director's cocaine problem and the writer's stormy relationship with a female star of "Studio 60" (Sarah Paulson).
As you can see, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" is brimming with dramatic possibilities. Throw in a fabulous cast and fast-paced dialogue reminiscent of "The West Wing," and you've got a new series that will be hard to beat.
See you at the water cooler.
Men in Trees
Friday, 8 pm (ABC)
This new series asks us to believe that Marin (Anne Heche), a famous New York "relationship counselor," gets booked for a talk in small-town Alaska. There are almost no women in this town, making it an odd booking for an author whose new bestseller, I'm Dating and So Can You, was written exclusively for women.
If you don't buy that scenario, you're going to have a hard time with what comes next. Marin turns up her nose at the uncouth Alaskan men in flannel shirts and parkas; she shrieks as a raccoon invades her shabby hotel room; she walks onto a frozen lake and crashes through the ice. And then, after two days of such indignities, she falls in love with the place.
That's right - the big-city snob suddenly appreciates the natives' homespun wisdom and gazes lovingly at the snow-capped mountains. Her New York editor, who has inexplicably flown out to meet her in the middle of Alaska, can't believe Marin wants to stay there.
And neither can we.
Want to read my new book? It's called I'm Changing the Channel and So Can You.
Mondays, 7 pm (CBS)
This new sitcom comes from David Crane, the co-creator of "Friends." And indeed, the pilot recalls an early "Friends" episode, with a large cast of young unknowns gelling instantly. They play third-grade classmates who reunite years later at a disastrous party. Over the course of a half-hour, each actor gets a fleck of characterization - the misfit, the dummy, the mean one, the guy who still lives with his mother - and turns it into comic gold. Their timing is impeccable, and they revive a lost sitcom art: underplaying the punchlines. In fact, "The Class" doesn't rely on punchlines the way bad sitcoms do; it allows the comedy to arise naturally from character.
"You're the first good thing that's happened in my life in the last two years," the misfit tells the dummy.
That's just what I felt like saying to "The Class."
Tuesday, 9 pm (CBS)
It's a risk to build a crowd-pleasing drama around criminal protagonists. To win over the audience, they need to have roguish charm (as in Oceans Eleven) or a compelling moral rationale for their crimes (as in The Italian Job).
The criminals of CBS's new series have neither. The only good thing you can say about the gang's leader, Smith (Ray Liotta), is that he's a pretty good piano player. Otherwise, he's a ruthless bad guy who stops at nothing to pull off his high-stakes robberies. He lies to his wife (Virginia Madsen); he screams at his henchmen; he beats up and kills anyone who gets in his way. Is this the kind of guy you want to hang out with for an hour every week?
Since his piano playing suggests a speck of humanity, I suppose there's a chance that Smith will ultimately be redeemed. But I doubt that "Smith" will.
Wednesdays, 9 pm (NBC)
In this new drama, a wealthy couple (Dana Delany, Timothy Hutton) learn that their son has been kidnapped. They've got two options: They can call in the FBI and its by-the-book agent (Delroy Lindo) or they can use a lone wolf named Knapp (Jeremy Sisto), who specializes in returning kidnap victims alive. Knapp works outside the law and has only contempt for the FBI's stodgy methods.
Knapp gets the nod, but the FBI muscles in too. After the agents blow their first contact with the kidnappers, Knapp lets 'em have it. "That's the problem with you people and your rulebook! What you can't seem to understand is that you're the only ones playing by the rules!"
Knapp cuts a dashing figure, and he makes living outside the law look incredibly appealing. For my next column, I swear I'm throwing out the blurb-writing rulebook.