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‘Studio 60’ plays clumsy race card

Creator Aaron Sorkin relentless in attempt to make show meaningful
/ Source: The Associated Press

Pop culture, society’s meeting ground, has the privilege of playing a starring role in its conflicts.

As concerned people search for ways to unravel such complexities as the dense and tangled ball of American attitudes on race, a strand will pop up — in the form of Michael Richards or Sen. George Allen’s YouTubed “macaca” moment — and it gets tugged on, hard.

The result is often fruitless, a three-ring circus that feeds the TV talk machine and allows for endless, grainy replays of a misbegotten moment complete with thrilling “bleeps” to drown out the bad language.

But there’s another cultural tool at hand that can be more powerful than fact: fiction.

Consider “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” the freshman NBC series (10 p.m. ET Monday). It’s both a behind-the-scenes look at a comedy show akin to “Saturday Night Live” and, in the early going, a vehicle for creator Aaron Sorkin to pound away at America’s social schisms.

Sorkin earned his place in TV history with the White House drama “The West Wing.” His new effort takes on the split between red-staters and blue, the Christian right and those who either hate or fear them, and supporters and opponents of gay marriage.

Whether the show-biz drama can bear such weight and survive creatively — or at all, given its pallid ratings — is up in the air. But Sorkin is relentless in his effort to make “Studio 60” meaningful, and that includes playing the race card.

Episodes tackle stereotypingIn one episode, “Studio 60” performer Simon (D.L. Hughley), irked by the show’s lack of black writers, forces his boss to scout for talent in a nightclub. What they found on stage was Richards’ black counterpart, spewing racist stereotypes, as well as a promising newcomer.

It was an unvarnished take on those who debase black culture and women by trafficking in cheap, tawdry humor.

A recent two-part story, however, showed that even a gifted writer like Sorkin can go awry in navigating the difficult terrain of race and politics.

In “Nevada Day,” Tom (Nathan Corddry) faces legal trouble after defending his “Studio 60” co-star Harriet (Sarah Paulson) from three men angered by her public remarks on the Bible and homosexuality. One man gets shoved and Tom is arrested.

With a studio executive and producer lending support, Tom lands in front of a small-town Nevada judge (guest star John Goodman). The judge makes it clear he doesn’t like the “condescending” Hollywood types who put on sketches such as “Crazy Christians.”

“You make fun of people like my family, people like my friends and people like me,” he says. He’s already extracted revenge of sorts, calling a Chinese businessman and his daughter “Japs” and threatening to inflict damage on a network lawyer he’s dubbed “Matlock.”

“I had these guys going,” the judge smirks to a sheriff’s deputy before turning back to his adversaries: “You’re idiots. ... I’m a judge. You really think I go around calling people Japs and ordering deputies to shoot lawyers?”

Oddly timed perspectiveSo the only thing getting shot down in the scene, apparently, is the stereotype of a small-minded “red-state moron,” as Goodman’s character puts it.

Except when he turns his gaze on Simon.

The judge mocks his hair, which the deputy helpfully explains is styled in twists rather than cornrows, and repeatedly and without apology calls him “Sammy.” In Southern parlance, that’s the insult of calling someone out of their name — and using a term one small step from “Sambo” or even an ugly “They all look alike” reference to entertainer Sammy Davis Jr.

So if the sheriff is a self-aware racist — and one who ends up dispensing justice fairly against those he disdains — is that progress in the culture wars? Or has Sorkin just rubbed the right’s face in the crime of intolerance while stripping away Simon’s dignity?

If that’s the perspective being offered, it seems oddly timed. According to the last election, there may be more common ground in America than seemed possible in the past few years.

was made spontaneously and on a small stage, the uncontrolled outburst of a self-proclaimed Jew who didn’t get a pass for previous anti-Semitic jokes (but points for not claiming to be a self-made black man).

The one-hit wonder known in sad shorthand as “Kramer from ‘Seinfeld”’ is a dubious flashpoint for debate.

A thoughtful storyteller taking on America’s most critical issues, with a broadcast network as his forum, can and should be ahead of the dialogue. Sorkin has done it before. Can he do it again?