Ellen Gray | Heavy 'Studio 60' now adding heavy romance

STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP. 10 tonight, Channel 10.

BURBANK, Calif. - They're amping up the romance on NBC's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," and Matthew Perry couldn't be happier.

"I'm always drawn to characters and relationships, and I think this show is at its best when it's dealing with that stuff," Perry said last week.

Seated in the bleachers of the show's Warner Bros. set, the former "Friends" star, who plays "Studio 60's" Matt Albie, cast his vote for more of the kind of boy-girl interactions that made the Christmas episode of the still ratings-challenged show such a fan favorite.

"I think it's the most fun to play. So I think that kind of leaning . . . putting his shoulder into that direction, and I think it's interesting," Perry said.

"I know that where I hope the show is headed is a little more relationship-oriented and a little bit more character-driven," he said.

Which doesn't necessarily mean we won't still be hearing about the Bigger Issues that Sorkin's so famous for raising.

"While I like 'Grey's Anatomy' - it's one of my favorite shows - I don't want it to go necessarily in that direction, either," Perry said. "I like that these are smart people walking around hallways, talking about smart stuff. But I do wish, half the time, that they were talking about, like, who they kissed, and whether they broke up with who."

Bradley Whitford, who plays Albie's producing partner, Danny Tripp, spent seven seasons on Sorkin's "The West Wing," playing one of the smart people talking about smart stuff in the halls of the White House - while working in more than one romance along the way. He, too, seems excited about the show's direction.

Danny, you may recall, has now declared his love for network executive Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet), who'd just disclosed that she was pregnant - by someone else.

"I was happy about it," Whitford said. "What I love was that this is a very complex, grown-up problem," in part because Danny's a recovering addict. "That I, coming out of addiction, am proclaiming my love, which is genuine, but is that a good idea for this guy at this point? This is a woman who's in a totally vulnerable state," he said.

"I would love to see it go all the way," he said.

Though Whitford said he didn't really see the Danny-Jordan pairing coming ("I knew about it when I got the script"), Peet claims to have sensed the chemistry between the two as early as the pilot.

"Aaron said he didn't see it going that way, but . . . I felt like there was a certain kind of sparring that made me think . . . and a distrust that was maybe going to be sexy," said Peet, who in real life is expecting her first child in early March - most likely a bit sooner than her character is.

"I'm a little big" for story purposes, she said.

Whitford, who in real life has three children with actress Jane Kaczmarek, loves the complications posed by Jordan's pregnancy, Danny's recovery and both their jobs.

"I think it's a situation I

haven't seen before" on television, he said. "You know, it's very hard to . . . do romances now, because as opposed to my parents' generation, my generation, you kind of like someone, you sleep with them."

That's one reason "it's hard to do a romantic comedy now, because there's no obstacle," he added.

She's still on 'Heroes' list

NBC's "Heroes" (9 p.m., Channel 10) is also back tonight, with a new catch phrase - "Are you on the list?" - and a new challenge for the dual-personality hero played by Cherry Hill's Ali Larter.

The first 11 episodes, she said, were about "discovery, and then you go into the final half of our season and it's about control," Larter said last week.

"And one of the things that Niki has to confront is, is she a danger to society, to her family? And one side of her will definitely take control."

When we last saw Niki, she was turning herself into the police. "I felt the need to incarcerate myself," said Larter. "For a couple of episodes, I definitely am going through some inner battles."

So the police will believe her when she says she killed people?

"Yes. Because she knows where the bodies are," said Larter.

But isn't going to jail going to put Niki out of the loop, "Heroes"-wise?

"Well, you'll see. There's someone who comes in, a couple of episodes in, and does some reworking of it," Larter said.

"You'll have to stay tuned." *

Ellen Gray (graye@phillynews.com) is attending the Television Critics Association's winter meetings. Read more on her blog at go.philly.com/ellengray.