In which I take a look at Aaron Sorkin’s habit of ripping himself off, and how it’s become his defining trait.
In which I take a look at Aaron Sorkin’s habit of ripping himself off, and how it’s become his defining trait.
“This all adds up to one thing, Mr. President. It’s over! The game’s been played and won. But because of guys like me, you get the results before anyone else does, so you get to pick which side you’re on. And not only do you get to be on the winning team, you get to lead the winning team.”
— “The West Wing,” “20 Hours in L.A.”
I liked a lot of the pilot for HBO’s “The Newsroom.” Creator Aaron Sorkin has been responsible for television both great (much of “Sports Night” and “The West Wing”) and daringly awful (“Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”). I’ve only seen 75 minutes of “The Newsroom,” and it’s far too soon to tell what kind of show this will turn out to be. But watching the pilot, I was most struck by the gimmick of setting the show in the recent past. Rather than give the show real-world context, it merely made those parts of the plot dealing with the news coverage feel too contrived and easy.
I say “gimmick” because there’s no other word for it. Setting a series about breaking news in our recent past means we get to watch the team at the fictional Atlantis Cable News respond in the right and wrong ways to events whose endings have already been written. Instead of watching them deal with fictional events whose coverage and aftermath are unknown to viewers, we see them reacting to things we still remember clearly. In the pilot, it’s the Deepwater Horizon/BP disaster. Had Sorkin come up with some fictional disaster — a meltdown at a nuclear reactor, a flood, etc. — then the focal point of the episode would be watching these people decide what to cover and how to do it. But because it’s the BP fiasco, we know what they’ll say. Moreover, we know that they’re right to cover it: it was a huge story and awful environmental fiasco. We don’t get the tension and excitement of watching them wonder if they’re doing the right thing or chasing the right angle. We know they are. They’re not heroes; they’re fantasies, doing what we wish someone would have done two years ago.
The setting also becomes a cheap way to score points with viewers in terms of who Sorkin and Co. want us to root for. When the first news alert about BP pops up in the newsroom, it’s spotted by Jim (John Gallagher, Jr.), who’s visiting the office with the new executive producer and doesn’t even work there yet. He points it out to Don (Thomas Sadoski), who’s worked at “News Night” for a while and who’s in the middle of prepping the newsroom for that night’s broadcast. Don is, in other words, doing his job with the same commitment we could probably expect from someone working at his level. Jim pesters him to respond to the news alert and investigate the story, but Don, understandably annoyed at being told what to do by a guy who doesn’t work there, keeps telling Jim to quiet down and get out of everyone’s way.
Now, as viewers in 2012, we know that the BP story will be huge, and that Jim is right to want to cover it. We’re meant to infer that Don is a bad guy, or at least a narrow-minded one, because he’d rather focus on the night’s other stories. There’s nothing on Don’s screen yet but a minor news alert. He is doing his job; he is not sitting idly by, gleefully watching while the world falls apart one environmental disaster at a time. What’s more, he doesn’t have Jim’s serendipitous sources — a college roommate who works at BP and an older sister who works at Halliburton — so he doesn’t have anything to go on but the brief notice of a search-and-rescue off the Louisiana coast.
A fictional crisis would’ve let these characters play off each other in real ways. We could see Jim being insistent and more than a little insubordinate even if his hunch pays off; we could see Don doing his job with skill and caution, even if he wound up being on the wrong side of things. Because that’s the bigger picture: with a fictional crisis, we wouldn’t have known what would happen. We wouldn’t get to sit back and know who’s right and who’s wrong. We wouldn’t be urged into scolding Don just for doing a normal day’s work. We’d actually have to pay attention to the situation at hand, and worry about the stakes. When Jeff Daniels’s Will McAvoy takes to the airwaves to break the story, we’d have actually wondered if the risk would be worth it. But because it’s BP, we know it is. It’s less a drama and more a prequel to real life.
Sorkin’s series, like almost all others, have taken plenty of real-life stories and reworked them into fictional events for the sake of drama or comedy. “Sports Night” had its share of criminal athletes, while “The West Wing” was a retelling of the Clinton years the way Clinton would’ve wished them to be. “Studio 60″ had celebrities play themselves to guest-host the sketch show within the drama. Yet they’ve all been allowed to breathe, to exist in their own world parallel to the one we live in. It looks like ours, but it has its own people, and events, and consequences. “The Newsroom,” though, is a neutered version of those shows. The series still has time to grow, and I’m not sure how Sorkin will handle other catastrophes whose causes and effects we already know. But I’m worried that the show might have set itself up to forever fall short. By robbing us of the chance to get invested in a fictional world, we don’t get to have any skin in the game. All we have to do is sit back, nod, and feel good about knowing we’re on the winning team.
[I have no idea how many posts I'll do in this series, or how often I'll write one, but I just couldn't resist creating it.]
I love movies and TV. I have a pretty healthy respect for language. I don’t think those two should be mutually exclusive. From time to time, though, I notice weird grammatical quirks that I can’t ignore.
“In the Shadow of Two Gunmen” is the two-hour opener of the second season of “The West Wing,” and as I’ve said, it’s a wonderful episode. There’s a scene in the second half where Josh is waiting in the airport to fly home for his father’s funeral when Jed Bartlet, still just a presidential contender, shows up to comfort him. It’s a moving scene, but there’s a moment that always jars me:
One of the easiest bombs to lob as a professional critic is to demean a film or TV series as “manipulative.” This is also one of the most misleading and unthinking ways to attack a work of art. One of the goals of a good story is to evoke emotion, to stir up in the viewer feelings of joy or sorrow or empathy or any one of ten thousand; the fictional narrative is constructed specifically to manipulate you into that state. What we really mean when we call something manipulative is that it is falsely manipulative, i.e., the situations that unfolded to arrive at the given conflict or resolution felt forced, or cheap, or predictable, or dumb, or in any way unbelievable. Good storytelling makes the scripted feel surprising, and it makes the inevitable feel crafted by fate.
This came home as I rewatched the latter half of the second season of “The West Wing” recently. It’s revealed in the first season that President Bartlet suffers from a relapsing-remitting course of multiple sclerosis, but the disease is kept secret from the staff and the world at large. The second season of the show becomes increasingly about Bartlet’s decision to run for re-election, which would break a promise he made to his wife out of deference to his illness to limit himself to one term, but creator and writer Aaron Sorkin isn’t about to make Bartlet’s m.s. some clunky weight around the neck of a great story. In other words, though the disclosure of the disease to the public is unavoidable and destined to become an important part of the re-election arc and the rest of the series, Sorkin isn’t going to employ some sitcom-level hijinks in which Bartlet’s yakking about his m.s. treatments on the phone when some aide accidentally picks up the extension and hears all about it. To have the revelation come out that way would feel arbitrary and stupid and unoriginal, and it would feel that way because (a) it would be all those things, and worse, but also (b) that would rob the viewer of seeing a realistic, natural story play out among a stable of smart characters. No, Sorkin does the best and only available thing: He has someone figure out the secret.
It’s impossible to understate just how vital this is to the integrity of the series, the characters, and the viewing experience. Sorkin’s political drama moved fast and quick, running on adrenaline and wit and pure unfiltered hope. (For more of my gushing over the show’s second season, click here.) It was a smart show about smart people, and to have such a major plot development left to less graceful devices would’ve been out of place. What’s more, these characters had spent two seasons proving their worth, devotion, and intellect, and there could be no better way to honor that than to have one of them — communications director Toby Ziegler — discover the president’s secret by just sitting in his office and thinking about the various clues (the president’s reluctance to discuss re-election, the vice president’s posturing) scattered around him. Toby blasts the president for his behavior, but coming as it does on the heels of his discovery, it doesn’t play out so much like self-righteous thundering as it does legitimate anger. The show is honest to its emotions, and that’s what makes it such worthwhile viewing. Any series can be a soap, but it takes real skill to make something this intelligent and nimble and captivating. And smart.
“There’s really nothing like seeing a guy realize he’s not done yet. Usually it goes the other way.”
There was never any doubt that I would buy the newly issued 10th anniversary set of “Sports Night,” Aaron Sorkin’s half-hour sitcomish drama/serious comedy that ran for two earnest and (for me) life-changing seasons on ABC from 1998-2000. I already own the original set issued a few years ago, but the folks at Shout Factory (who were also behind the “Freaks & Geeks” set) engineered a nice box that adds a few commentaries and featurettes. The series was Sorkin’s first foray into TV, and that freshness brimmed over into the plots, the beats, and the general rhythm of the show. But the series will always stand out for me because it’s the first one I ever really and truly loved, and I pined for it in the way only a 16- or 17-year-old could, full of love and sadness and a belief that I knew pain and that I was somehow being born into the world of adult drama by regularly tuning in to watch a series the lives of the anchors and production staff of a cable sports show. If we measure a given series’ (or film’s) impact in our lives by the way it meshes with our worldview, then we love even more those stories that actually shape that worldview, hew it out of rock and fear and youth and give us something greater than what we’re seeing; that somehow give us access to the great emotion behind it all, that sense of falling and becoming that’s as powerful as it is fleeting. There are a host of other shows I love for those reasons or ones that are awfully close, but “Sports Night” was the first.
“I want you to trust me, just once, when I tell you that you have three 7s and I have a straight.”
Sorkin’s series was always about the lengths the characters would go to just to save each other from being alone, often/especially in a bigger sense than just a romantic one. In the first season’s “The Hungry and the Hunted,” Jeremy receives what’s known around the office as “the call,” the characters’ emotional recognition of one of their own and their offer of trust and friendship. It sounds incredibly corny to write and almost impossible to pull off, but Sorkin’s heart never left his sleeve, and the episode served as a meta-call for what it wanted in its own viewers. Here is a place, Sorkin seems to say, where people will put their guard down for 22 minutes at a time. I’d never seen that before, and certainly not with any kind of actual effort put into the characterizations. Sorkin was fascinated by the way people are forced to trust each other in relationships, walking right up the blind edge and jumping. Jeremy calls Natalie on her habit of ending relationships before they begin to avoid emotional risk; a year late, Sam tells Dana basically the same thing as he ends his temporary gig at the station. The Dan-Rebecca arc of the first year mined the same territory, from the obvious moments about tearing down walls made of pain to sweet ones set to the strains of “Sloop John B.” The stories placed such a premium on acceptance and connection, but Sorkin did it with a sense of genuine humor and warmth and honesty that made everything feel real.
“Sometimes it’s worth it, taking all the pies in the face. Sometimes you come through it feeling good.”
“And how was your day?”
“Sometimes you just stand there, hip deep in pie.”
But the show was also wonderfully funny, the first time Sorkin could begin to work out the kinks in the joke rhythms he carried over into “The West Wing” when it began on NBC during the second and final year of “Sports Night.” Yes, the lives of the characters are taken seriously, and not immune to melodrama — the Casey/Dana/Gordon triangle gets awfully tangled and punchy toward the end of the first season, and let’s not even get into the whole choreo-animator thing — but Sorkin’s humor helped ground the characters. The second season’s “The Cut Man Cometh” is a fantastic example of a series hitting its stride, from the writing to the acting to the sharp editing that moved the humor beyond what you’d expect from a typical half-hour show. Dan’s signoff at the very end is still a perfect kicker.
“Look, things are gonna be a little rough for a little while, but Lou, I want you to keep your head in the game. We’ll come out the other side of this no problem.”
More than anything, though, the show was unapologetic in the way these characters were a broken but unshakable family unit, a group of people dealing with stiff industry competition and financial hardships and an uphill battle to do what they loved that they still fought with everything they had. Dan Rydell’s emotional breakdown over the course of the second season wasn’t just a way to grow the character: It forced the show’s world to choose between pulling together or pulling apart, and seeing the character who most often had been the family’s moral center begin to veer off course was startling in its effect and heartbreaking in its ultimate resolution. He appears at the office seder to say, “It seems to me that more and more we’ve come to expect less and less from each other, and I’d like to be the first to start bucking that trend. We need each other badly. Badly. I need you all badly.” It was a kind of callback to a speech he gave Natalie more than a year before after she was assaulted by an athlete, saying at the time, “No matter what you decide, you’ve got friends. And this is what friends gear up for.” The series was also the place Sorkin began expressing his belief in the idea of fighting a good fight despite (or because of) losing odds: Jeremy references the line from The Lion in Winter about how when a fall is all a man has left, “it matters a great deal,” which was Jed Bartlet’s whole thing on “The West Wing.” The show was sweet and sad, proud to walk through life wounded if that’s what it took to stay honest. When I watch it, I still see its flaws — the network-mandated laugh track in the first season; the over-dependence on certain joke structures; the “Thespis” episode in general — but even those shortcomings remind of what it was to watch it the first time a decade ago, to find myself drawn into a new world that ran for two short years but that was allowed to go out with a strong and genuine resolution that makes you feel that the characters are still out there, that their world is still turning.
Jeremy’s hunting experience:
Isaac and the Confederate flag:
Casey learns the names:
My sister emailed me to relate her dream last night:
Last night, I had a dream that you and I were at some sort of small gathering somewhere, a lecture-type setting, and the guest speaker was John McCain. We were total assholes, muttering things under our breath and eventually outright heckling him. Eventually, I stood up and started demanding answers from him on a variety of topics. And then the showstopper: I ended with “This is a time for American heroes, and we reach for the stars. THE STARS.” Yep. Then Bama woke me up, so who knows if Secret Service tackled me or not.
Over at Pajiba, I take a look at the second season of “The West Wing.”
I watched a few episodes from that season again in preparation for writing the piece, and I’m not at all ashamed to say that I choked back tears several times during “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen.” I always do.
EXT. — HOUSE IN THE VALLEY
The bright sun beats down on a completely average house somewhere in the San Fernando Valley. A few black cords are visible snaking from the front door and into a white panel truck parked in the driveway. The sprinklers kick on. It’s hot.
INT. — HOUSE IN THE VALLEY
The buxom TERRA FIRMA stands before a bathroom mirror, idly brushing her hair, naked.
So, today marks my first column for the Willamette Week. I’ll be writing about TV, which makes me happy, since some of the best conversations I’ve ever had have been about season-long character arcs for people who don’t exist. Anyway:
Click here for the column.
P.S. When I was a freshman in college, I stubbed my toe on the bookshelf (or something) in my dorm room, and uttered a barking “Dammit!” Immediately, my roommate said, “Janet,” and then we turned to each other and sang “I love you” in a rough harmony. I don’t even like that movie that much, but you have to admit, that’s a pretty awesome moment.
P.P.S. My apologies to any residents of Willamette or the greater Portland area who don’t like the fact that I don’t actually live in Oregon. But I’ve been assured by my editors that the TV shows broadcast in Los Angeles are almost exactly the same as the ones shown in the Pacific Northwest, so I think everything will work out.
• It’s a little weird trying to objectively write about “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” which has been cancelled and will end its life after only one year on the air. It wasn’t a great show, and most of the time it was only decent, but I think a large part of this is that Aaron Sorkin spent so many years writing White House dramas that were only peppered with jokes that he forgot what it was to write a comedy-drama set in a newsroom. “Studio 60″ isn’t even a comedy at all, as the endless series of bad sketches and awful fake-news segments make abundantly clear; but it is a passable workplace romantic drama, albeit one whose moments of emotional truth are hampered by Sorkin’s self-indulgent nature and willingness to let his personal battles play out on screen.
• Matt and Harriet argued in a recent episode, “K&R: Part I,” about (I think) the existence of God. The nature of their argument wasn’t very clear, but they seemed to go back and forth throughout the episode about whether or not faith was rationally acceptable, and there was a montage at the end that traced them having the same fight constantly through the various stages of their on-off relationship. But they will never stop fighting, for two reasons (well, three, if you count the fact that they’re fictional and that their conflict has been manufactured for dramatic interest): (1) they are pretty stubborn characters, and (2) they don’t even agree about why they’re fighting.
• They will never stop fighting because they both stubbornly cling to one of a pair of extreme views, and the very premises of their arguments are so different it makes agreement pretty much impossible. This is why conservative Christians and gays will never party together: One side views being gay as a natural character trait, while the other views it as a flaw and temptation to be overcome. The argument isn’t about whether it’s bad or not to be gay; it’s over whether being gay is a choice, and the two sides are so violently apart on where the base their positions that they will never find a middle ground. It’s like staging a debate between someone who believes in a heliocentric solar system and someone who thinks green is the best possible color. The two theses aren’t even in the same ballpark. That’s why Matt and Harriet, if they continue their current course, will never stop fighting. He’s not saying her specific beliefs are irrational; he’s saying that any kind of belief at all is irrational. She likes the sun, and he wants to color it green.
• However, most of the time I found myself either unmoved completely by either side or deferring to Matt, mainly because Harriet bugs the hell out of me. When Matt breaks the news to Harriet about Tom Jeter’s brother being kidnapped — so much for just standing in the middle of Afghanistan — she drops to her knees in the writers’ room, surrounded by her colleagues, and begins to pray. Later, she explains to Matt that she believes what Jesus said when he instructed his followers to ask things in his name, going so far as to quote 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (Leave aside for a moment the fact that Harriet is surprisingly conversant in the Old Testament, when most evangelicals only know Genesis 1:1 and Jeremiah 29:11, the latter of which has been printed on so many mugs and cards and shirts it would make you puke.) But Harriet’s piety is relentlessly annoying, mainly because someone clearly so familiar with the gospels would (one assumes) be familiar with Jesus’ exhortation in the Semon on the Mount, detailed in Matthew’s (ha) gospel, in which he specifically tells people not to pray like Harriet does. Matthew 6:5-8 reads in part:
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (emphasis added)
If Harriet legitimately believed with even a fraction of the fervor she claims to have and with which Sorkin has supposedly imbued her, she would have bolted from the room and found some place she could have been alone, where she could have more honestly acted out her faith to petition God. I know it’s a small point to some and likely nonexistent to others, but the way her faith became a public performance was unsettling. I was grateful the scene ended there, instead of having her pray on camera; moments of genuine spiritual connection are notoriously difficult to capture on camera, and I have a feeling hers would have felt horribly phony.
• That’s actually what made the episode’s closing moments so intriguing. Harriet offered to teach Matt how to pray, and he brushed her off, but as they were leaving the building, he hung back and spent one brief moment on the edge of frustrated tears: He gave his chest one quick tap over the heart and lifted up a hand and pleaded, “Show me something.” This is one of the most honest prayers I’ve probably ever seen on TV, and certainly more refreshing and compelling than Harriet’s acts of public sanctimony. Matt’s doubt is a key ingredient to the maturation of any kind of belief system, whether it’s political or religious or anything else, and instead of statically coasting like Harriet, he’s actually willing to concede in his moments of desperation a need for help. And who can’t relate to that?