Aaron Sorkin, TV

Turkey on the TV

shibboleth_knife

I wrote a piece last year about the end of the “Thanksgiving episode” era of TV, which peaked, as did audience share, in the 1990s. Still, I return at this time of year to some comforting classics. “Shibboleth,” from the second (and best) season of The West Wing, is always one of those. It’s alternately funny, sweet, and just the right amount of earnest.

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Aaron Sorkin, TV

Scattered Thoughts on The West Wing

I’ve been rewatching selected episodes of the third and fourth seasons of The West Wing recently. The show’s two strongest creative voices — Aaron Sorkin, creator and head writer, and Thomas Schlamme, executive producer and regular director — started discussing an exit strategy at the beginning of the third season, so you can almost see the air running out of the tires as the fourth season draws to a close. Sorkin, perhaps as an act of sheer will or spite, also set in motion a number of plots at the close of the fourth season that did as much as possible to knock the series off its track: the vice president resigned because of a sex scandal, the president’s youngest daughter was kidnapped, and the president temporarily renounced his office to focus on the manhunt and allowed the Republican Speaker of the House to assume the presidency. It was a giant mess of story, and it did as much as anything to set a new tone for the show: instead of creating drama by having smart people be outsmarted, the show had smart people make dumb decisions. They were in jams, but less interesting or engaging ones.

But one of the biggest changes to take root in the fourth season was the show’s new visual vocabulary. The series had started life with a warm look: buttery lights and rich reds ran throughout the West Wing, and camera placement and movement had emphasized action and relationships. The infamous walk-and-talks stood out the most, but the show’s look in its early years was smartly guided, and cinematography was always at the service of story. A random example: in one episode, Sam Seaborn is tasked with meeting with an unbalanced man who believes the government is hiding evidence of alien life at Fort Knox. Sam walks into the conference room, and we cut to a shot down the table, but no one’s there. Except someone actually is: the man is sitting at the end of the table, his face obscured by a lamp. He has to lean over for Sam to see him. It’s a visual joke that relies on space and image, but it also underscores the dynamic in the room: this guy is so timid that he’s invisible even when you’re looking at him.

In the show’s fourth year, though, as director Christopher Misiano helmed more episodes and Sorkin and Schlamme were getting closer to exit, the look and feel began to change. (Schlamme, who directed five episodes in the first season and four each in the second and third, only directed a single episode in the fourth season.) Lighting was often harsh and overhead, with bright pools in the middle of inky backgrounds. Performances that had been delivered at a normal speaking volume began instead, for some reason, to be fervently whispered. The show began to give off a bruised, unwelcoming vibe. Camera work suffered, too. The big trend of the year was to simply point the camera at a corner of the action — say, the edge of a door frame — and let the actors walk around it. Instead of following Donna into Josh’s office by cutting from the bullpen to the office interior, the camera pans to watch her walk into Josh’s office and stays pointed at Josh. He’s seated at his desk as Donna stands in front of him, sometimes walking in front of the camera. It feels like it’s meant to mimic voyeurism — as if you were actually standing there and had watched her walk into the office before deciding to hide outside and try to listen — but there’s no rhyme or reason here. It’s a new and grating attempt at “style” that doesn’t feel at home in a show that’s been building a visual language for three-plus years by this point. So many moments in the fourth season are staged like this: camera composing an ugly frame as the principles are mostly heard off screen.

Most pieces that talk about the show’s break between its first four seasons (the ones with Sorkin and Schlamme) and its last three (the ones without them) focus on the narrative and writing, and those are important. Sorkin’s wit and rhythms are hard to replicate without sounding robotic or mocking. But just as important was the way the show started to look grim and locked-down, the opposite of the look it had spent so long cultivating. It’s almost hard not to feel like the new look was a reflection of the show’s uncertainty about itself as its key storytellers made for the exit. It started to look forced and ordinary, when the show’s true essence was anything but.

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Aaron Sorkin, Sports Night, Studio 60, TV

The Easy Way

“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.

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Aaron Sorkin, TV

Watching Grammar: “The West Wing: In the Shadow of Two Gunmen”

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[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:


BARTLET
You want me to go with you?
JOSH
Go with me?
BARTLET
Maybe you want some company on the plane. I could get a ticket and come with you.
JOSH
Governor! California. You have to go the ballroom and give a victory speech in primetime and go to California.
BARTLET
I guess you’re right.
JOSH
[laughing] You guess I’m right? Listen to me, Governor, if you don’t lose this election, it isn’t going to be because you didn’t try hard enough. But it was nice of you to ask. Thank you.

The emphasis is mine. Creator Aaron Sorkin is a gifted writer, but he’s no stranger to grammatical slip-ups that masquerade as teachable moments. (Josh’s lecture about the proper use of “an historical” instead of “a historical,” which is actually kind of wrong, comes to mind.) I don’t wanna get into double negatives and litotes; I just think we should untangle the sentence to see what it actually says.
First, let’s just flip the negative in the first half and see what happens. The new sentence would be, “If you lose this election, it isn’t going to be because you didn’t try hard enough.” The joking implication here would be that if Bartlet loses, he’ll have to share some of the blame. No one will be able to accuse him of not trying hard to lose; this is what Josh would be saying if this were his dialogue. This meaning seems to fit with the tone of the scene and Josh’s gentle admonition to Bartlet, who is on the verge of flaking out on his acceptance speech just to see Josh off at the airport. This new sentence would have Josh jokingly telling Bartlet that Bartlet’s doing a solid job at throwing the game, and that if he loses the election, well, it won’t be because he didn’t try, meaning it will partially be because he did try.
But that’s not what Sorkin wrote. He wrote, “If you don’t lose this election, it isn’t going to be because you didn’t try hard enough.” (Again, emphasis mine.) That reverses the meaning of the first half of the sentence, making it in effect: “If you win this election, it isn’t going to be because you didn’t try hard enough.” Which would make sense from an electoral perspective, I guess — if Bartlet wins, it will indeed be in part because of the effort he put forth — but it’s not at all the meaning Josh and Sorkin need. Josh is kindly telling the president to get it together, that his behavior runs the risk of losing the election. Bartlet’s appearance at the airport has Josh half-worried that Bartlet will blow the acceptance speech and the nomination; it wouldn’t make sense for him to weirdly commend Bartlet on his work so far in a convoluted way.
The sentence, as written and spoken, is wrong. For it to make grammatical sense, and for it to click with the tone of the episode and scene, it should be: “If you lose this election, it isn’t going to be because you didn’t try hard enough.” Oh well.

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Aaron Sorkin, Film, TV

Smart People

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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.

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Aaron Sorkin, Sports Night, TV

Sailing The Sword Of Orion: “Sports Night,” Ten Years Later

“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.”
“Yes.”
“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:

Dan’s apology:

Isaac and the Confederate flag:

Casey learns the names:

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Aaron Sorkin, Politics

In Which My Sister And I Invoke Aaron Sorkin While Unconscious (Or Anyway She Does, And Brings Me Along)

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.

It’s possible her dream was caused by our reading and discussing this opinion piece via email and Facebook messages, though she and I are also big fans of the speech in question.

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Aaron Sorkin

If Aaron Sorkin Wrote Porn

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.


TERRA
So what are you saying? Are you saying you’re through?

In walks JOHNNY COXSWAIN, wearing only a towel around his waist and carrying a small cup of frozen yogurt that he’s eating with a spoon.

JOHNNY
No, I’m not through.
TERRA
Because if you’re saying you’re through, that’s one thing.
JOHNNY
Have you tried Pinkberry? It’s amazing.
TERRA
But actually quitting is something else.
JOHNNY
Seriously, it’s great stuff. Try it.
TERRA
And why would you even want to quit?
JOHNNY
I had no idea yogurt could be this good.
TERRA
It’s not yogurt.
JOHNNY
It’s not yogurt?
TERRA
It’s not yogurt.
JOHNNY
What is it if it’s not yogurt?
TERRA
I don’t know, some kind of frozen something, and there’s fruit.
JOHNNY
Well, yeah.
TERRA
But it’s not yogurt.
JOHNNY
I’m gonna have to check on that.
TERRA
Check away.
JOHNNY
I will.
TERRA
You’re really through?
JOHNNY
I’m not through.
TERRA
But if you’re saying you just want some time off to decompress or read or do whatever it is you do—
JOHNNY
Photography.
TERRA
Photography?
JOHNNY
I dabble.
TERRA
Fine, if you want to decompress or take pictures, that’s fine. But saying you’re through is something else entirely.
JOHNNY
I’m not saying I’m through. No one is saying I’m through. Of all the things I am, through is not one of them.
TERRA
Good.
JOHNNY
It’s just that I could use a break is all.
TERRA
What do you mean, a break?
JOHNNY
You know. From this.
TERRA
Whatever.
JOHNNY
What, it gets old after a while.
TERRA
Yeah, you really got the raw deal out of the two of us.
JOHNNY
Can I just thank you for not using the phrase “shafted” just now?
TERRA
You need a break.
JOHNNY
This is what I’m saying.
TERRA
Puns are never a good sign.
JOHNNY
Well, our names are pretty—
TERRA
That’s different.
JOHNNY
Different how?
TERRA
You really take photos?
JOHNNY
Have for years.
TERRA
Well, I think that’s good. Everyone needs a hobby. Something to keep the work from becoming too whatever.
JOHNNY
Maybe I could open a yogurt shop.
TERRA
Just make sure it’s actual yogurt.
JOHNNY
I’m still not believing you on that one.
TERRA
Doesn’t mean it’s not true.
JOHNNY
Whatever.
TERRA
You ready to do this?
JOHNNY
Born so.
TERRA
Good.
JOHNNY
It’s still yogurt.
TERRA
Is not.
JOHNNY
We’ll see.

They walk off screen, as the music rises.

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