Sports Night

There's Something Very Familiar About All This

In which I take a look at Aaron Sorkin's habit of ripping himself off, and how it's become his defining trait:

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In an episode from the fourth season of The West Wing, one of the characters compliments speechwriter Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) on a sentence she found particularly moving. He brushed off the praise, joking that he probably lifted the line from Camelot, explaining: "Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright." The explanation itself is a meta-joke from writer and series creator Aaron Sorkin, since the line is a rewording of T.S. Eliot's "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal." It's meant to be both a cute summation of the way writers always wind up borrowing ideas from each other and a wink to anyone who's done enough writing or reading to recognize the source of the joke. It works on any level you want it to.

That's not the whole line, though. The full quote, from Eliot's essay "Philip Massinger," reads: "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different." It's that last bit that's had me hung up as I've watched the first season of The Newsroom, Sorkin's latest TV venture and his first since the cancellation of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip in 2007. Newsroom is classically Sorkin, a show full of earnest people doing difficult things out of devotion to ideals they perceive as higher than their own, but it's also his most problematic series to date because it reflects the degree to which he has little (if any) interest in doing something different from what he's done before. There have been some good moments sprinkled throughout the first season, but most of the episodes are merely proof that Sorkin doesn't want to do anything else than recycle his old stuff while delivering grandstanding speeches to the cheap seats.

He started lifting from his own work when he was only on his second series, taking dialogue and plot lines from the low-rated Sports Night and putting them into The West Wing, which debuted one year later. He wasn't just revisiting themes, either. He was taking stories and sentences from one show and directly porting them into the other. My impression at the time was of a man paying homage to his own doomed work -- in addition to being rough around the edges, Sports Night was never the popular success The West Wing was -- as a kind of nod to the smaller fan base that had found Sorkin through his first series. Yet the intervening years, and Sorkin's increasingly repetitive means of telling stories, have shown that such lifts aren't intertextual or even accidental; they're who he is.

The "Sorkinisms" supercut released earlier this year highlights the similarities between his previous work, but "Newsroom" continued the tradition. Consider:

  • At the end of the third episode of Newsroom, characters gather to chat about midterm election results while toasting "God bless America," a scene taken from the West Wing episode "The Midterms."
  • When Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) references an employee named Mohammad al Mohammad al Mohammad bin Bazir, he's using the same name deployed in a hypothetical argument on domestic policy in the West Wing episode "20 Hours in America."
  • When Mackenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) says her associate producer "wouldn't complain if her hair were on fire," she's using the same piece of praise given to a producer character on Sports Night.
  • When Mac, ethically tormented over some the trashier stories she's overseeing, worries about doing "a big thing badly," she's using the same specialized phrase uttered by the senior producer on Sports Night in a similar situation.

There have been other echoes, too, little touches that seem to suggest that each of these shows takes place in neighboring universes created by the same neurotic god. Will sees a therapist to treat his insomnia, as President Bartlet did in West Wing; Mac briefly dates someone in the U.S. Attorney's office, just like her counterpart, Dana, did on Sports Night; coworkers play Celebrities at parties; Mac's ex is a reporter brought in to write about her, much the way Sam Seaborn's ex did on West Wing; Mac encourages her junior producer to "gather ye rosebuds" and chase his dream girl, using the same poem Donna used to encourage Josh on West Wing in a similar situation; etc., etc. You start to see the patterns pretty clearly after a while. Sorkin isn't a man given to underthinking things. Such riffs on his own work -- such self-plagiarism, if you want to get down to it -- aren't happening accidentally. No writer would be able to reuse their own words without knowing they were doing it. Just ask Jonah Lehrer.

Here's what I'm realizing, though: This isn't a departure for Sorkin from what he's trying to do. This is what he's trying to do. In fact, it's probably the purest distillation of his m.o. to date. This isn't some subconscious slip, or something he's doing as a wink to the viewer. Sorkin is interested in telling a story only to a certain point: he's more interested in making a specific argument about the human condition as it relates to his worldview and personal history, after which character and plot are harnessed in service to the goal. Long-term arcs on his series feel more like happy accidents than any planned result. Season- and series-long characters are created more to tell short stories than anything else.

This first appeared in the first season of Sports Night, in which Jeremy (Joshua Malina, recast in so many of Sorkin's projects he's become a living Sorkinian motif) discovers that his father's been having an affair for decades. As a way to externalize his attempt to find out how/when/why his family fell apart, he throws himself into the story of The Sword of Orion, a yacht that wrecked in a race a decade earlier. The boat and Jeremy's investigation of it are never mentioned again after these particular 22 minutes are up, and his home life takes a backseat, as well. It's not about the boat, and it's not even about Jeremy's coming of age, but about Sorkin enjoying the idea of a man going through this very specific type of adult tragedy and then seeking to resolve his grief by fixing an analogous real-world problem. The fact that Sorkin ripped off his own story for a West Wing episode in which Sam also realizes his father's been having an affair for decades and also attempts to externalize the problem by investigating an outside betrayal is almost beside the point -- it's not so much about the recycling of the plot as it as Sorkin's inability to invent (or want to invent) something new to do. He's found a certain set piece he likes, so he trots it out again. His roots as a playwright come through here, when he could write something knowing it was designed to be put up again and again in different ways. He's just doing his own version of it.

The habit also shows up with the revolving door through which characters enter and exit with no purpose or impact beyond the metaphor they're there to convey. (Sorkin is essentially writing high-end Saved by the Bell-type stuff, where each episode almost exists in its own timeline.) When West Wing press secretary C.J. Cregg (Alison Janney) deals with a reporter recently returned from a foreign beat, it becomes clear that their history is filler and their future pointless. He's only there to let Sorkin talk about how depressing it is that the political press writes more about gossip than policy. It's not that that's not a worthwhile thing to talk about; it's just that it would be a whole lot more moving if it felt like it was coming from the mouth of a real human, not a mouthpiece. The guy never comes back. West Wing kind of straddled the fence with Ainsley Hayes (Emily Procter), a Republican hired for the White House Counsel's office so Sorkin can prove he's (very slightly) bipartisan and who was designed to have abstract debates about policy with the Democrats. She shows up in the second season and drifts along through the third, showing up sporadically and even earning a promotion at the end of the third season to a more senior role in the office. Then she vanishes and no one mentions her: she wasn't a person, just an idea. Sorkin's goals are different from what we're used to seeing.

When you start to look at Newsroom this way -- not as a drama that fails in normal ways, but as a reflection of Sorkin's innate desire to stage one-acts with little real long-term emotional impact -- the show makes slightly more sense. From any other writer, it would merely be written off as laziness to give every member of the News Night crew a personal connection to a high-level source for a major story. (e.g., Will could've broken the story about the death of Osama bin Laden if only he'd seen the email from Joe Biden, his golf buddy.) But the charge of laziness assumes that the writer doesn't know how to tell a compelling drama about journalism. Sorkin isn't interested in doing that at all. Rather, he wants to make specific points about politics and culture by having his characters speak for him. The journalism is secondary, a kind of incidental thing that Sorkin has to deal with so he can get to the preaching. Real journalism, like most jobs, is somewhat boring to watch, and it takes time and effort to turn research into drama (see All the President's Men). Newsroom has to condense that stuff as much as possible so it can have more time for its historical fictions. The only goal here is to rewrap an old present and offer it up as a new gift.

As a TV viewer, it's incredibly frustrating to watch someone with such obvious talent and passion say the same things over and over again. There's nothing at all wrong -- in fact, there's a whole lot that's right -- with being drawn as a creator to the same big themes. The TV creators and film directors we've elevated to the American canon all have their own spiritual homes: Spielberg's absent fathers, Scorsese's warped Catholics, Whedon's stoic martyrs, etc. Sorkin's even got his own driving theme, deep down: the uneasy marriage between public service (news, government) and the special interests that make it possible (advertisers, lobbyists). Yet Sorkin never seems content enough to find new ways to talk about it. Worse, he doesn't even seem confident enough to try. He's instead resigning himself to crafting one-sided stories reworked from the few basic character outlines he's kept all these years. He's so busy spinning his old hits that he doesn't bother to see the real dramatic potential of his new show.

In fact, the nexus of all Sorkin's hang-ups can be found in the West Wing episode that kicked off its third season: "Isaac and Ishmael." Written hastily as a response to the 9/11 attacks, the episode aired on October 3 of that year and began with the cast talking as themselves about how the hour was a "storytelling aberration" that existed outside the series' main narrative. The episode is a bumpy, often mawkish playlet in which characters betray their established traits (e.g., the usually peace-loving and anti-gun C.J. delivers a monologue about the virtues of assassination) just so Sorkin could try to work out his developing feelings about living in what we were already calling a post-9/11 world. The episode is mainly a series of lectures, light history, and character notes that aren't attached to anything else in the show's run, and any attempt to measure the emotions of this hour against those of the ones surrounding it ends in confusion and madness. It's merely a chance for Sorkin to get some stuff of his chest, continuity and narrative integrity be damned. That's what's plaguing Newsroom: it doesn't feel like it was created to do anything else but give Sorkin another soapbox.

When West Wing was having its president gear up for re-election, one character counseled another about the direction of the campaign, saying, "I don't care how subliminal it is. This can't be a national therapy session." His point was about the danger of using their candidate to feel superior to the opposition, which is the obstacle facing Newsroom. It's designed to let its characters use Will to make themselves feel brave and true. It's also the problem that continues to haunt Sorkin. Everything he does is a national therapy session, but he never seems to make any progress.

Timing Is Nothing

I didn't start watching "Breaking Bad" until last summer. I'd heard from the beginning how good the show was, and I even watched the pilot when it aired. But as so often happens, I got distracted and didn't keep up with it. I caught up with the series' first three seasons in the weeks before the fourth season premiered, which let me watch new episodes week to week. I love the show and think it's one of the best of the many amazing series of TV's modern renaissance, but the show's quality and my feelings toward it have nothing to do with when I saw it.

Yet when people discover major ongoing series like "Breaking Bad" before they've ended their run, there's a tendency to talk about "finally" catching up. Matt Dentler tweeted about catching up with the show before its current season premiered by saying he was a "late-to-the-party bandwagon jumper." Announcements like this are laced with low-level guilt, as if not seeing the show before now was somehow a crime against art.

This is one of the many negative effects of the rise of "First!" culture: the attitude that enjoying a good TV show isn't as important as enjoying it right now, as soon as possible, with everyone else, every week, so you can talk about all the time. This doesn't happen as much with movies, even though they're just as much a communal experience that unites us by what we choose to see together. That's because movies are singular experiences, and surprise that someone hasn't seen a popular movie is limited to two hours of entertainment. An ongoing series like "Breaking Bad" means a years-long commitment to a story, and when it reaches the level of critical and viewer acclaim that "Breaking Bad" has, the show's fans can all too easily transition from preaching the series' virtues to scolding those who aren't in the know already.

There's a pretty obvious drawback to the belief that you have to be watching the next big thing right as it airs: There's always something new to watch, and you can't make up for the series you missed when you were younger or just out of the loop. "Breaking Bad" is a fantastic show, and I love watching it week to week and talking about it with my friends, but if I didn't wind up catching the show until five years after it ended, it would still be amazing. My watching it now has nothing to do with how good it is. My attention, though valued by the network and the series' creators, does not make the show better. The show exists apart from me. I can do nothing but watch it and enjoy, whether that means being there from the first season or catching them in a marathon a decade after it sails into history.

I didn't see "The Wire" until it was on DVD. I still haven't seen "The Sopranos." I watched "Sports Night" and "Freaks and Geeks" live as they aired. I just got into "Twin Peaks" a month ago. I started "Friday Night Lights" on DVD after the first season. Same with "Veronica Mars." I've been with "Justified" since the first episode. The only thing that matters in all those experiences is that I've had them. It doesn't give me street cred to brag about watching a show live from the get-go, or to chide those who haven't. The only thing worth talking about is the art.

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.

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:

I Must Be Dumber Than A Spit Curl, 'Cause I Got Hung Up On A Showgirl: The Top 5 Scenes In Which A Man Who's Fallen For A Working Girl Gets His Soul Shredded And Handed Back To Him

Of all the random little motifs floating through film and TV, none guarantees a specific kind of heartbreak quite like the story of a man who, against the warnings of friends and pretty much all common sense, gets involved with a woman who makes a living by selling herself to some degree. (At first I thought all these stories were just coincidences, but it seems to be a legit little sub-subgenre of dramatic storytelling. I mean, it's not like I sat on the floor in front of my DVD shelves, listening to The Heart of Saturday Night and waiting for a pattern to appear. I was watching "Sports Night" and the whole thing just kind of fell into place.) The characters and specific situations may vary, but things always wind up turning sour, and eventually lead to pain, loss, and/or bloodshed. Given those built-in dramatic elements, it's easy to see why writers keep re-using the same tale in different permutations. And it works for a variety of reasons. Using the male character as a combination of coldness and vulnerability — he's willing to pay for sex, but also dumb enough to romanticize it — wouldn't work if it was a female character; for starters, she wouldn't be fool enough to make anything more out of it, and she wouldn't likely even go after it in the first place. What's more, the story is a reversal of the stereotypical roles usually found in film/TV: Instead of the callow man breaking the woman's heart, this is a vulnerable man getting gutted by an often equally vulnerable woman. It's unexpected, and it breaks with the messiah/martyr complex bred into every man that inevitably makes its way into fictional male characters. (TV being littered with men who go to great lengths doing stupid things for women they deem need saving; off the top of my head, Jack Bristow blowing Stephen Haladki's head off springs to mind.)But what seals the deal is that the viewer knew things would never work out. From the first frame, no matter how great or different or unique this version of the man-loves-whore story seemed to be, it was bound to fail. Some might argue that romantic pap like Pretty Woman would contradict me, since everything ends well for that particular man and his prostitute. But that's because that story's a lie (if for no other reason that most women in L.A. don't look like Julia Roberts, least of all the streetwalkers). That movie won over audiences because it turned what should have been a tragedy — man hires hooker for a week, she gets raped by George Costanza, fade out — into a cheesy film that dilutes the legitimate power of romance in other works. Pain, as the man once said, is where the best stories hang their hat; that unavoidable moment of the relationship's dissolution that always hurts but somehow never kills, but instead makes things oddly okay. That's what I'm talking about, and that's what these scenes have. "Sports Night" — "Draft Day, Part II: The Fall of Ryan O'Brian" snjenny4.jpg In the second season of "Sports Night," Jeremy (Joshua Malina) and Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd), the resident cute couple, have broken up, and Jeremy meets a girl named Jenny (Paula Marshall) when he's out drinking away his blues. Jenny turns out to be a porn star, and Jeremy being the decent guy he is, and Jenny being apparently one of the idealistic adult film actresses, they start seeing each other socially. It's awkward from the start, and barely gets off the ground before Jeremy begins to unwittingly sabotage things by condescending to Jenny because of her profession or else outright mocking her. Jenny visits Jeremy at the office, after he's already lied to his coworkers about what Jenny does for a living; he says she's a choreoanimator, some nonsense profession. Jenny meets Natalie and gives a sad, sad, sad little monologue about why she wound up in her chosen profession. Sad. Jeremy and Jenny exchange a few more words, but really, this one's been over for weeks. As is always the case with these stories, he couldn't get past her day job. "Battlestar Galactica" — "Black Market" bsgm2.jpg The second season of "Battlestar Galactica" put all its characters through major emotional changes, particularly Lee "Apollo" Adama (Jamie Bamber), who gets his heart broken by Starbuck and decides to briefly shack up with a prostitute named Shevon (Claudette Mink). (Bonus martyr points: Shevon has a kid.) The episode ostensibly revolves around Apollo's investigation of the black market thriving within the fleet, headed up by awesome character actor Bill Duke, but it's really about his sad, doomed relationship with the hooker. The cold open throws the viewer into the middle of the action, and at first you're wondering if Apollo hasn't just moved on and found some nice healthy relationship. It's morning in Shevon's quarters, and Apollo gives her daughter a teddy bear. Things get a little weird when Lee says, "Look, I'm not sure when I'll be able to make it back." But then Shevon delivers the killer: "I know. Oh. Um … I'm gonna have to ask for an extra hundred since you spent the night." And all the desperation and guilt and self-loathing and horrible mix of emotions that led Apollo to Shevon's rented bed shoots across Apollo's face, and it's heartbreaking. The kid gets pretty predictably kidnapped, and when Apollo finally rescues her and attempts to barter Shevon's freedom from Duke, Shevon does what you can tell for Apollo is the unexpected: She tells him to get out. Apparently she isn't okay with Apollo projecting his past relationship failures onto Shevon — which way to be a holier-than-thou working girl — and makes him leave. But as bad as this is, it's just the merciful closure that's been coming since Lee had to fork over extra cash for actually sleeping with Shevon. Never a good idea to fall in love with a public commodity. "The West Wing" — "The State Dinner" ww4.jpg Aaron Sorkin loses a few marks for originality by recycling most of his man-loves-hooker story arc from "Sports Night," but he did that with pretty much every major character. In the first season of "The West Wing," Sam (Rob Lowe) liked Laurie (Lisa Edelstein) enough to sleep with her, after which he found out she was a high-priced call girl; being a pretty prominent political figure, Sam decided that the best career move would be to continue seeing her surreptitiously, since D.C. is full of tolerant people who are happy to let White House advisers get away with that kind of thing. He gets all puppyish and insists that she do her best to get through law school and quit her night job, and she agrees that she needs the change. But it all comes skidding to a messy halt when she shows up at a state dinner on the arm of a rich Democratic fund-raiser, who introduces "Britney" to Sam and his coworkers. Sam's face falls in a wrenching and predictable way, and it only gets worse (of course) when he talks to Laurie later. She tells him: "You know, I'm sorry, Sam. But this isn't exactly your business. I'm not here because of you. I'm just here because I'm here. I would be here even if you were here or not. You're just some guy who happens to know me." Man. Twist the blade a little, too. Sam then offers her $10,000 not go home with her date, at which point she walks away offended (way to be picky about who pays your tab, lady). Sam and Laurie aren't done with each other yet — Sam, like any good Sorkinian male character, is a huge glutton for emotional punishment — but the state dinner catastrof**k is the first nail in the coffin. Moulin Rouge mr4.jpg Even in Baz Luhrmann's world, love can't overcome the world's obstacles: Money, class, tuberculosis. In Moulin Rouge, Christian (Ewan McGregor) enters a relationship with Satine (Nicole Kidman), knowing full well she's a pricey hooker, because he's romantic enough to think that it's worth the risk of 19th-century venerial diseases to sleep with a girl in a sparkly hat. They have an inevitably tortured relationship, made even harder when Satine promises to love Christian forever even as she's leaving to go sleep with the Duke (Richard Roxburgh) to secure financial backing for a play. The best number of the entire musical is the darkest one, "El Tango de Roxanne," a reworking of the Police song into a mournful, screaming elegy for Christian and Satine's polluted and dying relationship. The rousing finale doesn't hold a candle to the haunting tango at the center of the film, in part because it's only prolonging Satine's unavoidable and messy death by consumption. But the finale is all smiles, and only regains its credibility when the curtain closes and the doom that was promised in "Roxanne" finally comes calling. Paris, Texas Paris.jpg Wim Wenders' 1984 masterpiece Paris, Texas follows Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) as he tries to reconnect with the young son, Hunter (Hunter Carson), he left several years earlier. Travis, an amnesiac, is taken in by his brother, Walt (Dean Stockwell), who's been caring for Hunter since Travis' abrupt departure. Travis and Hunter set out together to find Jane (Nastassja Kinski), Travis wife, and Travis eventually finds her working at a weird little sex parlor. The film is deliberately paced, and has been building to this reunion the whole time: Jane in a small room, with Travis watching her through a two-way mirror, talking to her on the phone. She doesn't know it's Travis talking to her. They have a long conversation there in the peep-show room, and another one the next day. Their exchanges are heartbreaking because it becomes clear just how much they loved each other, and how much pain they managed to inflict for no real reason. Travis' old jealousy flares up briefly — he badgers Jane, asking if she goes home with any of her clients — but eventually dies out as he finally starts to bury the past. When I was putting this piece together, this scene, this example, seemed to fit in with the rest. But I realize now that this is the one that transcends the others, and almost redeems them. Jane didn't start to sell herself until Travis left, and it's with his return that things start to maybe change. It's not clear where things will go, but it doesn't need to be. This is the one where they just might able to save each other after all.

You Have Three Sevens, And I Have A Straight: The Reassuring Certainty Of Aaron Sorkin

studio 60From the moment it started, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" pretty much had me. Everything old was new again: The show had the same look and feel of the fourth season of "The West Wing," the last year Sorkin worked on that show. The credits even used the same typeface, which is extremely satisfying to person like me. But "Studio 60" is about a weekly sketch comedy show, and as such bears more similarity to Sorkin's first show, "Sports Night." Sorkin even uses the same phrases, like he always does. Having someone say "I hate his breathing guts" or that they'll do "whatever I damn well please" isn't so much a line of dialogue as it is a tried and true Sorkin standby. Half the reason I watch now is not see what's new but to see how he'll use the stuff he's said before. In this way, Sorkin is one of the most consistent writers in modern television: He will always return to the same themes, the same ideas, and examine them through the same worldview. Even the names get recycled from show to show. Matt Albie and Jordan McDeere echo Albie Duncan and Jordan Kendall, and Danny Tripp is Danny Concannon is Dan Rydell. And I'd bet all the money in my pockets that "Studio 60" will make good use of Lisa and Simon in the future, whoeever they might wind up being. Granted, the pilot episode wasn't perfect; it lacked Martin Sheen's sheer screen presence or Peter Krause's ill-advised 7th-grade skater 'do. But it had enough pop to see it through an hour, which is more than you can say for most shows. It's just too soon to tell where this thing will head: whether it will sink, succumb to its own sense of importance, or manage to walk the high road and provide some genuinely good TV. No matter what, I'll be with it all the way.