Studio 60

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.

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.

"Studio 60": The Occasionally Smug Piety Of The Righteous And The Faith Of Nonbelievers

• 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?

"Studio 60": Who Needs God When You've Got A God Complex?

"Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" has by now established itself as perhaps Aaron Sorkin's weakest work (well, except for Malice). But it's certainly the weakest of his TV series, falling well behind "Sports Night" and "The West Wing" in terms of character development, creativity, storylines, and everything else. Sorkin is even up to his old tricks when it comes to dropping storylines whenever they begin to bore him; wasn't the "Studio 60" set supposed to be redesigned, like, months ago?But the biggest change is perhaps in Sorkin's newfound cynicism for his characters that believe in God. Of course, Sorkin's distaste for zealots is hardly new; the pilot episode of "The West Wing" revolved around Josh almost getting fired for pissing off the religious right, and when the smug representatives of that movement came to the White House, the president smacked them down by quoting the Ten Commandments. This set two important precedents for the show: First, the religious right was going to be a pretty standard whipping boy for Sorkin's idealistic Bartlet administration. Second, Bartlet would be a man of well-reasoned, compassionate faith. Sorkin's diatribes against narrow-minded religious extremists first appeared on "Sports Night," as in (for one of many instances) Casey McCall's on-air insults aimed at Jerry Falwell. Attacking the right-wing nutbars that are destroying the public faith of a lot of Americans is fine and dandy, it really is. However, the important thing on "The West Wing" wasn't just Bartlet's strong stance against the religious right, but his balancing that with his own yearning, personal faith. In the show's mythology, Bartlet minored in theology at Notre Dame, and his struggle to reconcile his faith in God with the horrible choices he faces as president added tremendous depth to the first few seasons of "The West Wing." The first season's "Take This Sabbath Day" shows Bartlet's spiritual vulnerability as he debates the commutation of a convict's death sentence, decides to let the sentence stand, and ultimately talks to his boyhood priest and asks forgiveness for his acts. Bartlet's spiritual vulnerability came to a head in Season 2's "Two Cathedrals," in which Bartlet curses and shouts at God as he reels from the death of Mrs. Landingham. Bartlet's soliloquy in Latin is heartrending, but he's not abandoning his faith: He's reasoning with it. There's never a sense that Bartlet is turning his back on his beliefs. Which is what makes Sorkin's newfound bitterness toward Christianity in general so perplexing. He's got a track record of respecting characters of honest faith, yet Matt Albie is becoming an increasingly bitter spokesman for what one can only assume is Sorkin's developing animosity for people who believe in God. Entire episodes have revolved around the fact that Matt doesn't respect Harriet for having faith. The pilot episode revolved around a sketch called "Crazy Christians." And yes, both the sketch and Matt's mockery of Harriet are related to the religious right. But there is no Bartlet on "Studio 60," no man or woman who seems to represent the non-insane swath of believers out there. Sorkin keeps mounting attacks, but there's no one to respond with apologetics. I'd thought Sorkin respected people more than that, but I'm starting to think I was wrong. So I leave you with this:

"Studio 60": Conflict Shmonflict

I know, I know: Most of you think I should lay off "Studio 60." But let me reiterate that I'm not out to bash the show, which I still think is better than most other programs on the air (it certainly beats people yelling at briefcases). It's just disappointing that the show is having trouble finding its voice. Granted, it could likely find it in time; "Seinfeld" wasn't even "Seinfeld" until its third season or so, all Chinese restaurant trips aside. But TV is a horribly numbers-oriented business, and I'm afraid NBC execs aren't willing to let shows grow anymore. But anyway:Somebody a lot smarter than I am figured out that all great dramas have three players. Whether it's two men and the woman between them, or any one of a dozen other stories, the three players can ultimately be boiled down to two opposing forces and the conflict that defines their relationship. That conflict is a vital thing, since it drives the characters to interact and influences their decisions, while also acting as its own storytelling element. Aaron Sorkin's first show about TV, "Sports Night," has this in spades, and it's another in the list of things missing from the new "Studio 60" that, if things continue unabated, will keep the latter show from reaching the heights of the former. "Sports Night" dealt with a sports news show on a third-rate cable net that was constantly trailing Fox Sports and ESPN in the ratings. From the get go, the producers and anchors struggled to do their show while putting up with interference from their corporate owners. Sorkin set the tone in the show's second episode, "The Apology," in which Dan Rydell gets a slap on the wrist from corporate after supporting the legalization of marijuana in an interview with Esquire. Sorkin's druggy moralizing aside (and believe me, I'll get to that another time), the episode highlighted the opposition between the heartfelt aims of the creatives and the ratings-oriented world of the corporate chiefs, and the role that executive producer Isaac Jaffe played in mediating the demands of both. For his public misstep, Dan is forced to issue an on-air apology to his viewers, and in the process reveals crucial elements of his emotional backstory. In a series full of great episodes, this one's still one of the best. The second season upped the stakes, thanks to Sorkin's willingness to let the show reflect some of the offscreen struggles he was having with ABC. The fictional world of "Sports Night" had to deal with a ratings expert, played by William H. Macy, who was hired by the show's corporate owners to shake up the program and bring in more viewers. It was a great story arc precisely because it drove home the conflict that had been brewing since the show's inception. The resulting drama worked because the consequences felt real and immediate. But "Studio 60" exists in a world without these consequences. The pilot episode dealt with executive producer Wes Mendell's on-air breakdown, and the subsequent hiring of Matt and Danny to turn the show around. Yet after that, things seemed to settle down at the show-within-a-show. Steven Weber's appearances as network exec Jack Rudolph have been sparse at best, and his threats have been rendered toothless by the show's apparent ratings growth (though how a cold open featuring a horrible Gilbert and Sullivan rip-off is supposed to bring in viewers is beyond me). That's the problem: The fictional "Studio 60" is having too much success. There's no conflict, no battle to overcome small odds and big foe to achieve something great. That's not to say "Studio 60" can't or won't change. But with nothing to fight for or struggle against, the show will have nothing to do except revel in its own apparent glories. I'd rather see a good fight than an easy victory.

"Studio 60": Man Love

I think I should point out that I don't hate "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," despite my previous observations of its flaws. It's still one of the better shows on TV, despite the fact that the old Sorkin spark seems to have gone missing. These periodic posts about the show aren't meant to disparage it, but to take a closer look at just where things started to go wrong, to pull it apart in the hopes of putting it back together."Studio 60" does have its strengths, chief among them the interplay between Matt and Danny. Sorkin writes good dialogue because he understands how friends relate to each other and is gifted at creating a quicker, wittier, more coversationally nimble way of communicating than the fumbling half-sentences and vocalized pauses that most people use. Like the post-grads of Kicking and Screaming, Sorkin captures the way we wish we talked. This is nowhere clearer than in the endless banter between the men on Sorkin's shows. On "The West Wing," Sorkin relied heavily on the interplay between Josh, Sam, and Toby, whose rapidly paced conversations lent the show a boys' club air, as if these guys got really carried away at pretending one day and wound up running the country. (Even C.J., for all her intellect and skill, was forever the outsider, and not because she wasn't smart, but because men on their own revel in the strong clique-ish vibe they naturally produce. It's a long story.) But it was Sorkin's first show, "Sports Night," where he had the most success exploring the ups and downs of modern male friendship. In the truest sense, Casey McCall and Dan Rydell were that show's anchors, giving the stories an emotional center and resonance. Their relationship was the driving force for the show, whether it was dealing with interference from the corporate level, counseling each other about women, or acting as the protective older brothers for everyone else at the show. I could go on about the amazing ways these guys played off each other and dealt with their own faults and strengths with love and humor — the "hip-deep in pie" exchange at the end of "Dana and the Deep Blue Sea" is never less than moving — but the best example was the story arc in Season 2 where Dan struggled with depression and a personal breakdown. Dan and Casey's strained relationship was the most powerful way to upset the balance of the show, to underscore just how high the stakes had gotten. When Dan begins his atonement by leading a seder and apologizing to Casey in "April Is the Cruelest Month," the sense of healing is palpable. So why bring all that up? Because "Studio 60" is missing some serious man love. Matt's position as head writer and Danny's role as executive producer means they will inherently spend more time apart than any other male pairing in Sorkin's history, and that's bad news. They work at the same place, but they rarely work together. There are precious few opportunities for Matt and Danny to be around each other and riff back and forth on the palpable fun of just being themselves, and that's going to take a toll on the show's chemistry. Casey and Dan wrote together, and the Josh-Sam-Toby team were constantly in each other's offices and feeding off the energy of the group, but Matt and Danny are by their nature separated for most of each episode of "Studio 60," and that will only have negative effects for the show in the long run. Sorkin's men need to be around each other, or else it just won't work.

"Studio 60": Who Said Comedy Needs To Be Funny?

This was, perhaps, inevitable. I had quite a bit of emotional investment in this season's "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," having fallen violently in love with "Sports Night" when it aired and having been a similar fan of "The West Wing." I even stuck with "West Wing" through seasons 5-7, or what is better known as The Years That Didn't Happen. Sorkin's latest behind-the-scenes venture, this time at a late-night sketch-comedy show, was supposed to be a return to greatness, a chance for phenomenal programming to once again take to the airwaves, and another show for me to take to my heart. (This season there are only two other shows like that, so it would have been nice to have a third.)And, well, despite the many issues with the show that I will no doubt address in the future, the show has a major problem: Sorkin can write good, humorous dialogue between characters, but he can't write a funny sketch to sace his life. Apparently, the fact that Mark McKinney ("The Kids in the Hall") is working on the sketches isn't helping at all. Last week's episode revolved around a purportedly stolen monologue that turned out to be NBS property after all, but no one stopped to think that the speech, which included a bit about dropping Hot Pockets along with bombs, wasn't funny in the first place. Last night's episode featured a cruelly, blatantly, powerfully unfunny Nancy Grace sketch, which (a) you have to really suck to miss the natural humor of an idiot like Grace, and (b) it made the recent Nancy Grace sketch on "SNL" look funny by comparison, which is a startling accomplishment. Still, the worst offense came in the second episode of "Studio 60," when the show-within-a-show's cold open was an abysmal rip-off of Gilbert and Sullivan. More than just typical Sorkinian recycling (cf. "And It's Surely to Their Credit" for a much better use of the music), the sketch was just stupid. Hearing the fictional studio audience laugh and applaud the lame song was almost painful. I sat and watched, unmoved, realizing that Sorkin is still a talented writer-producer, but his best work may well be behind him.

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.