Saturday, May 12, 2012

Sorkinology

I became an Aaron Sorkin nerd about five years ago.  My dad bought me the Sports Night boxset (all two seasons of it) and during a relatively lazy and unexciting time in my life I would spend days watching both seasons over and over to the point where I'd memorized a large majority of the show's more quotable moments.  Five years later, I can probably quote roughly 50% or more of every single episode at this point.  For those who don't know, Sports Night is a sitcom set behind the scenes of a SportsCenter-esque sports news show.  I saw an interview with Sorkin once where he said that people would always ask him whether Sports Night was a drama or a comedy and his response was that it was neither which I think is the perfect answer.  Family Guy joked once that Sports Night was "a comedy that's too good to be funny" and as one of its biggest fans, it's hard not to laugh at how much truth there is in that.  It just really doesn't try very hard to be a drama or a comedy and Sorkin's wit is dust bowl dry (especially on Sports Night which is his first foray into television) so it really tends to toe the line and although it often maintains the feel of a comedy, there are long periods during which nothing particularly funny happens and there are certainly plenty of moments of drama as well.







Looking back I'm not sure why I never really got interested in The West Wing the way I always knew I should have.  Pretty much my entire family was trying to convince me what a great show it was and how much I would love it.  Of course, I hadn't even been introduced to Aaron Sorkin at that point so I didn't really understand how amazing he truly was but I still had a vague idea that this show was brilliant and that I would love it if I ever took the time to try.  The West Wing follows a fictional president and his close-knit staff through a tumultuous presidency, focusing mostly on the president, his Chief of Staff, Deputy Chief of Staff (and his assistant), Communications Director, Deputy Communications Director, Press Secretary, and personal assistant while also featuring a brilliant array of peripheral characters such as congressmen, pollsters, pundits, and pretty much anyone else who works in Washington, D.C.  All things considered, I'm kind of glad  I got into it the way I did--my dad got me the full box set because I'm currently working on dual bachelor's degrees in Political Science and International Relations and he claimed that I would learn everything I needed to know about political science from this show.  I wouldn't go that far but there certainly is a lot to be learned in The West Wing for any political science major.  Perhaps one day I'll be teaching a Political Science or International Relations course using West Wing episodes.  But I digress.  We'll come back to all that later.



Conversely, by the time Studio 60 was in production, I was already hooked on Sports Night and anxiously awaiting the premiere of Studio 60.  The pilot, as those who saw it know, did not in any way disappoint.  Just to give you an idea of how this show announced itself to the world, here's a little synopsis of the pilot's opening act:  Executive Producer Wes Mendel (played by Judd Hirsch) is in an argument with a network representative for Standards and Practices about a sketch called "Crazy Christians."  The network rep is demanding the sketch be cut as Wes pleads his case but ultimately acquiesces.  The show goes on the air but after just a few short seconds, Wes stops everything live on national TV and--much to the chagrin of the network rep and those he works for--launches into the following speech:

"This isn't gonna be a very good show tonight and I think you should change the channel. You should change the channel right now, or better yet turn off the TV. No, I know it seems like this is supposed to be funny but tomorrow you're gonna find out it wasn't and I'll have been fired by then.  This isn't supposed--this isn't a sketch.  This show used to be cutting edge political and social satire but it's gotten lobotomized by a candy-ass broadcast network hell-bent on doing NOTHING that might challenge their audience. We were about to do a sketch you've already seen 500 times.  Yes, no one's gonna confuse George Bush with George Plimpton, we get it.  We're all being lobotomized by the country's most influential industry which has thrown in the towel on any endeavor that does not include the courting of 12-year-old boys--and not even the smart 12-year-olds, the stupid ones, the idiots, of which there are plenty thanks in no small part to this network.  So change the channel, turn off the TV.  Do it right now...[cut away to the other things going on for a while]...and there's always been a struggle between art and commerce, but now I'm telling you art is getting its ass kicked, and it's making us mean, and it's making us bitchy, and it's making us CHEAP PUNKS!  THAT'S NOT WHO WE ARE! We're eating worms for money, "Who Wants to Screw My Sister", guys are getting killed in a war that's got theme music and a logo.  That remote in your hand is a crack pipe.  American broadcasters have turned into pornographers and it's not even GOOD pornography.  They're just this side of snuff films, and friends, that's what's next 'cause that's all that's left.  And the two things that make them scared gutless are the FCC and every psycho-religious cult that gets positively horny at the very mention of a boycott. THESE are the people they're afraid of, this prissy, feckless, off-the-charts greed-filled whorehouse of a network you're watching.  This thoroughly unpatriotic motherf--[cut to VTR]"

Hard not to like that.  It really sets the tone for the show as a whole as one of the major themes was the eternal struggle between network executives and television producers (not just the literal Producers but all those involved with producing television shows).  Sorkin has definitely always been at his strongest when he's going behind the scenes of television programming--although The West Wing is probably his best work but that has a lot to do with the fact that he had some phenomenal consultants including former Clinton staffer Dee Dee Myers, former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, and former congressional aide and current MSNBC talk show host Lawrence O'Donnell.  It's like they say: "write what you know."  He works in television so obviously he knows more about working in television than anything else and this becomes most apparent when watching Studio 60 which is probably Sorkin's most true-to-life production.

But what makes Sorkin so special--and part of what tends to make him somewhat challenging to get into--is how much he cares about his characters and how well he develops and humanizes them.  For starters, all his shows are about fervent workaholics that generally don't go home until midnight or later.  The portrayal of the unimaginably difficult and demanding work of those in The West Wing is especially powerful and is overwhelmingly successful at humanizing one of the most maligned groups in our society.  It shows the gritty dirty work of wrangling the support of politicians, making complex political calculations, and making the impossible choices all while managing the press.  It does all this while simultaneously prying open the steel trap hearts of all these people to shed light on their vulnerabilities no matter how hard they each try to hide them.  It also greatly emphasizes and glorifies the undying loyalty of these incredible people to their leader.  One of the most moving scenes of the show occurs at a turning point in an identity crisis for the administration when Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer) suggests a bold new strategy: "Let Bartlet Be Bartlet."  In the final scene of the episode, Leo presents this strategy to the staff.  One by one they respond with a line from their oath of office: "I serve at the pleasure of the president."

Sports Night and Studio 60 are really even more about the people than The West Wing.  Both portray workplaces that are more like families but especially Sports Night--the key difference perhaps being that Studio 60 (the show within the show) is one of the centerpieces of a major (fictional) broadcast network (the National Broadcasting System--clearly modeled after the National Broadcasting Company, whom Mr. Sorkin worked for producing The West Wing and whom also carried Studio 60--which may explain why it only lasted one season) whereas Sports Night is more of a band of misfits working tirelessly on a relatively esoteric sports news show on a "third-place" cable sports network (the Continental Sports Channel) which consistently "[gets its ass] kicked by ESPN and Fox" as producer Dana Whitaker (Felicity Huffman) puts it (the "third place" standing of the show and the network are a major theme of the show).

The point being that the cast of Sports Night needs each other more than the cast of Studio 60, although both are very tight knit families that would do anything for one another (Studio 60 is also a bit more hierarchical in terms of the characters' relationships to one another which I suppose is the price of fame).  "We need each other badly," says co-anchor Dan Rydell (Josh Charles) at an ad hoc Passover ceder during the most challenging time for the show.  He goes on to say: "More and more we've come to expect less and less of each other and I'd like to be the first to start bucking that trend."  There's another episode where producer Natalie Hurley (Sabrina Lloyd) is sexually assaulted by a football player in a locker room while doing a pre-interview for a hugely important interview segment on the show later that night and receives an incredible outpouring of support from her co-workers including an inspirational chat with Dan as well as a riveting scene where Jeremy Goodwin (Joshua Malina)--who has developed quite a large crush on Natalie--tells the football player point blank just minutes before the interview is supposed to happen: "If you touch her again, I'm gonna have you killed.  You understand what I'm saying?  I'm gonna pay someone $50 to have you killed."


But my favorite example of the "band of misfits"/"all for one, one for all" culture of Sports Night is when newcomer Jeremy (who is hired in the pilot episode and quickly welcomed into this family which is already full of past history--a really neat way of giving the audience a character they can relate to, who represents them as fellow newcomers to the family so that the rich history of this family doesn't alienate them too much) is given his first major assignment which goes terribly wrong because of some deep personal beliefs that he was hoping to suppress so as not to screw up and lose his job.  "Not fitting in is how qualified people lose jobs," he says.  Managing editor Isaac Jaffe (Robert Guillaume) replies: "Yeah but a lot of the time it's how they end up working here."  That really captures it.  This is all they have.  They couldn't work anywhere else, nor would they want to.  This is family.  This is home.  "You don't know us very well," Isaac concludes, "so if it's hard trusting us at the beginning, maybe it'll help to know that we trust you."


Studio 60, on the other hand, is a lot more personal to Aaron Sorkin.  Pretty much everything on that show is straight out of Aaron Sorkin's life including his brotherly relationship to co-Executive Producer/Director Thomas Schlamme (represented by Studio 60 co-Execs Matt Albie [Matthew Perry] and Danny Tripp [Bradley Whitford]) as well as a serious drug addiction that kept his name out of the credits of The West Wing for the last three seasons or so (portrayed chillingly by Matthew Perry).  It also delves a lot deeper into the politics of television--combining elements of Sports Night and The West Wing, you might say--with which Sorkin undoubtedly gained a plethora of experience during The West Wing.  He portrays a fascinating power struggle between new NBS president Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet), CEO Jack Rudolph (Stephen Weber--who is GREAT in this role), and Matt and Danny which is too potent not to be based on real life.  It's almost hard to believe it got cancelled after one season (inside joke: "It's almost hard to believe..." is a frequently used line in Sorkin's writing).

I suppose there are a number of reasons why Sorkin's work tends to have trouble getting out of the starting gate (with the exception of The West Wing).  The humor is bone dry.  Many of the characters tend to talk very similarly with similar senses of humor and vocabularies.  The characters take a fair amount of getting to know.  The reason I write this is because I know it's more than worth the effort and I want to show more people like me the joy of Aaron Sorkin.  His sharp wit.  His satirical brilliance.  His ability to reveal humanity even in historically dehumanized people.  He makes me wish I worked in the White House or in television.  Maybe one day I will.  Until then, Aaron Sorkin's work is all I have.  It inspires me.  It's home.  It's family.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

no one cares brah

Vundablog said...

Obviously you care enough to comment so thank you. And apparently you're friends with me on Facebook because when I posted this at 2am I only posted it to my Facebook so it's good to know I have friends that are kind enough to anonymously shame me for working diligently on something I enjoy. Bravo! Now if you would be so kind as to reveal yourself so I can take you off my friends list, that would be even more kind! :)