A few months back, in a graduate level literature class, the professor talked about how we identify books by authors and asked what I believe was meant to be a rhetorical question: “Can anyone really name their favorite television writer?” As if rehearsed, about half the class of fourteen students said immediately and in unison, “Aaron Sorkin.” The next syllable from the professor was a stunned “Um.”
I’ve been mulling this incident for a while and want to say a few things about my favorite television writer:
If you find a thing in life that you can do well, you should stick with it, and Sorkin has done just that. He is the king of behind-the-scene with his long-running, award-winning, highly-acclaimed The West Wing—I knew I would never get through this without using those three descriptors, so I thought I should get them out of the way early. West Wing was brilliant, but no one, certainly not Mr. Sorkin, needs me to tell them that. However, he has three other behind-the-scenes television shows specifically about making television shows: Sports Night, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and The Newsroom.
If I were a film and television producer, director, writer, or even second grip, I would live in these programs as often as possible, for in them Sorkin reveals how television should be done and this is the guy who does it as well as anyone in the business. But I’m not one of those TV guys. I’m a middle-aged doctoral student and failing novelist. Sorkin, however, works magic in the boob tube.
Do one thing well must be Sorkin’s motto. Sorkin’s Sports Night was a take-off of ESPN’s Sports Center, Studio 60 parodied Saturday Night Live, and Newsroom? Well, it could be about a dozen different shows presently airing, perhaps The O’Reilly Factor—Sorry, Mr. Sorkin, that was just a joke—or more likely something from CNN.
In the casting of characters, Sorkin is quick to reuse actors with whom he has worked in the past: Bradley Whitford (West Wing, Studio 60), Felicity Huffman (Sports Night, West Wing, and Studio 60 with a guest appearance as a guest), Josh Molina (West Wing, Sports Night), and Timothy Busfield (West Wing, Studio 60). I’m certain I missed a few and please realize that among television actors quite a bit of overlap occurs naturally. But I think we have enough evidence to suggest that for a few of these lucky folk, Sorkin likes writing for them, a sentiment expressed in the second episode of Studio 60.
Even some of the minor bits in the story lines overlap in Sorkin’s work: In one episode of Studio 60, a problem with the power seems connected with Sarah Paulson’s character Harriet Hayes, a somewhat conservative Christian. On The Newsroom Mackenzie MacHale played by Emily Mortimer lifts her hands to heaven and asks if she could have a sign that they are doing the right thing. The lights go out. Sorkin doesn’t play with this bit of humor as long as he dies in Studio 60, but if it works, don’t stop. In the first episodes of both Sports Night and Studio 60 a character (actors Josh Molina and Matthew Perry respectively) misses his chair and lands in the floor. In West Wing construction above Josh Lyman’s (Bradley Whitford’s) office causes the ceiling tiles to fall; in The Newroom, it’s the protagonist McAvoy’s apartment.
Sorkin is a liberal. It’s obvious in his writing, but he insists on putting in a character that presents the conservative viewpoint. In West Wing he used Ainsley Hayes played by Emily Procter, though she only lasted a season, on Studio 60 it was Paulson’s Harriet Hayes, and on Newsroom, the protagonist and anchor Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy. The fact that McAvoy only expresses liberal values (with some reassuring asides about free trade and immigration) shouldn’t trouble anyone, nor should the formalized prayers of Harriet Hayes, nor the short run time of Ainsley Hayes. Accept that Sorkin is a liberal and that’s okay. But if you want your conservative characters to sound like conservatives rather than the televised version of conservatives, Aaron Sorkin is not your guy. But he really tries.
Speaking of conservatives, Matthew Perry’s republican character on West Wing lasted all of three episodes but he made the full run of twenty-two on Studio 60 where he was the balancing liberal for Paulson’s powerful conservatism. But enough of politics, maybe.
Sorkin’s work has made us laugh and cry and cheer. I can’t imagine how I would feel if he wrote conservative television. Watch the shows for the cork-backed story board—or whatever it’s called—to see how the shows are lined up within the given time frames. My guess is that Sorkin has one of these boards in the office of whatever show he’s writing at any given time. If you’re good at something, keep doing it, like Sorkin.
For no matter whether we are conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, Al Quida terrorist or Libertarian pacifist, we live now in the shadow of Aaron Sorkin.