[Author’s Note]: This article was written a while ago and has been edited for the purposes of keeping up-to-date on the current political climate.
I’ve been watching a lot of The West Wing lately. You can probably guess the reason. It’s a comforting show to me, a balm for my anxiety and the ever present empty pit of rage in my stomach. Sadly, the show angers me as well upon rewatch, just not for the reasons you’d think. I miss the fast-paced environment of a White House that never existed. I miss the friendly camaraderie of men and women brought to life beautifully by talented actors. I miss the lofty ideals and passion of a staff dedicated to a United States with a relatively informed populace. If you haven’t guessed, the agitation comes from the fact that The West Wing isn’t real. It’s the product of one man’s imagination that tapped into a need for a governing body to display equal amounts of dedication, determination, and selflessness. It’s an alternate reality that’s painful to watch at times, but I continue to watch because it’s that idealized vision of politics that prevents me from completely succumbing to absolute depression. The kernels of hope and emulation are there as the next generation discovers the show and ponders whether President Bartlet’s America could actually exist.
While there are many and varied critiques of Aaron Sorkin’s work, regardless of how you feel about him, it’s very easy to spot an Aaron Sorkin-created television show. The man has so many ticks and quirks associated with his various projects that there are a multitude of parodies easily found on YouTube. Hell, the man’s even parodied himself on his own shows and on others. Your most basic sign that it’s a Sorkin-joint is that the “action” all takes place behind the scenes. Sports Night, The West Wing, The American President, Moneyball, The Social Network, Studio 60, and The Newsroom are all about the moments leading up to or following an event. Usually it’s something important. One of the easier quirks to spot in this behind-the-scenes world is the “walk-and-talk,” which is fairly self-explanatory. Though walk-and-talks are not an exclusive quirk of Sorkin’s (it’s movie-making 101 to have your character exposit dialogue while moving), he’s definitely become the writer most associated with the trope since every movie or television show since Sports Night has included it.
Coupled with the walk-and-talk is a rhythmic banter between characters often dubbed “Sorkinese” since actors who’ve worked on a Sorkin project have stated that the dialogue is so precise that any changes practically have to be run by him so he can hear how it sounds. And within the banter, whilst doing the walk-and-talk, is an encyclopedic knowledge – by virtually every character – of literature, politics, pop culture (to a degree), and history. If a stanza from Emily Dickinson can hammer a point home, you bet your ass there’s going to be a character who either has an English Lit degree or reads Dickinson for fun so they can throw a line in there and create a profound moment. Pretty much all of The Newsroom’s first season was about quoting or referencing Don Quixote.
What this all adds up to, and tends to be the reason people don’t particularly care for Sorkin, is a pretentiously idealized world where every profession is a noble one and all those involved have more passion in their little finger than you’ve ever displayed over the most important event in your life! Unless they’re the “villain” and then they’re just the worst type of person. The easiest example of this is The West Wing. During Sorkin’s four years writing the show, it wasn’t uncommon for a character – any character – to make a passionate speech or a profound statement about the importance of their work in government, the necessity of doing right by the American people, or the almost divine calling that is the office of the President and serving under him.
There was also the occasional history lesson or the quoting of scripture that cemented the show as one of the smartest hours of television during its early seasons. The later seasons were okay after Sorkin left, Season 7 was definitely good television, but Season 5 and half of 6 are hard to get through if you’re a fan of Sorkin’s style and the characters, which I am. The point, though, is that the world of The West Wing was populated by people with passion for their job, who saw what they did as a call to serve their country. Even their “enemies,” both Republican and Democrat, where never entirely vilified, but shown to have just as much passion and a need to do what they thought was best for their constituents. Sorkin essentially elevated government and its employees to a degree that’s nearly laughable when we compare it to how our perception of government has changed within the last decade. Most especially within the last two months.
The same attempt was made, less successfully, with Studio 60 on The Sunset Strip where Sorkin attempted to elevate comedy and it’s purpose in American culture. There’s a scene where Tom Jeter (Nate Corddry) is showing his blue collar parents around the theater where Studio 60 is filmed while giving them the history of the theater and its entertainment pedigree. All of this is done in service to highlighting the “culture wars” through Tom’s conservative parents, specifically his father who doesn’t care much for his son’s cushy, “elitist” job of playing in front of a camera while his other son is fighting in Afghanistan. Because…comedy!
As much as I do adore this show, it got really heavy-handed with it’s agenda, more so than most Sorkin shows, which alienated a lot of its audience. It also didn’t help that 30 Rock came out at the same time, on the same network, and was genuinely funny. Sorkin’s writing can be funny, but his humor often comes out of dramatic situations. He’s not exactly a joke writer. But what Sorkin was getting at, I think, is that there is a need for smart television, that the audience doesn’t have to have things dumbed down for them in order for a program to succeed. And comedy, even a variety show, can facilitate ideas or effectively satirize the world we live in. The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Key & Peele, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver prove that comedy can steer the political and social conversation through the medium of comedy.
The Newsroom, like Studio 60, like The West Wing, is what Sorkin envisions journalism should be; that journalists and news anchors should strive for something more than puff pieces and partisan politics. The opening theme of The Newsroom is a montage of photographs showcasing the history of broadcast journalism from Edward R. Morrow to Walter Cronkite to Dan Rather. Respected and trusted anchors that people turned to for their nightly news. The entire crux of the first episode is MacKenzie Hale’s (played by Emily Mortimer) plea that they can do better, that they are better.
And while some critics may decry Sorkin’s idealistic portrayal of politics, comedy, or journalism, I think what’s important about these worlds he creates is that the characters are imperfect. You’d be hard-pressed to find a character in any of these shows or movies who isn’t fundamentally flawed in some way. Granted, many of these flaws are gendered since a lot of the women seem to have relationship issues and the men are cursed with arrogance and an overabundance or lack of machismo, but they’re still flawed. And yet they yearn for something more. The characters are the ones who create their idealized worlds because they want it to be that way, but it remains unattainable. The West Wing showed it time and time again. No matter how good their intentions, no matter how noble the cause, someone always gets left out, someone always feels betrayed. The Newsroom follows the same model. You can want to be better, you can want to change the world because of some call to destiny, but the world around you won’t shift overnight because you deem it so. You have to change it little by little and fight because you know you have to and it’s the right thing to do.
The Don Quixote metaphor is appropriate because many of Sorkin’s characters could be described as quixotic. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I’d argue that Sorkin’s idealism is necessary for viewing audiences. If we see ourselves in the characters on television and in movies, if we find common ground, why can’t we also find what we’re missing? It’s not hard to identify with a character who desires an idyllic President because, deep down, we probably want the same thing. The same is true of our news anchors. We gravitate towards like-minded reporters, but don’t we wish for someone capable of delivering the news without the nagging suspicion that they’re leading us towards their politics? Shouldn’t we instead want someone with the desire to make us a more informed population?
The downside, and there’s always a downside, is disappointment when something or someone doesn’t live up to your standards. We definitely see that happening a lot these days, but Sorkin still leaves us with the tools capable of weathering such disappointments. Yes, you’re going to get kicked down a lot and you may not get exactly what you want, but hoping and striving for something better, even if it seems unobtainable, is just as noble. We may bend, we may even break, but we eventually shake it off, put ourselves together and start over. Maybe we’re a little wiser, a bit more cynical, but even an iota of idealism is enough to keep us moving forward and asking, “What’s next?”