I’ve been thinking a lot about Aaron Sorkin lately. (Yes, I spend my time thinking about Aaron Sorkin. What do you people spend your time thinking about? Friends and family? Pssht.) The third and final season of The Newsroom is premiering on Sunday, Entertainment Weekly just put out this amazing oral history of Sports Night, and I’ve been rewatching The West Wing as my tv- to- fall- asleep- to show. So all in all, I’ve been fairly Sorkiny lately.
And here’s the thing: I’m totally in the bag for Sorkin.
Oh, he has his flaws. He repeats himself in ways that should qualify as plagarism. He gets overly dramatic and schmaltzy. His characters seem to exhibit all of the same characteristics and/or will for some reason do exactly the same “quirky” things (Isaac Gaffe meet Charlie Skinner. Dana Whittaker, are you sure you wouldn’t rather dance to “The Jackal”? It’s a better song than “My Boogie Shoes” and C.J. Cregg already has it cued up. And if you’re a successful man with alcoholic- dad issues, just go ahead and raise your hand now, please. We need to get all dozen or so of you counted). And most importantly, I think he has a real problem writing women. It’s not that he does anything blatantly sexist. In fact, I think he would argue that he fully supports women. But with the notable exception of C.J. Cregg, we haven’t seen a female character whose motivation isn’t “helping some guy become a better man.” So clearly I’ve got some problems with him.
Why then would I watch and re-watch almost all of his shows? Because they’re solidly good, but not great, shows. They’re well written, well acted, smart, very low stakes tv. Nothing that Sorkin writes is ever going to be life changing. None of his characters are ever going to die horrible deaths, or even face any genuinely difficult moral dilemmas. His characters are liberal, wish fulfillment superheros who might struggle to figure out what’s the right thing to do, but who are always trying to do the right thing. Sorkin only writes easily digestible, highly intelligent morality plays populated with feel- good, likeable characters. It’s what keeps his shows from being The Wire, but it’s also what makes his shows a nice change of pace from The Wire. Have you guys seen Generation Kill? It’s one of my favorite pieces of tv ever, and if I had to watch it all the way through again, I might swear off tv for good. What are your feelings about Walter White? And how do you feel about President Bartlet? And who do you want to have over for dinner?
And Sorkin himself is probably most guilty of mistaking his shows for great. Talking about big ideas is never going to be the same as actually committing important acts no matter how quickly you walk and talk about those big ideas. The best way to watch Sorkin is to be honest about what it is: really smart people saying really smart, often funny things. It can be pretentious and self- important. And it can be too much of a soapbox for Sorkin to project his own personal dramas. And I’m going to continue enjoying the hell out of it.