Sorkin about a revolution

Here’s the thing. I really do believe that Aaron Sorkin brought a revolution to television. He made the first hit political drama in decades, he got us worked up equally about massive issues and tiny relationships. He also writes dialogue like music which is deeply important to me and, I’d offer, to all drama.

Then he’s a celebrity for being a TV writer. The man does theatre and film too, but you know his name and you know he wrote The West Wing. There aren’t many TV writers who get known at all: where you may well have favourite novelists, it’s a lot less common to have favourite TV writers.

It’s not a giant leap to say that Sorkin by himself – and his writing teams – helped making television drama become the respected form it is. And it is respected. Film makers are turning to television and that’s got to be partly because they stopped being able to get funding for movies but it is also because TV at its best is a more compelling form of drama than most films at the moment. Mind you, I am fully in hope that this will change when the movies run out of superhero sequels. Any day now, any day.


“Here’s the thing” is an Aaron Sorkin phrase. It’s entered my ideolect – wait, I didn’t know this term, is it already familiar to you? Your nation has a language or languages that its people speak; your region has a dialect that everyone around you shares; you have your own specific and personal ideolect.

Mine is replete with quotes and phrases that have stuck in my head and sometimes for no clear reason. Many are from Alan Plater, there are couple of Jack Rosenthal lines, some Doctor Who, some Paul Reiser, it goes on. That way I wrote ‘But’ on a line by itself is from Anton Chekhov. I’ve said this before: sometimes I’ll hear Angela laugh from another room as she’s watching some ancient film and suddenly there’s been a line that she has often heard me say. It’s got so that now I sometimes have lines of my own that keep bubbling up out of me then I feel obligated to add “and that was one of mine”.

Angela seems fine and/or resigned to all this now but she does wish that I hadn’t picked up this from Community: “Cool. Cool, cool, cool.” The joy when a friend said exactly that in an email to me the other day. I rushed to show Angela: see? it’s not just me.

But it is just me. As in, it’s me and it is not my characters. I have no doubt that I must unconsciously give my characters some of these lines or some of these repeated rhythms, but I fight against it and I believe I fight successfully.

Aaron Sorkin does not.

I’m actually okay with the way that characters in The West Wing talk like each other: I can see a close group picking up each other’s phrases and styles, I’m good with that.

Similarly, characters in Sports Night speak like each other. (Here’s how great Aaron Sorkin is: I watched a show with ‘sports’ in the title. I watched 45-odd episodes of it over a week – and I’ve watched them all again several times.)

What niggled at me was how the characters in Sports Night spoke an awful lot like the characters in The West Wing. What disgruntled me was that there are stories in Sports Night that get repeated close to verbatim in Sorkin’s later series. When it was Sports Night and The West Wing, I felt it was him using a good story in the far more successful show and I didn’t like it but I liked the stories, I liked how they were told. When it was Sports Night and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip then, well, not so much. A tale that had been genuinely romantic on Sports Night became nothing short of creepy on Studio 60.

Plus you can tell me that The West Wing was good after Sorkin left it but it wasn’t. I watched the next ten episodes and realised barely a word registered with me. I later learnt that one of those ten episodes was nominated for a writing Emmy and the only conclusion I could make was that it must’ve been one hell of a crap year for American television drama.

Repeated stories, identical-sounding characters, it was all infinitely better than the later and just plain ordinary years of The West Wing because the stories and most especially those identical forms of dialogue were so good. They would stir you and they would soar. I watched a West Wing with a fella who turned me afterwards and said he could’ve written that. No, he couldn’t. No more than I could. The brilliance of Sorkin’s writing is, I think, clear to see yet it’s also better and richer and deeper the more you look under the covers.

I wish I could write like that – but I can’t watch Sorkin’s stuff any more. His Studio 60 and The Newsroom have problems – some of which you can see immediately when you’re watching so you wonder how the makers missed them – but what prevents me watching is that the damn stories are the same and the damn dialogue is the same.

I’ve also said this before: I couldn’t accept Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy because I can’t see him. He’s got West Wing, Studio 60 and Sports Night characters standing in front of him, getting in the way.

But then by the time The Newsroom came around, we had several videos that shaped what I think of Sorkin. A good one was a pixel-perfect parody called The Foodroom.

Then there was this which, interestingly to me, has two of I think the best writers on television performing in camera: Aaron Sorkin in a cameo with Tina Fey on her 30 Rock series:

But then the bad was Sorkinisms. It’s a video showing how many, many, many, many times he uses precisely the same words in all his series. I watched that and it depressed me. This week I saw the sequel video, Sorkinisms II and it’s worse. Worse enough that I am minded of all this over again and wanted to bleat at you.

The fella who does these YouTube videos says both that they are loving rather than mocking and that Aaron Sorkin has been great about them. I like that. Yet I don’t know that I can convey to you how disappointing it is to see such repetition. Well, I say that and yet I think you’ve worked out that I’m regarding this fella as a fallen hero. Make every character sound the same, don’t make every character sound the same, it’s completely up to you – except doing it to this extent, this rather extraordinary extent, is a problem.

Specifically this problem, for me: it means I can’t watch any more. The work I’ve already seen, that remains important to me, but I can’t make myself get through another Newsroom episode. Still, partly to try countering the Sorkinisms video and partly to explore what I think of Aaron Sorkin in order to pour my heart out to you like this, I just re-watched a West Wing episode called 17 People.

It is a bit of a come-on title: there’s a fact in the story that is uncovered by a character we learn is the 16th person to know so you do spend the hour wondering who the 17th will be. That’s a come on that becomes a bit of a cop out.

But otherwise 17 People is beautiful. So simple. The West Wing was way over budget at this time so it was mandated that the episode have no new guest cast, no location filming, no new sets. It was a bottle show, though the show’s sets were so expansive that it didn’t feel like one. Like the very best bottle shows, though, it was a series of people in rooms talking to one another.

That doesn’t sound great but it is entirely, fully, one hundred percent-ly my favourite form of drama. Two people arguing in a room – where both of them are right. Unbelievably powerful, unbelievably hard to pull off.

This episode is full of little else and though it’s 14 years since I first saw it – 14 years! – so the context of the surrounding episodes is gone, it is still strong. I’ll tell you: it made me cry, it was that exquisitely well done, that exquisitely perfect. The West Wing: Season 2, episode 18, 17 People.

Why did I have to see that Sorkinisms video? Why couldn’t I avoid thinking about how repetitive Sorkin is? And having seen this and been disheartened by it, why could I have not just avoided spoiling him for you?

There’s the thing.