Too many notes

I read a review the other day where the opening line praised a particular drama for being unlike anything else on television. And then the second line said it was a remake of a French TV show.

I’m not going to say that it is this kind of review that makes me mentally downgrade television critics, but if you wanted to think that right now, I wouldn’t object. I remember giving up reading a particularly famous reviewer because after months of repeatedly despairing that there was nothing new on television, ripped apart a show for being different.


Lately I seem to have been reading more reviews where there are what, to me, seem equally ridiculous claims. Most often it’s this: such and such a show is terrible, but this or that actor is great in it.

You cannot separate an actor from the writing or the direction or, I offer, anything else in a production. An actor does not come in and make up their own lines. Writers do not write dreadfully for every character bar one. The director did not tell one actor the piece is a serious historical crime drama and leave the rest thinking it’s farce.

Certainly, unquestionably, some actors are far better than others and certainly one actor may be more right for a particular role than another. I love that only in this circumstance can you genuinely have gradations of right. This actor is more right than this one.

But back to the point. You cannot separate an actor’s performance from the character they are playing. Not from the role, not from the script, not from direction. Every single element of a drama is working together –– or not –– as a whole and none of it can be separated out.

Except the script. You can read the script without any director or cast. Er, also costume design, now I think about it. Considering how badly I dress, it’s remarkable how interesting I think costuming is. A highlight of Strictly Come Dancing for me is the Thursday slot on It Takes Two when designer Vicky Gill talks about costumes. The sheer artistry of the pen sketches she and her team makes, the artwork that is thrown away because it is a step on the route to the final costume instead of a piece of work itself. That reminds me a lot of scripts: they are tools to get you to the finishing line, the production. That they’re amazing on the page is a bonus that few people, compared to the millions viewing, will ever see or even care to see.

I just like how you can look at costumes out of context and you can read scripts by themselves too. But all of this is on my mind today because this week I bought two TV series and in context, both of them have the wrong music.

It turns out that this is something else you can separate from a show: its soundtrack. I should realise that as I used to have an awful lot of soundtrack albums back when there were albums.

I hope I have realised before that music can be enjoyed without the rest of the show. But I am certain I never realised how music is about the only element that can be changed after the fact.

And often is.

Intellectually, I knew for instance that WKRP in Cincinnati had problems with the music used in the show’s radio station setting, and I gathered that the DVD replaced them. But now I’ve bought the second season of Sports Night and I did so in part because the opening of that season begins with track that’s become a favourite. She Will Have Her Way, by Neil Finn, is an unusual choice for the start of a sitcom and it plays out over a very extended sequence. It’s played out very well, so well that I started that episode just to hear it and to see how perfectly it fits.

It perfectly fit alright, but it also perfectly came out again. On the version of Sports Night that you can buy in the US iTunes Store, that song has been replaced entirely by a track called Valentine by Tim Cullen. It’s mostly played over a montage but there are points when those scenes are audible, so this isn’t just someone playing the track loudly, it’s the episode’s audio remixed to remove one track and insert another.

You know that took effort, I imagine it took care. But, sorry Tim Cullen and whoever did this edit, it’s wrong. I’ve remembered the right track for 20 years now and I was actually a little crestfallen that something I think worked so well was now altered.

And then the UK iTunes Store only went and had a sale on the original Magnum, pi. I could talk to you about that show for several hours longer than you’d put with, but forget television history, it’s just a very good series.

If you know it, you have the theme in your head at this moment and may even know that it’s by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter. What you are less likely to know is that the theme you’ll have for the rest of today is not the original theme to the show. The original, by the same writers, is just a bit ordinary, a bit flat, compared to what you know. The tune you know was incidental music, possibly end titles music, and it was so for the first several episodes.

Changing it to make it the main theme back in 1981 was a good move and I truly believe helped become a show a hit on the air. Changing it in 2018 when it went onto iTunes, well… unfortunately I’m afraid I think that was a good idea too. I wish I didn’t, I feel my entire point evaporating in front of you.

But there it is. The iTunes digital release has been edited to put the famous theme tune on the start of even the pilot.

You can’t rewrite the past. But you can re-score it. So of all the elements of a drama that can exist outside that drama, the script and the costumes can have a kind of life of their own. But only the music can be replaced later.

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.