Two minutes back

Please stop me. If Angela asks me when dinner will be ready and it’s almost done, I will call out something like “Two minutes back”. It’s a quote. I’m quoting. While I’m cooking.

I say cooking, it’s usually more heating and stirring and microwaving, but that’s not the point. The point is that my everyday conversation is riddled with quotes that nobody knows, at least until Angela happens upon some film or TV show that I got it from.

For it all comes from TV, radio and film. Imagine if I’d read the classics when I was younger. I might’ve become a weather bore every time the wind was in the east but at least that allusion could sometimes make sense. “Two minutes back” never does. Back to what?

It’s from Sports Night. I have no measurable interest, knowledge, experience or even really awareness of sport, but this show that first aired 20 years ago is a favourite. Imagine Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing done as a half-hour comedy and set behind the scenes of a TV sports show. This should be easy to imagine because that’s exactly what this is.

Take a look at this example. It’s the opening few minutes of an episode and I guarantee that you’ll wish it were the whole thing.

 

I should say right now that you can see a lot on YouTube but the only place to get the show itself is on DVD. Well, if you’re in the US you can stream it on Netflix or buy it on iTunes.

Or come round to my place.

I do relish its moments when characters will be in a heated argument and then, because the TV show’s cameras are now live, will be smiling, happy hosts until the commercial break and wallop, right back at it. I don’t know why I relish that so much, except that it’s a heightened dramatic situation that’s also real. I’ve done that, to a vastly smaller extent, in radio, and that turn-on-a-second move from personal to professional, that mental juggling of conflicting demands on your head, it’s gorgeous.

It also forces arguments into bite-sized chunks which is fantastic because drama does that anyway and here the need to stop and start is imposed, it’s an external pressure and you can feel the frustration. You can feel how when it’s released, when they’ve gone to commercial and can speak freely, that the next part of the row burns out of them. Plus even as they’ve been professional and talking on air about some sports thing I’ll never comprehend, you know the real drama has been continuing in their heads so when they can speak freely, the argument has moved on.

That’s an amazing thing to me. It means the Sports Night scripts pummel through arguments and issues at an incredibly artificial rate yet specifically because of the context, it feels natural and uncontrived. It feels real.

This is a comedy I’m talking about and I actually hesitated calling it that because for me, it’s drama. There is a very quiet laugh track in the early episodes, the result of the producers not wanting one and the network insisting and presumably some editor accidentally leaning on the volume control to minimise it. And it is also very, very, very funny.

Yet it’s the drama that keeps me coming back to this show – and I do keep coming back. I can visibly see me putting the DVD boxset in my car boot after having had to pay a gigantic import duty to the post office and saying aloud “I hope you’re worth it”. That must’ve been around 2001 or 2002 and it was. It is.

This show about the making of a sports show runs for 45 episodes of around 22 minutes apiece. What’s that? Something like 16 and a half hours of television. I watched the first one that weekend I got the DVD – and then I watched the following 44 before Monday.

I’ve done that binge about four times since.

And I’m in the middle of another one now. It’s been years since my DVD player was even connected to my TV set but I found a way to stream any video from my Mac to my TV set so I was looking through my shiny discs for what I’d want to see. I only meant to watch one episode of Sports Night. That was Tuesday. It’s now Friday and I’ve seen 15 episodes. Again.

This is a series about the making of a show and much of it takes place during the time that fictitious sports programme is on air. It has an awful lot of commercials. And every time this show-within-a-show cuts to a commercial, a character in its gallery will announce how long they’ve got before they come back from commercial.

Ask me how long before I watch the next episode.

Anger from Inside Out

Pickles

So maybe you know that the Baader-Meinhof Syndrome is when you hear a word or something for the first time and then seem to see it everywhere. And if you don’t happen to know that, you do now and so can expect to see it referred to again very soon.

Such as now. Baader-Meinhof is specifically about how the very first time you hear some word is followed by these other occurrences, so many that you can’t fathom how you never heard of this bleedin’ thing before. And that’s not what’s happened to me. I think I’ve had Baader-Meinhof Syndrome 2: This Time It’s Personal instead.

For I used to read screenplays extensively, then it dipped off to just occasionally enjoying one, then late last year there was a recommendation that one could try reading a script a day. The recommendation is on Hayley McKenzie’s website and I was persuaded by it. So I’ve done that.

Except we’re on 2 February as I write to you and so I should’ve read 33 scripts by now. I’ve slipped a teeny bit: just now I read my 112th. Look, I’ve had a lot of long train rides.

But having come back to being immersed in reading scripts, I’m now finding everybody’s talking about screenplays. It’s just that I don’t like everything I’m reading. Such as this:

“Even those of us who love movies may not realize the process from page to screen. I’ve read lots of movie scripts that don’t have any real excitement to them. It’s not until they become film that the beauty is revealed.”
Shawn King, Loop Insight

I’d give you a link to the full piece but a) that’s about it and 2) this Loop site is impossible to link to: do what you like and any link still routes you to the top of the front page and you’re expected to schlep through the entire site. To save you the trip, let me explain that King’s peg, his reason for saying this now, was that Pixar has released a video showing how a scene from Inside Out went from script to screen and I can link to the article that Loop linked to which linked to the video. When did you lose the will to live in that sentence?

Loop was quoting a site called Gizmodo which is here and its writer Julie Muncy takes the same angle but goes further:

“It’s a master class in how direction and acting can give a scene strength it doesn’t have on the page. While the action and dialogue is mostly identical between the script and the final film, the voice work, particularly Amy Poehler’s turn as Joy, lends drama and emotional resonance to work that doesn’t quite get there on the scripting alone.”
Julie Muncy, Gizmodo

May I give you one more quote?

“Bollocks.”
William Gallagher, right here

Truly, I read this stuff and it pickles me. That’s the word. I pickled up. I was unpleasant to people for an hour. And the chief printable thought I had was that these people should read some better bloody scripts. Of the 112 so far I’d rush them – hang on, let me count – 11. I’ve been reading chiefly TV scripts because, well, I like them, and of those there are ones from shows like Justified, Homicide: Life on the Street, Press Gang, Cheers and Sports Night that burst with verve and drama and rich comedy.

It’s not as if I think actors and directors and producers and the myriad other people bringing scripts to the screen aren’t necessary or don’t do anything or are not just as creative as writers. But if it’s not on the page, it ain’t ever going to be on the screen.

Except.

I keep thinking about one particular script I read back around 2003. Ronald D Moore’s script for Battlestar Galactica leaked online and I read it. Shrugged. It was okay, I thought, nothing special and I wasn’t fussed about whether I watched the show or not.

In fact, the DVD arrived at Radio Times at least two months before it aired in the UK and it was only late one Friday that I grabbed the first disc in order to have something to watch on my way home. By the time I got to Birmingham, I was steaming mad and pickling up because I hadn’t brought the second disc and it was going to be a week before I could see it.

If you haven’t seen Battlestar Galactica, it genuinely is a remarkable piece of drama and I could see that when I re-read the script. But I didn’t the first time.

I think I could muster an argument that Battlestar is science fiction and I wasn’t expecting this from that genre. I can throw in that it was a remake of a very gaudy, empty Star Wars knock-off from the 1970s. My reaction was coloured by low expectations.

But you’d think that would just make a fine drama feel even better. Yet there it was, all of it on the page and I missed it. I might go watch that Pixar video now. Or I might just read the Inside Out screenplay.

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.

But.

“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.