Why Aaron Sorkin's Work in Television Deserves a Case Study
Casey Duby ’21 / Emertainment Monthly TV Section Editor
Aaron Sorkin is arguably the biggest name in screenwriting alive right now, which his Oscar and five Emmys can attest to, not to mention the laundry list of A-list stars who have fought for roles in his films. Even if you don’t know his name, it’s impossible to not have heard of at least one of his movies (A Few Good Men, The Social Network, and Steve Jobs are the big ones).
He started out on Broadway and was met with immediate success with A Few Good Men, which he then adapted for the screen. His work is currently back on Broadway with his adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, and his style across every medium shows his strength in writing for the stage. In fact, his work on-screen feeling so reminiscent of theater is exactly what makes him stand out. His reliance on dialogue and minimal action is something precious few writers are able to get away with in a medium that is all about motion and pleasing the eye.
His movies are relatively unanimously respected, with his trademark rapid-fire dialogue and intelligent characters resonating with viewers. He breaks countless screenwriting rules and invents new ones that only he can follow. Rather than criticize or correct his unorthodox methods, people trip over themselves to get his work on a screen. A couple hours in his world requires constant attention and leaves audiences satisfied, inspired, and often educated. His style and dialogue, consistent across all his films, sets him in a class of his own.
After a couple hours, however, audiences and critics alike are no longer so sure whether “unique” means “great” or even “good”. His television shows have the same characteristics of his films, but an extended stay within his work reveals the blind spots he creates by playing to his strengths so intently. All of his shows, for which he insists on being the showrunner and pretty much sole writer of every single episode, have elicited strong reactions of both adoration and disgust.
Sorkin has created four television shows: Sports Night, a comedy centered around the production of a sports commentary show, The West Wing, an optimistic look at the operations of the White House, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a behind-the-scenes examination of a fictional late-night sketch comedy show, and The Newsroom, a critical take on the field of journalism. All of these shows were met with varied success, but a look at all four of them side by side reveals their striking similarity. Across each series, Sorkin has recycled episode titles, character arcs, lines of dialogue, stars, and even the plot to all four of his pilot episodes.
For starters, all four shows take a behind-the-scenes workplace approach and use this setting to make a more general point about how the moral standards need to be raised in the field.
His main characters across the board are intelligent, well-spoken and highly motivated underdogs attempting to reinstate morality in a field they believe to be lacking it. The shows all have a similar sound with his rhythmic dialogue, and they resemble each other visually as well with the “walk-and-talk” that has become known as Sorkin’s staple.
He gets all of this across right off the bat, as in each pilot a character is at risk of losing his job after publicly decrying a moral dilemma in their field. In the opener of Sports Night, Sorkin’s first series, Casey McCall (Peter Krause), co-anchor of the sports show-within-a-show, is in hot water for a poor attitude. McCall is going through a divorce, which contributes to this attitude, but he also laments a decrease in ethics that he’s observed at work. In The West Wing, deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) fears losing his job after insulting the religious right on national TV. In Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip the showrunner of the comedy program is fired by the network after interrupting a live sketch to lament a perceived downfall in comedy. In The Newsroom, popular, moderate news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) goes on a tirade during a Q&A at Northeastern, poetically detailing America’s fall from greatness. What saves all of them (save for Studio 60’s showrunner, who we never see again) is that, as inappropriate as all of their outbursts were, they were incredibly well-spoken, and most importantly, they were right. At least in the eyes of the show.
The pilot episode plotlines are just one of many that we see repeated from show to show. The executive producer of Studio 60’s show-within-a-show is forced to publicly address a drug addiction, while The West Wing’s chief of staff deals with the fallout of his alcoholism being leaked to the press. In addition, there is also at least one episode in each series titled “What Kind of Day Has it Been?”, and his actors’ ability to move with him from show to show reveals just how similar his characters are. Matthew Perry made a multi-episode guest appearance on The West Wing, doing many scenes with star Bradley Whitford. The two went on to co-star in Studio 60. Studio 60 also gave guest appearances to Felicity Huffman and Allison Janney of Sports Night and West Wing respectively. Josh Malina of Sports Night became a regular on The West Wing halfway through the series. The Newsroom stars Jeff Daniels, who went on to star in Steve Jobs and is currently on stage in To Kill a Mockingbird, while fellow Newsroom star John Gallagher Jr. guested on The West Wing as well.
The fact that Aaron Sorkin’s shows are so strikingly similar means that they are all strong representations of his work. The slight differences in each series give insight into Sorkin’s strength and weaknesses as a writer and reveal why he is allowed to go where no other writer can, despite his sometimes-glaring shortcomings.
Sports Night was Sorkin’s first show, and his only comedy. The series followed co-anchors of the nightly sports commentary show as they navigated their personal and professional lives. The show was wholesome and endearing, but also revealed that Sorkin is much too long-winded for the 30-minute episodes. Sports Night didn’t feel like the typical sitcom, especially compared with its competition when it aired from 1998-2000. In some ways this was refreshing, but ABC’s cancellation of the series after two short seasons confirmed that Sorkin’s fondness of monologues and moral-heavy plotlines make him much more suited for drama. NBC offered to pick up the series for a third season, but Sorkin declined, having already begun work on The West Wing.
The West Wing, easily Sorkin’s best and most well-known piece of television, aired for seven years on NBC, though Sorkin left the show after four. The series, loosely inspired by the Clinton administration, was an elongation of his lesser known film The American President. Filled with hope and passion, The West Wing was a heartwarming and inspiring break from reality for audiences. Where his other shows failed, this ensemble series succeeded in his obvious goal: to give Americans something to aspire to, and to encourage them to take action towards that goal. Even today, twenty years after the show’s premiere, it is still having an effect in America. For a day, the Obama administration’s communications department took to social media and answered the public question’s in honor of West Wing’s iconic ‘Big Block of Cheese Day’. The cast of the show is largely politically active and regularly gets together at ‘Rock the Vote’ events, as well as many others. Quotes and scenes from the show have become immortalized in text posts and memes and are still used to make political points. The show was even a large inspiration for Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Broadway smash-hit Hamilton. The West Wing’s narcissistic, male-dominated universe is typical of Sorkin’s style, but is also slightly more excusable in this case than others. Though they are outnumbered, the female characters are equally as strong, and despite their hubris, the good intentions and kind hearts of all of them are clear. The biggest flaw that is evident in rewatches is the lack of season or series-long arcs. The majority of the episodes can stand alone, and when a plotline does require multiple episodes to address, it is usually forgotten again after just two or three, not returning until much later.
The Newsroom is easily the most polarizing of the four. The opening episode featured a several minute-long speech about how America is no longer the greatest country in the world, at the fault of journalists and college students. Set in the recent past with real events and news outlets to contextualize its fictional news broadcast, The Newsroom feels like a much more direct and aggressive callout than The West Wing did. While there were many supporters of the show, just as outspoken were its opponents who took offense. Journalists felt called out for being bad at their jobs, and some media consumers felt equally attacked for being bad at theirs. Whether this callout was deserved or not, the backlash it received certainly affected the show. Despite a major theme of The Newsroom being not to sacrifice integrity for ratings, the second season saw a major shift in plot and tone as it veered away from its political and moral statements to focus more on its characters. The Newsroom became a workplace melodrama that lacked much of its original punch before ending abruptly after a shortened third season (a decision that was entirely Sorkin’s, as HBO had no intention of cancelling the series).
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Sorkin’s most short-lived series, is the prime instance of his weaknesses coming together in a way that his strengths simply could not outweigh. Studio 60 went from the most anticipated show of the year, to the most disappointing, to the most forgettable, in record time. Premiering in 2006, all of Hollywood rushed to audition for the show that ended up starring Bradley Whitford, fresh off of West Wing, and Matthew Perry, still in the afterglow of Friends, as well as many other names that either already were or would soon become big. Studio 60 antagonized late-night sketch comedy in the same way his other shows berated the fields they are set in and was met with a lukewarm response. Despite its compelling characters, a pilot that can go down in history as one of the best, and rapid-fire dialogue that has come to be expected, something about the show fell flat. The biggest reason for this is that no one really thought there was anything wrong with the current state of late-night sketch comedy. The other reason is that the characters Sorkin depicted as the best of the best in the industry weren’t very good at it. The late-night show-within-a-show wasn’t funny, and the only sketches that made me laugh at all were the ones that were set up for the sole purpose of being rejected for not meeting his ambiguous measurement of ‘funny’. Despite all of that, Studio 60 is my favorite of Sorkin’s shows, and its cancellation after just one season is a shame. This show balanced theme and character arcs better than any other. It was consistent and satisfying, and despite its pointed criticism of late-night sketch, it was actually milder than it is given credit for. Where The Newsroom was a ruthless attack on journalism, Studio 60 was more of a lament on the difficulty of the craft of writing, and even through the lens of sketch comedy its self-reflective and autobiographical nature is obvious.
Studio 60 was reacted to in the extreme, the intent taken out of context, and its strengths ignored- all things that happened with Sorkin’s other shows to a lesser extent. Studio 60 was the show that caught up to him, and it truly shows his style as this time his strengths didn’t overshadow his weaknesses. Aaron Sorkin is not subtle. He has a point to make, and he is not afraid to take aim at others in order to make it. This very unabashed quality of work is what makes it interesting, and his exceptional talent isn’t what’s being questioned. However, especially today, when offense is so easily taken, if he’s going to start casting blame, he’d better be right. Studio 60’s failure explains why all of his others were allowed to succeed. Simply put: in every instance but this one, he was right.