Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Sorkin Redux

The NY Times ran a long article on Aaron Sorkin and his coming "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." I ran my own view of this early in this blog's history. Vain enough to think some of you newer readers might want to look at it. Don't tell me if I'm wrong.

Deep Thoughts on West Wing and Sorkin
As we wait until tomorrow night to discover Leo's body, John Spencer's death signifying the demise of "West Wing" itself, just a couple of thoughts about the show and its creator, Aaron Sorkin, and what his future show may hold. I haven't watched the show much since it jumped the shark to appease the incoming Republican administration, contributing to the so-called compromise and bipartisanship (aka appeasement to the rolling presidential theo-monarchy) that the DC CW insisted was needed in that period's America. A Republican Speaker of the House who gained the White House through a teleplay writer's fantasy would agree that the former Democratic president was now again competent to retake the position? And, don't get me started on the mostly ethical, pro-choice Republican nominee for the office in the next election.

Still, in its first few years, it was among the most compelling shows on air and did contribute to a national sense that public service could actually be what our forefathers had idealized. The Christmas episode of its first season counts as one of the best dramatic productions this nation has ever produced. But mainly it was the blending of the characters, principles, and dialogue that made it unique, and that, of course, was the result of Aaron Sorkin.

Sorkin is one of the most interesting (not always in a good way) entertainers we have. "A Few Good Men" and "The American President" have stuck in our memories for the "You want me on that wall" and "You fight the fights worth fighting" speeches that few other humans are capable of. I have the two seasons of his "Sports Night" on DVD and hold some of them in the same near reverence. While not cultural memes, I get the same feelings from Danny's apology to his deceased brother, his apology to Bobbi Bernstein, and his sharing of a sandwich with a homeless intruder in his office as I do from the "West Wing" Christmas episode, and Casey's nailing of Dana's beau for his affair with the impossibly constructed Sally ranks with anything Columbo pulled on some too-smart-for-their-own-good murderer. (Want more details? You can get both seasons in one box.) It wasn't just the cast chemistry or the marvelous dialogues and trialogues that made Sorkin so watchable. It was also that sense that you were always about to see something no one else would even think of.

Which, of course, is also apparently Sorkin's biggest problem. He can't just crank things out like other shows and writers, making his budgets and deadlines constant sources of irritation. But that's not all. Watching Sorkin is like watching an extraordinarily "gifted child," one whose interest flits here and there, usually to something really cool, but rarely staying long enough to see the point through until he's on to something else. As much as I loved "Sports Night," I understood why it didn't get a bigger audience, with its frequently manic plots and multiple ends left untied or looped with an indifference that didn't live up to what had gotten them there. It's not an accident that the memories I cherish from the show come from the first season and not the second. He had the same problems with "West Wing," which is why my inevitable annoyance with his flitting had already reduced my enthusiasm for the show before the network suits decided to abort him and the talent and energy that he brought to it.

Now he has a new show coming out next season, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," starring two former West Wingers, Bradley Whitford and Matthew Perry, along with Amanda Peet. Will I watch? Of course. This first season will, 99% guaranteed, be one of the best seasons television has seen. While those three headliners will be worth watching by themselves, we know that the combination of them with Sorkin's normal talents, plus having a plotline that will allow him to take off on network geniuses even more than he got the chance to on "Sports Night," will lead us again into "what is he going to do next?" land. An additional pleasure will be seeing old favorites from his previous shows in new roles (permanent or guest) in this new adventure. The guy who bought the show on "Sports Night" was an FBI guy on "West Wing." Josh Molina was great as a regular in both shows. Remember Felicity Huffman's malicious turn on "West Wing," a delicious reversal of her Dana character on "Sports Night"? And, of course, there was the assistant wardrobe mistress on "Sports Night" who gently but determinedly made Casey realize how much he owed to the chief wardrobe woman on another "geez, he did it to me again" episode. Her name. Janel Moloney, who finally got her man last week on "West Wing." She'll probably keep him, but, if Sorkin were still writing it, you couldn't hold your breath. Which is why I'm really looking forward to "Studio 60." At least the first year or two.