A Few Thoughts on Aaron Sorkin

Today, The Social Network—aka “The Facebook Movie”—comes out to widespread anticipation and Oscar buzz.  Upon first glance, I was barely interested in this project, but then I learned that Aaron Sorkin wrote it.  And yes, the trailer was promising, the subject matter naturally relevant, and the hype and advance buzz have been so deafening that it would have been a 2010 awards’ season must-see anyway, BUT…without Sorkin’s name attached to it, I wouldn’t have nearly the same kinds of hopes for it.

It’s a shame that—as most popular entertainers tend to get—Sorkin has received his fair share of backlash over the years.  His rapid-fire dialogue style has been parodied and mocked by those who don’t seem to realize that it succeeds not really because of its structure but by the quality of the words.  His last movie, Charlie Wilson’s War, was met with yawns, even from me, and his last TV show, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” was saddled with unfair criticism and never given the chance to succeed.

Yet none of that dampens my interest in The Social Network, largely because the man’s peak is so high, and because he has so frequently reached it.

For most people, it started with A Few Good Men, the Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson courtroom drama that was actually dramatic.  Aside from some unnecessary foreshadowing, Sorkin’s script thrived both in its structure and individual pieces of dialogue. (“You can’t handle the truth!”)

But for me, it all started with The West Wing, the immensely-acclaimed political drama centered around a fictional president’s inner circle of advisers.  With a group of competent and devoted public servants representing something of a utopian vision, Sorkin created three-dimensional characters, challenged viewers’ intelligence, and infused episodes with comedy and wrenching drama alike.

The show was aided by superior acting across the board (not only by the principals but also guest stars like Timothy Busfield, Ron Silver, Oliver Platt, Mary Louise-Parker, and Matthew Perry), with special mention given to the actors who played, not coincidentally, the two most well-rounded and interesting characters: Bradley Whitford as Josh, the Deputy Chief of Staff, and Richard Schiff as Toby, the Communications Director.

While Sorkin wrote very few mediocre episodes, WW’s best moments typically featured one of those two characters.  The exceptional Christmas episodes in the first two seasons softened both of them up with nary a hint of melodrama or pop psychology.  The episode in which Toby learns about the president’s concealed multiple sclerosis not only captures a pitch-perfect tonal dichotomy—his anger contrasted with the levity of the rest of the staff—but also features a blinding, devastating monologue wherein Schiff blasts the president for his lack of foresight.  Does he go too far?  Conceivably, but he’s right, too, in and of his points.

The relationship between each of those characters and the president always represented the most fascinating dynamics.  Similarly, the best staff conflicts occurred between Josh and Toby.  In 4-1, an outstanding hour-and-a-half double-episode that merits multiple viewings despite its running time, they debate the philosophical nature of their candidate’s campaign style matched against a challenger whom they do not respect but who nevertheless has political potential.  In 4-10, Toby doesn’t understand why Josh would give the former’s scarred father a second chance with him, but Josh comes back with, “You don’t know what I know—that I’d give anything to have a living father who was a felon or a sister with a past.”

Part of Sorkin’s gift was the way he infiltrated his episodes with deeper philosophical questions about governance.  He was particularly intrigued at concepts of muddled authority; who would be in charge if the president was suddenly incapacitated for any reason?  This notion informed the beginning of season two, Toby’s MS episode, and the brilliant end of the 4th season.

Said season—the best of his 4, a truly remarkable achievement—represented the end of Sorkin’s tenure with the show, as a contract dispute with NBC forced him off the air.  The concluding storylines left him retiring at the top of his game; the birth of Toby’s children and Zoe Bartlet’s kidnapping provided incredibly powerful moments, and the final shot capped it all off.

When I told someone that, by that season’s end, the lack of a vice-president was going to matter, the response was, “Oh, God, they’re not going to kill the president, are they?”  And that, of course, would have been lame.  Instead, Sorkin wrote his own metaphor.  The final image of Martin Sheen walking out of the oval office, having abdicated power to his political enemy but leaving before the coronation was complete, angry and frustrated and resolute at once, was the perfect way for Sorkin to walk away.  There might have been a show beyond that, but there didn’t need to be.

Sorkin returned to TV with “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” a drama that aired on NBC for just one season back in 2006-07.  Thanks to the success of WW and the strong cast, including old Sorkin hands Perry, Whitford, and Busfield, the show was one of the season’s most anticipated.  For whatever reasons, though, it never gained traction with an audience, blogs trashed it so much that Sorkin became fed up with the Internet, critical reaction seemed muted, and NBC canned it after just one season.

To be sure, S60 was not its predecessor.  But it, without question, deserved another season.  Especially when considering that the baseline for network television appeals more to advanced primates than humans, the fact that S60 didn’t succeed can perhaps be viewed as an indictment of its superior level of intelligence.  Arrogant as that may sound, it was my primary thought as I went through its season a couple weeks ago.

Now, you might say, WW was smart…and it was.  But S60 possessed neither as many recognizable actors (Martin Sheen, Rob Lowe) nor a subject matter as inherently compelling.  (No one even watches SNL anymore, so why would people want to watch a show about making it?)  And WW never really cleaned up in the ratings category anyway.  Based on a ranking of all shows during a week, the episodes of the first 4 WW seasons averaged weekly ranks of 27th, 13th, 7th, and 26th.  Higher numbers than S60 drew, but it was really the critics who ate it up.

In S60, Sorkin drags on the Matt-Harriet roller coaster too long without sufficient momentum, and the storyline and resolution of the captured POW brother at the end are unconvincing.  The personal subplots (such as Danny and Jordan’s relationship) are less developed and give the actors less to do than those in WW.

Yet S60 has some great episodes in its own right, especially the fourth one, “West Coast Delay,” and others that focus more on the professional, rather than personal, aspects.  Sorkin still created a cast of characters who had room to grow, if NBC had given them more time.  Especially in the early episodes (and in a couple exchanges between Matt/Danny and studio exec Jack Rudolph that come late in the season), the back-and-forth dialogue still sparkles, and one can sense that the writing is simply on a higher plane than one typically sees in television—free of clichés and easy answers, lines challenging what comes before and after them.  It’s the kind of dialogue that you watch, smiling at every turn, refreshed that the conversation never veers towards simplicity or overwroughtness.

Many commented that S60 was a metashow reflecting the way Sorkin worked himself, and there seem to be indications that this is true.  Matt’s relationship with Harriet was supposedly based upon Sorkin’s relationship with the actress Kristen Chenoweth, with whom he had arguments similar to the ones his characters have.  And there’s more than a hint of pride (and irony) in the line, “Nobody can write 90 minutes of television every week by themselves; he’d be dead by the sixth show.”  Sorkin is known to write his show’s episodes single-handedly, and at the beginning of West Wing’s run, he was writing two shows at once (“Sports Night” being the other).

Sorkin never submits to laziness, but he’s coyly enjoyed reusing certain plot points and lines of dialogue throughout his works.  (For example, it’s hard to see a mere coincidence between him assigning drug problems to Leo in WW and Matt and Danny in S60, given that he’s faced similar problems in his life; and in American President, for example, Michael Douglas makes numerous comments that Martin Sheen paraphrased later on WW).  But I’ll be interested to see if anything seeps into The Social Network, which seems to exist in a category all to its own.  Either way, thanks to that and an adaptation of Michael Lewis’s iconic baseball book Moneyball on the horizon, I’m feverish with anticipation of where he’ll turn next.

Given that Network has opened to a ridiculous 98 score on Metacritic—with no recognizable actors carrying it—I’d say the rest of the world is with me on that.

Dan and Brian from Earn This now have a film review site and podcast:

The Goods: Film Reviews

The Goods: A Film Podcast

Available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, and more.

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