Wednesday, September 14, 2011
800 Words: The Aaron Sorkin Problem: Part 2 - The West Wing
(The West Wing characters in embryo.)
Sorkin literally created the premise of The West Wing on the spot at a lunch meeting when he couldn’t come up with anything better. He seemed to take the entire Andrew Sheppard White House and merely give it a TV series. Jed Bartlett is Andrew Sheppard, only now a true genius rather than merely brilliant. Leo McGarry is A.J. MacInerny, only this Chief of Staff is arguably a more accomplished politician than the president himself. We clearly see earlier incarnations of Toby, Josh and CJ, only they’re now played by actors of a higher paygrade than the TV version like David Paymer, Michael J. Fox (what the hell is he doing in a roll that small?) and Anna Deavere Smith.
The result should not have been nearly as good as it was. I have friends, very knowledgeable friends whose opinions I greatly respect, who say that The West Wing is one of the two or three greatest TV shows ever made. That people with good judgement can believe that makes me incredulous. But even I have to admit that The West Wing is a miraculous step forward for a writer who until then showed no talent for anything but style.
(Actual arguments. Not propaganda.)
Let’s give credit where it’s due. The West Wing tried to be an extremely substantial show that gave air to real problems and genuinely exposed its audience to every side of every issue they tackled. The well-propagated argument that this show was liberal propaganda is utter crap. The West Wing was as even-handed a piece of political fiction as America has yet to see. The problem is not that The West Wing was left-wing propaganda. The problem is that it was left-wing pornography. Sorkin took admirable pains to portray every side of American politics exactly as it is. Left-wing corruption invades government just as right-wing corruption does, and conservatives are as capable of acting with integrity as liberals. It’s not Sorkin’s fault that more of today’s Republicans are corrupt than today’s Democrats. The only problem is that in spite of the painfully realistic portrayal of contemporary Washington, the Democrats still always win.
The problem was never in his analysis - with a rolodex of consultants that included Lawrence O’Donnell, Dee Dee Meyers, Marlon Fitzwater and David Axelrod - that would have been nearly impossible. The problem was that in spite of such painstaking realism, he still insisted on instating moments that never happen in politics: happy endings, the triumph of virtue, people listening to reason. How many episodes of The West Wing build up jaw-dropping momentum only to be killed in the final ten minutes by a wholly implausible, saccharine, false ending?
There are moments in The West Wing so powerful that you wonder if you’re watching something Shakespearean. Of course, the Sorkin verbiage is there throughout - Sorkin has never written a scene in which characters sound like anything but Aaron Sorkin. But Sorkin finally learned how to tone things down. For all the fast-paced action, there are scenes of The West Wing which are so quiet as to make you gasp - it’s a trait which Sorkin rarely again exhibited.
Let’s just take the most famous example of the entire series, when Bartlet asks for the doors of the National Cathedral to be sealed and speaks to God as an equal.
Let’s forget that it only takes the Secret Service five seconds to evacuate and seal a Cathedral after a funeral, let’s forget that the idea of a President concealing his MS from the media for three years is absurd, let’s forget that Martin Sheen pronounces the Latin word ‘cruciatus’ differently the two times he says it, let’s forget that he refers to Josh Lyman as his ‘son’ when he can’t stop yelling at him for two seasons, let’s forget that Sorkin killed Mrs. Landingham off without telling the actress until the day she got the script. Let’s just focus on the fact that we’re watching a larger-than-life figure with the charisma of King Lear, addressing God in a howl that would horrify Job. When Josiah Bartlett curses God, God fears the coming wrath.
There are moments throughout Sorkin’s seasons of The West Wing which carry all the mythical weight of Wagner. And just as in Wagner, they’re almost enough to make you forget that everything which builds up to them is completely ridiculous. There is no president in modern American history who would feel compunctions about targeted assassination. Yet when we see Bartlet’s reluctance, we feel the weight of a moral horror.
Jed Bartlet is a giant, not a human. When we see his doddering New England eccentric persona, we quickly realize that this is just the Clark Kent-cover put on by Superman. But who would know after watching The West Wing at its best that this is the only type of character which Aaron Sorkin is capable of writing?
...Well....that’s not quite true. Yes, Bartlet, Leo, CJ, Sam, Josh, Charlie and Donna are all subtle variations on the same template - characters too good, too elegant, too intelligent, too authoritative, too likeable for our world - the federal government equivalent of Ozzie and Harriet. But then, there’s Toby Ziegler...
Toby is the only character in The West Wing who seems to realize that he’s living in an implausible universe. He’s the only character who does not seem to feel entitled to success -- he is neither well-dressed, nor good looking nor possessed of a friendly disposition. He is The West Wing’s one concession to reality. He is the only character who seems to talk in a distinctive language of his own that sounds different from every other character. He is an angry man with real individuality who seems to have wandered over from the set of The Wire. He is the only member of Bartlet’s staff willing to routinely challenge him, and the only member of the staff who thinks that the administration may not always be doing the right thing. The rest of the characters seem to walk around him with a mixture of condescension and fear. And it’s no wonder why; everybody else on The West Wing is fantasy, Toby is reality. His existence proves that Aaron Sorkin can write real characters, he just doesn’t want to.
Like every other organization in the world, the White House is run by Toby Zieglers, not Sam Seabornes. The West Wing could have been a show about how Washington really works. It could have been a cast of dozens of flawed people who between them portray how government works (and doesn’t) for a network television audience. Instead, we got a fairy tale - a decent comedy/drama that often seemed as though it just happened to take place in the White House. The problem was never that The West Wing was a bad show. The problem was that it should have been one of the two or three greatest shows ever made - and fell so short of that goal that you can only bemoan what might have been.
(At least there are no scenes like this in The West Wing....)
Unfortunately, Sorkin’s whole metier is to take extremely important subjects and charm us by trivializing them. Wouldn’t it be funny to see the President of the United States high on painkillers or dialing the Butterball hotline so he can demonstrate how to carve a turkey? Well, yes, it is funny. But aren’t there better things that we can see the most powerful man in the world doing?
But let’s give the man some credit, The West Wing looked to be on the cusp of breaking this mold for two years. For the first two years, it looked as though The West Wing might have transcended the usual canned TV fare to become a true epic. And after 9/11 we had every reason to expect that this show would rise up to the challenges of the new era - imagine Jed Bartlet as a wartime president who loses a daughter in a bombing. So it’s all the more a shame that Sorkin chose that moment to realize that he was a coke addict.
Let’s face it, a pace like the one at which Aaron Sorkin wrote could not have been set without some kind of stimulant. The second season of Sports Night and the first of The West Wing aired simultaneously, with Sorkin writing or rewriting every word we heard on television. How could he find time to sleep - let alone come down from a binge? I have no idea what Sorkin was like during this period, but I picture him staying in the same room 24-hours-a-day with 4 padded walls, no pictures, a small table, a laptop, Toby’s rubber ball and Tony Montana’s mountain of cocaine in which he hourly buries his face. I can’t imagine how anybody would write fifty scripts a year otherwise.
And let’s also face that all the elements of cocaine addiction found their way into his scripts: the fast-forward talking, the inability to stay in a single place, and the utter paranoia of Sorkin’s virtuous characters against an outside world that would dare dismantle their utopia. The only part of addiction which never made its way into his scripts is the actual experience of it. Where is an Aaron Sorkin story about a drug mule or a rehab doctor or a violent addict? Surely Sorkin knows something about all of them, and a writer who has injected so much of his personal life into his scripts could easily find ways to make these characters compelling. Aaron Sorkin shouldn’t have been writing Studio 60, he should have been writing Breaking Bad.
(Season 3 decline on display)
People say that The West Wing declined after Sorkin left, but the truth is that The West Wing was already declining by season 3. I have no way of knowing this, but I do wonder if the zen-like stasis in which people usually exit rehab numbed Sorkin to the realities of 9/11. The West Wing began as a kind of idealized vision of what we’d hoped the Clinton administration would be. But by year three, it became stuck in the 90’s when the 00’s demanded attention. The years after 9/11 handed Sorkin a golden opportunity for a grand epic which could have taken in every issue of the Bush years. Instead, we got bit sketches about re-election, targeted assassination, debate camp, kidnapping and terrorist plots that were always stopped. Many of these were supposedly conceived in response to post-9/11 events, but everything on The West Wing was weak stuff compared to what we saw on the nightly news. Over The West Wing’s seven seasons, the Bartlet White House never encountered a true life-or-death crisis. Sorkin, and his successors, spent the entire series writing about how the Clinton administration should have handled their problems when they could have extracted so much better material if they’d moved on to how the Bush administration should handle theirs.
(President Walter Sobchak)
And finally, Sorkin’s natural urge to curbstomp the head the feeds him got in the way. Universal wanted the show to make more money, and so they impeded on his creative control. Sorkin responded by writing a Presidammerung in which the President’s youngest daughter is abducted by terrorists and the President temporarily invokes the 25th amendment to cede control of the White House to the arch-conservative Speaker of the House, John Goodman. "See if you can resolve this, schmucks" it seems to say. It was the latest in a string of f--- yous to the people who bankroll him. Sorkin may well have been right to walk away from The West Wing. But rather than get into bed with people whom he knew he wouldn’t get along with, he could have spent those years writing Sports Night at HBO, and producing a show that was exactly the way he wanted it. Some people are attracted to the impossible like bugs to light. But if you’re going to attempt the impossible, why stop halfway? Why wasn’t The West Wing a modern Iliad? Sorkin’s gift should have settled for no less.
(One of the worst examples of self-congratulation in TV history...until Studio 60)