This week, EW University takes a look at the people who helped shape the modern TV landscape. Today’s TV auteur is Aaron Sorkin, whose distinct voice pushed network comedies out of the ‘90s and network dramas into the White House. Class is now in session!
When Sports Night premiered in 1998, it was met with critical praise, fanatical devotion on the part of its 10 million or so viewers (which at the time made it the 45th most-watched show), and a revived conversation about the future of the laughtrack for network comedies. Sports Night debuted with canned laughs, but it was so out of place that ABC couldn’t help but eventually side with Sorkin and the show’s fans. Out went the laughtrack, and in came an era where the differences between multicamera and single-camera comedies became normal TV fan knowledge, not just inside-baseball musings.
Sports Night’s contemporaries were Home Improvement; Friends; Fraiser; Spin City; Suddenly Susan; That ’70s Show; Everybody Loves Raymond; King of Queens; Will & Grace; Mad About You; Just Shoot Me; Moesha; Dharma & Greg; Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place; The Drew Carey Show; The Nanny; 3rd Rock from the Sun; and Newsradio. Noticing a pattern here, other than, wowza, there were a lot more comedies on the air 10 years ago? Network comedies of the late ’90s had a particular style and rhythm, and a lot of similar tendencies: a classic sitcom pacing of set-‘em-ups and knock-‘em-downs, frequent big-name guest stars, a lot of kooky neighbors or catch-phrasey foils. The closest thing Sorkin has to a “holy crap” a la Raymond is “shoe money tonight!” – and that’s only on one episode. (And it’s the name of his production company. Ah, trivia.)
In its first season, Sports Night earned Sorkin an Emmy nomination and a Humanitas prize, and the episodes for which he was recognized reflect some of what Sports Night had that other comedies didn’t: a sense of seriousness and consequence. “The Apology” starts with Dan feeling misrepresented in a magazine article – wah-wah, famous-people problems – but winds its way towards a wrenching on-air apology delivered to his dead brother. (It also marks the first of many occasions that Sorkin, who himself has a history of drug addiction, wrote about substance abuse.)
“Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee” has a similar climax – an unexpected on-air monologue – with an even more political theme: a Confederate flag flying at a college football stadium.
Other episodes that season touched on domestic violence (“Mary Pat Shelby”), religious intolerance (“Ten Wickets”), and a major character’s stroke. For a comedy, Sports Night covered a lot of serious territory, and that, maybe even moreso than rapid talking, is Sorkin’s calling card: finding hilarity in serious situations (“But that’s all going to change once I grow a goatee”) and bringing a level of seriousness to silly ones (“I’ve read Dr. Zhivago cover to cover, but that doesn’t make me the czar”).
Sports Night wasn’t long for this world, though. What made it special also made it relatively unpopular, and the show’s second season slid into slightly darker territory; Dan’s chronic depression becomes an issue, Jeremy and Natalie break up, and the (fictional) network’s ongoing budget issues haunt the staff. By then, Sorkin was already pulling double duty: In addition to the 22-episode second season of Sports Night, he was writing what would become his Emmy golden goose: The West Wing.
The densely written, deeply romanticized drama came on the heels of a culture-consuming sex scandal and carried into a nationwide turn towards social conservatism. Despite the political shifts, Americans remained obsessed with Sorkin’s Jed Bartlet: ethical, intellectual, and, when necessary, intimidating. The show’s mile-a-minute banter (and director Thomas Schlamme’s signature swooping shots and walk-and-talks) set a new standard for jargon-heavy dialogue: Was “OEOB” ever defined on the show? “D triple-C”? Even more than Sports Night did, West Wing relied on viewers not catching every word or understanding every reference.
In its first season, The West Wing was nominated for 18 Emmys, and won nine, including two for Sorkin (both of which he shared; one for writing “In Excelsis Deo,” the first of what became the series’ touchstone Christmas episodes, and the other for best drama, which was shared among all the executive producers). Over the course of his tenure there – Sorkin left the show after its fourth season, but the series continued for three more years – he’d take home three more best drama honors and two Peabodys.
But they can’t all be winners. The much-anticipated Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip had the makings for the Next Big Drama – except that it wasn’t good. It turned out the one thing Sorkin couldn’t make funny was an actual comedy sketch series, and the show’s one short season quickly collapsed under the weight of its self-importance. Sadly for Sorkin fans, it emphasized every bad habit from his previous series without compensating as well as they did. Female characters strained credibility in new and degrading ways (which seemed pardonable when it was CJ), politics took precedent over storytelling (which made sense more on West Wing), romance seemed not so much romantic as stalkerish and weird (except that was cute when it was Dan and Rebecca on Sports Night), and the characters just could not get over how clever and charming they were (the characters on Sports Night and West Wing were a lot more clever and charming).
It’s maybe not surprising, then, that Sorkin’s TV days look like they’re behind him, which is too bad, especially for fans of fandoms. Sorkin notoriously jumped on message boards, and his followers – who he occasionally made fun of – latched on to his shows with the fervor usually reserved for cult classics. It’s enough to leave us, Jed Bartlet-like, wondering what’s next….
More on TV Auteurs in EW University:
Aaron Spelling: The king of guilty-pleasure TV