Thursday, June 21, 2007

Let's talk about the good stuff

As NBC burns off the penultimate episode of Studio 60 tonight, its seems right to take a few minutes and focus on all the good things the show's creator Aaron Sorkin has given us over the years, rather than dogpiling on the guy for one semi-failure in an otherwise spectacular career. So I'm put on my Pollyanna outfit, which totally makes me look fat, and am ready to tally up a few of the Sorkin moments for which I am grateful. Um, all of them are from Sports Night and The West Wing. Sorry, Studio 60.

What Sorkin Has Given Us:

A new appreciation of ESPN
Sports Night ruined ESPN's Sports Center for me forever but in a really good way by showing how much damn fun its fictional co-hosts Dan and Casey were having during those commercial breaks. Dan and Casey were Version 1.0 of the "your co-workers are your friends and your friends are like family" motif that would perfected in The West Wing. Dan and Casey were good guys, good friends and the purveyors of sports-themed lunacy. You can't ask for much more than that. And because of Sports Night, I'll always picture Kenny Mayne as a prettier, crazier Peter Krause, and I'm okay with that.

A president so good he couldn't possibly be real
Every president and presidential candidate since The West Wing debuted must just shake their fists in fury at the gods of fictional characters, ruing the creation of Jed Bartlet. He had that Nobel Prize under his belt. He could yell at God in Latin. He loved his wife. He always tried to do the right thing, not just the easy thing. And best of all, he wasn't above calling the Butterball Hotline every now and then. From his unforgettable entrance in the pilot -- "I am the Lord your God" -- to his very last scene flying home to New Hampshire on Air Force One, Bartlet made millions of Americans wish for a leader like him.

Josh and Donna sittin' in a tree
I'm just gonna come right out and say it. Josh and Donna were probably my favorite TV couple of all time. Yeah, he was a cocky, know-it-all egomaniac and she was Exposition Girl way too often, but you'd be hard-pressed to name another fictional couple more devoted to each other than those two crazy kids. And that whole "I wouldn't stop for red lights" speech in 17 People? Pure romantic gold.

Workplace friendships to envy
Sorkin and Joss Whedon share one writerly fetish: the notion that friends make better family than those actual blood relative types. Sorkin took this to new heights with The West Wing. In part, it worked because of the workplace in question: a White House filled with people so dedicated they slept head down on their desks, drooling over top secret documents. You had to believe these guys were like family or, well, it would just seem sad. With father figures Jed and Leo, mom Abbey, squabbling siblings Josh, Sam and CJ, favorite son Charlie, cranky uncle Toby and that pleasant but spacy cousin Donna, they were so close-knit and loving that it made you wish you were sitting with them at your own Thanksgiving table rather than with that uncle who won't stop pulling weird things from your ear.

The greatest ensemble ever to act on TV
Hands down, The West Wing featured the best ensemble of actors ever assembled for a TV show. There were no weak links in the chain, from veterans like Martin Sheen and the late John Spencer to those who'd worked forever but never gained recognition like Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff and Allison Janney to relative neophytes like Dule Hill and Janel Moloney. Even former Brat Packer Rob Lowe had a chance to shine like never before. Each and every actor took Sorkin's words and ran with them without ever looking back.

Reasons to cry like small, depressive infants
Man oh man, Sorkin had a way with the heartbreaking moments. When Toby meets his newborn twins after a night of worrying he wouldn't love them, greeting them with the words, "I didn't realize babies come with hats. You guys crack me up," it's hard to imagine a more tender parent-child moment. I rank the entire scene second only to Leo's monologue to Josh in Noel:

I'll mail you some Kleenex.

Robert Guillaume in something way better than Benson
Forget Felicity Huffman. Forget Peter Krause and Josh Charles. Robert Guillaume was the real draw on Sports Night. He was the gentle center in the midst of a weekly storm of fast-paced dialogue, off-the-wall situations and general hubbubery. The man held it all together, even after his stroke. Any episode he wasn't it suffered from his absence. That's the sign of a good actor. Plus, hey, he played The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. Top that, Krause!

A painful understanding of writer's block
This is a personal thing for me. No one has ever shown the misery and stupid humor of writer's block better than Sorkin. I always looked forward to those state of the union speech episodes of West Wing because I knew I'd see speechwriters Toby and Sam torment themselves over crafting perfection. There was Toby lighting his drafts on fire and wandering the halls, silent and in search of pie. There was Sam pounding his fist on the desk and working all night to get a 25-word presidential birthday greeting "just right." Sorkin showed a love of the written word that bordered on reverie. You don't see that too often in this world and that's a shame.

A belief in public service
So, how many of those young people interning in Washington and slaving away on all those presidential campaigns do you think got inspired by The West Wing? Based on no statistical evidence at all, I'm guessing there's a lot of 'em, although few would probably admit it. It would be nice to believe that maybe there's a generation of public servants out there influenced by The West Wing's storybook notion that there's no more worthy mission in life than doing good for the common good. Can't think of a better legacy for a TV show than that.

Now it's your turn to tell me why you're grateful to The Sorkin. Or we could just talk about not liking Studio 60....


Bakerloo said...


I'm grateful for the phrase "hip deep in pie."

I'm also grateful for the return of Josh Charles, better known as Knox Overstreet. Sigh!


I am grateful that I have only seen a few episodes, but my best friend has all the DVDs, so I will have something new to obsess over after Harry Potter ends.

annie said...

1) Good taste in music. From Dan pining to go see Tom Waits to Josh having an episode listening to Yo Yo Ma, (to Sting performing on Studio 60), Sorkin used (or mentioned) great artists.

2) He made being smart cool. Especially trivial things. Yes, I can name the 14 types of punctuation. :)

theaudball said...

I'll take that kleenex now. I have to agree with basically everything in this post. I loved The West Wing and last summer I watched Sports Night in it's entirety on DVD to much enjoyment. The problem for me is that the greatness of these shows made Studio 60 look like even worse drivel then it already was and I'm worried that it will prevent Sorkin from ever getting a tv job again.

Steve B said...

Good stuff.

Yeah, 60 is the bottom of the barrel. I hate that show. Maybe because I was excited it was coming and it turned out to be one of the worst shows I have watched. He can thank his Harriet character for that one. Oh and the fact that he tells us this fictional SNL type show is the funniest thing on TV in that fictional world and every scene with a skit was horrid and unfunny. There are many reasons why NBC is not getting mailed tons of nuts to save this show.

West Wing is good. And I would like to take credit in turning you on to that show. I had watched the 1st season when it came out and then lost track and you were like..."blah, I hate Martin Sheen". But then I bought that first season DVD and showed you the scene where CJ just had a root canal and couldn't talk and from then on it was "your show". Yay for me!

Anyway, good post. Maybe after Buffy we should go back to watching WW.

Liz said...

Yup, you were the one who got me hooked. "Woot canal" totally sold me on it. And yes, I would be completely on board for a WW re-watch.

okelay said...

for the record, i like studio 60.

i have been rewatching TWW and SN, falling in love with it all over again.

there are so many things to be grateful for.
the incredible love and respect of the written word.
making me get interested in politics, even though my dad's a politician and i like to stay far away.

making want to be a white house reporter.
and when didn't want to be a reporter anymore, making want to work in a tv show like TWW.

i do believe many people are inspired to go into public service because of TWW.

i know a lot of people who want to work at the BBC cause of Doctor Who. i am one of them. if i could travel with The Doctor,i would, but i can't, so the closest thing is to work at the BBC.

i love that Sorkin made it ok,cool, even,to be a dork.
a geek.
to know a lot of useless trivia question.

i don't like sports, and i have never watched sports center, or ESPN for that matter, but through sports night i learn to appreciate what they do.

there's million of different reasons.

learning to appreciate the details and things like that.

watching shows like this and shows like firefly, you can consider your education complete.

the world would be a much better place if Sorkin and Whedon's works were as known as paris hilton's latest public appearance.

Deb said...

The West Wing is the best thing that ever happened to television and I miss it soooo much.
There were several Kleenex moments in it for me. One of my favorites; when Jed gives Leo the framed napkin and tells him, "That was awfully nice of you." John Spencer was awesome in that show. (RIP, John)
Time to get the DVDs out!

Fenny said...

I'm sorry, but I liked S60, too. It had it's moments of being totally awful and majorly cheesy, but if you haven't found anything to like in these last few episodes, you can't have been watching Brad act his little socks off over and over.

I only came to SN in the last year or so and totally by accident, but having now seen it all, I am completely in love with Dan and Casey and the rest of the gang.

But TWW knocks everything else into a cocked hat. I can't even begin to list all the things I love about it. You covered a fair few, but I have to add pretty much the whole of "Take this Sabbath Day" and the meeting between Josh & Joey Lucas at the airport when he told her that the President had MS.

I've become massively disillusioned with the British political system over the last 10 years, but watching TWW has got me interested again. Although I probably know more about the US process now than I care about the UK fiasco. Any time Josh wants to explain some arcane political loophole to me, I'm ready to listen. But then, if Brad Whitford read the back of a cornflake packet, I'd be hooked.

Liz said...

I've heard that Studio 60 has gotten much better lately, but I just never could get back into the habit of watching it again. I was just too disillusioned by the first batch of episodes I saw. But I'm sure you're right that I'd probably enjoy the latest round of episodes if I could get myself to watch them. I'll probably rent the DVDs when they come out.

annie said...

actually, the final episode of studio 60 is tonight. And will be titled "what kind of day has it been" :P

Looking at the credits, I wonder if the fact that Sorkin is usually listed as writing the teleplay but not the story means anything. Or perhaps being a producer means he's still to blame.

I might take back what said about it getting better. The next-to-last episode was "meh", and while I'll watch the last one to see it out, you can be damn sure that I'll be pulling out my first 4 seasons of west wing to wash out my mouth.

Liz said...

Yeah, I'm Tivo-ing tonight's episode just for nostalgia's sake, I guess. I've been vaguely following the plot on Television Without Pity, so I think I'll be able to follow along, but I'm not expecting too much. And yes, season 4 West Wing would make a perfect Studio 60 Listerine.