Love him or hate him – and there are serious reasons for both sides of the argument – Aaron Sorkin is an industry. If we ignore his cinema work and focus on the small screen, we get the under-appreciated Sports Night to the liberal porn of The West Wing to the much-maligned Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (which I consumed in great greedy gulps) to his latest, The Newsroom, a series I am reluctant to visit due to the reviews from trusted sources (“turgid and terrible”).
Regardless of setting, you know what you’re getting with Sorkin: fast, zippy dialogue, memorable lines (“You can’t handle the truth!” was his work), thundering but heartfelt speeches and the “walk and talk”, which he helped send up in his cameo on the now defunct comedy 30 Rock. (“Do I know you?” asks Liz Lemon. “You know my work,” Sorkin replies. “Walk with me.”) Sorkin is a brand and a trusted one at that. So we expect of him what we look for in brands – dependable output in a familiar package.
In May, a headline in the New York Times Magazine made a statement on the state of television and asked a simple question: “Network TV is broken. So how does Shonda Rhimes keep making hits?” However you slice it, Rhimes is a bit of a unicorn in television right now: stripped of the extra labels (African American, female), she is plain impressive. Since 2005, she has created and executive-produced the telly juggernauts Grey’s Anatomy, its spin-off Private Practice and, in 2012, Scandal, starring Kerry Washington as the Washington, DC fixer Olivia Pope. Each of these series has been wildly successful at the very least and culturally significant at the very most. Remember the mid-2000s “Mc-Dreamy” phase of our ever-evolving language? That came from Rhimes’s writers’ room. Like Sorkin, Rhimes is a brand (her production company is called Shondaland). We look to her productions for multicultural casts (she does the same for her behind-thescenes staff: 67 per cent female or minority directors on Scandal alone), diverse representations of sexuality and religion. However fluffy the package (a well-off doctors’ practice, for example), she weaves in societal issues with a light touch – adoption, abortion, racism, sexism, money and privilege, female friendships – and in so doing, ignites discourse that goes wider than her already impressive viewing population.
Now let’s bring back those labels discarded earlier. That Rhimes is an African American woman doing what she does is exciting. It means we can seriously begin to ask what it is that we expect of our popular culture. And we can also tell show-runners and networks what we expect from their programming. Rhimes has met with queries on her depictions, for example, of people of colour, particularly black women. Do we see enough of the interior of Olivia Pope’s life? Where’s her family? How come she rarely talks about her blackness explicitly? I think Rhimes is tackling the character fairly well; Pope is flawed, sure, but in the circumstances (she’s the first protagonist of colour on prime-time television in the US for almost 40 years) and with a third season en route, they can be tackled.
The kernel of expectations in popular culture comes down to who is producing it. In the case of Grey’s Anatomy and The Newsroom, we look to the creator-writers, Rhimes and Sorkin, not the network, and not society at large, the soup we all swim in. In E4’s The Mindy Project, the protagonist Dr Lahiri is a chubby, Indian-American woman and she makes reference to this repeatedly. She’s played by the show’s creator and co-writer Mindy Kaling – a chubby, Indian-American woman. The show is not perfect and in my view makes several missteps in its depictions of people of colour (a cringeworthy example is the black nurse who dances and sings at every opportunity). But it raises the question of what we expect from people who run shows when they are female, or black, or Asian, or whatever.
I put my hand up and admit I do expect more from minority producers. Is it fair? No, not really. Yet it is a symptom of a bigger problem: in an industry as difficult to get into as television, there is still a huge dearth of the minorities required to keep things honest. In the meantime, we watch, enjoy and complain – and continue to hope for better.