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12 December 2014

Why I (still) love Aaron Sorkin

It’s become fashionable to disparage Sorkin’s later work, especially The Newsroom, and with good reason – the gender politics are terrible, for a start. But what if these problems were there all along, and we were just enjoying The West Wing too much to see them?

By Jonn Elledge

There’s a game I like to play if I ever want to wreck my own self-esteem: describe myself as if I’m an Aaron Sorkin character.

Sorkin, you see, likes to give his characters monologues about their incredible academic and career histories, to remind us that we are dealing with Very Clever And Impressive People. “Tell her I’m a magna cum laude graduate of Princeton and editor of the Duke Law Review,” Sam Seaborn tells someone when he wants to feel like a big man. Or when we’re about to meet Mac, Emily Mortimer’s character in The Newsroom, we’re told: “Line up any 10 people, eight of them will tell you she’s the best EP in the business and the other two will be stupid.”

Now, try it for yourself. Depressing, isn’t it? “He passed his degree in the top 80 per cent of his class.” “She has sometimes, for periods of up to two whole years, managed to hold down a job.” “Talk to anyone who knows him and they will tell you, he nearly always wears clothes.”

My name is Jonn Elledge, and I have a Sorkin problem. I know this stuff’s bad for me, I know it rots my brain, but I’m an addict, plain and simple, and dammit it feels good. There are episodes of The West Wing I must have seen a dozen times. I’m not only still watching The Newsroom, I’m still enjoying it, and am genuinely devastated that it’s coming to an untimely end. I even (this is truly shocking, since that show was basically a 22-hour YouTube rant about why Sorkin’s ex girlfriend should never have left him) quite enjoyed Studio 60

In retrospect, I was a Sorkin fan before I even knew who he was. Back in the Nineties, at an age when most normally functioning adolescent boys were watching movies where things explode, I was locked in my room watching A Few Good Men on a loop, and when The West Wing started I knew it was love.

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There’s something inherently comforting in the idea that the leader of the free world would be the cleverest, most decent man New Hampshire had to offer, of course, and the appeal of such qualities went through the roof the minute George W Bush took the oath of office. But there was more to it than that. The West Wing inhabits a world populated entirely by thoughtful people, who want to make the world better, speak in snappy one-liners and, just occasionally, accidentally sit down where there isn’t a chair. It was an exercise in wish fulfillment for people who work in offices, intellectual porn for the kind of people who think “metropolitan elitist” is a compliment. I wanted to live in this world. I still do.

It’s become fashionable, among the sort of people The West Wing was designed to appeal to, to talk about the show and then immediately proceed to the word “but”. Yes, the show was great, but most of what Sorkin has done since has been disappointing, if not actually offensive. Yes, Sorkin’s work was amazing; but now it’s terrible.

But (see?) I wonder if this is actually a form of cognitive dissonance: a way of excusing the fact that the people who now hate Sorkin and all he stands for used to love this stuff. Watch early West Wing now, in fact, and it’s hard not to notice all of the flaws that would come to define his stuff. Let’s consider three:

I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out

Our hero is an intellectual giant: the cleverest, most capable person in the room. But his father used to hit him, and he’s a recovering substance abuser, so he gets a wise-cracking therapist, who tells him that, yes, he’s the cleverest and most capable person in the room, but that doesn’t mean he’s not an arsehole. He also needs a will-they-won’t-they thing with the cleverest and most capable woman in the room, whose presence reminds him that, however clever and capable she is, she is nothing without him.

…I mean, you don’t have to be Freud, do you?

All that stuff has been driving us crazy in everything Sorkin has done since, but it’s all there in The West Wing, too. We let it go, because at the time it was new, and it was split between several characters so the autobiography wasn’t quite so blatant, and hell, we were enjoying ourselves. Nonetheless, however cringeworthy we find it in The Newsroom, it hasn’t come out of nowhere. But we used to forgive it, and now we don’t.

(Incidentally, there was a rather wonderful story doing the rounds last year that Sorkin had fired his entire writing room except for his ex-girlfriend. Sadly, it turned out to be utterly untrue, but it goes to show how blurred the line between his life and his shows has become in the public mind.)

The second problem:

God bless America

Lord knows the US has problems: gun crime, a public sphere that infantalises its citizens, a religious right that tries to get our heroes fired because they can’t take a joke. But this country was built on a dream, and if we just stop talking down to people, and realise that the people in the heartland are decent, hardworking people who want a wise-cracking intellectual to look up to just as much as any of us, then, goddammit, this country can be great once again.

Yeah, see, you find this embarrassing now, but let’s not pretend you didn’t well up a little when Josh Lyman said it.

(One slightly odd corollary of all this: if the US is the greatest country in the world which, pace McAvoy, Sorkin obviously thinks it is, then every other country must somehow be worth less. Communicating that generally means reducing them to a funny stereotype. But this doesn’t quite work in The Newsroom, in which a whole quarter of the regular cast have British accents. He gets around it by pretending that one of them is American anyway, for some reason. The result is the deeply bizarre spectacle of Emily Mortimer, a serious candidate for the most English actress ever to have lived, spouting dialogue that makes the Declaration of Independence sound anti-American. But anyway.)

The big one, though, the single most perpetually uncomfortable thing about Sorkin’s work is:

These women

Sorkin loves clever women. Adores them. Wants to sing from the rooftops about how damn clever they are. 

But the odd thing is that, while his shows go out of their way to tell us how clever and capable their women are – cleverer and more capable than the men, they keep telling us – “tell” is all they do. Whenever it comes to showing us their actions, Sorkin writes women as morons.

So: MacKenzie McHale (a name with which literally no British family would ever consider lumbering their daughter) is a massively important and successful former war correspondent, and the cleverest person in the building. She also goes gooey over a man, and doesn’t know how to use email. Meanwhile, Alison Pill’s Maggie gets so cut up about a boy that she ends up in the street shouting at a passing Sex and the City tourbus. Not only does Sorkin make his character do this unlikely and humiliating thing, he keeps bringing it up to haunt her for the better part of a season. 

Remember quite how personal so much of his work has been, and you can’t help but wonder what’s really going on here.

This televisual negging has always been there in Sorkin’s work. There’s an awful scene early in The West Wing where the President and his chief of staff are talking, as you do, about how impressive their female employees are. It’s clearly meant to be a sort of paean to girl power in trouser suits. The problem is that the only compliments Sorkin can think of to put in his characters’ mouths are that CJ is tall and funny, Mandy is stubborn and argumentative, and three or four other characters have names. That’s literally it. They don’t say anything about those characters, they just list them. That scene is awful. He wrote it in 1999.

But back then, this bizarre distorted misogyny only infected the odd scene; since then, it’s gone pandemic. What’s worse, it’s become increasingly bound up with Sorkin’s long-standing need to prove his mouthpiece characters right.

And this, more than anything else – more than the appropriation of other people’s journalism, more than the smugness of hindsight – is the thing that doomed The Newsroom. Because when you combine the fact that all Sorkin’s avatar character are men, with his pathological need to show that they’re right, what you get is a series in which older men constantly talk down to younger women, and are then shown to be justified in doing so. The show makes its female characters do awful, incomprehensible things, just so that their love interests never have to apologise for being shitty to them. There are scenes in which Will McAvoy reduces young women to tears, and they end up asking about his feelings. 

All these problems were already present in Sorkin’s work: they’re there, in embryo, in A Few Good Men. But they’ve certainly become more pronounced, and the obvious explanation is that as his career has gone on he’s become increasingly uneditable: there’s no longer anyone who can overrule him. Now, when Sorkin decides to make a punchline of the fact that the media won’t let an intelligent woman finish a sentence; when he decides it’s time the world knew his views on rape culture; there’s no one who can persuade him that this is a bad idea.

I said at the start of this that Sorkin’s work is wish fulfillment for smart people who work in offices. And that’s true, but more than that, it’s wish fulfillment for Aaron Sorkin. He’s a clever, liberal, educated white man, who just wants the world to appreciate clever, liberal, educated white men once again. He wants it to admire them. He wants it to desire them, even: there’s a scene early in The Newsroom in which a beautiful woman says she’s scared to approach a clever, liberal etc man, in case he thinks she’s dumb. In my long experience of being moderately intelligent but not particularly good looking, I have never found this to be how the world actually works.

And yet – I love this stuff. And I will miss it now it’s gone. 

The obvious explanation is that this is my fantasy world, too, I realise. But I don’t think so: partly because I know several women who feel the same as I do, but mostly because the gender politics just makes me cringe. For all its flaws, I think that what I really love about The Newsroom is the same thing I loved about The West Wing all those years ago. I fundamentally just want to live in a world populated by smart, wise-cracking people whose idea of fun is to have a long argument about the issues of the day. I’m just the right kind of pretentious. 

And you know you can trust my judgement on this, because I’m another educated, smart alec white guy.

Now excuse me while I just sit down where I’m pretty confident that there’ll be a chair.

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