Wednesday, May 07, 2003

A couple of years ago I would have flung my hands to the heavens and wailed at the news of Aaron Sorkin leaving The West Wing. As a writing student and newspaper reviewer I admired Sorkin's unique flair for writing dialogue--his ear for the human voice, the depth of his smooth narratives, and his deft balance of tragedy and comedy in the same show--often in the same scene. Television was lucky to have such a playwright (Sorkin wrote the play and then screenplay for A Few Good Men, the screenplay for The American President, and most of the episodes of Sports Night, all brilliant--my wife and I blazed through the two-season complete set of Sports Night in the three months after Christmas), and The West Wing was my favorite creation of his.

So his loss is a severe one for television (although his eventual comeback on another project is one of the few reasons to hope for the future of the medium). But there are several reasons not to be surprised, and some reasons not to be sad. First, the politics (ironically enough) of television are magnified in proportion to the drop in ratings points, which The West Wing suffered over the last two years due, to hear critics tell it, to: the lack of Bill Clinton as an obvious foil, the presence of real-word foreign policy plotlines that drowned out fictional ones, the Bachelor (and the Bachelorette, which one reviewer said brought "the second tart to bring down a president"), writing fatigue, or all of the above. Sorkin himself said he thought the show had peaked, and the desperate stunts it's now pulling seem to back that up (A sniper smashes glass in the press room! The vice-president has an affair and resigns! The president's daughter (spolier alert) is kidnapped! Uh, here's Matthew Perry! Please, please watch!) Plus, Sorkin, like most other gifted writers, is something of a head case (which is why I aspire not to be a great writer, not that I was in much danger of that), and his idiosyncrasies were tolerable when the show was riding high but not now.

So lament the demise of one of TV's true gems (West Wing will become more "efficient"--read: "formulaic"--next season, critics report). But take heart in this: Sorkin produced nearly 90 masterful hours of television over the last four years, and since they're play-like, they're well worth returning to via syndication, a tape library like the one I built for seasons one and two, or the DVD set of the first season, which is out in Britain and can't arrive here soon enough.

See also:
- Wash. Post story on Sorkin exit
- Slate weblog on Sorkin's departure
- The best story on The West Wing, in the now-defunct Brill's Content

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