Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The West Wing

Sorkin turns on the radio

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Aaron Sorkin

[The West Wing episode “Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail”] is an example of the half dozen or so times I’ve worked backwards. You need to write next week’s script and you don’t have any ideas because if you did, they’d have been in last week’s script. You go out driving in your car and turn on music because that’s sometimes worked for you in the past. You hear the Don Henley song which you’ve heard a hundred times before, but this time it puts you in a certain mood, and you want to write something that has that mood. More specifically, you want to write something that earns that lyric as a title. You actually have a title before you have a story, but at least you have a title, and that’s something. And something, when you’re writing, is always better than nothing.

Aaron Sorkin, in an email to the podcast The West Wing Weekly

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February 5, 2017 at 7:30 am

The Aaron Sorkin trick

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The Social Network

When we talk about great dialogue in movies and television, one of the first names that always comes up is that of Aaron Sorkin. And it isn’t without reason. Sorkin isn’t a perfect writer, and I’ve noted before that it’s his sheer technical facility—all that crackling talk and offhand eloquence—that allows deeper flaws to persist in a series like The Newsroom. But when a show like House of Cards tries and fails to replicate that music, it reminds us how difficult Sorkin’s brand of persuasive chatter really is. It’s a dialect of distinctly narrow scope: Sorkin has rarely been comfortable writing for characters who weren’t smart, articulate, and white. But like the singer Judy London, who moved so beautifully within the range that nature afforded, he’s done wonderful things in that one particular register. As I’ve said elsewhere, one of the reasons that the optimism of The West Wing resonates so deeply is that Sorkin was always at his best when writing for characters who represent how we’d like to see ourselves. And even when he tackles less admirable personalities, like the fictionalized Mark Zuckerberg of The Social Network, we’re inclined to forgive their flaws just because it’s so much fun to hear them speak.

What makes Sorkin especially interesting to other writers is the fine line he walks between earnestness and trickery. As he once said to Terry Gross: “I phonetically create the sound of smart people talking to each other.” It’s a knack, once you’ve developed it, that can go very far, and Sorkin is particularly good at drawing attention to his own contrivances even as he uses them to generate emotion. The famous YouTube supercut of Sorkinisms—the phrases, lines, and even entire monologues that he repurposes from one project to the next—testifies both to his instinctive ability and to the artificiality of so much “great” dialogue itself. If a line can be transferred intact from one character, scene, or story to another, it implies that it had less to do with the needs of the situation than with the tingle it inspires in the listener. Sorkin produces such lines as easily as a magician adapts a piece of sleight of hand when asked to improvise in unfamiliar surroundings. Half of drama, from Shakespeare to Mamet, consists of such good tricks, and even if the more crucial half revolves around applying them to worthy material, you can still learn a lot from the moments in which the machinery comes into view.

The Social Network

There’s a specific Sorkin trick that fascinates me, and I recently devoted the better part of a day to unpacking exactly how it works. For convenience, I’ll stick with examples from The Social Network, in which it recurs repeatedly. In the opening scene between Mark and Erica, Mark mentions that he got a perfect score on the SAT. Erica asks: “Does that mean you actually got nothing wrong?” Mark ignores the question, and for the next eight lines, they talk about the different ways he could distinguish himself at Harvard. Then, in the middle of an unrelated exchange, Mark interrupts: “Yes, it means I got nothing wrong on the test.” Later, Erica asks him which final club would be the easiest to get into, and Mark says testily: “Why would you ask me that?” They shift to a different subject for a while, and then Mark circles back, as if he’d been mulling it over: “I think you asked me that because you think the final club that’s easiest to get into is the one where I’ll have the best chance.” An even showier example occurs in a later scene, in which Divya briefs the Winklevoss twins on Mark’s work with Facebook: “He’s expanding to Yale, Columbia, and Stanford.” The conversation continues for two full screenplay pages before Cameron says: “Why Stanford?” Divya replies: “Why do you think?” And the scene ends there.

Each instance leaves us with the impression of characters who are talking past each other, or following their own trains of thought, only for the conversation to double back around on itself once the inner monologue catches up with what’s being said. If most dialogue is basically linear, Sorkin introduces a second dimension, so that the exchange becomes less a straight line than a surface in which statements are stuck like pins. It’s a nice effect in itself, and it’s no surprise that Sorkin returns to it so frequently. What I really like about it, though, is that it’s a technical trick that results in a simulation of a character’s inner life. Sorkin takes one side of the conversation and shifts it a little bit forward or backward, while keeping the other half where it is, so it feels like one character is responding to a statement from three lines earlier. He probably does it instinctively, but it could also be done mechanically: I’ll sometimes write out a conversation and see how it reads if I move a statement and its response further apart. At its best, it generates a second, unspoken dialogue in parallel to the one we hear with our ears—we’re being asked, in essence, to listen to one of the characters thinking. Creating the illusion of real thought, rather than a rote recitation of lines in a script, is one of the greatest challenges any writer faces, and Sorkin, consciously or otherwise, has hit on a reproducible way of making it happen. It doesn’t work every time. But it works often enough that it belongs in every writer’s bag of tricks.

Written by nevalalee

July 7, 2015 at 9:00 am

You can’t always get what you want

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Note: Spoilers follow for the series finale of Glee.

“The best way to criticize a movie,” Jean-Luc Godard once said, “is to make another movie.” Intentional or not, we find apparent examples of this everywhere: the works of art we experience are constantly commenting on one another, often because similar ideas are in the air at the same time. And two parallel approaches viewed side by side can be more enlightening than either one on its own. Take, for instance, the series finales of Parks and Recreation and Glee, which aired less than a month apart. Both are built around an identical formal conceit—a series of self-contained flashforwards that tell us what happened to all the characters after the bulk of the story was over—and both are essentially exercises in wish fulfillment, in which everyone gets more or less exactly what they want. Yet the Parks and Rec finale was one of the best of its kind ever made, while the conclusion of Glee was yet another misfire, even as it offered a few small pleasures along the way. And the comparison is telling. On Parks and Rec, the characters get what they need, but it isn’t what they thought they wanted: Ron ends up working happily in a government job, while April settles down into marriage and family, even if her firstborn son’s name happens to be Burt Snakehole Ludgate Karate Dracula Macklin Demon Jack-o-Lantern Dwyer. It’s sweet, but it’s also the endpoint of a journey that lasted for six seasons.

On Glee, by contrast, Rachel wins a Tony for Best Lead Actress in a Musical—or exactly what she told us she wanted within five minutes of appearing onscreen in the pilot. Yet we shouldn’t be surprised. Glee always approached characterization as a variable that could be altered at will, or by Will, from one moment to the next, cheerfully dumping entire story arcs for the sake of a cheap gag or a musical number. When you can’t be bothered to sustain anyone’s emotional growth for more than an episode at a time, it’s no wonder that each student or teacher’s ultimate fulfillment takes a form that could have been predicted from a few lines of character description written before the pilot was even shot. Those capsule summaries are all we ever learned about these people, so when it came to write endings for them all, the show had no choice but to fall back on what it had originally jotted down. For a show that always seemed endlessly busy, it’s startling how little happened in the meantime, or how much it sacrificed its long game for the sake of a minute of momentum. It was ostensibly about the collision of dreams with reality—or about how hard it can be to escape the small town in which you were born—but in its final, crucial scenes, it seemed to say that happiness lies in getting everything you wanted in high school, and within five years, no less.

The cast of Glee

There’s one large exception, of course, and it’s a reminder that however haphazard Glee could be, it was also forced to deal with factors outside its control. Cory Monteith’s death was a tragedy on many levels, and it crippled whatever hope the show might have had for honoring its own premise. From the start, it was clear that Finn was the one character who might be forced to confront the reality behind his own dreams, looking for a form of meaning and contentment that didn’t resemble what he wanted when he was a teenager. His absence meant that the show had to recalibrate its endgame on the fly, and there’s a sense in which its decision to give everyone else outsized forms of happiness feels like a reaction to the real loss that the cast and crew endured. (It reminds me a little of The West Wing: originally, the Democratic candidate was supposed to lose the election in the final season, but after John Spencer’s sudden passing, the storyline was altered, since a political defeat on top of Leo’s death felt like just too much to bear.) I can understand the impulse, but I wish that it had been handled in a way that lived up to what Finn represented. His most memorable number expressed a sentiment that Glee seemed to have forgotten at the end: you can’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.

And by trying to be all things, Glee ended up as less than it could have been. Last week, while writing about three recent sitcoms, I pointed out that for all their surface similarity, they’re very different on the inside. What set Glee apart is that it wanted to have it all: the flyover sentimentality of Parks and Rec, the genre-bending of Community, the rapid succession of throwaway jokes we see in the likes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. That’s a lot for one show to handle, and Glee never lacked for ambition; unfortunately, it just wasn’t very competent or consistent, although its good intentions carried it surprisingly far. After the finale, my wife pointed out that the show’s most lasting legacy might be in the inner lives of teenagers coming to terms with their own sexuality, which can’t be denied. But it could have done all this and been a good show. I’m grateful to it for a handful of unforgettable moments, but that’s true of any television series, which time and memory tend to reduce to little more than a single look on an actor’s face. As Howard Hawks, one of Godard’s idols, said: “A good movie is three great scenes and no bad scenes.” For television, you can multiply that number by five. Glee had all the great scenes we could ever need, but it racked up countless bad scenes and diminished itself as it tried to be everything to everyone. And it got the finale that it wanted, even if Finn deserved more.

Written by nevalalee

March 23, 2015 at 9:25 am

The white piece of paper

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Rob Lowe on The West Wing

“Why is this so hard?”
“‘Cause it’s a white piece of paper.”
“How high are the stakes?”
“How high can you count?”
“So what do you do?”
“Whatever it takes to get started. And we read new memos, and we try new themes, and we hear new slogans, and we test new lines, and after a few weeks of that…we’ve still got a white piece of paper.”

The West Wing, “100,000 Airplanes”

The first three seasons of The West Wing have a lot of virtues—along with some equally obvious flaws—but what I like about it the most is that it’s fundamentally a show about writing. When you’re an author entering an unfamiliar world or profession, even one that you’ve meticulously researched and explored, you naturally look for a hook that allows you to relate it to your own experience. A show called The West Wing could have focused on any element of the executive branch, but it’s no accident that Aaron Sorkin ended up centering so much of it on a speechwriter, a communications director, and a press secretary, all of whom spend most of their time dealing with words.

I’ve been hard on Sorkin in the past, mostly due to my disappointment in the first season of The Newsroom, but there’s no denying that he’s as adept as anyone alive at filling that blank piece of paper. Sometimes, his facility can be a problem in itself: he has a way of falling back on old tricks, bombast, straw men, and a lovingly crafted simulation of the way intelligent people talk. Yet even the worst of his vices go hand in hand with tremendous strengths, and we only need to compare Sorkin to other writers who have tried and failed to write smart characters—as in every line of dialogue in Dan Brown’s novels—to remember how talented he really is. It’s impossible to watch an extended run of The West Wing, as my wife and I have been doing over the last few weeks, and not emerge wanting to sound smarter and more capable. And when I feel the need to punch up the dialogue in my own work, I’ll often go back to reread a few old West Wing transcripts in hopes of picking up some of that magic.

Rob Lowe on The West Wing

Of course, The West Wing works because it takes place in a world that can sustain a heightened conversational register. Everyone is blindingly smart, as well as on the right side of history, and you can sometimes sense Sorkin straining when called upon to write characters of different backgrounds or opinions. If the show has one glaring weakness, it’s that enormous chunks of dialogue could easily be transposed from one player to another without much in the way of revision: everyone shares the same values, and if the characters stay distinct in our minds, it’s thanks more to performance and delivery than writing. Compare it to a show like The Wire, which adeptly handles so many different voices, and The West Wing can start to seem limited. In some ways, it’s an expression of the different ways in which Sorkin and David Simon—a veteran reporter for the Baltimore Sun—came to television: instead of will and craft rising to create a simulation of experience, it’s experience straining to bend craft to accommodate all the things it needs to say.

And what fascinates me the most about The West Wing, when viewed from a distance of so many years, is how fully its politics are an expression of a shrewd narrative strategy. Many of us catch ourselves wishing that our real policymakers were as articulate and principled as the ones here, but it’s a fantasy created less by a coherent vision of politics than by a writing style. The show’s idealism, which everyone agrees was its most striking characteristic, isn’t a political or philosophical stance, but a set of tactics that allowed Sorkin to maneuver so gracefully within a narrow range. (You can say much the same thing about the cynicism of House of Cards: it’s easier to write a television show when everyone breathes the same air, whether it’s tainted or pure.) The West Wing came to mean so much to so many people because it happened to be written by a man whose talents were best exercised within a show that gave us our best versions of ourselves. It’s as happy a marriage between talent and subject as television has ever provided. But it all emerged from those small daily choices and compromises demanded by a white piece of paper.

Written by nevalalee

July 14, 2014 at 10:09 am

The treacherous craft of Aaron Sorkin

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When I consider Aaron Sorkin and the weirdly watchable train wreck that is The Newsroom, I’m reminded of something that Norman Mailer once said about craft: “I think of it as being like a Saint Bernard with that little bottle of brandy under his neck. Whenever you get into trouble, craft can keep you warm long enough to be rescued. Of course, this is exactly what keeps good novelists from becoming great novelists.” Craft, in other words, becomes a kind of intellectual sleight of hand, a way of disguising bad thinking or more fundamental narrative problems, when a writer of lesser facility might have been forced to deal more honestly with the true implications of his material. Mailer cites Robert Penn Warren as an example:

Robert Penn Warren might have written a major novel if he hadn’t just that little extra bit of craft to get him out of all the trouble in All the King’s Men…And his plot degenerated into a slam-bang mix of exits and entrances, confrontations, tragedies, quick wits and woe. But he was really forcing an escape from the problem.

Which, if you think about it, sounds a lot like the The Newsroom, which so often confuses manic action and the rapid-fire exchange of factoids with drama and witty repartee. It’s a frustrating, often outright terrible show, and yet I find myself watching it with increasing fascination, because it achieves the level of badness that can only be attained with the aid of remarkable craft. Sorkin is a man of enormous talent, but in his best work, he’s been aided and restrained by other strong creative voices. The Newsroom gives us Sorkin uncut, without the guiding hand he needs to hold him back from his worst impulses, and the result tells us a lot not just about Sorkin, but about the nature and limitations of a certain kind of drama. Because watching this show forces us to confront what David Thomson, speaking about David Mamet, has called “the time-killing aridness in brilliant situations, crackling talk, and magnificent acting.”

That sort of “crackling talk” is a skill that can be learned over time, and Sorkin, who has written hundreds of hours of television, theater, and film, has had more practice doing it than just about anyone else. As a recent supercut made clear, he also tends to return repeatedly to the same verbal tics and phrases (“Well, that was predictable”). Yet this only reflects how good he really is. Sorkin is a machine for creating great dialogue, and like all insanely productive creative professionals, he likes to fall back on the same tricks, which he generates almost unconsciously. If he’d slaved over a line to make it work, he wouldn’t have used it again, but the fact that these lines reappear so often implies that they came easily. As Nicholson Baker says in U and I of John Updike’s reuse of certain images in his novels: “He liked it enough to consent to it when it appeared in a street scene the first time, and yet he didn’t like it well enough for his memory to warn him off a second placement.” And that’s the mark of a writer of almost supernatural felicity.

Yet it also conceals deeper problems of substance, as well as a disturbing lack of real ideas. As Sorkin recently said to Terry Gross: “I phonetically create the sound of smart people talking to each other.” And what The Newsroom demonstrates is that Sorkin’s blessed ability with dialogue has left him underdeveloped along other parameters, a shortcoming that seems especially visible now. If you write wonderful words for actors to say, this can conceal any number of other limitations, sometimes for years, but eventually the mask starts to slip. Sorkin is a verbal genius, with the Oscar and Emmys to show for it, but without good collaborators, his gift tends to ripen and rot. What Sorkin needs, clearly, is a strong creative force to push against, which David Fincher provided with The Social Network and Thomas Schlamme and John Wells did on The West Wing—although his recent purge of many members of his writing staff makes it doubtful if this will happen soon. But I hope it does. Because otherwise, the show will continue to waste its great potential, and a legion of viewers can only say: “Well, that was predictable.”

What the Veep do we know?

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Earlier this week, my wife and I were lucky enough to attend a special screening of two episodes of HBO’s Veep, the new political comedy from the British writer and producer Armando Iannucci. I was excited to see it because I’m a big fan of Iannucci’s In The Loop, one of the best comedies of recent years, and because I love many of the actors in the cast, especially Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Vice President Selina Meyer and Tony Hale (who played Buster on Arrested Development) as her bodyguard and personal assistant. And Veep is, in fact, a very good, if not quite a great show: the pilot is mostly outstanding, and although the second episode I saw—which I believe is the third to be aired—isn’t quite at the same level, there’s still a lot of promise here. (I’ll give a shot to any series that refers to one of its characters, a White House liaison played by Timothy Simons, with the line, “Are we really going to let the guy with the police-sketch face of a rapist tell us what to do?”)

Of course, handicapping a television show based on its first two episodes is a fool’s game. We just don’t know where a series like this will go, and as with most shows, Veep needs to be judged less on its own merits than on the potential of the team it has assembled, and in this case, it’s a great one. I’ll happily watch Tony Hale in anything, and as for Julia Louis-Dreyfus, well, she’s spectacularly smart and attractive and funny, to an extent that may even undermine what the show tries to do with her character’s desperation. Still, she knows how to sell a joke. The scene where Selina Meyer leaves a meeting to briefly freak out over a mistake by her chief of staff—who has signed her own name instead of the Vice President’s on the condolence card for a deceased senator’s widow—is my favorite moment in the pilot. There’s no political subtext here, just pure comedy, and if the show can continue to deliver such payoffs, it’s going to be worth watching.

All the same, the show isn’t perfect. It leans heavily on farce, returns a few too many times to the same comedic wells—characters pretending to have deep conversations while other people are watching, for instance, or saying something offensive without realizing that someone is standing behind them—and occasionally slips into the stray Britishism. Its conception of political horse-trading is probably no less contrived than that of The West Wing, but it feels more like a television writer’s idea of how American politics works—it’s vaguely implausible without being redeemingly absurd. But the show’s strengths are evident as well, especially the luxuriantly profane dialogue, which is such a central part of Iannucci’s work that he outsources much of it, according to the New Yorker, to a profanity consultant (Ian Martin, who is also a writer on Veep).

It’s especially fun to watch Veep now that I’ve finally begun to work my way, in parallel, through the entire run of The West Wing. For whatever reason, I never watched the show when it first aired, but I can’t put it off any longer, especially with the recent resurgence of Aaron Sorkin as perhaps our most talented screenwriter—a gift that he evidently honed through years of writing a great television show. Veep is clearly positioned as a kind of rebuttal to The West Wing—Simons’s character is constantly mentioning that he works “in the West Wing of the White House,” prompting another character to ask, “Is there another West Wing?” And while The West Wing famously inspired many young people to enter politics, as noted in a recent Vanity Fair article, Veep may inspire members of the next generation to stay the hell away. As if they needed any other reason these days.

Written by nevalalee

April 20, 2012 at 9:58 am

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