Aaron Sorkin: The Skip It/Watch It/Stop Watching Guide

Friends and/or faithful readers of this site will know that I have a lot of complicated feelings about Aaron Sorkin, Academy Award-winning screenwriter and bane of my existence. Not because I don’t think he’s talented — I think he’s crazy talented. Not because I don’t love his work — some of the shows he’s created and movies he’s written number among my absolute favorites. But his particular combination of genius, ego and laziness has a way of crawling under my skin, even when I really am trying to give his newest project a chance.

I try to let these feelings go, y’all, but then some lady Sorkin dated writes about how she was used as the basis for the gossip bitch Hope Davis played on The Newsroom and I see something like this:

And I get all mad again!

However, in part to prove that I have not always been disdainful of his work, here is my humble guide to the credited career of Aaron Sorkin — the highs, the lows, the things you should watch or skip or start watching until they go sour. Because he really is a singular talent. He wouldn’t bother us me so much if he weren’t.

So let’s start with:

A Few Good Men (1992): Watch it.
I mean, you haven’t seen this movie? Really? Were you ALIVE in the 1990s? (DON’T ANSWER THAT, SMALL CHILDREN.)

Thing is, even if you say you haven’t seen it, you’ve definitely seen this:

That oft-parodied scene, though, is just the climax of what’s actually a pretty interesting military courtroom drama, with plenty of Sorkin-esque dialogue and great supporting performances from Kevin Pollak and Demi Moore (remember when she was in movies? crazy, right?).

I have never seen this in play form, but I’d really like to someday; I bet it’s great. It ought to be — it’s what bought Sorkin his ticket to Hollywood, which then lead to him picking up rewrite work on things like:

Malice (1993): Watch it, maybe?
This, it turns out, is the only thing on Aaron Sorkin’s IMDB profile that I haven’t watched, but I may have to fix this soon, because the plot summary on IMDB is nothing short of BONKERS. To quote from it would spoil things, but this is what Roger Ebert said in his review: “One of the busiest movies I’ve ever seen, a film jampacked with characters and incidents and blind alleys and red herrings. Offhand, this is the only movie I can recall in which an entire subplot about a serial killer is thrown in simply for atmosphere.” Like I said, BONKERS. I’m kind of looking forward to seeing it, especially given how much I love…

The American President (1995): Watch it.
This Michael Douglas/Annette Bening romantic comedy is one of my absolute favorites, and essentially serves as a dry run for The West Wing — to the point of bringing in Martin Sheen as Mikey D’s Leo.

(Why aren’t there more political romantic comedies? That’s basically my favorite film genre of all time, only improved by the addition of space battles. If only Battlestar was just slightly more funny…)

Sorry, anyways, distracted! Moving onto his next landmark moment:

Sports Night (1998-2000): Watch it, but stop watching…
…After the season two premiere, “Special Powers.”

The first season of this show is pretty much a perfect season of television — episodes range in quality, like episodes do, but the overall narrative is just so full of joy and fun and great acting and just perfect moments of television…

And then there’s some very good stuff in Season 2. Don’t get me wrong. The second season of Sports Night is not garbage. William H. Macy shows up, for one, and gives very good monologue. And Agent Coulson stops by! You’d never know that he had a very exciting career ahead of him.

But there’s this one flat-out TERRIBLE plotline known to Night-o-philes (if that’s a thing) as “the dating plan,” and the dating plan comes close to flat-out ruining the show, especially when you rewatch it for the second/third/fourth/fifth/look-I-don’t-judge-YOUR-lifestyle-choices time. My point is: Life is short, the ending of “Special Powers” is adorable and a perfect moment upon which to end your viewing of the show. You can thank me later.

Especially since you have a lot of this waiting for you:

The West Wing (1999-2006): Watch it, but stop watching…
…After the Season 4 episode “Election Night.” Honestly, that exit point is a bit arbitrary. And some might argue that it’s worth sticking through the entirity of Season 4, exiting the show at the same point Sorkin did.

But I have written many, many words about how mad I am at Aaron Sorkin for the bullshit sexism that flares up in Season 4. So bowing out after President Bartlet’s second election night feels like a nice way to leave that show.

In its early years, it was such a good show. So many great things happened over its run. But Seasons 5-7 have a ghoulish, haunted feel and the more you watch, the more you get sick of watching male characters explain Important Issues Of The Day to female characters, who are nine times out of ten secretaries. You get really sick of it, guys. SO SICK OF IT.

But don’t worry, because Sorkin bounces back with:

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006-2007): Watch it, but stop watching…
…After Episode 5, “The Long Lead Story.”

Did I say “bounces back”? LOLOLOLOLOLOL. What started off as a potentially super-intriguing Sorkin take on both the comedy and drama that go into making a SNL-type thingy became preachy, overwrought, and weirdly obsessed with how Nate Corddry’s brother was serving in Afghanistan.

I gave up on this show about halfway through its one and only season (I think when they decided to make a two-parter out of Amanda Peet and Bradley Whitford getting stuck on the roof), but I also know people who are very very fond of this series, in its flawed making-a-TV-show-is-just-as-important-as-working-in-the-White-House fashion, so I reached out to my two favorite Studio 60 apologists to ask them what they thought. (I literally sent them an email entitled “‘Studio 60’ apologists, I seek your counsel.”)

Jay supported the idea of watching the whole season, if only for Lucy Davis (who I do LOVE) and Mark McKinney. And Barrett felt that to stop before “The Harriet Dinner” (Episodes 13-14, and the afore-mentioned two-parter) would be a shame, because people would miss the runner where animals keep getting lost underneath the studio stage (which I do remember being kinda funny).

While they are both wise, I picked a much earlier bailout point than them for the following reasons:

1) Episode 6 introduces the whole weird obsession with Nate Corddry’s Afghanistan brother.
2) Sting appears as his own sexy self in Episode 5, and it is sexy.
3) One of the dumbest things to ever happen in scripted network television happens in Episode 9.

I’m not exaggerating. Here’s the deal with Episode 9: This live television show, which has been produced for, like, decades and is in theory run by professionals, is 40 seconds short one night. The reason this happens, it’s discovered, is because some of the writers were using the computer in the writer’s room to work on a spec sitcom project, and so the script for one of the sketches that night was in sitcom format.

Let’s leave aside questions like “Has Aaron Sorkin ever actually used Final Draft?” and “Seriously, a network television show used script formatting as a major plot point?” Let’s focus on this — every show has its own formats for things, and while I don’t know how Studio 60‘s fictional writer’s room likes its margins, standard sitcom format has a pretty distinctive look. So this team of seasoned professionals couldn’t tell the difference between something like your standard one-minute-per-page formatting:

And multi-camera sitcom formatting?

FIRE EVERYONE. EVERYONE IS FIRED.

Man, that show was dumb. Far more dumb than…

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007): Skip it.
I mean, it’s fine. It’s not terrible. Mike Nichols knows how to direct a movie. There are some interesting character moments, some interesting holy-shit-that’s-not-made-up-that’s-really-how-the-US-approached-Afghanistan-during-the-80s facts. And it’s got a helluva cast. But it’s fine. It’s not great. If you’re reading this because you want to see the best Sorkin has to offer, you are FAR better off skipping to:

The Social Network (2010): Watch it. Here’s the only thing I have to say about this movie: I don’t know if it was Sorkin, or Fincher, or the force of their collaboration, but the bastards made coding a website FUCKING CINEMATIC. That achievement alone? Completely Oscar-worthy.

Moneyball (2011): Watch it. Sorkin only co-wrote it, Brad Pitt is great and the baseball stuff is all really good. I like it a whole lot more than…

The Newsroom (2012-?): I’m still deciding.
When it came time to watch episode two, all those weeks ago, I just, physically, did not want to watch it. So I didn’t. Some people say it’s improving. Some people feel it hasn’t solved any of its problems. Let’s see how Season 1 finishes up, and decide from there.

The conclusion to all this: The man still knows how to turn a pretty phrase, and when paired with great directors and producers, he produces genius work. When left to his own devices, however, haters gonna hate, ‘cuz Sorkin gonna Sorkin.

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About Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller, based in Los Angeles, is a writer for the screen and the web, her work including G4's Attack of the Show and the tech blog GigaOM. She also co-hosts the podcast Timey Wimey TV, contributes to the video curation site Here's Some Awesome, and tells her friend Frank about stuff at Liz Tells Frank.

Posted on August 7, 2012, in Movies, Skip It/Watch It Guide, Some Spoilers, TV and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. JEFF FACT: I’ve seen MALICE, but not A FEW GOOD MEN. Seeing MALICE is important if you want to understand one random joke on 30 ROCK.

  2. I was not nearly as perturbed by the Tom’s-brother-is-in-Afghanistan plot as Liz was. SNL has actually been a player in global politics as certain stages — if only for when Sinead O’Connor had a notion about the Pope — and I always thought that story was more about how Tom and the show handled the media.

    I agree that the page formatting is earth-shakingly dumb, but not nearly as offensively out of touch as the “joke” they try to make about Twitter in the pilot of The Newsroom.

  3. I found this post while looking for an X-Files watching guide. And, oh boy, your comments on the West Wing sadden me. Don’t get me wrong, after Sorkin departed, there was a big drop off. Season 5, save for a handful of episodes, is garbage. But the writers really figured things out in Seasons 6 and 7 and I would say that those two seasons are both quality television and well-worth watching.

  1. Pingback: Liz Tells Frank What Happened In “Scandal” (Sorta.) | Liz Tells Frank What Happened In...

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