Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Termite Television: Sports Night

It boggles my mind just how much of his shows — The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and, yes, Sports Night — Aaron Sorkin wrote single-handedly. I have trouble writing two movie reviews a week and finding time to update this blog. Sorkin churned out twenty plus scripts a year, each at least a hundred pages long. The secret to his success? Pounding down handfuls of crack cocaine! I guess regular cocaine just didn't have enough oomph.

Both of the Sorkin shows I've seen — Studio 60 and now Sports Night — claim to be about one thing (the making of a Saturday Night Live-style television show and the making of a SportsCenter-style television show, respectively) but are, in fact, about another: that being, Sorkin himself. Many of the characters, like SN's Dan Rydell and S60's Danny Tripp, are former drug users (many, apparently, are also named Danny). They are excellent, obsessive writers. They work long hours because they love their jobs. They treat their co-workers like family and their family like co-workers. The focal point of both shows is a strangely-huggy relationship between two male co-workers and best friends. It is interesting that Sorkin's one bonafide TV hit, The West Wing, is the one show of his that isn't quite as blatantly autobiographical as the others. Without having seen TWW, I'd guess it's probably also a little less self-congratulatory, which may also be a factor.

After hearing about his unorthodox style for years, it's a bit surprising to see how conventional Sorkin's storytelling values are: even if his characters talk quickly, even if the air is thick with technical jargon (Instant Sports Night drinking game: take a shot any time a character says "VTR"), the plots are boilerplate workplace drama — disagreements between management and rank and file and will-they-won't-they office romances. The endings of both series I've seen are shockingly upbeat — what other shows give happy endings to everyone in the cast? Sorkin's constantly assailed for writing over his audience's heads — characters within his shows often allude to this fact in conversation with corporate superiors who want to dumb down their work — and you can sort of see the writer's confusion: the guy's just doing rudimentary feel-good melodrama gussied up with a little inside baseball. These shows are thinly-veiled, carefully-dialogued soap operas. They're Melrose Place with a better vocabulary and a big TV control room where the pool should be.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary; Sports Night is good. This is the sort of show I love to watch on DVD because it is so addictive you can plow through the episodes without having to wait a week in between, and it's the sort of show I hate to watch on DVD because seeing how good it is all at once saddens you when you realize that if you'd watched it and supported it when it was on in the first place maybe you'd have more than 45 episodes of it to dig into now. Oh well. Time for The West Wing I guess.



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