Thursday, September 4, 2008

There is Only One Aaron Sorkin

This is not supposed to be a revelatory statement. Obviously, I hold him in high regard, and obviously there is a reason for that. And just recently I've realized just how far from understanding what that reason is I am.

As I've said, I'm watching through the West Wing again, after about three years. Right before I came out here to write this, I finished off watching season five. That's the season where the show went drastically downhill.

Now, I think I want to preface this by explaining a little bit about Aaron Sorkin shows. They're all, fundamentally, the same. There's three of them. One is about the guys running a sports news program, one is about the guys running the country, and one is about the guys running a sketch comedy show. Already you can probably see the formula, though I wrote that last sentence in a way to specifically make it blaringly obvious. The formula for the types of things he does isn't really "Guys running x." Really, it's a behind the scenes look at something, and the characters are very passionate about what they do. But that is the overarching formula of the types of things Sorkin likes to write. That's not going to be my point here, though now it seems I have made you wade through a mostly erroneous paragraph.

The formulas that I am talking about are a little bit harder to identify, but only slightly. All it really takes is watching the three shows and paying some slight bit of attention, really. For one thing, the dialogue style is very unique and parodiable. There's a sort of Sorkin cadence that the dialogue inhabits, but that's a very vague way of discussing it. For one thing, characters repeat each other a lot. Far more than people repeat each other in real life. That is probably the most defining characteristic of Aaron Sorkin dialogue, and it is easy enough to replicate. But there's something else about it. I don't really know what it is, but I'm working on it.

Beyond the actual dialogue, there are only just so many frameworks Aaron Sorkin uses. If you watch just West Wing and Sports Night you will notice that there are a few episodes which are pretty much identical. Everyone watching an event on television that is annoying at first because its happening is casing everyone to be idle waiting for it to end, and so they take the time to write letters to their parents. And then they get excited about the participant and end up rooting them on. That's one example. I have a few more in mind, but don't feel like expounding on them, because that could be an entire essay all on its own and I realized while typing the abbreviated explanation of the last one that it is incredibly boring when boiled down to the bare essentials necessary to explain the similarities in the episodes. Suffice it to say, a lot of the basic story frameworks are reused in new settings.

Sorkin uses the same character names all the time. He obviously comes up with new ones as well, because there are a lot of characters in both the West Wing and Studio 60, but if you pay attention to the names being thrown around you'll start to recognize them. There are phrases that are used a lot too. "Her legs go all the way to the floor" "Like shooting fish in a barrel"... Only it's not exactly that line... He writes it slightly differently and I can't remember the exact wording, but when I hear it his way I know it was him who wrote it.

I am not the foremost expert on Aaron Sorkin and his writing style. Not by a long shot. He didn't write The West Wing all by himself. He had staff writers helping along and such. They worked with him on scripts, and as such I'm sure they understand his idiosyncricities far better than I do. So, with all of the formula present in his shows, you would think it would be easily duplicated. But it just isn't.

Aaron Sorkin, through the character of President Bartlett, has this so say on the subject: "Words, when spoken out loud for the sake of performance, are music. They have rhythm, and pitch, and timbre, and volume. These are the properties of music, and music has the ability to find us and move us, and lift us up in the ways that literal meanings can't. Do you see?"

Up until recently I sort of thought it was okay to try to replicate Aaron Sorkin. I mean, I sort of do it. My writing style, specifically my dialogue writing, has shifted towards his a lot since I started watching his shows and movies. That's not a bad thing. Influences are fine. But up until recently I hadn't consciously understood that trying to replicate his writing style is no good.

The forth season of the West Wing was the last season written by Aaron Sorkin. I just finished watching the fifth, and it is not nearly as good as the first four. I hadn't realized how far from the first for seasons the rest of the show was until I just went back and started watching the whole thing marathon style. When I watch things marathon style I gain more of an appreciation for the story and the flow of the series. I hadn't watched the non Sorkins stuff in this manner before, and I'm finding it a bit of a chore to get through, which is somewhat odd.It isn't poorly written. It's still a pretty good show. And all of the groundwork laid by Sorkin is still there, for the most part.

All of the characters are still themselves. They react in a predictable way to the events surrounding them. I don't mean that in a bad way. What I mean is, you grow to know and understand these characters, and they react in the ways that they should. Their characters remain in tact from the time Sorkin stopped writing the show all the way through to the end.

And it's not like the events stopped being interesting. In fact, they became more interesting. When I think of the prominent stories of the show, I remember the president and Josh getting shot, I remember the MS scandal, I remember Zoe getting kidnapped and the speaker taking over as president, I remember them putting a liberal and a conservative judge on the bench at the same time, Donna in a car bomb, bringing peace to the middle east, and the final two seasons of the presidential election. That list is in order of when the events happened, and Aaron Sorkin left by starting off the storyline where Zoe gets kidnapped. Everything after there wasn't him. So it's not like stuff stopped happening. In fact, the episodes that stand out to me that Aaron Sorkin wrote were fairly mundane in the actual plot.

Oh yeah... And they killed off Mrs. Landingham. That was the end of season two or three.

So, you would think the show wold be just as engaging with the formulaic nature of his writing and the major, interesting events continuing. But it just isn't. And I don't really know why. I can sort of tell why when I'm actually watching the show, but I don't know how to put it into words. It's an X factor that I hadn't fully realized until just recently. The characters all interact the same way they used to... It's just not the same. The conversations aren't as inherently entertaining. The jokes are still there and the back and forth still works, but just not like it did.

On a peripherally related subject, I suppose I am a Writer. I am not an Author. Claiming Authorship requires that you have Authored things. And that you are continuously Authoring. To be an Author you need to want it and live for it. It needs to be what you think about when you wake up and what you want to be doing all the time in between. Or, a t the very least, you need to have a considerable backlog of thing that you have e written of which you are proud. But I am a writer. It's the way I view pretty much everything, I suppose.

Most people, I think, wold just watch these serieses and like them or not and leave it at that. But me? I think about why they are written the way they are and what is different in the writing between the seasons that I like and the seasons I don't and why. And it doesn't just stop there. Earlier in this post I used the word "erroneous." I didn't really know exactly what it meant, and I had no idea how to spell it, but I knew it fitted there. I could have said "superfluous" instead, but I wanted it to be erroneous. Erroneous fit better. There's no real reason why it did, it just did. They both would have satisfied the intent of the statement, but it had to be erroneous and not superfluous, so I looked it up. That sort of thing happens to me all the time. I know there is a right word for what I am trying tot say, and another word will just not do, and so I will have to find that word before I can move on. I sometimes stop conversations trying to find the right word to finish my thought. Even if I can find another way of conveying the thought that is effective, I need to figure out what the right word is that I was looking for that belongs there is before I can continue the conversation. I imagine it is rather annoying to others, but it has to be done.

I recently started working a part time job at Kohl's. During the interview process and the orientation, there was a video that basically went into the history of the company and company propaganda and whatnot. But there was one line in the video that annoyed me, and it was on a loop, so it annoyed me every time I heard it. The narrator said "Kohl's is expanding its business and has opened up 400 (i don't remember the real number) stores in 26 (again... No idea what that number should be) states in four months. That's more than most businesses open in just one year!" And that is really all I remember about the video. Because that line is wrong. It's just wrong.

There's a symmetry to the statement they were trying to make. They were trying to say that Kohl's is opening up all these stores and that is noteworthy because other places open up far less stores in a far greater amount of time. So it started out fine. You start with up playing the accomplishments of the entity to which you tare trying to grandeurize, and then you want to downplay the accomplishments of the other entity. So you say that they have opened less in a greater amount of time. But you don't want to downplay the amount of time it took them to do less. You want to make that amount of time seem gigantic in comparison. It's not "In only one year." It's "In an ENTIRE year!" Every time I heard that line it was grating.

There isn't really any greater point that I'm trying to make with this line of discourse. Just that I view the world through the eyes of a writer. The West Wing thing was more of a focused point than this, and really I suppose I should have ended there. Go out strong. But I chose not to. I chose to end not with a bang, but with a whimper (That's Eliot!)

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