Aaron Sorkin, The West Wing, and The Problem When You Think You Know Everything

The West Wing! Just recently added to HBO so you can watch it all straight through for the millionth time! It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s pretty, and it’s soooooooooooooooo romantic. Cannot recommend it enough. Except for those other parts that are so stupid they make me want to throw something at the TV.

Let me start by acknowledging all the great things about The West Wing. First, for me, the romances! It’s a great show for avoiding predestined love stories and just going where the chemistry is. There are so many unexpected little moments of romance that you could DIE. Just, amazing.

A Look Back at 'The West Wing' (Photos) | Hollywood Reporter

Second, all the relationships. Mentorship, parent child, friendship, all of them dealt with in a much deeper truer better way than you will ever see in another TV show. There’s one episode about father-daughter relationships that I still think about for how perfectly it captures the way we misunderstand each other (“Ellie”, it’s beautiful).

And third, the words! This is a show written by someone who just loves words. So many running jokes, so much wordplay, it’s just plain exciting to watch. And all three of these factors work together just right, the words draw you in at the start, the relationships make you curious and keep you going, and then the romances sneak up on you and you are in love.

I watched The West Wing and more or less loved it. And then I thought, “I should watch more Sorkin” so I decided to try Sports Night. I got to about episode 3 maybe and there was a storyline about a smart sensitive special character who is forced to go off with two mean hunters who kill a doe and her fawn and laugh about it. And it traumatizes him and everyone is very sympathetic about this terrible experience of having to go off and be with mean hunters.

Binge or Purge? Sports Night - What Else is On
Hey look, it’s Felicity Huffman before she went to jail for stealing a college education for her daughter!

I’m watching this thinking “wait a minute. I don’t know much about hunting, I’ve never hunted, but even I know that there is a massive overlap between hunters and conservationists. And that killing a doe and fawn is HUGELY regulated!!!! Pretty much everywhere! Because of laws HUNTERS PUT IN PLACE!!!!” It’s not that it’s wrong data, it is that it is so extremely wrong it reveals a general disinterest in doing any research or consideration of anything outside of your own perspective AT ALL.

And that made me go back to The West Wing again with a bit more of a critical eye. The first thing I noticed was the issues with the data dump. People talk really fast on this show about really complicated issues, but if you manage to actually catch what they are saying you will realize it is often WRONG.

This goes back to a bigger problem with people who are really really smart and think that means they don’t have to learn anything. Aaron Sorkin is very very smart. And he decided to write this show all by himself. It was an insane work schedule, everyone agrees on that. Super long days, many rewrites, many reconsiderations, and a lot of perfectionism. This isn’t how a TV show has to be. It’s not how anything has to be, delegation is a thing! Delegation lets people be less burned out and miserable, lets people have more opportunities for personal growth, and in the end gives a more rounded product.

But of course, Sorkin doesn’t do that. He thinks he is the smartest person in the room, and maybe he is, but that doesn’t mean he is the best at absolutely everything. Everyone has knowledge gaps, everyone has talent gaps. You need to be open to working with others. If you don’t pretty soon the quality is going to go down.

Watch Aaron Sorkin's Cameo on 30 Rock - Clickable - Vulture
Tina Fey and Aaron Sorkin, night and day. Fey was smart enough to invite Sorkin to appear in her show, just as she has invited a crazy broad range of guest talents to work with her. Sorkin has never returned the favor or probably even saw it as a favor.

This tends to be a very male problem, because it is something that is indulged in men. Aaron Sorkin can miss deadlines and offend people and still have the confidence that makes everyone believe he is a God and cut him a lot of slack. And the same for so many other male artists, and men in other fields as well (academia, law, business). So long as you are talented, everything will be excused.

Let’s take this back to The West Wing. There’s a surprising number of pure factual errors in the “data dump” sections. But on multiple watches, there are more subtle problems that start coming up in how the characters and relationships are handled, especially the female characters. Sorkin isn’t a woman, but somehow he has decide he can write women without ever working with a female writer or really thinking about anything he says AT ALL.

I think The West Wing is Sorkin’s best work, because of Allison Janney. She is such a force that she MADE him make her character better. And then you set aside her and start to realize that all the women in the show are kooky and a little crazy and ultimately there to serve the crazy dreamy vision of the men around them. The men have the vision, the men have the moral questions, the men have the Big Things. The women are just there in the background. It’s a huge blind spot in Sorkin’s writing, but it’s also a blind spot to a blind spot. Does that make sense? I don’t expect Sorkin to be able to write every single character perfectly, but I expect him to know that he can’t do that and reach out to collaborators who can help him.

Allison Janney and 'Mom' Co-Stars Address Anna Faris' Exit: 'It's a Huge  Loss' (Exclusive) | Entertainment Tonight
By the way, you should all watch Janney’s current show. Which is also produced and mostly written by a man, but has an almost 100% female cast, all of them varied and different kinds of women. See! Male showrunners can do it! They just need to work at it and know that they have to work on it.

It’s not just women. Women are the obvious part, because they are over 50% of humanity, but any Sorkin character who isn’t an upper middle-class white collar super educated man just isn’t quite right. It’s the least problem in The West Wing because the reality is that the setting will be mostly upper middle-class white collar super educated men. But every once in a while there will be something that just hits completely wrong in the most obvious way. Race, sexuality, poverty, religion, all of these issues where Sorkin chooses to bury his head in the sand and insist on his own vision.

And in the end, it falls apart. Sorkin was fired, or burned out, or something after the 5th year of the show. And no one left with him. Isn’t that interesting? He had this whole vision of himself as an amazing genius who didn’t need anyone else, and then he left, and everyone got to work actual regular hours again and were kind of okay with that. On the other hand, the show did have this just massive dip in quality after he left. So he was really really important, he just believed himself to be even more important than he actually was.

Which brings me to the 3rd era of The West Wing. Debora Cahn was the replacement writer for Sorkin, after a bit of shuffling about. And suddenly the show may not have been as brilliant and original as it was in the Sorkin era, but it was way more steady. The facts check out a lot more than they used to, partly because there were less facts. The show didn’t try to prove itself as super super smart any more with a big data dump. The characters are flawed, not Nobly Flawed, but actually make mistakes and do truly dumb things and then learn and do better. And the women take a shared lead, finally. So many female characters introduced in the last few seasons, and the existing female characters brought to a much higher level than before. Debora Cahn went on to work on Homeland, Grey’s Anatomy, and Fosse/Verdon (see the trend of great female characters?).

The West Wing" The Al Smith Dinner (TV Episode 2005) - IMDb
Patricia Smith, introduced in the last few seasons, not a secretary or a wife but a smart tough second in command with the respect of everyone she works with. There’s no reason her character had to be a woman, but there’s no reason she shouldn’t be, so why not?

Sorkin was a better writer than Cahn, for sure, probably one of the greatest English language writers in the world today. But he was not a better showrunner. Does that make sense? Cahn found her limitations and worked within them, reached out for help when she needed it, balanced the characters who spoke to her (the women) with the character she had to struggle slightly more to understand (the men). Along with everything else that it is, The West Wing is a fascinating study of how different working methods lead to different results. Do you want uneven brilliance or steady quality?

And a bigger question, should we ever accept uneven brilliance or should we insist that even the brilliant manage to provide steady quality too?

And of course the biggest question, are Josh and Donna going to be together and happy forever and ever? And do we want them to be?

12 thoughts on “Aaron Sorkin, The West Wing, and The Problem When You Think You Know Everything

    • Thank you for the compliment! And you should think about The West Wing. Or not. I mean, I pretty much hit the high points in the first three paragraphs, if that intrigues you, give it a shot. If it makes you go “eh, still not interesting to me”, then don’t bother.

      On Sun, Jan 31, 2021 at 8:37 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  1. I’ve never seen the west wing but I have watch Sorkin’s other show, The Newsroom. It is… not for everyone, but I absolutely loved it. I have always seen his movies of the past decade. The Social Network, Moneyball, Steve Jobs, Molly’s Game, and The Trial of the Chicago 7. One of by favorite writers for sure.

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    • I’ve avoided The Newsroom because it feels like the same problems I have with The West Wing, but even more so. Savior wise old white man, supporting women, data dump that might be slightly wrong, and so on. But I really liked Moneyball and I didn’t realize he wrote it. Maybe I like that one because it’s such a limited topic? He isn’t trying to cover every issue in the world?

      On Sun, Jan 31, 2021 at 10:05 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. It’s been a while since I’ve seen any West Wing episodes, though I loved it at the time. (I remember when they announced the concept during sweeps week and I thought a White House show sounds stupid and boring and then it started and we all fell in love with it. So much great acting too.) But I’ve noticed the blind spot problem with a number of the genius writer shows. I remember there was a part in Sopranos where the guys are being filmed for some reason, and they interact with some young educated college types who are outside their normal world. And the college types were terrible characters, so unbelievable, I kept thinking who talks like that? It was funny because those educated college types are all over every other show, and it’s usually the mafiosi characters who are one note, but in this one series whoever they had in the writers’ room was great at gangsters and terrible at the young white creative who works on film sets.

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    • HA! I have never seen The Sopranos, but I can picture exactly what you describe. And yes! That’s it! Either hire someone new to write the characters that make you uncomfortable, or just don’t include them. Don’t assume you know everything and can do everything.

      The Sorkin thing I remember is when they announced 30 Rock the same season as Studio 60 and all the talking heads thought this was terrible news for 30 Rock. And turned out, 30 Rock lasted forever and became a modern classic and Studio 60 sank into obscurity.

      On Sun, Jan 31, 2021 at 11:47 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. I loved the West Wing for the same reason I think a lot of people did–it was a fantasy of a smart president when we actually had a dumb president. The whole idea of a college professor of economics in the White House was irresistible during the Bush administration. But you are absolutely right, and particularly about the women. It wasn’t so bad with The West Wing, probably because of Allison Janney and Elisabeth Moss and a bunch of other great female actors, but halfway through The Newsroom I realized all the female characters were the same character. Smart, quirky, and neurotic in an endearing way.

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    • Yes! And the men never were. The men had Grand Flaws, like self-doubt and mission drift and questions of the universe. the women never seemed to have Big Thoughts and just went around worrying about how they looked and stuff. It’s really noticeable on The West Wing when you get to the final seasons and suddenly all the women are struggling with reasonable things for them to struggle with (where am I in my career, what do I want in life, what is my moral responsibility) but it had never come up before.

      On Mon, Feb 1, 2021 at 9:57 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. First, thank you for writing this! Now, my thoughts.

    I have only watched West Wing from start to finish once but watched some episodes multiple times because it is my husband’s favorite series and in January I started re-watching it again with my dad, sister, and brother-in-law. Can you give me some examples (episodes) in which what they are saying is often wrong? What I found during this watch was not just how ahead of it’s time it was but also how accurate and nuanced some of the issues are and how we are still dealing with them. I am coming at this from the perspective of someone whose is trained in and works daily in the legislative and regulatory area. For example, the Surgeon General (also Elle’s godmother) commenting on marijuana was such an EXCELLENT episode. The evidence is on the side of the Surgeon General and yet it took over 20 years for politics to get there and it is still not there. Same with asking the Black caucus to sign on to something that the Administration “thinks” is going to help them without understanding the issues clearly from their perspective and being surprised when they push back.

    In terms of the female characters, while I love Allison Janney and her character CJ Cregg, I actually think the other female characters are amazing. Donna, for example, has an excellent pulse on the population/common sense that Josh and the others often lack. Ainsley Hayes stands up for herself and pushes back on why everything that is considered a “Republican” value is not a bad thing and it is important to listen to it. Abbey Bartlet is one of my favorite characters because she tells President Bartlett exactly what she thinks behind closed doors and always sticks up for herself. She may be the one I relate to the most because her reactions feel very similar to mine. (There are so many times my husband has called me Abbey Bartlet)

    My issues with the show are the following:

    There is way too much for a focus on father-children relationships and it starts to feel like Aaron Sorkin is trying to work something out with his own father. It’s not just Pres. Bartlett and Ellie but his own relationship with his abusive father, CJ and her father, etc. It all fathers. I am a sucker for a father-daughter relationship but after a while the focus on the fathers started to become frustrating.
    My other issue is with the arrogance of the male characters. Again, I think this comes from Sorkin, but at times the smug, self-righteous arrogance just gets overwhelming. I was happy when he was no longer the director.

    That’s all I have for now, but I am sure I will think of more things to discuss.

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    • Awwww, so sweet, you did a “if I can’t say anything nice” hesitation on this comment, didn’t you?

      With The West Wing in particular, it’s one of those layers upon layers of critiques for me. On the one hand, he got the feel of the setting just right, the excitement and power games and so on and so forth. And he had some interesting thoughts On the other hand, he got details wrong or unclear. And of course my brain is stopping me from remembering any at the moment, so I cheated and pulled up a list from The Internet. So far as I can tell, these are accurate (both the original West Wing quote and the corrections). I immediately remembered both the “Fear Itself” and Murder Inc thing as hitting me wrong when I saw them: https://whatculture.com/tv/14-historical-inaccuracies-in-the-west-wing-you-totally-missed?page=10

      But then on the third hand, why should I care? I certainly don’t care if ER gets medical details wrong, it’s all just the flow of fiction. But then it’s about how The West Wing is positioned! That “mansplaining” tone isn’t just in the characters, it is in the show itself. If the show presents itself as better, smarter, stronger, always right than it DOES matter when it gets facts wrong. Because it says that doesn’t matter. Like, being smart is more about sounding good than actually doing the work and the research. Not the characters being wrong but sounding good, but the show itself. You are learning about American history and this show has value so you blindly believe and quote what it says, but it is WRONG. It’s training people to believe things that are WRONG just because they are presented in a way that makes them seem right.

      Yes to the fathers!!!!! Especially CJ and her father, that entire storyline did not work for me. And there was so little about mothers in contrast. This whole thing about Josh’s dead Dad, and his living Mom never even appeared onscreen. Come to think of it, did we meet ANY mothers???

      And yes, agree about the smugness. It was still there in the later years, but it was softened by showing even more of the un-smug male characters.

      On Wed, Feb 24, 2021 at 1:01 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Nope, my first couple sentences weren’t hesitation. I did appreciate your review because it made me pay closer attention to the show the second time around. I just didn’t see things the way you did regarding my first two points.

        Thanks for the article about the inaccuracies in the historical facts, like dates and numbers. I would think there are actually many more than just the 14 in 7 seasons. Also, if the West Wing holds itself out to be factually right, then it should get these things right. When I looked at the show critically, my focus wasn’t on the stuff you were looking at, but more the political maneuvering and the legislative and regulatory process. To me, in that sense, it was accurate. Way more so than anything I have seen since. I think things like historically accurate dates are very important in a show like this. Especially, as you said, one that mansplains, so I am happy there is someone to point that out to Sorkin. Just, to me, the dates being off or the commandment being an incorrect number is a bit like a typo or grammatical error in writing. If what I am reading is an intelligently written piece, with thoughtful analysis, then as long as the typos and grammatical errors aren’t overly burdensome or distracting to me, I don’t care.

        Also, to me, this is not a historical show per se. I think what they get right is the tone, climate, complexity of policy making, the decision making and the depth and the tensions that go along with that. Even then I guess I always saw this show as fictional and never thought it portended to be historical. One clear example is that they literally make up the names of countries. Overall, things in the show are loosely based on history of the 90s but it doesn’t hold itself out to be a documentary.

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        • The historical date errors, and the miss-steps in female characters, feel like they are coming from the same place. If Sorkin was willing to have someone else in the writers room with him, so when he writes a big gorgeous speech they can say “wait, ‘Fear Itself’ was in FDR’s first inaugural and that’s kind of important because it set the tone for his whole first 100 days. Let’s find another example”, he might also have been willing to have someone in the room to say “maybe we can give this long explain-y speech to a female character this week?”

          I am still stuck on, is it better to have real independent genius work that has flaws, or not as genius work that is cross-checked and balanced and stable? I don’t really have an answer to that, but I find West Wing a fascinating case study, since you get 4 seasons of unpredictable genius, and then 2 seasons of solid steady work.

          On Thu, Feb 25, 2021 at 6:34 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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