Aaron Sorkin and popular culture

Sorkin_1 I watched Studio 60 reruns yesterday.  Sorkin’s dialog lives and breathes!  The West Wing sometimes felt like a large talent trapped in a small room, a cruel "no exit" for America’s most fecund dramatist. 

In episode 5, Martha O’Dell (Christine Lahti) is doing a story on head writer Matt Albie (Matthew Perry).

Matt Albie: You’ve covered presidential campaigns, you’ve covered presidents, you’ve covered wars, what are you writing about a TV show for?

Martha O’Dell: What are you writing a TV show for?

Matt Albie: I’m not. I’m watching you dust my office for prints.

Martha O’Dell: I am writing about it, because what’s happened here is important.  I think what’s happening here is important.  I think popular culture in general and this show in particular are important.

[a man in lobster suit enters Albie’s office]

There is something a defensive about O’Dell’s remarks…as if Presidents and elections (even on TV) are manifestly more important than comedy shows and popular culture. Sorkin protests too much.

It’s odd that so agile a mind should miss so obvious an irony.  Sorkin is manifestly happier and more productive here.  How could a lesser world make him a greater writer?

The West Wing was popular culture dressed up in the grandeur of politics.  Perhaps Sorkin doubted that TV was worthy of his talent as a message (and not just a medium).  Or perhaps, having used popular culture to enliven the tone of the White House, he now felt obliged to use politics (lower case "p") to dignify SNL. 

In any case, the disdain and the dignity are now back to front. However important popular culture may be (and it is now so important, it’s time to remove the adjective), it never took itself seriously.  It never took on airs.  Thus did it conquer.  (Thus did the French cinema fail to colonize us.)

Traditionally, there was a bargain in place.  The creator may exercise an extraordinary intelligence in the creation of popular culture, but this intelligence should not be allowed to show.  It’s a little like special effects, the science and technology of which are now astonishingly sophisticated.  All we see, all we want to see, is the starship exploding. 

And Sorkin gets this, belatedly:

I get it when people write that there’s a smugness to the show, there’s an arrogance to the show.  I get it when people write that the characters on the show take doing the television show too seriously.  (in Wyatt, below)

But it’s not clear that NBC did.  The marketing for Studio 60 was presumptuous. It seemed to insist, "You will love this show.  It comes to you in triumph," as if NBC were eager finally to show us that (finally or again?) they were no longer schlock meisters.  Bad luck.  Bad marketing. The writer may get it, the studio does not. 

Still, it would be a pity if Sorkin dialed it back too much.  For the bargain is being rewritten with every episode of The Wire and The West Wing. Slowly but surely, dialog, acting and directing is getting better. Popular culture has been letting complexity and sophistication in. Terra is forming, as better culture cultivates a more sophisticated audience who support better culture.   (See Johnson, below.)

It would be tragic if Mr. Sorkin were shut out of the world he has helped create.   


Johnson, Steven.  2006.  Everything Bad is Good for You.  New York: Riverhead Trade. 

Sorkin, Aaron. 2006.The Long Lead story, episode 5. first aired October 16, 2006. here.

Wyatt, Edward.  2007.  Shaky ‘Studio 60’ Is Counting on Romance to Rouse Ratings.  The New York Times.  January 18, 2007. here.


Sorry for the Sartre reference.  I mean, really, who cares?


New episodes for Studio 60 begin tonight. 

2 thoughts on “Aaron Sorkin and popular culture

  1. Rik

    I’ve seen every single episode of West Wing, and I’m a huge fan of studio 60, precisely because of the apparent ‘smugness’ of the characters, and the fast snappy dialogue. It’s a petty that TV is so banal (here in Holland we have set new standards for that with Big Brother and such), and I think WW and Studio 60 in particular add something of value and intelligence to the spectrum. I don’t need to see David Caruso solve another crime by means a ten year old would understand not to be correct, or see ‘famous’ people tell their overrated stories. While that in itself may be smug, I think it’s regrettable that all (or most) of TV has succumbed to the largest common denominator of culture. So I will join you and hope that Studio 60 may run as long as WW did.

  2. Chris

    Unfortunately, Aaron Sorkin keeps recycling the same themes and storylines across his television shows. On Sports Night Jeremy (Joshua Malina) gets mad at Natalie (Sabrina Lloyd) for being so desperate to get into a party at Lot 61, an ultra exclusive night club back in the 1990s. On West Wing it was Sam (Rob Lowe) blaming his broken engagement with Lisa Sherborne (Traylor Howard) “‘Cause I don’t know what the cool restaurant is and I don’t care.” These shows and Studio 60 are filled with recurring redundent culture wars that have been done to death. Does Sorkin think he’s being original when he bashes the Midwest? Christians?

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