For those of you who do not recognize the name right away, Aaron Sorkin was a failed actor who found his niche as a playwright, screenplay writer and television writer/producer. His first work was the now legendary “A Few Good Men,” which was bought for film rights before its first curtain ever went up. Hollywood immediately tapped him to adapt his play into a script for the silver screen, and Rob Reiner directed a stellar cast to one of the most memorable courtroom dramas ever captured through a camera lens.
During the 1990s he penned a massive screenplay which would later be significantly trimmed down to create “The American President.” While the film was not a huge success, the material he wrote would later be the basis for one of the most brilliant shows to grace the television screen, “The West Wing.”
Sorkin is a master of intelligent comedy, which probably stems from his Fine Arts Degree in Musical Theater. Each of his works makes reference to the team of Gilbert and Sullivan, who were Victorian era writers of comic opera and are famed for their productions, “H.M.S. Pinafore” and “The Pirates of Penzance.” Sorkin is also incredibly deft at showing the “behind the scenes” aspects of whatever his subject matter happens to be.
His first television effort was a series called “Sports Night,” that showcased the lives of a nightly sports cast show. The gateway it provided to the world behind the cameras and the frenetic pace lent itself well to Sorkin’s signature rapid fire dialogue. The show was cancelled after only two seasons, because in my opinion it was like everything else he has written; it was a show that required your undivided attention. If you happen to be the kind that leaves the room for snacks or to swap the laundry around, you will be lost, because the story material comes and goes just as fast as the punch lines of his witty jokes.
The cancellation of “Sports Night” was something of a God-send since later that year came the premier of “The West Wing.” You see Sorkin had never given up on the wealth of material he amassed about the White House, and he had poured into “The American President.” With further creative assistance from former White House staff members, he gave us a unique look at the inner workings of our government. The ensemble cast of the show was as adept at comic exchange as they were at taut drama and heartfelt emotion. With each passing episode, the lives of each of the President’s staff is brought to life and the stories of how they arrived are paralleled against the daily tasks that each of them face. The story arcs give continuity to each season and the result is pure magic. Like a fly on the wall, we watch as the President and his loyal troops struggle with real life decisions that impact huge numbers of people and the repercussions of best laid plans. I have never watched any television show that has the capacity to make you laugh, cry and want to stand tall and salute in the same hour.
Sadly, after the fourth season of “West Wing,” Aaron Sorkin left the show due to writer’s burnout and later entered drug rehabilitation. He has since recovered and returned to his form as he wrote and produced “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” This was another behind the scenes format, as he provided a look backstage of a sketch comedy show, and it was no secret that the inspiration was the legendary “Saturday Night Live.”
“Studio 60” suffered from a woeful time slot of 10pm on Monday night, and there haven’t been many projects in the world of television that have stepped on Monday Night Football. The show was cancelled during its first season, but it never failed to deliver the signature Sorkin style of tense exchange and razor sharp wit. They even managed to parody a Gilbert and Sullivan musical number.
Aaron Sorkin has since returned to his love of the stage, but in 2007 he graced us with his screenplay for “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Tom Hanks headlined a brilliant cast that included Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julia Roberts and Amy Adams, and the style and craftiness of Sorkin’s pen was evident throughout.
All of his work has always been opinionated to say the least, but given his Jewish background one can understand how his views would differ, but I give him credit for also including the views of his opposition, and a willingness to admit flaws. It is this intelligent and well rounded work that is laced together with comedy that would make Abbott and Costello proud that I miss so much.
I have all seven seasons of “The West Wing” on disc as well as “Studio 60,” and I have watched them countless times. I still laugh and I still shed tears of both joy and sorrow, but my only real sorrow is the absence of such a great talent from both film and television. In an age of reality TV, knock-off and remade films, there has never been a hole that so desperately needs to be filled.
You are sorely missed, Mr. Sorkin, and I hope you return soon.
-T. August Green