When it comes to brilliant writing and acting, you’ll go a long way to find a TV drama more fulfilling than Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. It’s a show I always recommend to participants in writing workshops because there’s so much to learn from it.
Want to know why I wax lyrical about it? Then read on …
But before we start, some scene-setting. The West Wing is a drama about American politics – and I’m an Australian. So for me, and for any other readers/viewers who aren’t American, there’s a different perspective. The show’s creator, Aaron Sorkin, is a left-wing liberal and he makes no secret of that. It means that some folk who are closer to the US political scene, or who sit more to the centre or to the right on the political spectrum, might have some problems with the show if they don’t share Sorkin’s values. I get that. But I’d urge those people to give it a go anyway, because frankly – a good person is a good person regardless of politics. Unquestionably there is an element of wish-fulfilment, of idealisation, in the show – but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Depicting a world where not all politicians are venal, corrupt hacks gives us something to aspire to, after all!
But bearing in mind that I’m not interested in starting political flamewars in this space, my focus when discussing the show will be on the characters and the writing and what aspiring writers can learn from it – which is a whole lot.
The other thing to know is that while Aaron Sorkin created The West Wing, he only worked on it for 4 out of its 7 seasons. Consider this: the man wrote or co-wrote (I believe) 87 episodes of those 4 seasons – as well as being part of the team overseeing the show’s day-to-day production and all the work that entails. That made for an interesting work environment, where last minute rewrites on set became common and production delays caused hassles for the cast, crew and network. He also had some well-publicised drug issues – which I think speaks more to the downside of being acutely creative than anything else.
All this meant that the atmosphere on The West Wing set wasn’t always ideal and after 4 seasons the issue came to a head and Sorkin departed the show. This resulted in a tonal shift in the show’s politics, because the new leader of the team saw the world differently, and that was reflected in the writing. Which is something for aspiring writers to note: even when you think you’re hiding behind your keyboard, you’re not.
Because here’s the thing: even though writers frequently adopt attitudes/positions that they don’t personally hold – because hello, writing many different characters! Who think and feel differently about the world than does the writer! – nevertheless, chances are some of your actual thoughts about life, the universe and everything will leak into and out of your work. And sometimes a writer, like Sorkin, will take a very deliberate political stance in their work (hardly surprising in this case, given that The West Wing is a show about politics, but it does hold true for everything he writes) and make no bones about where they stand on issues about which they feel strongly.
Which is fine, every writer has to make that choice for him or herself. Just bear in mind, though, that when you consistently do that – when your ideological opposites are always evil people who are always wrong – you run the risk of turning some characters into caricatures, thereby robbing them of their essential humanity and reducing them to punching bags. And you shouldn’t do that, if for no other reason than readers who happen to not share your political and/or world viewpoint will read what you write about people like them and feel insulted, belittled or denigrated. And that means they’re likely to not part with their hard-earned money to buy your books. Newsflash: disagreeing with your political and/or world viewpoint does not make someone intrinsically evil, or stupid, or unworthy of basic courtesies.
A quick example: I was once having a conversation with a fellow genre writer who made it very clear that, in his opinion, only a brain-dead amoeba could actually believe in a religion, or have any kind of religious faith. Mind you, this was without having a clue as to any faith I might ascribe to. Now as it happens I do have some spiritual beliefs. Many would call them unorthodox but they work for me. The point is, he simply assumed that because I’m an intelligent individual then naturally I couldn’t possibly have any religious convictions at all.
The look on his face when I politely (no, really!) disabused him of this notion was priceless.
So remember: characters, not caricatures. Don’t rely on stereotypes, it’s lazy writing.
Well, this has been a bit of a diversion from the main topic – but I know there are folks reading this blog who cherish dreams of becoming published writers and this seems like an apropos moment to touch on what is often a contentious and perplexing issue. In fact, I might well explore it further in a future podcast!
Anyway! Back to The West Wing! For me, the absolute best of the show’s writing can be found in those first 4 seasons – because when Sorkin is on song, he is a marvel. Not that he’s perfect mind you – he doesn’t always get it right, but for my money he gets it right more often than not. And I will say that, for me, this series is his creative highlight. For my tastes, nothing else he’s done after this matches those glorious 4 seasons of work. In fact I can see why he’d burn out after them – it was a superhuman feat to maintain that level of quality for so long. Just ask David Milch from NYPD Blue – he suffered the same problems and ultimately the same fate.
I think it’s fascinating to note that Alison Janney (CJ Cregg) once said that Sorkin’s dialogue is so precise, so tight, and so perfectly rhythmic that it’s impossible to deliver his lines unless they’ve been learned word for word, no deviations.
The thing is, sometimes actors will approximate their dialogue. They’ll substitute a word here and there, so the meaning is pretty much the same but what they’re saying isn’t what’s written in their script. And even though that’s rude and unprofessional, the truth is that sometimes it doesn’t matter. Sometimes the dialogue as written is sloppy or poorly constructed and you’d never know the difference. But Sorkin chooses words not only for their meaning (which can sometimes be very subtle) but also for how many syllables they contain – because that directly impacts the rhythm – or musicality – of the lines. So if you take out the 3 syllable word and instead use a word with 2, or 4, you’ve not only most likely changed the meaning and intent of the dialogue, you’ve screwed up its rhythm and as a result the whole scene falls apart.
That’s how good Sorkin is when it comes to his dialogue. Watch any of his extended ‘walk and talk’ scenes in the show. Basically, watch any conversation. Note how it’s like a dance, the way the actors throw lines back and forth to each other, the way the emotional intensity of a scene rises and falls, how everything flows so seamlessly, so effortlessly. It’s a gift, but it’s also something he worked hard to perfect. This is what people mean when they say a writer has ‘an ear’ for dialogue. It is like music. And while the sad truth is that not every writer is equally gifted in this, we can certainly study the work of someone who is and learn from them.
But it’s not just the dialogue that sings. His character work is great, too. (Even when he’s created a character I loathe – and there are two in The West Wing, sadly both of them women). The pilot episode of the show is a master class in introducing a wide range of characters who immediately establish themselves as unique individuals. Obviously when it comes to TV drama it’s harder to confuse the characters because they have actual faces to go with the names. But there are commercially released books with The West Wing scripts reproduced in them, and if you read them you’ll know without needing a character tag who is saying what – which is precisely as it should be.
The pilot is also a master class in unfolding a story with minimal exposition. The narrative picks us up and sweeps us along with it. Something has happened and we have to find out what it is, because the characters already know and they’re scrambling to deal with the fallout. We learn what we need to learn as we go. This is typical Sorkin-style storytelling – intriguing and engaging and intellectually stimulating.
The West Wing, as I’ve said, is a show about American politics. It takes place in the West Wing of the White House, where the president and his administration team work. Apparently the original idea for the show was to keep the focus tightly on that administration team, but the response to Martin Sheen’s performance as President Bartlet was so strong that the emphasis shifted – and he became an integral part of the show. Given how central he became to all of the storytelling, I can’t even begin to imagine The West Wing as originally conceived.
So … there’s the president. There’s his wife, Abby, the First Lady, played by Stockard Channing. There’s his chief of staff, Leo McGarry, played by the amazing John Spencer. There’s Leo’s deputy, Josh Lyman, played by Bradley Whitford, and Josh’s assistant Donna Moss, played by Janel Maloney. There’s Toby Ziegler, Barlet’s fearless communications director, played by Richard Schiff, and his deputy Sam Seaborn, played by Rob Lowe. There’s the White House press secretary CJ Cregg, played by Alison Janney. The president’s personal secretary Mrs Landingham, played by Kathryn Joosten, and his body man Charlie Young, played by Dule Hill.
And that’s not everyone! That’s only the main players!
As you can see, it’s a huge ensemble cast … and yet the show never feels crowded or rushed. Each character is so deftly drawn that you’re never confused about who they are and how they matter, to the story or each other or most importantly to the president.
Possibly the weakest aspect of the show is the gender issue stuff. Sorkin has come under fire for his treatment of women and female characters in his TV dramas. Certainly there are moments that do make me wince. But then there are times when I think his female characters are some of the best you’ll find. Again: for the most part, when the creative team behind the scenes is exclusively male, what you tend to get is a male-centric view of the world and a male-centric depiction of women. That’s bound to mean some mis-steps. But on balance, I have seen worse.
(Hey, for those of you reading this who think this whole gender topic is boring and stupid and completely misguided? Track down a season of the 70s show Emergency! about paramedics and firemen in LA. Look at how almost every woman on that show is depicted, then tell me there is nothing to discuss re: gender issues in popular culture. I wish it was true that we’ve come a long way, baby – but we haven’t come as far as we like to think.)
The West Wing is a show that will make you laugh, cry, rage and think. It’s about relationships – familial, platonic, paternal, fraternal, romantic and adversarial. It’s about the world we live in, the world we want to live in, the world we’re afraid to live in … and how those three elements of life collide. It’s fast-paced and narratively unforgiving, though – Sorkin is a very smart man, he writes a very smart show, and he demands that the audience keep up with him. And he never makes any apologies for that. Personally, I revel in it. I love being treated like an intelligent human being. Nothing turns me off a show faster than being treated like a moron who can’t remember what happened before the last commercial break.
I can’t list my favourite episodes because frankly, I adore the first 4 seasons entirely. And even though I find the last 3 seasons not quite up to par, I love them too – even though there’s one plot development in particular I can’t quite reconcile. The stories told in The West Wing range from internationally significant to extremely up close and personal. Ethical crises and dilemmas abound. The show asks difficult questions about power, about leadership, about doing right for the wrong reasons, wrong for the right reasons, and what happens when cowardice means you do nothing at all. Trust me, there is a never a dull moment.
So there you have it. Aspiring writers, The West Wing should be on your list of required viewing, for repeated analysis and learning opportunities. And for you guys who just want to be entertained by quality drama, well, here it is. It could be that sometimes the politics is too strident for you … but if you can, please, put that to one side and keep watching. You’ll be gifted with some memorable moments, I promise.