An imaginary critic writes of Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing:
… style and rhythm come before substance, intention and feeling… the ultimate goal is to show off, to impress his audience, not to inform, persuade or challenge them.
Yup, Sork is a bit like that. And you know, it’s not such a bad thing.
The problem is that all the characters in the West Wing are already fully formed, already comfortable in themselves – there’s no flaws or weaknesses and therefore no scope for development. And so there can’t be story arcs: lots of things happen, sure, but nobody changes. The plot is stormy, the characters unnaturally halcyon. Think Friends with nuclear standoffs, government shut-downs, and nazi assassins. And Sorkin is very happy writing like this: when he tried to make a series that did have arcs and character development – the Newsroom – the result was awkward and a flop. In short, TWW breaks all the rules – and yet it works.
This is smoke and mirrors. In fact, Sorkin has simply replaced the standard rules with his own ones (I’m reminded of Blake’s “I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man’s”). His main rule is to think of writing in terms of sexual and romantic relationships. When John Wells took over as show-runner, Sork stopped watching TWW – he said it was like watching “somebody make out with my girlfriend” – an unpleasant but irrefutably authentic reaction for a writer. He returns to the analogy time and time again. About writing in general, he says:
For me, the writing experience is very much like a date. It’s not unusual that I’m really funny here and really smart here and maybe showing some anger over here so she sees maybe I have this dark side. I want it to have been worth it for everyone to sit through it for however long I ask them to.
“I want it to be worth it [for the date].” What do we look for when going out with someone? We want to be entertained, bamboozled, spoilt. We fall in love with someone for who they are, not for who they might become twenty episodes down the hero’s journey. We want to be impressed, shown off to, charmed, wooed, and most definitely lied to. We want the characters to put effort into it, we want them to be at their very best – not just rock up and chill out like the Dude Lebowski. (Come on, face it – great film, but would you?). And yes, if you have the pull-factor, all this is enough, you don’t need all this story arc stuff – you can carry four series of 20 episodes solely on the strength of showing your date a good time.
But there’s a problem. Producers and critics don’t always get this, and they think rules are there to obeyed – otherwise there’s no progress, no science to writing, otherwise why call them “rules”? They see something break the rules and of course – necessarily! – it can’t be any good, can it? In enforcing these narrow set of styles, they make them more concrete, since they control what succeeds and what fails, and future writers will change their style to match what succeeds. Eventually the rules become laws of nature, and books tell you they are the only way to tell stories. And in this way our culture is impoverished.
Well, thank fuck for people who would rather create their own system.
There’s a giga-illion clips from TWW on Youtube. Some of them have dated, most of them are impossible to follow, all of them are fun.