The Thing Speaks for Whatever

Some Loosely Connected Thoughts on Aaron Sorkin’s Verbiage and John Updike’s Package

In Artsy Fartsy Fuckface, Guest Posts on July 18, 2012 at 7:26 am

Hark, a guest post!  It’s our very first one – we should probably bronze it or something, right?  Our questionable commemorative choices aside, we’re happy Alex was willing to stop on by, and we think you will be too. Alex normally bloviates on the intersection of laws and social norms at Law All Over, but he says he has really enjoyed bloaviating on television and John Updike and hopes to do it again.

First off, full disclosure: I haven’t watched the most recent episode of Newsroom, so I can’t confirm the various reviews and rumors about its general awfulness, though friends tell me it was much better than expected. It’s amazing how fast questions about the show have transformed from “If it’s even better than West Wing, will Aaron Sorkin simply vanish in an orgiastic flash of light?” to “how is something this goddamn sanctimonious still enjoyable? I don’t like myself.”

But it is Sorkin, through and through; it has all the hallmarks (I’ve peppered in some Sorkinisms; see if you can catch them!):

  1. A small group of workaholics who want to make things better in TV/politics/comedy/news just through sheer gumption and pluck.
  2. Extremely high levels of either optimism or naiveté about the ability of individuals to affect systemic problems.
  3. People who may or may not have been distracted by bumblebees.
  4. References to Gilbert and Sullivan and/or Rodgers and Hammerstein
  5. Extreme levels of sanctimony. Like, really extreme.
  6. Women who pine after their co-workers.
  7. Severe emotional instability and or hysteria among said women.

So: I was watching the first or second episode with some friends, and one said of Jeff Daniels’ character “No news anchors talk like that.” Another responded: “In general no one talks like Sorkin characters.”

Which is how I got to thinking about John Updike’s phallus.


Some novelist – which, exactly, escapes me – went to visit John Updike at his farm. While retrieving a book, Updike dropped in some preposterously beautiful prose explaining why he liked it, and the visiting novelist apparently though “wow, the sonofabitch really sounds like that.” I wish I could remember who it was. Bellow? Anyway. Updike really talked like the beautiful prose he authored, but all of his protagonists were famously obsessed with their own mortality and/or (usually and) their own genitalia. Also they were obvious stand-ins for Updike. Remember the book he wrote where the protagonist wasn’t  a sex-obsessed self-absorbed lightly misogynistic WASP from the Northeast? Of course you don’t; that book doesn’t exist. 

So I was thinking about Updike’s phallus, and his characterizations in general, and started looking for the Sorkin stand-ins on Newsroom. Is it Jeff Daniels? The cynical, brilliant elder statesman who joins a crusade to bring honor and integrity back to the news? Or the young Asssociate Producer? The brilliant fix-it-all phenom who can chase down the hot lead, honorably fall on the sword for a co-worker, and treat Allison Pill’s panic attack without breaking a sweat?

I don’t know, but he’s there, for sure. A look at Sorkin’s other stand-ins:

  1. Sports Night: probably some combination of Josh Charles and Peter Krause. The off-the-charts brilliant writers who have enough charm and smarts to save the show, their integrity, and their relationships with women. I think probably more Josh Charles, the smooth ladies man, than Krause.
  2. West Wing: Rob Lowe as Aaron Sorkin Sam Seaborn, ladies and gentlemen! The brilliant (are you noticing a trend?) lawyer/writer who remains true to his idealism all the while being handsome as hell. Do we think it’s an accident that Seaborn left the show at roughly the same time Sorkin stopped writing for it – and returned in the same season he did?
  3. Studio 60: Matthew Perry. This one is painfully obvious. The brilliant (sigh) writer who comes on board to save a show but suffers from drug issues and a tortured relationship with an ex-girlfriend.


That last part is especially awkward, because Sorkin was so, SO clearly using Studio 60 to work through his break-up with Kristen Chenoweth. The relationship between Matt Perry’s secular Jewish character and Sarah Paulsen’s evangelical Christian comedienne was so transparently a stand-in for his relationship with Chenoweth that it was legitimately uncomfortable. I know more about their relationship and break-up than I do about some of my own. But the fact that parts felt like Sorkin’s diary was only one problem with a show that was his “I’m Keith Hernandez” moment. The biggest was that Sorkin had the balls to write all of the comedy sketches himself. The premise of the show was that the new writer/director team was full to brimming with unspeakable comedic genius, so how come every time we saw or heard any of the skits they were criminally unfunny? I really can’t emphasize how not funny they were. They might have sounded funny to Sorkin, but they ended up sounding like serious, thoughtful remarks, the sort you might make to a friend who just got diagnosed with cancer. Also the whole supporting cast was pretty weak, and there were never any particularly high stakes. So, yeah, the premise of the show was totally unbelievable, but at least they executed it badly. 

Much like Updike, Sorkin puts stand-ins for himself at the center of his scripts. No big deal, I think a lot of writers probably do this. Updike did, and is widely considered one of the great American novelists. But let me ask this: is Aaron Sorkin a good writer?

Maybe. It depends on what we think a script-smith is supposed to do. If your criteria for good writing is that it accurately depicts “real life” and shows range, then no, he isn’t. All of his scripts have the exact same high-speed Sorkin patter, with a lot of the same jokes and verbal tics mixed in, and the same pathological fear of pronouns.


“Do you want some coffee?”


“Yes, coffee. Do you want some?”

“I could drink some coffee. Is it good coffee?”

“Yes, it’s good coffee. It’s very, very good coffee. It might be the best coffee.”

“What makes you say it’s the best coffee?”

“What makes me say – what do you think makes me say it’s the best coffee? Its inherent superiority to other coffees.”

“It’s superior to other coffees?”

“It’s VERY superior to other coffees.”

“Well, if it’s VERY superior coffee… yes, I’ll have some coffee.”

“Would you like a scone, too?”

“What sort of scone? Is it a superior scone?” 

(Etc. ad nauseum)

If one of your friends actually sounded like Sorkin’s characters, you would have no choice but to have him killed. So, no, Sorkin doesn’t seem to have the particular gifts of verisimilitude or breadth of characterization. But the fact that you can almost instantly identify Sorkin dialog doesn’t mean he isn’t a good writer. You wouldn’t need too much training to do the same with Dickens, or Joyce. What Sorkin IS good at, on the other hand, is dazzling verbal patter that can be very funny (but not when it’s trying to be, only when it’s incidental wit), ornate, pleasantly stylized, and unbelievably urbane and articulate. It’s a difficult skill that can be easy to mock and to mime, but is very, very difficult to do well.

The best comparison I can think of may actually be W.S. Gilbert, whom Sorkin obviously idolizes – he lends backbone to a few West Wing episodes, and is honored through imitation in a Studio 60 episode. Like Sorkin, Gilbert’s lyrics are pithy, patterned, spectacularly erudite, enormously funny, and instantly recognizable. But just because Gilbert’s characters are taken from the same set of archetypes in all of his scripts and his dialog is highly stylized doesn’t make him a worse writer, it makes him one of the most talented comedic writers who ever put pen to parchment.

Sorkin is very, very good at a particular kind of writing. Let me ask another question: how much does he like women?


When DFW reviewed Updike’s Toward the End of Time, he wondered whether Updike or his characters really liked women, or just thought of them as sex objects. Paraphrasing stealing openly from that review: “though always heterosexual to the point of satyriasis, [his protagonists] don’t love women… unless you consider saying things like ‘it’s true, the sight of her plump lips obediently distended around my swollen member, her eyelids lowered demurely, afflicts me with a religious peace’ to be the same as loving her.”

So…yeah. What was I talking about? Right. I don’t think Sorkin has an objectification complex like Updike did (does anyone?); Sorkin’s more into navel-gazing, while Updike seems to have mostly gazed a few inches south of that. But he does seem to have hang-ups with a particular type of woman. Let’s do this again:

  1. Sports Night: Both Natalie and Dana are extremely talented at their jobs, but have seemingly no emotional competency at all. Both are hung up on co-workers, both do a pretty bad job dealing with it, both have serious bouts of hysteria.
  2. West Wing: Donna and CJ are both notoriously bad at relationships (it gets mentioned ALL the time), and Donna is hung up on a co-worker. CJ dotes on Danny for most of the show, but I’ll forgive her failures because the relationship with a reporter thing was legitimately vexed. But nonetheless, both dote, both fail to do anything about it for five to seven years, both are unambiguously bad at making emotional connections with men. Amy (Mary Louise Parker’s character) isn’t so great at it either, though in comparison to Josh Lyman she looks like an old pro.
  3. Studio 60: Both Sarah Paulsen’s character and the British writer have bad relationships with an ex, Paulsen dotes after hers (who is also a coworker), and the Brit ends up yearning for a co-worker, too. Sorkin uses Chenoweth’s Paulsen’s religiosity as a stand-in for being emotionally stunted.
  4. Newsroom: Both Natalie Allison Pill and Dana Emily Mortimer are brilliant at their jobs, but have seemingly no emotional competency at all. Both are hung up on co-workers, both do a pretty bad job dealing with it, both have serious bouts of hysteria. Plus Mortimer cheated on Jeff Daniels – but now just yearns for him.

With the notable exception of Abby Bartlett – who for my money is by FAR the most interesting female character Sorkin ever penned – virtually every prominent woman on every single one of his TV shows is work-obsessed, emotionally stunted, occasionally hysterical, and hung up on a co-worker who may or may not be a Sorkin stand-in.

It’s not that the Sorkin men aren’t flawed; they are. Toby Ziegler is afflicted with a self-righteousness of epic proportions, Josh Lyman is deeply emotionally stunted, Sam Seaborn can be too trusting, Dan Rydell is narcissistic and objectifies women a little, Casey McCall isn’t that good with women, Bradley Whitford’s Studio 60 character has drug problems, so does Matthew Perry’s. But they aren’t flawed in EXACTLY THE SAME WAY EVERY TIME. I don’t know what Sorkin’s deal with women is, but he doesn’t seem to have a deep bench when it comes to female character types.

But so far I’ve enjoyed Newsroom. I don’t actually think it’s any more sanctimonious than other Sorkin shows – I think it’s way LESS sanctimonious than Studio 60 – but somehow that sanctimony seemed more appropriate in the White House than it does in a TV studio, and it remains to be seen if it can be carried off without the gravitas that Richard Schiff, John Spencer, and Martin Sheen brought to The West Wing.

By way of conclusion, let me just say that my least favorite thing about The Newsroom is that it has laid bare exactly how predictable a writer Sorkin is. It isn’t just the stylization, or the female stock-casting. Other characters repeat themselves:

  • The old wise man who fixes everything but has his own set of demons: Isaac on Sports Night, Leo on West Wing, Judd Hirsch’s character on Studio 60, Sam Waterston’s on Newsroom. 
  • The young, nerdy whiz kid who at least claims to not quite have it together: Joshua Malina on Sports Night, Joshua Malina on West Wing, Nate Corrdry on Studio 60, the young AD on Newsroom
  • The guy who is just wrong and refuses to admit it: the corporate suits on Sports Night, any number of people on West Wing, but let’s go with the guys who won’t talk to Ainsley Hayes at the beginning of Season 2 (Sam Seaborn to the rescue!), Ricky and Ron on Studio 60, the corporate suits and possibly Allison Pill’s producer boyfriend on Newsroom. 

It would be an exaggeration to say that all of Sorkin’s shows are cut from the same cloth, but not much of one. Maybe everyone knows this and I’m just too slow to have put it together before this month, but it’s a little sad to me to think that if he ever makes another TV show, I already know what the characters will be like, how they will sound, what sorts of emotional problems the women will have, a set of stock male characters that will populate it, etc. I just don’t know what they’ll be doing yet. But somehow I still want to find out.


Whatever, yo.

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