September 19, 2006

Like a Victim, Punk'd for the Very First Time

At ten o’clock last night I snuggled into my bed, exhausted, belly full of delicious pumpkin pancakes making me contentedly sleepy. I give the channels a last flip-through, and stop a few minutes into a new show on NBC. I realize what it is, because I had read about it, so I decided just to watch the opening to see if it was going to be any good, knowing I would be asleep in fifteen minutes. At eleven, I roll over and curse myself because now I will have to watch every episode ever of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and I don’t want to. I don’t want to have another show to watch. I want to wean myself from the entertainment media and live peacefully on a mountaintop herding sheep, but I’ll have to put that on hold for a few more years because the chemistry between Bradley Whitford and Matthew Perry sets my screen on fire.* Because the writing was so fantastically on that I did not go “ew, clunk!” at any time. The setup was predictable but still worked, and the jokes so subtle that I didn’t need to laugh. It’s going to be a good show, dammit. And now I must hate myself for, once again, I open my door to the faithless bedroom eyes of Aaron Sorkin.

Sorkin, for those who don’t know, is the mastermind behind both Sports Night, which I never saw but has achieved a sort of cult status among its fans, and The West Wing, which I devoured every week until its cancellation last spring. Aaron Sorkin writes good television. He’s a smart guy, he’s a funny guy, and he creates such compelling and intelligent shows that I have hope for television again (not coincidentally, the theme of last night’s Studio). So why should I be apprehensive of his new project, when I should be leaping for joy that there will be a new show of equal writing caliber to fill The West Wing void? Aaron Sorkin creates a brilliant television show; isn’t watching good television a good thing? Yes. It’s actually the reason for having a television. That’s called the hook.

Here’s the sinker: after he writes brilliantly for said show for two or three seasons, Aaron Sorkin leaves the show to pursue other endeavors, and the show slowly deteriorates and dies. The first three seasons of The West Wing are an epoch in television history. They’re smart; you want to understand what’s going on. They get you interested in politics (which previously caused my eyelids to droop at their first mention) and leave you both disillusioned by American policies and also proud to live in the country that created them. Aaron Sorkin made me give a damn, and then he left me. It’s like he threw a giant party, hired a great band and invited tons of interesting guests, and then halfway through the party he bails out the back. Yeah, the music’s still good, and there are still amazing people to watch, and this party’s still the best one on the block, but… we came here to see you. You’re the one that started this whole thing. It’s not cool to disappear and then pop your head back in every now and then to tell a joke and see how things are. It’s your party; it’s rude not to stay for the whole thing. The ensemble cast of The West Wing was incredible, so for the successive seasons I still watched just to see what they did with the material they were given, which truly was not much.

I generally don’t like it when creators leave their shows in the foster care of other writers. I understand that head writers (Aaron Sorkin, Amy Sheman-Palladino) want to branch out, especially when they’ve started a successful show. People start to know you, they associate your name with quality work, they want you for another project, you have to leave something undone. Which means leaving it in the hands of new writers. Sometimes these writers can hold their own, and sometimes these writers are producers who somehow think they can write. As a longtime Gilmore Girls fan, I can tell you that the latter is a really bad idea. Being in contact with the show does not necessarily endow you with the creative power to write its episodes, because what you write will be spoken by the characters and therefore affect the course of the show's history. You have to take things like backstory and character and plotline resolution into account, or at least acknowledge them, or the fans may not follow.

When I was fourteen, I wrote an episode of Star Trek (shut up, I’m cool) wherein all the crew members of the Enterprise have to wear period costumes, because I wanted to see Spock in a powdered wig. Which was fine, because as long as there a plausible explanation** and the crew aren’t affected by the episode’s events over the long term, the fans will be down with it, as subsequent NextGen episodes proved (the crew as Robin Hood’s merry men, the various holodeck episodes, Data in drag, etc). My trouble with replacement writers is that they will never know the show like the creator, they only do a good impression. Almost imperceptible differences—a tone, a line, a single stage direction—and suddenly you remember that it’s a cover band. Even if they’re good, it doesn’t change the fact that whatever they come up with is not what Aaron Sorkin would have intended, and I hate that loss of creative control. I didn’t just want to see how everything began, I want to know how it ends—I want to know how he wanted it to end. I don’t give a hairy damn how John Wells wants it to end. It's like hiring Michael Crichton to write the last Harry Potter book.

I like this new show, but if I have to like it, I want to like it forever. I want to marry it, and I don’t want it to change on me, or have a midlife crisis, or go insane, or decide to end its own life for the good of us all. Please, Mr. Sorkin, wherever you are, do not pull another bait-and-switch. You don’t need to be another groundbreaking show’s baby-daddy; you need to be its parent. See its birth, but also put it through college. Don’t be mad if it steals the car keys and goes joyriding for a while, but make sure it comes back home. Thank you.

*So much so that I can overlook Steven Weber, who at best is an annoyance in Lifetime original movies when he’s cheating on his wife, and at worst in the same oeuvre murdering his wife.

**or, in the case of the original series, a semi-maybe-kinda-plausible what’sthatoverthere? explanation.

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