Exploring The West Wing

Inside The West Wing

by Paul Challen

ECW Press

The West Wing: The Official Companion

by Ian Jackman and Paul Ruditis

Pocket Books

The West Wing Script Book

by Aaron Sorkin

Newmarket Press

With over 20 million viewers each week consistently lifting it into the top Nielsen ratings, it’s likely that if you’re reading this you don’t need me to point out the pinnacle that is The West Wing at its best. I won’t pretend objectivity on this point; you would soon figure out as you read this article that I am a big fan of Aaron Sorkin’s writing. You may think you love it, trust me, I love it more. To a writer — or at least, this writer — Sorkin’s best writing is like oxygen. What I will be attempting to argue, however, is that it deserves special attention and study, and even more, so does writer/creator Sorkin. Not because Sorkin is wholly responsible for the shows quality–there’s the little matter of the cast, and director Thomas Schlamme, and like that. But still, The West Wing at its best is the communication of one mind to millions of others through the talents of other artists working at the top of their game.

In his screenplay for The American President, the precursor to The West Wing in ways too obvious and often enumerated to repeat here, Sorkin had liberal President Andrew Shepherd, played by Michael Douglas, issue an open challenge to the conservative who has been attacking him for the past few months. “We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them.” I’m issuing a similar challenge to writers on film and television. The West Wing is a serious TV show, and we need serious books to look at it.

By serious, I mean that the show is deeply interesting, important, and impressive. As James Michner wrote of the Forsythe Saga television program in 1970, “the characters are differentiated, well rounded and with universal application, the dialogue is literate, the problems dealt with are substantial and overall there is a high seriousness.” But besides the quality of his work, Sorkin’s output deserves analysis for the simple reason that unlike all but a few television shows, so much of it is he. David Kelly and Steven Boccho haven’t written, as Sorkin has, virtually every teleplay of a TV series for the past three years. Add in two seasons of Sports Night — the second written concurrently with The West Wing‘s first — and that’s over 100 hours of quality television coming largely through the brain of one man.

Three books have been released in recent months that begin and will help the process of that study. But as indicated, it’s my hope that this is only the beginning. Probably not for another few years and after the series takes its final bow will we see really in-depth analysis of the program and Sorkin’s work on it.

The first to go up against the challenge, Paul Challen’s Inside The West Wing, fails to meet it by any recognizable standard. As the writer of an “unauthorized” book, Challen had no access to Sorkin, Wells, or any of the cast or crew, and has therefore produced a clipping job. This need not be offensive — a handy compendium of quotes on the series by those who make it would be welcome — but unfortunately, the book is badly written and it is questionable whether it ever saw editing at all. Challen also leaves something to be desired as a drama critic. He clumsily retells scenes from the series, puts punch lines in the wrong sequence and leaves out important context. In the case of one episode, “Take Out The Trash Day,” he merely omits the point that turns an entire plotline on its head. In commentary on two successive episodes, he engages in dubious psychoanalysis of West Wing star Martin Sheen and shows an apparent ignorance of the craft of acting. The lack of thorough editing calls attention to itself by the many errors of fact (sometimes minor, sometimes misspelling names… like Sorkin’s) and grammar, which are trivial in and of themselves but increasingly annoying as they pile up. What’s saddening is that occasionally Challen shows potential for real insight and turn of phrase, but these moments are too few, far between and underdeveloped. Time after time I came to the bottom of the first page of his remarks on an episode, turned it in curiosity to see what else he had to say, only to find myself looking at the summary for the next. Well-intentioned but shallow, the book reminds me of nothing so much in substance as an old Scholastic Book purporting to take readers on the other side of the camera of a show like M*A*S*H or other ’70s hit.

Lavishly illustrated with full-color photographs, The Official Companion consists of synopsis of the first two seasons worth of episodes, with quotes from the cast and crew interspersed along with short features and actor-character biographies. As a pleasant “coffee table” companion to the series, the book succeeds, and this is the level for which it aims. But there is a disturbing omission in its pages.

On an episode of Sports Night, one of the characters, co-host of the show-within-a-show of the series, appears on a talk show and accepts compliments for the way he dresses on the air. He is later upbraided by a staff member played by Janel Moloney, who would go on to greater things as Donna on The West Wing:

“You get so much attention and so much praise for what you actually do and all of it’s deserved. When you go on a talk show and get complimented on something you didn’t, how hard would it be to say, ‘That’s not me. That’s a woman named Maureen who’s been working for us since the first day. It’s Maureen who dresses me every night.’ Do you have any idea what that would’ve meant to her? Do have any idea how many times she would have played that tape for her husband and her kids?”

It’s hard for me not to think that reading The Official Companion, some of the writers and others on the West Wing staff must be feeling a little bit like Maureen. No other writers whatsoever are listed, so a casual fan could come away with the idea that Sorkin wrote, single-handedly, every single episode of the first two seasons. And it ‘taint so, McGee. In the past year there’s been some shouting in the media and online about how much credit Sorkin deserves, and how much the writing staff of TWW is denied. The situation is, admittedly, unique in television. West Wing executive producer John Wells described it this way in Variety:

The West Wing is a show where the teleplays are wholly written by Aaron Sorkin. So the writing staff doesn’t really function as a writing staff. They function as a research staff and in pitching out stories.”

All right, but don’t they deserve to be credited as such? How “official” a companion is one that doesn’t recognize the contributions of a production staff beyond Sorkin, the cast, director Schlamme, and one or two others? The people who assembled this book — Ian Jackman and Paul Ruditis, according to online listings — should have known better — but then, their names aren’t on their work either..

The Official Companion is a better book than Inside The West Wing (“It’d have to be,” come a chorus of Wingnuts, as Martin Sheen dubs us in his foreword). But it is still not the thoughtful analysis of Sorkin and the show that I hope will someday emerge.

And so we come, finally some months later to what is arguably the most worthy of study about The West Wing: The scripts. The West Wing Script Book collects the teleplays of six episodes from the show’s first two seasons; the pilot, the episode in which Charlie Young was introduced, the two-part flashback to the early days of Bartlet’s campaign, Toby’s learning of the President’s condition, and Jed’s angry confrontation with God in the National Cathedral.

It’s easy to argue that if someone who’d never seen it wanted to know why The West Wing was such an acclaimed hit, and you couldn’t show him or her a few episodes, handing them the Script Book would be a good start. Since writing is the seed of all good drama, the strongest evidence that The West Wing has serious bona fides is perhaps this book. Sorkin’s words, as he says tongue-in-cheek in the introduction, “without all the annoying frou-frous of actors and directors and designers and technicians. Cameras and what-not.” He might have added, away from the controversy and allegations of last year.

An article in the September 2001 issue of Talk magazine quotes Schlamme as saying he would like to tell his friend, “You’re more than what you write.” And so Sorkin is. But the extent to which writers live and breathe on their pages cannot be overstated. We hope we are more than what we write, but we are at least what we write. Writing is what’s left of a writer when everything else they do is stripped away. Sorkin knows this. That same article ends by quoting him on the blood that goes into his scripts, and a lesson he has learned. “Keep your eye on the ball and do really good work. “The rest of it goes away.”

“The cast will be driven to distraction by my saying, ‘You’re leaving out a beat in that measure. Actually, there’s an ‘and’ there and if you leave that out, it’s like taking a note out of a measure in 4/4 time that now only has three beats in it. It’s just going to sound wrong.” — Aaron Sorkin, as quoted in The West Wing: The Official Companion

Sorkin is in position of power enviable to a writer. He can make sure his words, and his words alone, are used, and that they are not fucked with. And Sorkin’s The West Wing is one of the most awarded, most popular television dramas in history in no small part because of this. By linking the fortunes of his series to himself as a person to a degree overwhelmingly greater than any other network series, Sorkin and his series invite study. Writers are god of their particular universes, and reading The Script Book, when Bartlet curses God for the way he took Mrs. Landingham, it’s tempting in retrospect to see Sorkin engaging in a bit of self-mockery:

“She bought her first new car, and you hit her with a drunk driver. What, was that supposed to be funny?”

He does touch on one of the issues I mentioned earlier in one of his brief introductions to the screenplays included, admitting non-apologetically that he liked the question, “What’s the virtue of a proportionate response?” so much that he used it both in An American President and here. These introductions are in general too brief to be very revealing, although a most astonishing piece of information appears in the first. The person who suggested to Sorkin that a series about senior White House staff might be something he would enjoy writing, thereby providing the spark that would build into The West Wing was… Akiva (Batman And Robin) Goldsman, surely one of the worst screenwriters to win an Academy Award since Ben Affleck and Matt Damon.

Sorkin has always run from the idea that The West Wing could have any sort of importance in our culture. It’s just dramatic entertainment, he insists. While it is certainly that, one suspects a certain amount of disingenuousness in this stance. But he also, necessarily, has to take this position. If he were to sit down with a political agenda, as he has said, to “mouth off about what’s bugging (him) that week,” he’d be writing propaganda and the show’s quality would suffer. But just because something sets out mainly to be pop, does not mean it doesn’t matter. Sometimes. Take Leo’s speech from “In the Shadow of Two Gunmen:”

“I’m tired of it. Year after year after year, having to choose between the lesser of who cares. Of trying to get myself excited about the candidate who can speak in complete sentences. Of setting the bar so low I can hardly stand to look at it.”

Has there been, in popular culture, a better encapsulation of the disenfranchisement of good people?

Sorkin is already one of the strongest writers of film and television we have today, as The Script Book neatly reminds us after a somewhat disappointing third season of the series. I only hope both that he will continue to aspire to improve in the areas in which he is not quite 100% yet, and that, maybe in a couple of years, we’ll see a real, serious attempt to look at and study his accomplishments. Thoughtful analysis is still desired of such issues as the series treatment of race and the character of Charlie, the mini-controversy surrounding the role of other writers on the show, the sexism some have alleged in Sorkin’s writing of female characters, his recycling of plotlines from his earlier work, and his drug arrest and how (or if) it affected the show. But any insights on these issues are sadly absent from these books, as are virtually any mention of them at all. Please note that I am not calling for a sensationalistic treatment, or the shallow look Challen provided. But not to remark upon them at all is to err on the side of gloss. And The West Wing and Sorkin can stand up to more than that.

Author’s note: There is a fourth volume recently published about the series, Keith Topping’s Inside Bartlet’s White House: An Unofficial and Unauthorized Guide to The West Wing. I have chosen not to cover it here for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I was once friendly with Mr. Topping and we have since fallen out. However, I have enjoyed his TV books in the past, and I mention this one in the interest of being complete.


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