“La Forza del Destino” (season two, episode twenty-one; originally aired 5/9/2000)/“Quo Vadimus” (season two, episode twenty-two; originally aired 5/16/2000)
As I sit down to write the last Sports Night recap (well, stand up, really; I’m one of those standing-desk people, I know, I know, I’ll shut up about it), a piece I wrote last week anticipating the last eight episodes of Breaking Bad has just hit the internet. If you read all the way to the end, you’ll find a point I’ve long wanted to make in connection with Walter White, especially in light of the epic battle with Gus Fring that consumed season four, and the intense, constant speculation it provoked among the show’s fans about what was going to happen. Here’s the tl;dr: The genius of the way Vince Gilligan and his writers have approached that show is their embrace of spontaneity. TV creators and showrunners on highly serialized dramas are often assumed by fans to have all the answers—a complete grasp on the mechanisms of cause and effect that answer both the questions “what has happened” and “what will happen.” What has made Breaking Bad unfold so compellingly, in large part, is that Gilligan and the creative team have criticized this very point of view in the character of Walter White. He thinks he can plot his life and control the actions of others, but the real mystery isn’t “what will happen” but “who will you be?”
It occurred to me as I reread the piece that my problem with Aaron Sorkin’s many, many detractors comes from the same auteurist impulse that Gilligan is subverting. Auteurism, to vastly oversimplify, means seeing a work produced by many people in collaboration as essentially the work of a single author—in the film world, most often a work-for-hire director who nevertheless puts his own stamp on the material by the choices he makes. On the positive side, auteurism provides a frame of reference that can allow us to highlight recurring themes, values, obsessions, and styles that can be attributed to individual artists, helping us to understand their point of view and imparting a personality to their work. On the negative side, auteurism run amok leads to a cult of the creator, where one person is praised and blamed for all facets of the work, and where the creator fails if he or she does not exert the kind of omnipotent control that would allow such praise and blame to be merited.
Sorkin is a fat target for both praise and blame because his style is so distinctive. His approach to dialogue and subject matter indelibly marks his territory; once you’ve absorbed its rhythms, an Aaron Sorkin show is instantly recognizable. And that means his weaknesses are equally easy to pick out when they are repeated, mutatis mutandis, in show after show. We start to see the characters as Sorkin types, through the lens of our preconceptions about what he does well, what he does poorly, and what he’s utterly blind about. It doesn’t help matters, either, that Sorkin shows tend to be about People Who Feel Very Strongly About Things. Things that people might justifiably feel strongly about are politics, justice, truth, America. When the people in these shows speak passionately about these things they feel strongly about, we often treat them as ventriloquist dummies with Sorkin’s hand up their butts. We attribute their strong feelings to Sorkin himself.
But Sorkin isn’t just The West Wing and The Newsroom. He’s also Sports Night and Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. He doesn’t just write about Things He Cares About and put them in the mouths of his characters. He cares about characters who care deeply about their work. Sometimes that deep caring comes off as silly; the way the Studio 60 characters acted like they were curing cancer every week understandably put viewers off. But you can’t attribute that mistake to Sorkin actually believing that doing a sketch comedy show is earthshatteringly important, and making his characters say so. The outliers illuminate the core examples and change our frame of reference for them. What if Sorkin isn’t as interested in airing his personal political views as he is in probing the motivations, conflicts, values, and relationships of people with strong political views? What if Sorkin doesn’t want to create a media platform for his opinions as much as he wants to explore the lives of people (often working in the media) who try to craft messages they can be proud of?
Seen in that light, the repeated insistence in these final episodes of Sports Night that the team makes a good show takes on a different meaning. We might read it as the creators of Sports Night (the ABC show) jabbing back at their network for their impending cancellation, and it’s probably that. But it’s also an expression of Sorkin’s enduring underlying conviction that people who try to do good work are good people to hang around with, good people to know, good people to follow, good people to care about. What Sorkin is ultimately battling is the cynicism that urges us to do what works and what pays rather than what we can be proud of. As Clark Gregg memorably puts it, “Anybody who can’t make money on Sports Night ought to get out of the moneymaking business.” At the very end and the very bottom of everything, all that you can count on is quality work. And anybody who can’t make quality work into a business proposition shouldn’t blame his tools.
Creators are people. People change. Genius fades. Creativity flounders. I can’t state unequivocally that an Aaron Sorkin show will always be worth watching, or that the style and characters and settings he assembles will always be conducive to good storytelling. But right now? If Aaron Sorkin is making a show, I want to be watching that show. His kind of dialogue, his way of constructing scenes, arrests my attention and delights my senses. The characters he creates and the lines he gives actors to play attract fascinating talent to his shows. An Aaron Sorkin show may end up working or not, but it is exciting and singular even if it is falling apart. And most of all, the kinds of people Aaron Sorkin makes shows about, people who care deeply about what they do, who work hard together and fight with each other about how to do it best, who frequently agonize over how to get their work done well—those are people with whom I tend to fall in love. Very few creators are making shows about those people. They are people who constantly run the risk of turning into overearnest, terminally serious bureaucrats. By placing them in the communications business, Sorkin tries to keep them grounded by making them responsible to an audience. There, to use the imagery to which he keeps returning on The Newsroom, they define caring about what they do as the hopeless, quixotic quest—the one that makes them so easy to mock, the one that is the only middle ground between delusions of grandeur and despair.
What do we want for these people? If we care about them, we want them to succeed. We may not believe that in the real world they could. We may be uneasy about all the victories, big and small, Sorkin engineers for them in these final two episodes. Dan’s best chance at love, Rebecca Wells, shows up on his doorstep bearing flowers. Natalie breaks down Jeremy’s defenses with the help of coconut piña coladas. A mysterious benefactor buys the network and saves the show. But friends, this is the last we’ll see of Natalie and Jeremy; Dana and Isaac; Dan and Casey. Realism can go hang. I want these characters to play in the Hundred Acre Wood forever. And that’s exactly what Sorkin gives us, along with a pointed statement of unwavering commitment to their values. In the perfectly-staged final moments of “Quo Vadimus,” when Dana puts on the headset moments before air and tells Dan and Casey what she now knows about their future, the dawning smiles, the energy and excitement, the thrill of their second wind has nothing to do with the intrinsic importance of sports journalism as an area of human endeavor. It signals a change from a moment ago, when these people that we care about were not going to be able to continue being these people—to now, when they are. That’s exactly where I want to leave them.
- I know I didn’t write much about these two wonderful episodes in the body of the post; I’ll correct that down here in a seemingly endless series of bullet points. But first, I’d like to thank you for watching along with me and reading this series over the past two summers. This is a show I dearly love, and getting to think through why that is, in conversation with you, was a real privilege and joy. I’ll miss meeting up with you here on Wednesdays.
- Even if you’ve never seen the Verdi opera, you may be familiar with the overture to La Forza del Destino, which is frequently performed by symphony orchestras.
- How did Dan’s baseball predictions work out? Poorly! His Orioles-Reds championship pick no doubt owes more to Josh Charles’s real-life Baltimore partisanship than actual analysis. Worth noting, though, is that Casey got it exactly right: The Yankees bested the Mets in the 2000 World Series. (And as a lifelong Atlanta Braves fan, I can also attest that the whole team correctly called the John Rocker doofus situation.)
- Sorkin is on fire with several long, comic conversations in this pair of episodes, many of which serve to disabuse Dan of long-held yet mistaken notions. Kim is not his secretary (“I’ve always treated you like my secretary”; “Yes, I know”). He and Casey don’t share an office (“You’re just here a lot”). Robert Wagner has not sent him flowers (“All-pro defensive end Reggie White can send me flowers, but do you ever think to, Elliot?”).
- And speaking of huge laughs, Natalie’s frank sexual overtures to Jeremy immediately after assuring Dana she’s not in the way are never not funny (“I’m not wearing any socks. Do you feel my foot?”).
- When exactly did they add a call-in portion to “Sports Night”? And why exactly does Agent Coulson think it was a good idea?
- When Jeremy is settling his affairs (returning Dana’s Juicy Fruit, Kim’s “Seven-Minute Abs” video, Isaac’s good tape dispenser), I can’t help but flash back to one of my favorite Phil Hartman moments in NewsRadio: “For years I thought your name was Loni. Now I know it’s Bonnie. Here’s your thesaurus.”
- When Casey tells Dan he can’t move to California (with the Pacific and the sunshine and the Laker girls) because of Charlie, ending with “You can do it without me, Dan,” it’s the redemption of the whole late-season arc about their relative positions on the show. A beautiful, understated moment, and probably the most important of all the resolutions in “Quo Vadimus” outside of the titular rescue.
- “Looks like we’re stuck with each other for awhile. Let’s go to the American League!” “Yes we are!”