Does Aaron Sorkin have a woman problem? His shows are notable for featuring women in positions of leadership, power, and moral authority. Yet he’s frequently criticized for portraying those same women as preoccupied with their love lives. Gender differences in temperament or worldview make regular appearances as topics for conversation, debate, or comedy on his shows. And a kind of undeclared war of the sexes runs as a swift, dangerous undercurrent in his ensembles, forcing women to jockey for position and control while remaining unsure if they’re playing the right game, or if they’ve been misled into thinking it’s a contest at all.
This week’s two episodes put our characters in orbit around the white-hot gravity well of The Date, that terrifying cultural practice by which men and women are supposed to find out what they have in common but generally discover instead how thoroughly different they are. It’s a chance for us to examine whether the criticisms about how Sorkin writes female characters are generally on the mark, or whether the reality is more complex than the conventional wisdom.
“Small Town” (season 1 episode 13, original airdate 1/12/99)
Ah, the double date. Even the juvenile name we’re forced to use for this social arrangement puts us back into the paleolithic era of youth culture, maybe the roaring twenties with flivvers and twenty-five-skiddoo, or the fifties at the drive-ins and the sock hops. Posit the double date as the premise for a situation comedy set in the present, and watch the otherwise sophisticated adults start to act like children terrified of the opposite sex and unable to carry on a normal conversation. And the sitcom itself takes on the broad strokes of farce; witness the way the situation is introduced, with both Casey and Dana trying to weasel their way out of the evening in parallel conversations, then loudly protesting their enthusiasm to each other.
Neither wants to attend the double date on its merits, promising as it does an evening of pretending that the two of them should pay attention to other people. And they have the same excuse in their pocket, in two different forms. Dana is nervous about leaving Natalie in charge on a night when there might be breaking baseball news about a multiplayer trade. Casey thinks that if there’s a trade, he should be there. “To do what?” Isaac asks. “The things I do!” Casey answers with a self-conscious flair that suggests he’s not buying his own argument. When the dating foursome—Dana and Gordon, Casey and Blind Date Lawyer Woman—arrive at the restaurant after a modern dance performance that no one seems to have enjoyed, Dana drinks a bunch of vodka martinis as a way of distracting herself from the show that she’s not supposed to be obsessing about. She and Casey turn into the Bickering Bickersons, leaving Gordon and Leesa as dual third wheels, before they decamp to the bar to just watch the damn show and admit that all their holidays are the busman’s version.
Back at the show Natalie is confident and competent in Dana’s chair, even when Dan expresses amazement at what segment she is cutting (“The Ukrainian jewel, Oksana Baiul?!”). Then just as the show gets underway, Elliot passes along a tip from a friend at the Los Angeles airport that some of the players rumored to be involved in the deadline-scraping trade didn’t get on the charter to go to spring training with the team. Natalie uses contacts at the team’s Vero Beach hotel to find out that management, agents and players are huddled in a room, and makes the tough call to have Dan mention “unconfirmed reports” about the trade on the air to give her leverage when confronting the team with what the “Sports Night” staff has been able to piece together. In the middle of the calling and reporting and decision-making, Jeremy blows up at Elliot for not being able to get a source to commit, and after the show runs with the exclusive scoop, he apologizes to Natalie for questioning her judgment. Meanwhile, at the anchor desk, Dan is fighting with substitute Bobbi Bernstein about her belief that they slept together once and he never called her.
Let’s break down how the women are treated in this episode Dana is a nervous, tipsy flibbertigibbet. Leesa WithAnEss says something stupid about how Casey and Dana take their show too seriously (“It’s just sports, for crying out loud; it’s not the Paris peace talks”). Bobbi Bernstein is presented as a crazy person. All ammunition for the Sorkin misogyny thesis. But Casey matches Dana flibber for gibbet. If Dana is well-nigh insufferable at that dinner table, Casey is as bad or worse. And Gordon says something stupid, too. When Dana apologizes for her behavior with “I’m not the world’s greatest girlfriend, am I?” Gordon doesn’t take the opportunity to restore her dignity, assure her she means the world to him, or give her standing in the relationship that the word “girlfriend” implicitly undercuts. He says instead: “There’s room for improvement.”
How you feel about Gordon’s mistake may determine whether you find Sorkin sexist or not. Gordon isn’t insulting Dana as a professional person with this comment. It’s not a cut against her humanity. It’s instead a failure to understand that a woman saying what she just said is asking for affirmation, requesting to be rehabilitated as a partner. Is it wrong to portray a woman acting that way, and then being disappointed that she does not get the response she wants? Is it wrong that the character is portrayed that way because she is a woman, and because this is how the writers believe women are? I’m willing to hear your arguments in the comments, and I’ve already gone on record with my short fuse at Dana in ditz mode, but here’s my take. Men and women do experience and respond to the dynamics of romantic relationships in ways that are different and, yes, often gender-specific. Simply showing women being different from men, and trying to negotiate those differences in both intimate and professional settings, isn’t sexist if it is done with appropriate consciousness of the exceptions and complexities, and if the behavior comes out of the character and not just the character’s gender.
Here’s how Sorkin portrays women: Men can be threatened by them, and can want to protect them, and sometimes fall into the trap of belittling their ambitions and abilities. Women are as silly about the men they like as those men are silly about them. Women don’t want to be offputting to those men. They want to be validated by those men. And sometimes they are torn between wanting that validation, and the aggressiveness and control that their jobs demand. It may not be a pretty picture, but I don’t think it comes from a desire to shove women into a neat box. In fact, anyone in a Sorkin show who tries to shove women into those boxes gets pushed back, in short order.
“Rebecca” (season 1 episode 13, original airdate 1/26/99)
Overthinking things isn’t a man problem or a woman problem. In “Rebecca,” both Dan and Dana attempt to pre-puzzle their way through a potential relationship crisis, only to find that feelings of the moment make all their planning moot. Natalie plays Cupid in both of their stories, and while her scheming (unlike theirs) is largely successful, it runs in two different directions: oblique misdirection in Dan’s case, and obnoxious frankness in Dana’s case.
Dan’s comedic courtship of Rebecca in this episode is one of the best storylines Sports Night ever put together. A chance meeting in an elevator leads to Natalie playing matchmaker by relaying to Dan that Rebecca really likes him and wants him to ask her out. Gender politics-wise, we might be distressed by the junior-high-level passing of messages and the coy waiting of the woman to be wooed, but Sorkin requests we wait a bit to see what’s really going on. Dan explains to Casey in great detail, multiple times (Casey, trying to keep up: “Which girl?” Dan: “There’s only one girl in this story, Casey.” Casey: “There were three girls in that story”), that he has started going out with Elaine in between meeting Rebecca in the elevator and therefore needs to tell Rebecca that he can’t go out with her. The only reason he needs to follow up with Rebecca at all is that Natalie has apparently been telling Rebecca that Dan will call, and has definitely been telling Dan that Rebecca is expecting him to call (Natalie “Are you gonna call Rebecca?” Dan: “I’m absolutely going to call her.” Natalie: “She can’t wait!” Dan, to Casey: “I can’t call Rebecca”)
But when Dan ventures upstairs to deliver his rehearsed speech to Rebecca (played by Teri Polo), he finds out that not only has she not been waiting for him to call, but she barely remembers meeting him, and doesn’t know that he’s the “Sports Night” anchor (“I’m an analyst, they don’t make me watch the show,” she explains; “There are people who watch it voluntarily,” Dan points out). The sudden reversal of his expectations bothers him, and he keeps charging up the elevator to poke at the mystery his neat little love triangle has become, while the stories he’s telling Casey get more and more complex (“Who’s Jennifer?” Casey asks at one point, confused by the sudden appearance of a new character; “Who cares?! I was standing up there!” Dan explodes, trying to convey that the point is his utter humiliation, not the identities of the women flummoxing him).
While Natalie’s failure to smooth the way for Dan ends up hooking him harder, her tactic for Dana is to repeat over and over again that Dana is secretly in love with Casey and he with her, which is why she should talk to him about her dread that Gordon’s about to initiate a breakup. “You’ll feel better,” she promises, and when Dana finally follows through, Natalie turns out to be right, despite the annoying prodding. That’s because Casey’s feelings for Dana enable him to give her what Gordon refuses: respect, esteem, validation. What Gordon should say in response to Dana’s desire to be loved for her job as well as herself, Casey says, is this: “For a woman like you, for a person like you, I will take whatever time you can give me and be grateful for that all my life.” And then he adds, “Any man who hears that and doesn’t throw you down on the nearest flat surface is just taking up space for the rest of us.” It’s a supremely beautiful moment in the often frustrating Dana-Casey relationship, especially the way Krause plays it with a little smile, as if to say that he knows he’s being sappy and we should all pretend that this is still just friendly advice, then having his voice break a little on “all my life.”
In the background of these romantic labyrinths, Isaac’s conflict with Luther Sachs continues when the Wall Street Journal reports that Sachs has met with an experienced television executive, the implication being that this Dellahansen fellow might be Isaac’s replacement. Isaac meets with Sach’s associate J.J. (Robert Mailhouse) who offers to act as a go-between, angering Isaac who feels that Luther should pick up the phone rather than sending emissaries (“I don’t need a go-between; Luther’s not hiding out in the mountains with the rebel army”). When J.J. visits the “Sports Night” set with his fiancee, Isaac is perfectly charming to the woman before sending her away to tell J.J. that he’s figured out who had the motivation to be the anonymous source in the WSJ article claiming that the conflict is about “on-air content,” and that “If I find out that quote in the Journal came from you, I’m going to own your ass. I mean absolutely own it.”
“Rebecca” isn’t so much invested in what women are as in how men respond to them, and that’s a dangerous direction if we’re worried about stereotypes and simplification. A man becoming interested in a woman because of her indifference to the charms he believes are irresistible—it’s another very old trope in romantic narrative. But Josh Charles makes it fresh, delightful, even touching. He doesn’t play Dan as a pompous blowhard who needs to be taken down a peg, but a regular human being reacting to a plan that runs off the rails. By the end of the episode, he has contradicted himself without shame. “This thing with Elaine isn’t that serious,” he assures Rebecca when he returns to her office to ask her out. “Who’s Elaine?” she asks, confused; “Exactly,” he confirms, as if she’s narrating the story inside his head rather than honestly asking for information. And he’s in a state of wonder about his own feelings. “I don’t even know her, but I really like her, and it’s a little painful to me that I’m not going to be seeing her tonight, you know what I’m saying?” he explains to Casey. “Truthfully?” Casey responds, giving the control room a long look. “Yes I do.”
Grades: “Small Town,” B-; “Rebecca,” A-
- I have to dock “Small Town” a big chunk of points for the tiresome screeching and sniping between Dana and Casey at the restaurant, and because I think the episode is unfair to Leesa WithAnEss by putting the line about the Paris peace talks in her mouth. (As happy-making as Natalie’s “tag it!” triumph is, we’re talking about a scoop about a trade that was going to be announced officially in a few hours.) But I can’t deny the laugh-out-loud variations on the Holly Dixon dance company, which are enhanced rather than diminished by Casey’s snide populism. “I’m excited for this date, particularly the Hickory Dickery dancers,” he tells Dana ahead of time, then confides to Dan on the phone after the performance, “Dana is about to pull a hamstring, which is more than I could have hoped for during the Humpty Dumpty danceathon.”
- Bobbi Bernstein is played by Lisa Edelstein, best known these days as Cuddy on House, but also currently back in Josh Charles’ romantic orbit as Celeste Serano on The Good Wife.
- Casey makes a valiant attempt at dinner conversation, doesn’t he? On Leesa’s name: “My ex-wife spelled hers with an S, pronounced it with an S, the whole nine yards.” On the name of the restaurant, Tony Anthony’s: “In Cuba, Ricky Ricardo would have been Ricardo Ricardo, and Lucy would have been pronounced Luzy.”
- Does Bobbi refer to “the Cameron Indoor Stadium” on the air? I don’t think I’ve ever heard it with the definite article.
- If we have to endure Dana the ditz, then I’m grateful for quality ditz writing like Dana’s soliloquy on a drink that wasn’t even meant for her: “I’m allergic to lemon twists. Not to lemons themselves, just the peels. And not always, just recently.”
- Two outstanding variations on the old “make up an excuse to get into a room and find out what’s going on” routine: Dan’s excitement about the substitution of a staple remover for the pencil Dana was going to ask for, and Jeremy’s abashed approach to Dana and Natalie later: “This is gonna sound ridiculous, but I actually need a staple remover.”
- Casey does his best to shake Dan loose from his mixed metaphor: “‘Spread it out for you in a nutshell?’ How you doin’, I’m a professional writer.”