If you have spent five minutes reading posts on this site, you will know that I’m a huge Aaron Sorkin fan. Like, full on Trekkie pajama people nerd fan. His writing makes me happy and optimistic and mad and sad and… basically all emotions. I’ve seen everything he’s ever written for the screen, most of it many times. Some of it many, many times. At this point it’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve watched the first four seasons of The West Wing more than 30 times. I put it on to fall asleep to. I put it on instead of music, because to me the dialogue is music.
My wife is the second biggest fan I know. And we’re not alone in our fandom. There are countless Aaron Sorkin fan pages and tribute pages. I highly recommend the podcast “The West Wing Weekly”. Hosts Hrishikesh Hirway and Joshua Malina (yes, that Joshua Malina) dissect an episode of The West Wing each week. Say, is that where they might have gotten the name from?
I also came across a great blog post by The Haunted Coconut where each episode of The West Wing is ranked. I LOVED the idea. I’m only sorry I didn’t think of it first. The concept was perfect, even if I take issue with where some episodes ended up in the ranking.
So, I’m stealing the idea. But also expanding it. Over the next little while we will be ranking Aaron Sorkin television at different levels. This is Aaron Sorkin created television (the distinction is important later). We start with individual shows and will get to individual seasons (click here for that) and episodes.
To begin, we rank the four shows he created. We rank the entirety of each show. The longest running has seven seasons and the shortest is one season. The length of each show is irrelevant. The entirety of the show is taken one homogenous unit. My wife and I each ranked the shows and when we disagreed, we compromised and went with her ranking (just we do in our marriage). So here it is, the TTC Ranking of Aaron Sorkin Shows.
- The West Wing (unanimous winner)
Could it be anything else? This show is perfect for most of its run. It set records for Emmy nominations and wins. It is perfectly cast (with one notable exception), and Sorkin’s penchant for preaching to his audience fits with the subject matter. As with everything he wrote, The West Wing is an unrealistic, romantic ode to what things could be. Is anyone as incorruptible as Jed Bartlet? No. Are the staff who work in the white house ever so committed? No. Does anyone walk or talk that fast? Definitely no. But it all works. Serious issues are addressed and debated. I’ve spent my life looking for people who are “one of us”.
At its best: Early seasons where Sorkin is full blown preaching his unabashed liberal viewpoint. Even where we disagree, the eloquence used to articulate these points of view is compelling. People arguing the merits and weaknesses and altruism of positions is as edifying as immersive.
At its worst: Later seasons after Sorkin’s departure. For a show built around writing, the writing is pretty bad. Truth be told, it’s actually not that bad. It’s simply in comparison. The farther from Sorkin’s departure we get the more the sting is lifted, and the show finds a new soul. The best post Sorkin episodes are still only comparable to the worst Sorkin penned ones though.
Fun fact: Sorkin pitched this show mistakenly. He had a lunch set up with John Wells which he didn’t understand was supposed to be a pitch meeting. When he realized, he pitched this show based on unused (and some recycled) plot point from his movie The American President. The characters are almost identical, just portrayed by different actors.
- Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (a 2nd place vote and a 3rd place vote)
Studio 60 reaches highs at least equal to, if not higher than, the other shows on this list. The setting of a sketch comedy show allows Sorkin to be funny and witty without having to earn it. Matthew Perry is perfectly cast opposite Bradley Whitford and seems like he was destined to deliver Sorkinian dialogue. Less laugh out loud funny than amusing, repeated watches reveal lines that were too smart to catch the first time. The supporting cast is extraordinary and most either could or have carried shows on their own in the years since. Why only one season? It proved its premise wrong. Sometimes TV is actually too smart for the people who watch it.
At its best: The pilot episode. Clearly Sorkin had a great idea for a premise and he flawlessly executes it in one of his best teleplays. Any dialogue between Perry and Whitford is delivered perfectly.
At its worst: Generally speaking, the later we get, the worse we get. Late episode storylines are forced in an effort to wrap everything up. Amanda Peet is a wonderful actor who is used all wrong.
Fun fact: Studio 60 was cancelled due to low ratings. The very next year studios started taking DVRs into account and it was revealed that Studio 60 actually fared far better than people thought.
- Sport’s Night (a 2nd place vote and a 4th place vote)
Sorkin’s first show is incredibly good but suffers from the studio not understanding it. The only half hour show of his career, the studio envisioned a traditional sitcom and received a dramedy that was ahead of its time. The misplaced laugh track in season 1 aside, the show is hilarious. Once again showcasing a cast that would go on to be A listers, the ensemble works incredibly well together. The unashamed love of sports leads to identifiable characters that are multidimensional and united only by their loyalty to their show. There is little doubt that if this show aired today, it would be a massive hit.
At its best: Josh Charles and Peter Krause anchoring their fictitious show makes me wish I could watch it for real. Their chemistry is incredible and makes the viewer root for them at every turn. Joshua Malina finds his place as Jeremy Goodwin and provides great comic relief.
At its worst: The aforementioned laugh track is distracting and out of place. Today, this would be a single camera show and would forego the studio audience – and it would be better for it.
Fun Fact: Sorkin and executive producer Thomas Schlamme worked on this show and season 1 of The West Wing simultaneously. When it was cancelled several networks wanted to air more seasons, but Sorkin could not commit to writing it.
- The Newsroom (a 3rd place vote and a 4th place vote)
Man, this show had such highs and such lows. Sorkin seems perfectly suited to cable TV, but he uses the freedom it provides to do some strange things. Setting the show in the recent past and having them cover real news events is basically an exercise in revisionist history. Of course, we all wish the news was better, but whereas the romanticism of The West Wing works in a charming way, The Newsroom often seems unbelievably convenient (fun game: count how many sources are conveniently someone’s roommate or aunt or similar). Jeff Daniels is great in a role that no one saw coming, but his chemistry with Emily Mortimer is wooden.
At its best: The monologue in the pilot is vintage Sorkin. Daniels’ Will McAvoy is hilarious when cranky and difficult and is relatable as everyone’s uncle. Sloan Sabbath (Olivia Munn) and Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) are two of the greatest characters ever created anywhere and are expertly brought to life.
At its worst: The normally great Dev Patel is misused at every turn and Alison Pill is funny but unbelievable. Sorkin can’t quite find a tone for the show and stick with it.
Fun fact: John Gallagher Jr. has a great guest role in The West Wing years before starring in The Newsroom.
And there we have it. Sorkin’s shows ranked. Don’t be too hard on The Newsroom, bad Sorkin is like saying bad Shakespeare or bad pizza. Even when it’s bad, its still really good. Stay tuned for the ranking of individual seasons.