Every once in a while, I write about something not politics or religion related. Whenever I do, there’s decent chance it’ll be about my love affair with Aaron Sorkin’s writing. Mostly as an intellectual exercise for myself, I am in the process of ranking all of his television productions. I don’t expect these posts to have broad appeal, but since I’m doing it for myself, I figure I may as well post them.
I began by ranking the shows themselves (you can find that post here) and now I am ranking the individual seasons. Again, these are Aaron Sorkin created shows so season 5 – 7 of The West Wing are included here. Without further ado, the best and worst of Sorkin’s thirteen seasons of epicness (mild spoilers ahead).
- The West Wing Season 1
The fact that this show ranks first is not at all surprising to anyone who knows me or read my previous post. The fact that it’s the first season that beat everyone else was mildly surprising. I knew it would be high, but never thought it was first until looked at how many great episodes it has. Obviously, the pilot is iconic. It may not have invented the walk and talk, but it perfected it. As the season wears on, the actors settle into their rolls and Sorkin learned where they like their pitch. Every time I watch it, I’m surprised by how endearing a young Dulé Hill is. This season wins because of how consistent it is. It may not contain the best episode of the series, but it contains many in the top 10 (see back soon for episode rankings).
- The West Wing Season 2
Sorkin just keeps rolling with season 2. I seriously debated placing this season first. It reaches higher heights than season 1 but is less consistent. Sorkin has perfected his pitching to the actors and they never fail to deliver solidly. The dialogue becomes even more rapid fire but somehow more believable as everyone settles in. The MS story finally gets its due and real character growth starts to emerge. Getting flashbacks to the origins of the campaign helps us understand the staff’s varying perspectives and gives them all extra authenticity.
- Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip Solo Season
It’s such a shame that there wasn’t more of this show to love. Once again, I seriously considered placing this one higher, but only held back because the later episodes are rushed and get a little convenient. Where The West Wing was a perfect setting for Sorkin’s preaching, Studio 60 is the perfect setting for his wit and amusing style of banter. Like everything Sorkin writes, the story lines are unbelievably romantic, but it works. Studio 60 is a ode a different time in TV comedy and it makes me yearn to go back there.
- Sports Night Season 2
How is it possible that Aaron Sorkin wrote this season and season 1 of The West Wing at the same time and they both turned out so amazing? This show finally comes into its own in the second season. The half hour format is still overly stringent, but at least the horrible laugh track is gone. We also start to get more complex, ethically debatable story lines. Sure, its just sports, but somehow Sorkin makes it relatable and makes us care about the decisions being made. Also, William H. Macy brings to a truly great character to life, and we get the always amazing Clark Gregg.
- The West Wing Season 4
We get the election and the second inaugural. We get the departure of Sam and the arrival of Will Bailey. The episodes are all good, with a few great ones. As with most truly great shows, the best episodes come when it’s simply the main cast doing their thing in the comfort of their home set. But we also get some truly iconic moments with debate episode and the season finale, which despite being articulated in season 1 still seems shocking and a different. We also get Josh and Toby lost in the rural Midwest with only Donna as their chaperone. And we get Matthew Perry who doesn’t just leave his sitcom roots, he bursts out of them and embodies everything a Sorkin player should.
- The Newsroom Season 1
Ranking the seasons of this show was stupid hard. They all have such great moments and moments that make me want to scream. Season one gets the nod as the best of the show’s run mostly because we get an angrier Will than in the next two seasons and Jeff Daniels is amazing when he’s yelling – “I’m affable!” Sadly, Olivia Munn is criminally under used this season, but Sorkin makes up for it by introducing us to complex characters and limiting Daniels and Mortimer’s wooden chemistry to a mostly professional setting. If nothing else, the characters desire to change the news is something everyone can get behind.
- The West Wing Season 3
This is the worst of worst of the Sorkin penned West Wing. That still means that it’s better than almost everything else ever filmed. The fallout from the MS storyline takes us through the first half of the season, and despite playing out in a compelling way, it seems inconsequential in the world of geopolitics. Most of this season is spent on story lines of a personal nature. That’s not always a bad thing (President Bartlet’s psychological issues), but it’s not always a good thing either (President Bartlet’s sudden reticence to use force). But the best and worst thing about season 3 is Allison Janney and Mark Harmon. They are so great together and the season finale is maybe the most heart wrenching moment of the whole series.
- Sports Night Season 1
Sorkin’s first foray into TV was so far ahead of its time that it suffers from poor broadcasting. I will bring up the laugh track again because I never tire of complaining about how horrible it is. Sorkin was writing one show and the network was clearly airing another. As a result, we get some rough moments as the editing is done to allow for dumb people to catch up to the dialogue – as if the audience being a step behind isn’t the hallmark of a Sorkin show. Still, this is where the world at large learned about the walk and talk and about characters who were overly devoted to their craft and talked far too fast and intelligently. Dan and Casey are the platonic ideal of what a friendship should look like and Jeremy Goodwin is the nerd everyone loves.
- The West Wing Season 7
And so we arrive now at the first of three non-Sorkin seasons. I debated excluding them for a long time, but the characters remain. Season 7 is a completely new show from the Sorkin penned seasons. John Wells fully embraces the Santos campaign and the show is the better for it. The drama of a presidential campaign is good TV, and the casting is spot on. Alan Alda kills it as the likeable, common sense Republican (remember when those existed?). The live debate episode may have been revolutionary at the time it aired but seems gimmicky now. The storylines in the actual West Wing are dry and boring, and the writers reduce the greatest president of all time to an old sickly man. The final few, post-election episodes are great and seem to be a fitting end to show that should have ended a season sooner.
- The Newsroom Season 3
The final season of The Newsroom has some great moments, but overall it seems forced. Will protecting the source to the point of incarceration is amazing and Jeff Daniels does a great job of being genuine and endearing in his earnest altruism. Sloan finally ends up with Don and every time they’re on screen together I want to throw roses at them. But the whole wedding thing was rushed. Charlie’s death was such a great, heart wrenching moment that was ruined by the final episode rushing everything into perfect wrap up. Also, we only get a couple of scenes with Neil and I missed him every time he was gone.
- The Newsroom Season 2
This season tried so hard to rectify everything wrong with season 1 but it failed so hard at it. The Genoa story line showed such promise before once again, it was some random, unbelievably convenient stroke of luck that moved it forward. Alison Pill’s Maggie went from lovably weird to pleadingly desperate and it was such a disappointment. Sorkin’s biggest weakness is that he can never allow a villain to stay the villain and so we suddenly get good guy Reese, which is just weird. The dialogue is somewhat flat throughout the season – until all of a sudden Leona yells “get it back!” and then we finally get some Sorkinian banter for two episodes.
- The West Wing Season 6
This season starts just so bad. The whole, “we solved Mideast peace” storyline wasn’t romantic in the Sorkin way, but instead it was unbelievable in the worst sense. The show also took a turn away from it’s unapologetic liberal bent and tried to suddenly appease everyone with the politics. The biggest crime though is the wedge driven between Leo and President Bartlet. Breaking up the greatest romance in the history of television is something I simply will not endure. The only redemption is that CJ finally gets the credit she’s due and we get to watch Josh move up and on.
- The West Wing Season 5
This season is just so bad. Where season 7 found a new soul and season 6 provided the transition, this season was just a horrible attempt to imitate Sorkin. It fails on almost every level. After the amazing season 4 finale, the kidnapping story line is wasted entirely. I’ve watched it dozens of times and still couldn’t tell you who actually did it. The writing is almost comical at times. All of the wit and intrigue disappears in favour of trying to make the characters more appealing to the masses. In doing so they are suddenly wooden and the motivations behind everything they do disappears. The only story line that is any good is the government shut down.
And there we have it. Clearly the most comprehensive ranking ever assembled. Until I rank the individual Episodes. Here’s a live look at how that is proceeding…