Sorkin and Reconciling Criticism with Fandom

“There’s really nothing like seeing a guy realize he’s not done yet. Usually it goes the other way.”—Dan Rydell, “The Sword of Orion,” Sports Night

In the traditional rock critic narrative, the Weezer story is fairly straightforward. The antithesis of the then-popular grunge scene, Weezer exploded with songs about sweaters and Buddy Holly that were geeky, self-deprecating, and loudly emotional. Three hit singles later and an unspoken cultural agreement to bring back the stylings of Cheap Trick propelled Weezer to the arena stage. Then, lead-singer Rivers Cuomo followed up their debut with the confessional, self-produced Pinkerton, which both critics and audiences alike didn’t know what the hell to do with but would later essentially create early-2000s pop-punk and become critically acclaimed. Shattered by the middling initial reaction of Pinkerton, Cuomo retreated from the public eye for about three years and then him and his band spent the last decade alternating between making frustratingly mediocre and outright atrocious music.

Now, I’m admittedly a fairweather Weezer fan. I own The Blue Album and Pinkerton, and while I listen to them both every now and again (and still throw on “Say It Ain’t So” just to lighten the mood), I’m not by any means invested in the band. I missed the boat on Weezer fandom partially because I was so turned off by songs like “Beverly Hills” and “We Are All On Drugs,” and their respective music videos that were on constant rotation on MTV when I was younger. But I can’t imagine what its like to be those die-hard Weezer fans that felt personally connected to their mid-90s career peak. Even if you were willing to give them a fair amount of slack regarding post-Pinkerton albums, the constant barrage of phoned-it-in releases that signal an unabashed appetite for mainstream pandering must weigh heavily on a former love. Every couple years when Weezer announces a new album, I bet that some poor guy who made out with his high school girlfriend to “El Scorcho” is getting his hopes up just a little bit too high, wishing that they’ll finally find a way to rekindle the fire of their youth, and subsequently his own.

This is in way of me saying that I fear the trajectory of Weezer fandom will be parallel to Sorkin fandom in the not-so-distant future.

Let me explain. I was once a young, spritely 10-year-old who couldn’t sleep one night and decided to walk downstairs to see what my parents were watching on television. It was a late season-four episode of The West Wing, somewhere in between the end of Sam Seaborn’s failed congressional campaign and before Zooey Bartlet’s kidnapping, and even though I didn’t fully understand all of the politicking, I was captivated by the confidence and energy involved in almost every aspect of the show. It wasn’t more than a year later that I received the first season on DVD as a gift, the first of many TV DVD box sets I would own, and began regularly watching it with my parents while they filled in the holes of my historical and political knowledge. I fell hard for all of Sorkin’s writing tricks, like the Sorkin Soliloquy and the Sorkin Stutter (outlined in greater detail in Ian Crouch’s piece in The New Yorker), and The West Wing left permanent imprints on my brain. I became so obsessed with the show that I would watch episodes repeatedly and, at first unintentionally, memorize large sections of dialogue. To this day, I’m fairly certain I could recite most episodes in the first couple seasons. I still employ random throwaway Sorkin lines in everyday conversation that undoubtedly make me sound pretty lame. But I don’t really care.

I owe more than a few things to Aaron Sorkin, both the good and the bad of him. Solely because of his writing in both The West Wing and his previous sitcom Sports Night, I became deeply interested in showrunners, television’s episodic structure, and serialization’s effect on an audience. Sorkin was the one who got me excited about the medium’s ability to create fully realized universes and the seemingly unlimited possibilities of the short-form narrative. Specifically regarding The West Wing, it was the first show in which I felt like I knew the characters better than I knew real people (there were a few years where I wanted to grow up to be Josh Lyman), and is why I began picking up a newspaper every day. And though I feel like it has fallen out of critical favor over the years, it’s still one of the best shows I’ve ever seen (despite its sharp decline in quality after season four) with the second season being one of my absolute favorite seasons of television. If it weren’t for Sorkin, I would never even have been interested in seeing The Wire, or The Sopranos, or Mad Men, or any of the other great television of our time, and for that alone, I am grateful.

But I know that being a Sorkin fan can often be difficult. It seems ridiculous to say with the benefit of hindsight, but I don’t think I have ever been more excited for a show’s premiere than I was for Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. In my mind, Sorkin was back on television and after having to watch TWW meld into a different show entirely without Sorkin’s creative direction that could only be a good thing.  But little did I know that Studio 60 would feature the worst elements of Sorkin all at once and turn into unjustified self-aggrandizing, sanctimonious drivel about the genius of comedy writers. Needless to say, this was a crushing disappointment for me and as I eventually began to watch the show with horror and frustration, I couldn’t believe what Sorkin was doing. If I hadn’t taken Studio 60’s very existence so personally, I might have derived humor from the show’s campy self-importance, like the satirical Twitter accounts the show has spawned, but I just couldn’t. It wasn’t the Sorkin I grew up with.

I chose Sorkin as the topic for my first blog post not just because of the timely premiere of The Newsroom tonight, but also because my relationship with his writing illustrates potential problems with reconciling the often-conflicting interests of being a fan and critic, a subject I wish to return to on this blog. I’ve grown up reading criticism and following critics because I know that the best criticism has the power not only to augment personal understanding or appreciation of art, but also, more importantly, to actively simulate the feeling of discovery that only a certain type of analysis can achieve. But as the Internet has democratized information permanently, criticism has subsequently entered a different age, one that is not necessarily better or worse than anything prior, but just different. With comments sections, message boards, and The A.V. Club, truly everyone can be a critic just by nature of being a fan, which often doesn’t require approaching content on its own, but as a piece in an artist’s oeuvre or a larger cultural fabric. The greatest and worst thing about being a consumer and purveyor of art in the age of social media is that nothing exists in a vacuum. Everything engages with everything else that came before it.

It gets tough for me when it involves artists that I heavily associate with certain events in my life or aspects of myself. Shows like Sports Night and The West Wing are placed so squarely in my early development that I instinctively respond to Sorkin’s writing. The pace, the Mamet-like repetition, and almost song-like banter that are featured in almost every Sorkin venture has become so familiar to me that when I saw The Social Network in theatres for the first time, it felt like a homecoming. The Social Network seemed to me like a return to form for Sorkin with writing that was definitely darker and often more nuanced that his previous work, but still featured that Sorkin sentence construction that invigorated me in the past (“Ma’am, I know you’ve done your homework and so you know that money isn’t a big part of my life, but at the moment I could buy Mt. Auburn Street, take the Phoenix Club, and turn it into my ping-pong room.”). When I heard he was returning to television, particularly in a setting that is connected to the political realm, I hoped that it would be a return to The West Wing and not a retread of Studio 60, like one of those die-hard, circa-2002 Weezer fans still wishing for another Pinkerton.

Over the past week, I’ve read many reviews of The Newsroom and have followed the engaging Twitter discussion between critics on Twitter, but I want to discuss two specifically by Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker, one of the first pans of the show to be published on the Internet, and by Matt Zoller Seitz of Vulture, a mixed review of The Newsroom and an almost meta-review of the critical interaction with the show, calling it “cynical.” These are two of the best television critics working today, both whose work I’ve followed in the past (I discussed Nussbaum’s Girls review with her on Twitter and I featured an article by Seitz on Community in my TV and New Media final project), and I respect their opinions on television, but my reaction to their respective reviews was troubling, but instructive.

My heart sank when I read Nussbaum’s review because at first it seemed to me like an attack against Sorkin rather than a fair review of the show with lines like “Some of this banter is intelligent; just as often, however, it’s artificial intelligence, predicated on the notion that more words equals smarter,” and “Sorkin’s shows are the type that people who never watch TV are always claiming are better than anything else on TV.” I was all prepared to write an impassioned defense of Sorkin, highlighting his writing’s inherent connection to theatre (where the Great Speech and the Soliloquy can exist with less justification than on television) and the more emotionally direct style of old-school screwball comedy (primarily featured in Sports Night). I was fully ready to extoll that television viewers have come to expect great dramas to only have a fairly dark tone that Sorkin doesn’t subscribe to and, as a result, his work will inevitably suffer critically in the age of Breaking Bad and Mad Men. I wanted to defend Sorkin not because The Newsroom (which I still have not seen) is good, but because I want everyone to have the same relationship with him as I do, which doesn’t allow any negative criticism.

While I like some of the content in those responses, they are ultimately unwarranted. I was unsurprisingly projecting my own biases onto Nussbaum and her review (sorry!), but I couldn’t help it. Despite not having seen a single minute of The Newsroom, my initial response was to defend Sorkin against the tirade of mean critics, which at that point amounted to a grand total of one, who want to ruin his reputation. I wanted so badly for Sorkin not to turn into the Rivers Cuomo of television that I was willing to be blind to the content in question.

But then Seitz publishes his review, which, while definitely mixed, had a point of view I completely understand: I enjoyed it in spite of it’s many, glaring flaws because it’s Sorkin. He cites his rapid-fire patter and obsession with decidedly uncool rhetoric as electrifying and a change of pace from what’s on television. I’ve felt this way about a lot of early Studio 60 and The American President (which I still think is a pretty terrible movie despite great performances by Martin Sheen and Michael J. Fox). Linda Holmes of NPR articulated this feeling perfectly (ironically in her brilliant takedown of Seitz’s accusation against other critics) by saying that “hearing a Sorkin character forcefully argue something you believe to be true is like bathing in a tub full of champagne while you listen to a CD of affirmations called You Are Great And Smart, And No One Understands You: You know at some level that it’s self-indulgent, but it feels so good…”

But then Seitz further explained on Twitter that, while he can’t “prove” it, he believes that “there’s a reflexive distaste for Sorkin’s every move” from critics and that there’s a double standard in place when someone equates the arrogance of one of Sorkin’s characters to Sorkin’s supposed arrogance in real-life. This was exactly the type of argument I had wanted to hear all week, that there was a larger force at work that was somehow working against Sorkin and his brilliance. While there is definitely a part of me that’s attracted to that argument, what was troubling was that I had not even entertained the possibility that, maybe, The Newsroom was just a sub-par effort through and through. But how could I really? I still hadn’t seen it.

What I’m trying to get at is that when the High Fidelity adage of “it’s what you like, not what you are like” becomes living truth in the world of social media, it also becomes easier to make your mind up about anything because someone else is appealing to your own cultural biases. On four or five separate occasions this past week, I felt like I had come up with my own well-thought-out opinion of The Newsroom based only on other people’s writing. I was reacting and responding to other people’s initial reactions, believing that to be the same thing as actually viewing the show and formulating a personal opinion based on that alone. Now, some might say this is a privileged problem, in the sense that not everyone follows the opinions and work of television critics on Twitter, and thus avoid the situation entirely. But as the conversation begins to move online, the more difficult it becomes to write about and respond to art directly without also simultaneously writing about and responding to the Internet. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea that the discussion surrounding art becomes part of the larger narrative, and other people’s thoughts undoubtedly can affect your own subconscious, but it becomes problematic when those thoughts are flying at you quicker than you can comprehend.

Moreover, that living High Fidelity adage also makes it easier to equate simple disagreement with a personal attack. When I read Nussbaum’s review of The Newsroom, I felt like she was invalidating my childhood, which is completely absurd. I had to actively tell myself that neither my childhood nor I were simply a collection of interests, and that it was okay for someone to disagree with me about a television show I still had not actually seen. As a rational human being, this makes complete sense, but rationality doesn’t interact well with fandom. A part of me still wants Sorkin to succeed so badly at everything just because of what his writing meant to me when I was younger. It makes me return to a scene in Sports Night in which Dan Rydell is trying to convince potential love interest Rebecca Wells to watch a exhibition baseball game with him because it features a pitcher he likes trying to make a comeback. “There’s really nothing like seeing a guy realize he’s not done yet,” he says solemnly. “Usually it goes the other way.” It speaks perfectly to what fandom means nowadays: wanting so badly to see some guy realize he’s not done that we’re willing to go so far as to convince ourselves otherwise. Because, quite honestly, it does usually go the other way.