Fifteen years ago, an aspiring screenwriter sauntered into a lunch with an accomplished television producer, a meeting he was not the least bit prepared for. Not knowing what the lunch was really about, he panicked and wildly pitched an idea for a show that would eventually come to define the way millions of Americans viewed government and public service.
That show was the multi Emmy-winning The West Wing, and that screenwriter was Aaron Sorkin.
Since those humble beginnings, Sorkin has been at the helm of several wildly popular productions, and his unique style is now legendary. His tendency is to showcase masterfully crafted soapbox rants as well as impossibly intelligent characters rapidly trading witty jabs and obscure historical or literary references. As such, many have come to admire the way he writes dialogue.
However, there are other aspects of his work that I find more inspiring, something equally unique that he does equally well. What makes his work so endearing to fans and enduring in our culture is the relentless romanticism of his characters. The West Wing was a perfect example of this.
At a time when cynicism toward our government was growing, he brought people inside the highest levels of politics, showed them its human face, the struggles and victories of the people striving for change and a highly idealistic and uplifting President of the United States.
This was not, at least during the Bush years, most people’s idea of a remotely realistic state of affairs. The disposition of most films or television that we would have typically called realistic was to portray institutions like government, business, the military and the news with corrupt cynicism.
Sorkin’s romantic idealism was refreshing in a world full of ‘realist’ fiction, which seemed to showcase everything negative about human motives and ambitions.
The realist, in this sense of the word, insists that he is not simply portraying his perspective of humanity, but that it is an undeniable fact that people act primarily out of greed and asserts that anyone who denies this is not living in reality.
Any appeals to goodness, selflessness or idealism are made out of a desire to disguise or justify our actual intentions to ourselves and others. Those who understand human nature and how the world really works will use these appeals to trick the weak minded, and the weak minded either believe them or live in denial.
Not much has changed in that regard since The West Wing. The dramas that have taken its place at the top of television are those like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Dexter, and more recently, Game of Thrones. All fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but they definitely play to that realist theme that focuses much more on human shortcoming than human success, and lack the uplifting narrative that is the philosophical centerpiece of any work of Sorkin’s.